Richard Whiting made two significant and enduring contributions to the Great American Songbook. The first, and most obvious, was daughter Margaret Whiting. The second, more lasting contribution, was the simple melody. And by “simple” we don’t mean to imply that Whiting’s music was in any way inferior — far from it. What we’re referring to is the qualities that some might call “catchy.” Others might say the songs “sound like hits,” while some musicologists might talk about “quarter note structure” and things like that.
We’ll try to make sense of it all, and establish Richard Whiting’s rightful place in the pantheon of pop songwriters.
Whiting came into the music and entertainment business at the same time Irving Berlin was unknowingly laying the foundations of American Popular Song. Originally working as a manager for a few minor stage acts, Whiting is said to have planned a future on the “business” side. While the specifics are lost to history, it appears that he began writing songs out of necessity for one or more of the performers he was managing, and it took off from there.
The difference with Richard Whiting’s songs was their inherent simplicity. Berlin and other early pop songwriters were heavily influenced by jazz, and much of these songs echoed the improvisation and occasional atonal complexity befitting accomplished musicians. Whiting, on the other hand, used very few notes — all of which were generally within expected progressions. This type of composition is easier for the casual listener to grasp; by providing “expected” melodies the listener feels a sort of familiarity with the music and thus finds the song agreeable or “catchy.” In some songs, Whiting used as few as four notes to create his melodies. In others, such as “Hooray for Hollywood,” the progression is clearly jazz-flavored, but can hardly be considered complex.
Whether Whiting’s compositions were intentionally straightforward or just reflected a simpler approach to music is unrecorded. Unfortunately, Whiting died of a heart attack in his mid 40s, prior to any attempts at a thorough biography. From his career, however, we can piece together the factors that likely shaped his approach to songwriting.
As a 20 year-old manager — and it is generally agreed that he began by composing for acts he managed — Whiting did not have the cream of the crop in his stable. His songs were probably limited by the skills of his performers. Therefore he would’ve needed to create simple songs with minimal range. As he progressed into composing scores for movies in the silent film era, Whiting would’ve been tasked with creating songs that could be played by the lowest common denominator among the skill set of theatre house pianists and organists. When the industry did shift to “talkies,” Whiting would’ve been acutely aware of the limitations of most sound systems.
Each of these are suppositions; Whiting left little record of his methodology. The important thing to remember is that Whiting was a businessman prior to becoming a songwriter. It is highly probable that he used a very business-like approach to songwriting — recognizing that songs with uncomplex, “catchy” melodies would appeal to a wide audience.
None of this is intended to belittle Whiting’s skills as a songwriter…far from it. There were certainly enough twists and hooks in his music that demonstrate an intense understanding of what would work. And because popular song is, by definition, “popular,” we can irrevocably state that Richard Whiting’s contribution to the genre is just below that of Berlin’s.
His first massive hit song was “Till We Meet Again” from 1919. It was a song of separation, perfectly capturing the mood of the country during World War I. It became the biggest selling song of 1919, an instant standard. Probably the best known Whiting compositions today are “Hooray for Hollywood” and “Ain’t We Got Fun.” The latter is easily one of the definitive songs of the Roaring 20s, while the former captures the importance of Tinseltown during the Great Depression. With three songs that served as a cultural soundtrack for the past twenty years, it is understandable why Whiting’s death of a heart attack in 1938 was such a shock to the music world. He was 46 years old, and if anything seemed to be improving with age.
Again, the melodies may have been simple, but Whiting crisscrossed a variety of styles to achieve his art. “Hollywood,” as mentioned earlier, had serious jazz overtones, while “Ain’t We Got Fun” was based on a foxtrot. “Till We Meet Again” is proof that while he had a mind for business, Whiting wasn’t just in it for the money. Originally dissatisfied with the music, Whiting supposedly tossed the song in the trash. It was then retrieved by his secretary, and submitted to the publisher.
Other Whiting songs were just as important at the time, but have not enjoyed the same sustaining popularity with the passage of time. A key hit was 1929’s “Honey,” one of the biggest songs of the year. Rudy Vallee’s version topped the charts for almost two months. “Breezin’ Along With the Breeze” and “Ride, Tenderfoot, Ride” are just two examples of film songs that were recorded by various artists from the 1930s through the early 1950s. These were standards that helped shape the sound of pop music but are virtually forgotten today. Another film tune that had much longer staying power but is now dimming is “The Good Ship Lollipop,” which was Shirley Temple’s signature song.
Whiting worked with a virtual who’s who of American lyricists, Buddy DeSylva, Charles Daniels, and Gus Kahn. Near the end of his short career, Whiting collaborated with Johnny Mercer. One product of their efforts was “Too Marvelous for Words” from 1937, which was phenomenally successful at the time. It was reprised numerous times throughout the next three decades, with probably the most notable version being Jo Stafford’s recording from the late 1940s. Mercer acknowledged the song as a personal favorite.
Much of Whiting’s later “sound” fell out of favor with the rise of the rock and roll era. It could be said, however, that his approach to melody and his influence in songs like “Ain’t We Got Fun” were key building blocks for rock and roll, and very much a part of music today.