Tuesday, February 17, 2009

220 Hits, and You Probably Don’t Know Him

In my perusal of the pre-1955 music world, I will obviously focus on big names, since virtually all of the early artists have been banished to oblivion. There’s little point, for example, in profiling such a One-Hit Wonder as 1916’s Hipólito Lázaro, when Ted “Is Everybody Happy?” Lewis, as well as other big hitters, are names that barely register on our radar.

One dominant artist people know only by name is Paul Whiteman. His orchestra was enormously popular; in fact, he scored 220 chart hits, including 31 #1 songs. Chances are, though, that you know so little about him that you would lump him in with such orchestra luminaries as Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and the Dorsey Brothers. I did. I was wrong.

Paul Whiteman scored his first hit, “Whispering,” in 1920. It spent 11 weeks at #1. He charted eleven years before Goodman, fifteen before Miller, seven before Duke Ellington, and eight before the earliest Dorsey hits. Even so, his final hit, a remake of “Whispering,” charted in 1954, about as late as the other bandleaders, all of whom faded from the charts when people like Elvis (Presley) spoiled the party. Eventually, Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band spoiled (or not) “Whispering” with their 1976 hit version. A number of Whiteman hits were reworked by Rock Era artists, including “My Blue Heaven” by Fats Domino and “Among My Souvenirs” by Connie Francis.

Paul Whiteman was born in 1890 in Denver, fourteen years after Colorado became a state. He was a symphonic violinist/violist until he decided to set up an orchestra when he was 29. Over the years, he teamed up with George Gershwin for the premiere of “Rhapsody in Blue,” with Gershwin on piano; he turned his orchestra jazzy early on with the addition of the likes of trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke; and, in 1927, he brought on board a young singer named Bing Crosby, who stuck around until he decided to try a solo career in 1930-31. Even Billie Holiday made an appearance on one hit in 1942.

To achieve the sound he desired, Whiteman essentially tripled the size of his band, as compared to other early 1920s bands. With somewhere around 30-35 musicians playing, he set the standard for the upcoming Swing Era. Despite orchestrating jazz sounds he liked rather than depending completely on improvisation, Whiteman was at times called the “Jazz King.”

Even in 1942, he was big enough that he earned the honor of releasing the debut Capitol Records 78, Capitol 101, which was “I Found a New Baby”/“The General Jumped at Dawn.”

Despite all that, and despite being a mainstay artist for Victor Records, it seems that fewer than half of his chart hits are available digitally, and there is no coherent box set that covers his career. Many of the Whiteman tracks one can buy online come from piecemeal compilations of the era or featured artists (Bix Beiderbecke, Jack Teagarden). Given Whiteman’s stature, influence and longevity, I find this omission odd, especially in contrast to such over-anthologized RCA Victor artists as my ultimate favorite bandleader, Dámaso Pérez Prado. I have seven CDs that contain Prado’s recording of “In a Spanish Town” and not a single disc that contains Whiteman’s 1927 8-week #1 version of the same song. There’s no Prado Complete Works box, but it’s inexcusable that Whiteman hasn’t gotten that treatment.

So, here are some of Paul Whiteman’s big recordings. If you know him, maybe you haven’t found some of these and will enjoy a listen. If you don’t know his work at all, I hope you’re glad you stopped by.

For Saturday, we’re on to Week Eight of the 1950s Chart Meltdown. See you then!

Paul Whiteman, Whispering

Paul Whiteman, Rhapsody in Blue, George Gershwin, piano

Paul Whiteman, Charleston

Paul Whiteman, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Paul Whiteman with Billie Holiday, Trav’lin’ Light

1 comment:

whiteray said...

Nice post and nice selections, but of course, you know the music corporate bigwigs will decide that we need four Mariah Carey boxsets before they even consider for an instant a Paul Whiteman set. Is that a saw on "Whispering"? (My word verification was "exchuff," which should mean something. Definitions, anyone?)