Whiteman Paul (Samuel)

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Whiteman Paul (Samuel)

Whiteman, Paul (Samuel), expansive American orchestra conductor, violinist, and violisi; b. Denver, Colo., March 28, 1890; d. Doylestown, Pa., Dec. 29, 1967. At a time when jazz was synonymous with popular music, Whiteman was the most successful bandleader of the day, a popularizer who combined a grounding in the European classical tradition with an appreciation of contemporary popular styles, leading to a hybrid he called “symphonic jazz/7 He was the biggest recording artist of the 1920s and among the biggest of the 1930s; his orchestra toured successfully for 40 years; he hosted a series of radio and television shows (even becoming a network executive); his band was the launching ground for numerous prominent jazz musicians and popular singers; and he commissioned many notable semiclas-sical works, the best known of which was George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, which became his musical signature.

Whiteman was the son of Wilberforce James Whiteman (1857-1939) and Elfrida Dalison Whiteman. His mother was a singer. His father, at the time of his son’s birth, was a music teacher in Denver; from 1894 to 1934 he would be the superintendent of music education in the Denver public school system. As a child Whiteman studied violin and viola with his father and with Max Bendix. At the age of 17 he dropped out of the Univ. of Denver and became first violisi with the Denver Symphony Orch. He married singer Nellie Stack in 1908, but the marriage was annulled. In 1914 he moved to San Francisco and played in an orchestra at the Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915. That same year he joined the San Francisco Symphony Orch., also playing in the Minetti String Quartet. He enlisted in the navy in 1918 and led a band at a nearby naval base.

Discharged shortly after the end of World War I in November, he organized a sextet to play at a restaurant, then directed the orchestra at the Fairmont Hotel in early 1919. His nine-piece group opened at the Hotel Alexandria in Los Angeles on Nov. 13, 1919, and became a hit with the film community. At this time he hired Ferde Grofé as pianist/arranger; Grofé would stay with his organization into the 1940s, providing many of his best-received arrangements.

Whiteman moved to the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City in the spring of 1920, where he was seen by executives of Victor Records, which was holding a convention in the city, and signed to the label. His first record, pairing “Avalon” and “Dance of the Hours,’ was not successful, but his second, “Whispering”/’The Japanese Sandman,” released in September, sold more than two million copies. “Wang Wang Blues” was another million-seller in early 1921. Meanwhile, Whiteman had moved his band to the Palais Royale nightclub in N.Y., a residency that would last four years. He continued to score big record hits during 1921: “My Mammy” in June, “Chérie” in July, and “Song of India” in September. That month he began appearing at the Palace Theatre in addition to his nightclub stand. Irving Berlin’s “Say It with Music” was a big hit for Whiteman in November, and “Do It Again” and “Stumblin” were best-sellers in July 1922. Whiteman and his band were the pit orchestra for George White’s Scandals (NX, Aug. 28, 1922); the score was written by Gershwin and included “ITI Build a Stairway to Paradise,” another best-seller for Whiteman. “Hot Lips” was a top record in September, and he had the biggest hit of his career in December with the three-million-selling “Three O’Clock in the Morning.”

In 1921, Whiteman had been married briefly to showgirl Alfrica Smith. On Nov. 4, 1922, he married dancer Vanda Hoff (real name Mildred Vanderhoff). The couple had one son. Whiteman undertook a British tour, opening in the revue Brighter London on March 28, 1923, and staying in the U.K. until August. While he was away his biggest U.S. hits included “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” in April and “Bambalina” in June. He again appeared on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1923 (N.Y., Oct. 20, 1923), which ran 333 performances.

In a bid to lend respectability to jazz, Whiteman performed a concert at Aeolian Hall in N.Y. on Feb. 12, 1924, dubbed “An Experiment in Modern Music,” for which he commissioned works from such composers as Victor Herbert and Gershwin, who played piano in the premiere performance of Rhapsody in Blue. The concert was a watershed in the history of music and a turning point in the careers of both the composer and the conductor. Gershwin accompanied the Whiteman orchestra on the early dates of its first North American tour in the spring of 1924 and recorded the Rhapsodywith Whiteman; the recording became one of the first inductees of the NARAS Hall of Fame in 1974.

Whiteman toured more extensively in the fall of 1924, beginning a pattern of traveling that would occupy much of the rest of his career. Meanwhile, he continued to score some of the biggest record hits of the time, including his third million-seller, “Linger Awhile” in March, Berlin’s “What’ll I Do?” in August, Gershwin’s “Somebody Loves Me/r in December, and Berlin’s “All Alone” in February 1925. He spent much of 1925 and the early part of 1926 touring the U.S., then left for a European tour at the end of March, staying on the continent until July. Meanwhile, vocals began to turn up on his records for the first time, including “Valencia,” the biggest hit of 1926, which had a chorus sung by Franklyn Baur. At the same time, Whiteman began to play more “hot” jazz in his shows and to expand his performance into more of a variety show than a dance concert as he began to play extended engagements at movie theaters.

In September 1926, while appearing in Los Angeles, Whiteman hired the vocal duo of Bing Crosby and Al Rinker, taking them back to N.Y., where he added Harry Barris and dubbed the trio The Rhythm Boys. It was the vocal team of Jack Fulton, Charles Gaylord, and Austin Young, however, that sang on his next big hit, “The Birth of the Blues,” in December, while Fulton was the featured singer on “In a Little Spanish Town,” a bestseller in January 1927. In N.Y., Whiteman opened his own Club Whiteman, appeared at the Paramount, and led the pit orchestra in the musical Lucky (N.Y., March 22, 1927).

Whiteman’s decision to switch record companies from Victor to Columbia in April 1928 led to a flurry of recordings to complete his Victor contract and several big hits, among them “My Blue Heaven” in November, “Among My Souvenirs” in March 1928, “Together” and “Ramona” in April, “Ol’ Man River,” from the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical Show Boat (vocal by Crosby) in May, and “My Angel” in July. His biggest Columbia hit was “Great Day” in December. On Feb. 5 he had begun hosting a weekly radio series, The Old Gold-Paul Whiteman Hour, on CBS. With the coming of sound, Hollywood became interested in him, and he signed to Universal Pictures to star in The King of Jazz, a musical revue that was one of the first color films.

The beginning of the Depression in the fall of 1929 was devastating to the entertainment business. The King of Jazz was a box office flop, Whiteman’s radio show ended, his concert bookings dried up, and he gave up recording for a year after a September 1930 session that produced his next big hit, “Body and Soul.” Laying off many of his musicians and cutting the salaries of the rest, he relocated to Chicago, taking up a residency at the Granada Café and then at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in the summer of 1931. During this period he and his third wife divorced, and on Aug. 18, 1931, he married Margaret Livingston, a film actress who in 1933 coauthored with Isabel Leighton a book that chronicled her efforts to help him control his weight, Whiteman’s Burden. The couple adopted three daughters and a son in the course of their 36-year marriage.

RCA Victor bought out Whiteman’s Columbia contract in September 1931 and returned him to the recording studio; his next major hit, in February 1932, was “All of Me” with Mildred Bailey, who had joined the band in 1929, on vocals. Whiteman returned to N.Y. and began an extended appearance at the Biltmore Hotel while also launching a new radio show at the start of 1932.

Whiteman moved to the Kraft Music Hall radio series in late 1933, at the same time scored big record hits with Kern and Otto Harbach’s “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” from the Broadway musical Roberta and with “Wagon Wheels” from Hold Your Horses. He returned to Broadway himself in the circus musical Jumbo (N.Y., Nov. 16, 1935), which ran 233 performances, during which he moved from the Kraft Music Hall to a new radio show, Paul Whiteman’s Musical Varieties, which ran for a year. Also in November 1935 he made his second feature-film appearance, in Thanks a Million. In the summer of 1936 he followed Jumbo producer Billy Rose to Forth Worth to appear at the Frontier Centennial through November. He spent the spring of 1937 at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, returned to Fort Worth in the summer, and was back at the Drake in the fall. In December he moved to the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles and began a new radio show, Chesterfield Presents, which ran for two years.

On May 30,1940, Whiteman temporarily disbanded his orchestra and went to Hollywood, where he appeared in the Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland film Strike Up the Band. He reorganized the band in the fall and was back on the road by January 1941. On Oct. 7 he joined the radio show hosted by comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen, staying with it for two years.

Whiteman had recorded briefly for Decca Records in 1938 after his RCA Victor contract ran out; he returned to RCA in February 1942 but made only a few recordings before moving to the newly formed Capitol Records, for which he recorded a handful of sides before the onset of the musicians’ union strike on July 31, 1942, the most notable of which were “Trav’llin’ Light,” featuring a vocal by Billie Holiday (appearing under the pseudonym “Lady Day”), and “The Old Music Master,” featuring his former vocalist and Capitol coowner Johnny Mercer.

Whiteman again disbanded in the summer of 1942, largely due to the U.S. entry into World War II, which found many of his band members going into the service. After his second season with Burns and Allen, he became musical director for the Blue radio network (later the American Broadcasting Company, or ABC), in September 1943. In this capacity he originated several radio programs, among them the 1944-45 Music Out of the Blue series, for which he commissioned new works by Grofé, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Morton Gould, David Rose, Richard Rodgers, Duke Ellington, Eric Korngold, Victor Young, and others. He made a series of film appearances during this period, in Atlantic City (1944), Rhapsody in Blue (1945) (a biography of Gershwin, in which he played himself), and The Fabulous Dorseys (1947) (again as himself).

In 1947-8 he became a disc jockey, as The Paul Whiteman Club was broadcast nationally on weekday afternoons. On April 2, 1949, he moved to television, hosting Paul Whiteman’s Teen-Age Club, which ran for five years. He also hosted the TV shows Paul Whiteman’s Goodyear Revue (1951-52), On the Boardwalk (spring 1954), and America’s Greatest Bands (summer 1955).

Even during Whiteman’s heyday in the 1920s, the definition of jazz was changing, such that his billing as the King of Jazz was questioned. Nevertheless, his long-running band employed a large number of musicians who gained prominence as jazz players, including Henry Busse, Bix Beiderbecke, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, Frank Trumbauer, Jack Teagarden, Red Norvo, Eddie Lang, Joe Venuti, Red Nichols, and Bunny Beri-gan. He also helped launch the singing careers of Morton Downey, as well as Crosby, Bailey, and Mercer. And he regularly recorded the work of the era’s top composers, such as Kern and Berlin, while helping to sponsor Gershwin’s transition from the musical theatre to the concert hall.


With M. McBride, Jazz (N.Y., 1926); with L. Lieber, How to Be a Bandleader (N.Y., 1941); Records for the Millions (N.Y., 1948).


C. Johnson, P. W.: A Chronology (Williamstown, Mass., 1977); T. DeLong, Pops: P. W., King of Jazz (Piscataway, N.J., 1983).

—William Ruhlmann

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