Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b 28 March 1890, Denver CO; d 29 December 1967, Doylestown PA) A bandleader who became one of the biggest names in show business. His father was a music teacher; he played violin and viola in Denver and San Francisco symphony orchestras, served in WWI, formed a band in 1919 with pianist/arranger Ferde Grofé and Henry Busse on trumpet. Another version is that Whiteman hired Grofé when he already had a successful band at the Alexandria Hotel in Los Angeles in 1920; at any rate, in the summer of that year he took the band to the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City, where it was discovered by Victor Records. Whiteman saw the end of the sentimental songs and corny comedy that had dominated the recording industry until then, while Grofé had already helped to invent the big dance band; Whiteman became the second best-selling recording artist of 1890-1954 after Bing Crosby. He had a couple of hundred hit records through 1936, mostly on Victor: the two-sided 'Whispering'/'Japanese Sandman' sold over two million and 'Wang Wang Blues' featuring Busse sold another, all in 1920. A great many records were probably the equivalent of no. 1 hits before there were charts, including 'Hot Lips' '22 (with Busse), 'Three O'Clock In The Morning' '22, 'My Blue Heaven' '27 (with Red Nichols on trumpet and the vocal quintet including Crosby), 'Ol' Man River' '28 (Crosby solo vocal), 'All Of Me' '32 (with Mildred Bailey), 'Smoke Gets In Your Eyes' '33 (with Bunny Berigan).

Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin's Rhapsody In Blue and conducted the sensational première in 1924, orchestrated by Grofé: an acoustic recording that year and the electrical remake '27 (conducted by Nat Shilkret) were both hits on 12-inch 78s. The Rhythm Boys vocal trio in the late '20s included Crosby, Barry Harris and Al Rinker (Mildred Bailey's brother); jazzmen who played for Whiteman included Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Jack Teagarden, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Red McKenzie and Miff Mole. Most hits '34-8 included Teagarden, such as 'I'm Comin' Virginia' '38 (on Decca); 'Trav'lin' Light' '42 included Billie Holiday (as 'Lady Day') and 'The Old Music Master' '43 had a vocal duo of Johnny Mercer and Teagarden, the last hits (on Capitol) until a remake of 'Whispering' '54 (on Coral) made the top 30. The band appeared in Broadway musicals George White's Scandals Of 1922 (hit with 'I'll Build A Stairway To Paradise'), Lucky '27, Jumbo '35; films King Of Jazz '30, Thanks A Million '35, Strike Up The Band '40, Atlantic City '44, Rhapsody In Blue '45. Whiteman had radio shows with Al Jolson '33-4, Kraft Music Hall '34-5, own Music Varieties show '36, etc; there was Paul Whiteman's Teenagers TV show early '50s and he hosted a Jackie Gleason summer replacement TV show '55, presenting other bands.

Whiteman was called the King of Jazz, which was mere press-agentry; any lively dance music was called 'jazz' back then, and Whiteman himself was not a jazz musician, but he knew what he was doing. 'San' '28 was a superb small-group side with Jimmy Dorsey, Bix, Trumbauer, Bill Challis and six others, while the band usually numbered around 30 musicians; yet although it was a large band it was only ponderous when the arrangement was at fault. Whiteman's recordings of light classics fall into this category, but the great majority of the records were dance music which was admired by jazz musicians and arrangers/ bandleaders such as Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman and Benny Carter, who were also influenced by it. Effects on Whiteman's early records which sound corny now (quasi-oriental effects on 'Sandman', the slide whistle on 'Whispering') were new then, and were copied by others; 'Wang Wang Blues' had little of the blues in it, but neither did anybody else's arrangements at the time. Busse was a stiff and corny trumpet player, but left the band to form his own; pianist/ arranger Challis joined '28, and with Lennie Hayton, Fud Livingston and others wrote superb arrangements, full of forward-sounding harmonies and witty touches, played by the band with a lightness that was astonishing in such a large group, and the writing for strings in the early '30s was better than that which infected swing bands in the late '40s, at the ponderous end of the whole Big Band Era. When Whiteman's arrangers quoted from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde in 'The Man I Love' and from Stravinsky's Petrouchka in 'Nobody's Sweetheart Now' they knew that the references would be over the heads of most of the audience, but the records were popular anyway; that today's pop music is afraid to aim high is partly the fault of fatheaded critics who have underrated music like Whiteman's for 60 years. There have been few Whiteman reissues, mainly of the tracks with Bix on them; The King Of Jazz on ASV compiles tracks from 1920-36, and predictably features star sidepersons rather than arrangements.