Margaret Whiting, Interpreter of the American Songbook, Dies at 86

Obituaries   Margaret Whiting, Interpreter of the American Songbook, Dies at 86
Margaret Whiting, whose career as an interpreter of popular song began in the Big Band Era and was revived in the 1990s when she starred in the Broadway show Dream, died Jan. 10 at the Lillian Booth Nursing home, part of the Actors' Fund Home in Englewood, NJ, her daughter Debbi Whiting told The singer was 86.

Margaret Whiting
Margaret Whiting

Ms. Whiting came from a musical family. Her father, Richard A. Whiting, was a successful songwriter ("Till We Meet Again," "Beyond the Blue Horizon," "Ain't We Got Fun?," "Too Marvelous for Words") and her aunt, Margaret Young, was a recording artist in the 1920s. Both she and her sister, Barbara Whiting, pursued a singing career. Growing up, her home was a gathering place for composers like Jerome Kern and Gus Kahn, and she was often called upon to sing. She was given an early boost when songwriter Johnny Mercer, a collaborator with her father, heard her voice when she was only seven. When Ms. Whiting's father died, Mercer took her under his wing; when he started Capitol Records in 1942, he signed the teenage Ms. Whiting.

Her early hit recordings included "That Old Black Magic" with Freddie Slack and His Orchestra; "Moonlight in Vermont" with Billy Butterfield's Orchestra; "It Might As Might Be Spring" with Paul Weston and His Orchestra; "All Through the Day," a bestseller in 1946; and "In Love in Vain." "A Tree in the Meadow" was a number one hit in 1948. "Slippin' Around," a duet with Jimmy Wakely, returned her to the top in 1949.

In 1957, she guest-starred on the ABC program "The Guy Mitchell Show." In 1966, she switched to London Records, scoring a later hit with "The Wheel of Hurt."

As her popularity faded, Ms. Whiting relaxed into a cabaret career, performing at Freddy's Supper Club, Arci's Place, The Oak Room and Michael's Pub. "Ms. Whiting has always been a blunt, no-frills interpreter who remains fiercely loyal to the songwriter's intentions," wrote Stephen Holden in a New York Times review. "With that bluntness softened, she allows a pensive vulnerability to peek through."

She received a burst of renewed attention when she starred in the Johnny Mercer revue Dream in 1997. The show did not last long, but Ms. Whiting received admiring notices. "Dream leans most heavily on the veteran pop singer Margaret Whiting to provide an emotional context for Mercer's work," wrote Peter Marks in the Times. "Her father, Richard, was one of Mercer's songwriting partners, and she introduced some of the lyric writer's best-known songs, like 'That Old Black Magic.' As a result, you do mist a bit at her first appearance, an old pro sitting at a table with a glass of Scotch and singing that sublime bar-closer, 'One for My Baby.' Ms. Whiting is authentic, and each time she enters, the show becomes significant. Her throaty vocals have the texture of real life." "Margaret Whiting was the heart and soul of the Broadway production of Dream," Susan L. Schulman, the general press rep for the show, told on Jan. 11. "She adored Johnny Mercer who had helped shape her early career and was, by that time, the head of the Johnny Mercer Foundation. The first day of rehearsal she shared wonderful personal stories about Mercer with the cast. She was the consummate professional during that troubled production and led by example. She was one of the easiest stars I've ever worked with, happy to perform with John Pizzarelli wherever and whenever I asked. She loved being part of the Broadway community after so many years as a solo performer. And she stopped the show every night with her rendition of 'My Shining Hour.' I thought she was terrific on stage and off."

The singer was much-married. She wed producer Hubbel Robinson Jr. in 1948; pianist Lou Busch in 1951; John Richard Moore, a founder of Panavision, in 1958. Her most sensational marriage, however, came late in life when she met and married the much-younger, gay porn stay Jack Wrangler in 1994. The union proved her longest. Wrangler reportedly protested, "But I'm gay!," to which Whiting reportedly replied, "Only around the edges, dear." He went on to produce and direct many of her cabaret shows. They stayed together until his death in 2009.

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