Remembering Margaret Whiting: The Voice Of Standards

Correction Jan. 13, 2011

A previous Web version of this story mistakenly included a photo of British actress Margaret Whiting instead of the singer, who is shown below.

Margaret Whiting performing onstage in New York City in 1987. i i

hide captionMargaret Whiting performing onstage in New York City in 1987.

Ray Fisher/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image
Margaret Whiting performing onstage in New York City in 1987.

Margaret Whiting performing onstage in New York City in 1987.

Ray Fisher/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Image

Margaret Whiting, famous for her association with lyricist Johnny Mercer and for introducing the standard "Moonlight in Vermont" into American popular music, died Monday. She was 86.

Whiting grew up in a musical home. Her father, composer Richard Whiting, wrote a number of pop hits, including "Too Marvelous for Words," "Hooray for Hollywood" and "On the Good Ship Lollipop."

In a 1988 interview on Fresh Air, Whiting told Terry Gross that she grew up under the assumption that most girls had fathers who stayed home writing songs all day.

"My girlfriend was Harry Warren's daughter, and what she had I had," Whiting said. "One day at my house, I might have Jerome Kern, who I called Uncle Jerry. Or I might have Benny Goodman, who my father did a picture for. Or, at Harry Warren's, we might have had Jimmy Dorsey or Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller. We might have had young Frank Sinatra or Jack Lemmon. So I thought everybody had the same kind of bringing up."

Whiting began learning her father's songs when she was just a toddler. And she started recording hits when she was just a teenager, shortly after her father died of a heart attack in 1938. Johnny Mercer, a close friend of her father's, took Whiting under his wing and personally signed her to Capitol Records, where she recorded "Moonlight in Vermont," "It Might As Well Be Spring" and "That Old Black Magic" as a teenager.

She recalled that at the time, she didn't really know what the lyrics to "That Old Black Magic" really meant.

"I was lucky enough to have Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, as the composer of that song, tell me how to do it," she said. "He would tell me to emphasize certain notes and emphasize certain words and emphasize certain beats. He said, 'That old black magic has me in its spell.' He said do it like that; don't go 'That old black magic.' Don't make it legato."

More than 40 years after she worked with Mercer for the first time, Whiting said she still appreciated what he taught her.

"Johnny and Frank Loesser taught me the importance of reading a lyric," she said. "Johnny often said to me, 'Margaret, it's like a one-act play. Now, if it's a rhythm song, you have fun with it and you find the words to really emphasize the important words, and you do it rhythmically and you have fun. But on a ballad, if it's a torch song or a story that you want to tell, then you want to be very careful to find the climax and where it's going and do it like a play.' "

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