STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We're going to take a moment, this morning, to remember Margaret Whiting. Even if you don't know the name you may well have heard her voice on some old recording, because she was one of the most popular singers in the 1940s and '50s. She was raised around legendary American songwriters and became one of their best interpreters. And she died Monday evening at the Actors' Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey, at the age of 86. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this remembrance.
ELIZABETH BLAIR: Margaret Whiting cared deeply about lyrics. So when songwriter Johnny Mercer said she should sing "Moonlight in Vermont" she said I've never been to Vermont. How can I sing a song about a place I've never been to? Mercer said, I don't know. I'm from Savannah. We'll use our imagination.
In the 1940s, "Moonlight in Vermont" became Margaret Whiting's signature song.
(Soundbite of song, "Moonlight in Vermont")
Ms. MARGARET WHITING (Singer): (Singing) Evening summer breeze. Warbling of a meadowlark. Moonlight in Vermont. You and I and moonlight in Vermont.
BLAIR: When Margaret was a child, the Whiting household was a popular place to hang out for some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Her father Richard co-wrote hits like "Hooray for Hollywood" and "Too Marvelous for Words." His friends included "Wizard of Oz" composer Harold Arlen and songwriter Johnny Mercer. Her aunt was a vaudeville star.
Mr. MICHAEL FEINSTEIN (Historian): Margaret came out of the womb with musical instincts that cannot really be learned.
BLAIR: Cabaret performer and historian, Michael Feinstein.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: She not only had the instincts but had this powerful instrument.
BLAIR: And all those songwriters took notice. Richard Whiting died when Margaret was just 13. Uncle Johnny, as she called Mercer, took her under his wing. She was one of the first artists he signed to Capitol Records in 1942. She was a teenager.
Margaret Whiting told reporter Jeff London about the first song she recorded for Mercer.
Ms. WHITING: He said we want you to hear something. So he played "Black Magic." He sang it. Do you like it? I said, like it? It's great. He said do you think you could sing it? I said give me a chance.
(Soundbite of song, "Black Magic")
(Singing) That old black magic has me in its spell, that old black magic that you weave so well.
BLAIR: Margaret Whiting was prolific. She recorded hundreds of songs and earned 12 gold records. In the 1950s, she starred with her sister in a TV sitcom called "Those Whiting Girls."
Michael Feinstein says Margaret Whiting was not necessarily a screen beauty like some of her peers, but she communicated a song like an actor.
Mr. FEINSTEIN: She would sublimate her own personality to bring through what the songs were trying to say. And that's why songwriters love her so much, and I think audiences did, too.
(Soundbite of song, "Time After Time")
Ms. WHITING: (Singing) Time after time I tell myself that I'm so lucky to be loving you.
BLAIR: Margaret Whiting continued to perform into her 80s. Michael Feinstein says she also nurtured talented young singers. Margaret Whiting was, he says, darling her life.
Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.
(Soundbite of song, "Baby, It's Cold Outside")
Ms. WHITING: (Singing) I really can't stay.
Mr. JOHNNY MERCER (Songwriter): (Singing) But, baby, it's cold outside.
Ms. WHITING: (Singing) I've got to go away.
Mr. MERCER: (Singing) But, baby, it's cold outside.
INSKEEP: This is NPR News.