Remembering Margaret Whiting: The Voice Of Standards Singer Margaret Whiting, who collaborated with lyricist Johnny Mercer and performed classic standards like "Moonlight in Vermont," died Monday. Fresh Air remembers Whiting with highlights from a 1988 interview, where she explained how Mercer taught her to read a lyric.
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Remembering Margaret Whiting: The Voice Of Standards

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Remembering Margaret Whiting: The Voice Of Standards

Remembering Margaret Whiting: The Voice Of Standards

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(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Im Terry Gross.

We're going to listen back to an interview with the jazz and pop singer Margaret Whiting. She died Monday at the age of 86. She is best known for her recordings from the '40s and '50s of songs like "Moonlight in Vermont," "It Might As Well Be Spring" and "That Old Black Magic."

In 2009, her recording of "Time After Time" was used over the closed credits in the movie "Julie & Julia." Whiting's extended family wrote many of the songs in her repertoire. Her father, Richard Whiting composed "My Ideal," "Too Marvelous for Words," "She's Funny That Way" and "On the Good Ship Lollipop." Composer Jerome Kern was Uncle Jerry to her. Lyricist Johnny Mercer was like a surrogate father after her father died. Margaret Whiting made her first records for Mercer's Capital label when she was a teenager in the 1940s.

I spoke with her in 1987 after the publication of her memoir "It Might As Well Be Spring." In it she also wrote about her relationship with Jack Wrangler which had raised a lot of eyebrows. Wrangler was a former porn star who made his name in gay films. He was more than 20 years her junior. They were married from 1994 until his death in 2009.

Let's start with the 1977 recording of a song co-written by her father and Johnny Mercer.

(Soundbite of song, "Too Marvelous for Words")

Ms. MARGARET WHITING (Singer): (Singing) I search for phrases to sing your praises. But there aren't any magic adjectives to tell you all you are. You're just too marvelous, too marvelous for words. Like glorious, glamorous and that old standby, amorous. It's all too wonderful. I'll never find the words that say enough, tell enough, I mean, they're just not swell enough.

You're much too much and just too very, very to ever be in Webster's Dictionary. And so I'm borrowing a love song from the birds to tell you that you're marvelous, too marvelous for words.

GROSS: Margaret Whiting, I bet you remember when your father wrote that song.

Ms. WHITING: Well, kind of because I was quite young when he wrote it. He wrote it with Johnny Mercer and it was for Ruby Keeler in a picture called "Ready, Willing & Able." It had to be before 1938 and I'm not sure of the year but I was still young. But I remember going into my father's studio every day when I came home from school or when my mother would allow me in and he would always play what he'd written that day, so I remember hearing it and liking it and I still do.

GROSS: Did you assume that all girls had fathers who stayed at the piano most of the day writing songs?

Ms. WHITING: Yes, because my girlfriend was Harry Warren's daughter.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WHITING: And she and I went to school together and what she had I had. In other words, one day at my house, I might have Jerome Kern, Uncle Jerry. Or I might have Benny Goodman, who my father did a picture for. Or, at Harry Warren's, we might have Tommy Dorsey or we might have Jimmy Dorsey, or we might have Glenn Miller. We might have young Frank Sinatra or Jack Leonard. So I thought everybody, you know, had the same kind of bringing up.

I went to school with William Powell's son and Victor McLaughlin's son and all kinds of people like that, Fanny Brice's daughter and son. So I just thought well, you know, I mean everybody had a famous parent and we didn't even think of them as famous. Oh Daddy did this and my daddy painted that and my father directed this or my mother was in this picture. And we were all very calm and cool about it, you know, because we were told not to make a lot of it.

But everybody, as I write in my book, I said I grew up in a factory town because the studios were like factories. I mean you went to school - if you were in a motion picture you'd go to the studio at five or six o'clock in the morning, makeup, hair, whatever else you did in the picture. The producers would come in early to see a scene, the directors would come in, of course, early and it was like a factory and it's not like that anymore. I mean it's serious and work but the whole thing of Hollywood has changed.

GROSS: Well, you started recording songs when you were a teenager.

Ms. WHITING: Oh yes.

GROSS: And there were songs whose lyrics were pretty sophisticated and lyrics about love like that old black magic. Were you able to comprehend what it was you were singing about as a teenager?

Ms. WHITING: Not really, but I was lucky enough, you know, to have Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer as the composer of that tell me how to do it. Rhythmically Harold Arlen wrote such great music. I mean he was really into blues. He was - he and Gershwin were the two composers that wrote that kind of music and...

GROSS: So what would he tell you when you were singing one of his songs?

Ms. WHITING: Well, he would tell me to emphasize certain notes and emphasize certain words and emphasize certain beats.

Like he said, (singing) that old black magic has me in its spell.

He said do it like that; don't go, (singing) that old black magic.

Don't make it legato. Phrase it. (Singing) That old magic has me in its spell.

And Johnny would say use the word black and emphasize it. (Singing) That old black magic.

So those men just it's like being in a bind or being in a place where the walls closed in and there was nowhere to go but the right way because they were there teaching me.

GROSS: That must have just been great.

Ms. WHITING: Oh, it was marvelous. And to have all those kind of songwriters around. Johnny and Frank Loesser taught me the importance of reading a lyric. Johnny Mercer often said to me, Margaret, it's like a one-act play, each song. Now, if it's a rhythm song, then 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 if it's a story that you want to tell, then youve got to be very careful and youve got to find the climax, where it's going and do it like a play.

GROSS: I want to play a recent recording of a song that was your first hit, your father's song "My Ideal." You have known this song and have been singing this song for years.

Ms. WHITING: Many years. Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: What goes through your mind when you sing it now?

Ms. WHITING: Well, it's, you know, it's one of my favorite songs and it was my father's favorite song. He would play this before he'd start to write something else. He adored this song and he would always say oh God, I hope I can write another one like it. And there's something kind of special about it. It was my beginning so I try to make it new and fresh as if I'm singing it for the first time because audiences do not know me, some of them, audiences do not know the song.

But more important really, is that many people do know and that's one of their memories of me so I always have to sing it as well or if not better than any of the other songs because that's a memory song to them, and they love the fact that my father wrote it and I sang it.

So I try to think of it could be Jack, whom you know that we'll talk about, that I go with now. It could be a love when I was a kid but it's an image of someone that could be my ideal and will I recognize him; in other words, again, reading the lyric and getting that innocent, honest, first-time-I-ever-sang-it feeling.

GROSS: Let's listen to my guest Margaret Whiting singing a song written by her father Richard Whiting, this is "My Ideal."

(Soundbite of song, "My Ideal")

Ms. WHITING: (Singing) Long ago my heart and mind got together and designed a wonderful boy for me. Oh what a fantasy. Though the idol of my heart can't be ordered a la carte, I wonder if he will be always a fantasy. Will I ever find the boy on my mind? The one who is my ideal? Maybe he's a dream and yet he may be just around the corner waiting for me. Will I recognize that light in his eyes that no other eyes reveal? Or will I pass him by and never even know that he was my ideal? Will I recognize that light in his eyes that no other eyes reveal? Although he may be late, I will trust in fate and so I wait for my ideal, for my ideal.

GROSS: That's Margaret Whiting recorded in 1977. She died Monday at the age of 86. We'll hear more of our 1987 interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1987 interview with singer Margaret Whiting. She died Monday at the age of 86.

I think so many of us grow up with our expectations about what love will be like - what those expectations shaped by the pop songs that we listen to.

Ms. WHITING: And the books we read.

GROSS: And the books we read. And the movies.

Ms. WHITING: And the movies we see. And the shows we see. And the valentines we send.

GROSS: But we sing along with the pop songs and...

Ms. WHITING: Oh certainly.

GROSS: And the lyrics just really become part of our visions. Now you sang those pop songs professionally when you were young. You sang those pop songs before you really knew firsthand about love.

Ms. WHITING: Absolutely.

GROSS: Did they shape your idea of what love and romance was supposed to be like?

Ms. WHITING: Well, I think that we're all born here with a certain group of rules or a foundation where we would go to school, we would grow up, we would find our first crush in school probably and it probably wouldn't work out. And eventually we would meet somebody and we would get married and we would have children and it would last forever. And thus is not the case as most of us find out.

GROSS: You are pretty frank in your book. And you even write about losing your virginity and how you almost wanted to just get it done with because you'd heard it wasn't so interesting the first time around.

Ms. WHITING: Well, that's right. So that's absolutely true and you're the first person that's brought that up. But it just was something that I'd heard, you know, that that's something to get over with and get on with living. I'm not so sure today if I would say - if I knew today what I know at that age I wouldnt have done it that way.

GROSS: But I almost have the feeling reading your book that you were doing it to get us more of a sense of what the songs were like that you were singing, to really understand what that was.

Ms. WHITING: I wanted to grow up. I wanted to know what love was and sex was and all these words that people were throwing around and living that I wasn't.

GROSS: All the double entendres in the songs.

Ms. WHITING: Sure.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WHITING: I mean you know, it's interesting but it was very sophisticated out in Hollywood too. And everybody - the group that you live with out there, unlike - let's face it, Hollywood is one place. Hollywood has many people working in many different businesses, bankers, doctors, lawyers, everything and Los Angeles is a great big city. But in my group, I was raised with people in show business and it was a certain way of living and it was much more sophisticated because we were doing make-believe, we were doing pictures, we were doing television, we were doing all these things. And it was what everybody dreamed about.

I mean I've had kids come to me and say oh, you came from Hollywood. Is Hollywood Boulevard golden?

GROSS: So tell me: Did having sex change your interpretation of songs?

Ms. WHITING: I think so. I think I said, oh, that's what it's all about.

GROSS: You came of age professionally during World War II...

Ms. WHITING: Yes. Absolutely.

GROSS: ...and even, I think, toured a few times with Bob Hope.

Ms. WHITING: Oh, I toured with them. I was with him for seven years. So I toured a lot of places with Bob Hope.

GROSS: What did you learn from those tours, both about show business and about things like timing?

Ms. WHITING: Oh, everything. When you work with someone like Eddie Cantor, and I was fortunate enough to work with Eddie and Jack Carson and then Hope. If you start to move on a line, he grabs you. He says, never move on a line, because the audience watches the movement.

GROSS: You mean like on a punch line?

Ms. WHITING: Yes. Or anything. If you're going to - you're going to go back and forth. And if I start moving, whatever he's going to say, they're going to pay attention to me. They're not going to hear the punch line. And timing is such an important thing. I learned it from Red Skelton, learned it from all these marvelous geniuses - Jack Benny that I worked with.

GROSS: Barry Manilow met you - and this is when he was the music director for Bette Midler, and when she was playing the baths in New York. And he took you to see her. He liked your singing, and you were interested in his songs. And he took you to see her at the baths.

Ms. WHITING: Yeah. I knew him before that. And one night, he said it's my birthday, and I'd like to go hear Carole King, and we did. Then he said I'm going to - I've got my band, and we're going for play for a girl. I'd met Bette before. So we went up to the baths, which was just where men went. And they were all dressed and towels, and I was put behind a rope and Bette Midler came out, great as she is, and just rocked the place. And then she got me up to sing "Moonlight in Vermont," and they loved it. So on the way home, I said Barry, I got to tell you something: Don't lose this woman. She's brilliant, and you're a terrific combination.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1987 interview with singer Margaret Whiting. She died Monday at the age of 86. Here's her 1945 recording of "Moonlight in Vermont."

(Soundbite of song, "Moonlight in Vermont")

Ms. WHITING: (Singing) Pennies in a stream, falling leaves, a sycamore. Moonlight in Vermont. Icy finger waves, ski trails on a mountain side, snow light in Vermont.

Telegraph cables, they swing down the highway and travel each bend in the road. People who meet in this romantic setting are so hypnotized by the lovely. Evening summer breeze, warbling of a meadow lark. Moonlight in Vermont. You and I and moonlight in Vermont.

GROSS: We'll hear more of our 1987 interview with Margaret Whiting after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with singer Margaret Whiting. She died Monday at the age of 86. I spoke with her in 1987 after the publication of her memoir in which she wrote, among other things, about her relationship with former porn star Jack Wrangler. They were married from 1994 until his death in 2009.

Your life has been changed in the last few years with you her relationship with Jack Wrangler. And I'd love to hear the story of how you met him and...

Ms. WHITING: Well, I went into a restaurant one night, and there's a wonderful place in New York. There was a wonderful place where everybody would go in show business and everybody else called Backstage. And there was a piano player there, and we would be introduced by the owner Ted Hook. And he had introduced this charming gentleman that I was looking at across a table, but I thought I knew him. And they said his name was Jack Wrangler and he was doing such and such a picture, and I wasn't paying much attention. Then they introduced me, and I got up and took a bow, and then Jack came over to the table. He said I loved your singing, and I'm an admirer and I think you're terrific. So I said, I knew I knew him.

Now, I had met him as Jack Stillman, who was a director in Chicago and doing all the top shows there. But he had gone to a gym and his body had changed and he changed his hairstyle. So I said I didn't recognize him. I said: What are you doing here? And he said, well, I'm doing my act. So I said good. I'd love to see it. He said well, you can come next Wednesday night. I'll have my stage manager leave tickets. So that was that, and he left.

And Ted Hook came over to me and said: You said you were going to see his act? I said yes. He said: Do you know what he does? I said no. He said, well, he makes porn pictures. I said: You're kidding? He's so charming. He says, he is charming. I said Ted, I don't understand. A week ago, you introduced me to Jamie Gillis, and he's in porn pictures. And I said, a few weeks before you introduced me to Harry Reems. What is this? He says well, they're all great guys, and they all come to the restaurant. So anyway, it was too late. I thought about it. And so a girlfriend of mine and Ted Hook and somebody else went with me. We went to the theater. Jack couldn't have been nicer. He was very charming.

He got up. He talked about how he got into porn pictures and some of the funny things that had happened. And he introduced me, and I got up and took a bow. And then he came to front and said I'd love to see you again. So we made a date for brunch, and we sat at my house for a while and went downstairs to brunch. And I found out that he had the same kind of background I did.

He came from Beverly Hills. He had been a kid star. He won an Emmy for "Faith of Our Children." And he'd been directing, and then suddenly, I don't know, he wanted to get out of that. He wanted to go back to Hollywood and act, and he couldn't get a job. He tried. So he got a job in a play, and I guess he took his shirt off and then he took his pants off. He wasn't nude, but somebody came to him and said we want to do another play. And some film man saw him and said: Would you do this part in this picture? And he got into it. And that's how we got into it.

GROSS: He made his reputation in gay porn films...

Ms. WHITING: First, and then he went into heterosexual films.

GROSS: It must have been a - it must have seemed a potentially very treacherous kind of relationship to get involved in.

Ms. WHITING: Yes. Yes. And I had no intention of getting involved, but we have the same kind of background. We went to the same schools, years apart, went to the same dancing schools. And then - you've met Jack and you know the kind of person he is. He's a very fine person. And I realized that he'd gotten into this somehow, and he didn't know how get out. But then I talked to Jack, and I said, look. You're a very fine director and you're a good actor. You've got such a potential. You should come to New York, where they're far more forgiving and understanding. And he's done several - well, I say straight plays. I mean, they have nothing to do with X-rated things at all. And he's just written a very funny charming play, and it's wonderful. It's called "I Love You, Jimmy Valentine." And all of this is behind him.

GROSS: There's a 20-year age gap.


GROSS: You're 20 years older than he is. And I wonder if being in a relationship like that has made you feel older or younger.

Ms. WHITING: It's made me feel just as I always feel. I'm Margaret Whiting. Age has never meant an important thing to me, because I enjoy good health. I have a wonderful zest for life, and Jack and I have a terrific time. We work together personally in the act. He'll do my act. He'll direct my act or find me material, and we've never even worried about the age.

GROSS: There's one other thing I wanted to ask you about singing. You grew up the daughter of one of the great American composers, Richard Whiting. Your extended family were some of the greatest composers, Jerome Kern and Johnny Mercer. Did you grow up thinking that to sing a song, you really have to stick to the composer's intentions, stick to what was on the page, both the lyric and the music? Because a lot of singers will stray from that and will reinterpret a song.

Ms. WHITING: Well, I reinterpret now, but I certainly did stick to what they said, because my father said to me, look. Sing the songs the way we wrote them. Took us a long time. That's our craft. We're professional. And that stuck with me. And, of course, Johnny and Harold and everybody said, you know, sing them the way we wrote them or the way we sing them as we teach them to you. But recently, I've had more of a jazz sound and gone in a little bit different direction, as has Rosemary Clooney. But I think we're still singing them traditionally, but in a different way.

I mean, I'm not going to louse up a lyric, because I adore those lyrics. And I'm certainly not going to - I may bend a note here and there, but I'm going to give it a different conception, but within the architecture of the song, the foundation of the song, because that's the way I was taught. But stylists are the people that take a song the way I sing it and then do it completely differently, and bravo for them.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for sharing so much about your life with us. Thank you for being here.

Ms. WHITING: Well, I had a ball. I really had a ball. I enjoyed it.

GROSS: Margaret Whiting, recorded in 1987. She died Monday at the age of 86.

We'll close with her 1949 recording with Johnny Mercer of "Baby It's Cold Outside."

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