Margaret Whiting was a singer’s singer. Possessed of a clarion vocal instrument capable of both great exultation and deep longing, a performance by Whiting guaranteed a path to the heart of a song. It’s no wonder that Johnny Mercer, a songwriter of no small stature, made sure that the 18-year old songbird was one of the first artists signed to his fledgling Capitol Records label. Mercer had known Whiting since her childhood as the daughter of his collaborator, composer Richard Whiting, and nurtured her exceptional vocal talent over the years. Sepia Recordings and My Ideal Music, the company formed by the late singer’s daughter Debbi Whiting, have recently celebrated Margaret’s legacy on Dream: The Lost Recordings, a 2-CD set consisting entirely of previously unreleased music.
The 57 tracks on Dream have been culled from the archives of The Barry Wood Show, a syndicated radio program for which over 100 complete shows still exist on transcription discs. The program was produced by the Frederic Ziv Company of Ohio, which signed Whiting largely based on the strength of her 1945 breakthrough recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “It Might as Well Be Spring.” (Not that the State Fair movie tune was Whiting’s first hit; she had previously scored with such now-standards as “My Ideal,” “That Old Black Magic,” and “Moonlight in Vermont.”) These recordings were all made in 1946 and 1947, and most amazingly, none of the songs presented on this collection were ever commercially recorded by Whiting throughout her long career.
Featuring arrangements by Hank Sylvern utilizing an orchestra with strings, as well as the background vocal trio known as The Melody Maids, these songs range from instantly-identifiable classics to melodies which have fallen through the cracks of time…until now. Though strings are heavily used by Sylvern, the feel here is often an intimate, jazz-based one, with the rhythm section getting ample opportunity to shine throughout. There’s no doubt that Whiting’s creamy, expressive voice is the star here. Sylvern’s accompaniment provides solid support but little in the way of the distinctive voicings associated with, say, a Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, or Billy May. The first disc begins, after a bit of dialogue between Whiting and host/singer Barry Wood, with a most appropriate choice: Richard Whiting’s composition “Honey.” Whiting wrote the melody to Johnny Mercer’s lyric for “Too Marvelous for Words,” and indeed, that Mercer turn of phrase is apt for this collection.
Of course, the songs of Mercer have a place on this set, as well, with such standards as “Skylark” (one wonders how Margaret never recorded “Skylark” at Capitol!), a sweet ballad rendition of “And the Angels Sing,” and the title track “Dream” (title of the 1997 Mercer tribute musical in which Margaret starred on Broadway). Indeed, Margaret’s velvety pipes were wrapped around melodies by many of the greatest tunesmiths of American popular song. Richard Rodgers is represented by both his saucy, insouciant works with Lorenz Hart and his timeless, sweeping Americana as written with Oscar Hammerstein II. Indeed, Margaret has fun with the dry humor of Rodgers and Hart’s “It’s Got to Be Love” (from their musical On Your Toes) and brings simple sincerity to their lovely “It’s Easy to Remember.” Likewise, she offers beautifully resigned heartbreak in the form of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s rueful Carousel ballad “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’.” Hammerstein’s collaboration with operetta king Sigmund Romberg gets an airing, too, with a restrained yet aching “Lover, Come Back to Me” (featuring a classically-inspired solo piano interlude).
Margaret’s tone is beautiful and light on a graceful version of John LaTouche and Vernon Duke’s “Taking a Chance on Love,” with not a hint of the swing often applied to the composition. The same goes for Frank Loesser and Hoagy Carmichael’s “Heart and Soul,” while the same team’s “Two Sleepy People” charms with its tender romance.
George and Ira Gershwin have five cuts here, including the great torch song “The Man I Love.” Whiting’s interpretation has just the right amount of pathos, vulnerability and yearning; indeed, it illustrates her gift for enhancing a song with unadorned emotional honesty rather than vocal pyrotechnics. She brings the same modulated approach to a dramatic yet straightforward reading of Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler’s blues-infused “Stormy Weather.” Whiting never recorded any of Duke Ellington’s songs commercially, but two performances show her to have been an ideal interpreter of the jazz great’s catalogue: the lilting “I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart,” and a languid “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good).”
Not every song is as renowned as that pair of Ellington tunes. Lesser known songs from famous songwriters are among the many treats here, like “Through a Thousand Dreams” by Leo Robin and Arthur Schwartz, Johnny Burke’s droll “Surprise Party,” or “It’s Anybody’s Spring” from the team of Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen.
Silky balladry was a Whiting specialty, but there are uptempo songs here, too. The frothy likes of Carl Sigman and Peter de Rose’s “Put That Kiss Back Where You Found It” and the simple sentiments of “Exactly Like You” are both delivered exquisitely and directly. She and arranger Sylvern give Cole Porter’s oft-covered “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” a gentle Latin kick. David Young and Charles Warfield’s “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” a 1915 number recorded by everybody from Louis Prima to David Lee Roth, also affords the singer an opportunity to cut a bit loose, as does Billy Higgins and W. Benton Overstreet’s forceful declaration that “There’ll Be Some Changes Made.”
Whiting naturally found the many colors in each of these examples of sophisticated songcraft, whether subtly accenting the wistfulness of “These Foolish Things” or the poignancy of “I’ll Be Seeing You.” It’s all the remarkable considering the young “girl singer” was just in her twenties when these tracks – many of which deal in decidedly adult emotions, of love in its various complexities – were recorded. (She even sings Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s looking-back-at-life “September Song” with conviction!)
It’s rather difficult to believe that these songs were cut roughly 70 decades ago, as the restoration by Robert Bader and Kathy Brown is top-notch. Brown’s informative liner notes to The Lost Recordings indicate that some 120 songs exist from the broadcasts, so one certainly hopes that a second volume is in the offing. (A minor cavil regarding the otherwise-fine booklet: One wishes discographical annotation would have identified the recording date of each track, if known.) Fans of the Great American Songbook will find this rare treasure chest from the pristine, heartfelt voice of Margaret Whiting to be a Dream, indeed.