Thursday, January 13, 2011

Margaret Whiting: Famed saloon singer hit her career high in Duluth...

By Jim Heffernan

Here’s the opening paragraph of an obituary in the Jan. 12 New York Times:

“Margaret Whiting, a songwriter’s daughter who as a bright-eyed teenage singer captivated wartime America and then went on to a long, acclaimed career recording hit songs and performing in nightclubs and on television, died on Monday… She was 86.” (Read the full obit HERE.)

Sounds like that pretty well sums up the career of Margaret Whiting, a singer not quite in the ranks of contemporaries like Rosemary Clooney and Ella Fitzgerald, as The Times points out, but who nevertheless had quite a career. After all, she introduced “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” in a duet with the distinguished songwriter Johnny Mercer.

Well, it doesn’t quite sum up her career.

Of course you have to be of a certain age and turn of mind to even know Margaret Whiting’s name, not to mention that of Johnny Mercer. But suffice it to say, as The Times did, that “in her heyday she was widely popular in the worlds of big band, jazz, popular music – even country – for more than 30 years…”

The New York Times runs great obituaries of notable people, often including esoteric facts about the deceased that get the attention of obit writers, but they missed one about Margaret Whiting: Her appearance in Duluth – the greatest in her career, according to her.

I was there, at the old Duluth Armory, just a couple of years after Buddy Holly had graced the same stage shortly before he died. (I was there for that, too, as I’ve written so many times I’m getting bored with the story myself.)

Anyway, Margaret Whiting was the featured entertainer at the annual Duluth Home Show held at the Armory each spring in the years before the Arena-Auditorium opened in 1966. I would say I saw her in about 1961 or ’62.

Why dredge all this up now (aside from the fact that she just died)? A lot of people who performed on that stage were better known than Margaret Whiting, after all. I dredge it up because of what she said at the end of her final performance here, the last evening show on the Sunday night the Home Show closed.

In those days, the various booths and displays were spread throughout the Armory floor, and for the entertainment the crowd simply gathered in front of the stage, mostly standing. That’s where a friend and I were for that weekend’s last Margaret Whiting show. Just standing there with a few hundred other people listening to the music and taking in the acts, which probably also included a juggler or an acrobat or a dog act before the featured entertainer, backed by a big band, performed.

Because it was the weekend’s final show, as soon as the house lights went down and performers took to the stage, you could hear sponsors of the various displays across the Armory floor begin to disassemble their booths. The clatter was pretty loud, it seemed to me, making it hard for the performers on the stage to compete.

But Margaret Whiting was a trouper, and she came out and gave it her all. I don’t recall exactly what songs she included but, according to The Times obit, she was associated with “That Old Black Magic,” “Moonlight in Vermont,” “It Might as Well Be Spring” and “Far Away Places,” all enduring standards of the big band era.

But as she performed, beyond the footlights the cacophony of the dismantling of the home show was distracting, with workers paying no attention to the stage show (by then they’d likely seen it about five times that weekend). Still, Whiting sang on, smiling through it all. I recall feeling badly for her. The Armory was a dump to begin with and then to have to perform with all that clatter in the background, well, it had to be disconcerting.

But it never showed. She went through her set, which closed the program, and then stepped to the apron of the stage and addressed the audience. I’m going to put the following in quotes even though it might not be the exact wording. This is pretty much what she said:

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I just want to say before I leave Duluth that this has been the greatest time in my entire show business career.”

How about that? I was stunned. I just can’t understand how the New York Times could have missed this highlight – call it apex – of Margaret Whiting’s career. They should save the Duluth Armory on that basis alone!

Or maybe not.

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