Pianist and songwriter Don Robertson, who is still around and now in his nineties*, is probably most remembered for his 1956 gold record of “The Happy Whistler.” But he always said that he didn’t really consider himself an expert whistler, and if you examine the arc of his career there’s little doubt that it’s been chock full of other musical happenings. He’s been especially successful as a songwriter, furnishing hits for guys like Elvis Presley and many others. (Including a chart-topper for Lorne Greene that we wrote about recently.)
Born in China, the son of a renowned doctor and scientist who was at that time a director at Peking’s medical college, Robertson was taught piano by his mother, who had many talents of her own. A poet and playwright who was also a talented pianist, she began teaching her son all about music when he was only four.
When the family relocated to Chicago the youngster continued to flourish musically during his school years, even learning other instruments to play in his high school band, and also earned a little money on side working with various small groups. But he also seriously considered followed his father into a medical career. In fact, when he entered college he majored in pre-med with a minor in music, but eventually dropped out and began to work as a music professional, mostly arranging.
World War II was winding down by then, and Robertson was finding some career traction by working as an accompanist for the Dinning Sisters, a trio that was part of the amazing Dinning Family. It was the beginning of a long and successful career for Robertson, who was soon working in Los Angeles clubs with one of the sisters, Louise (Lou), who was undertaking a solo career. He was also beginning to have some real success as a songwriter, and would eventually furnish an endless list of tunes for some of the biggest names in music, among them Eddy Arnold, Hank Snow, Faron Young, and most notably, Elvis, who recorded 14 of his songs.
In addition to songwriting he stayed busy as a performer through the years, often in collaboration with some of the biggest names around, but he didn’t put his ‘whistler’ away permanently. You can hear it in the video below, along with his ‘Nashville piano’ playing style, which would provide inspiration for Floyd Cramer and others.
*Not to be confused with the classical composer of the same name, who is a couple of decades younger.