I’m kind of a wimpy whistler. By that I mean I’m not one of those guys (or gals!) who can insert two fingers into their mouth and let out a loud piercing squeal that freezes traffic. On the other hand, I’d like to think I can sometimes whistle a particular tune in a way that it might recognized by someone. I might be kidding myself about that, but what I do know is that there have been — and continue to be — a lot of very good professional whistlers around.
This isn’t the first time we’ve talking about whistling on the GMC. Several years ago we spotlighted Don Robertson – The Happy Whistler, who had a big hit with a song called — surprise — “The Happy Whistler”. But Robertson was a multi-talented musician and songwriter who also whistled, and the guy we’re going to talk about today was probably the most legendary pure whistler of all time. But we’ll get to him a little later. First let’s talk about modern whistlers.
Whistling is alive and well these days. There are many organizations promoting the art, and tournaments are held to see who has bragging rights. It has become an international activity too, and there are accomplished whistlers of all ages and genders. Here’s an example of a modern champion whistler doing a little Mozart.
Now let’s move to a bygone era. One of the most iconic musical moments in a movie that I recall from my childhood occurred during a 1954 John Wayne film, one that you might remember too. It was called The High And The Mighty, and is considered to be the first of the all-star disaster movies that would later become so popular. The film also is known for the haunting theme song, written by Dimitri Tiomkin. It featured some memorable whistling passages, which was attributed to Wayne’s character in the movie if I’m remembering correctly. One thing I can visualize for sure is him slowly limping down the aisle of the plane at the end of the movie, whistling of course.
On the soundtrack the song’s whistling segments were handled by “Muzzy” Marcellino, who would later contribute his warble to other films, such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. But he’s still not the guy we’re working our way towards. Keep reading, we’re almost there.
The same year the movie came out, LeRoy Holmes led an orchestra that made a record of the theme song, and it burst into the Top Ten on the Billboard charts. It was his biggest hit and was also a star turn for veteran whistler Fred Lowery, and he’s the guy we’re here to talk about.
Fred Lowery had been around for a long time at that point and had already found a lot of success. As a child, the Texas-born performer had survived Scarlet Fever but it left him legally blind, although he did have minimal vision in one eye. While attending the Texas School for the Blind he had an experience that set him on the path to a musical career. He was fascinated by the abilities of a bird-whistle imitator, and began to learn all about it for himself. As he approached adulthood in the late 1920’s he began appearing on stage and local radio. By the 1930’s he’d latched onto a job with the Vincent Lopez orchestra, and spent several years as a regular before being hired away by a more renowned outfit, Horace Heidt and his Musical Knights. Lowery’s popularity on stage and on tour with Heidt’s band helped make his name, and he had several big songs, among them “Indian Love Call”, which sold over two million records.
Lowery stayed with Heidt for several years and then embarked on a solo career in the years following World War II. He did very well in subsequent decades, occasionally teaming up with other artists, and also expanded his repertoire along the way. He even added gospel music. He eventually became a popular guest star on TV too, appearing with everyone from Ed Sullivan to Jackie Gleason and many others. He became so admired that he was invited to perform at Carnegie Hall and the White House. He was 75 when he died in 1984.