Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mercer's Baby

She was one of the last surviving band singers, and her life was dominated by two men, one at the beginning of her career, and one at the end.

Margaret Whiting


If you're going to have a recording career that spans 7 decades, you better start early, and Whiting did just that. She was singing by the age of 7, and she delivered her first hit record ("That Old Black Magic") at the age of 18. She was born into a show biz family: her father was a composer who wrote 'Hooray For Hollywood", her mother was a talent manager who handled Sophie Tucker, and her aunt was a vaudeville star. Her sister Barbara was an actress who played an important part in Maggie's TV career, more on that in a mo'.

But the man who most influenced our Margaret was not a relative, but became a surrogate father when her own dad died in 1938. Johnny Mercer was just one of a number of composers who hung around the Whiting house in Los Angeles (Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, and Jerome Kern were frequent visitors), but he became the mentor who influenced her career the most. When Mercer formed Capitol Records, Margaret was one of the first stars he signed to recording contracts. She delivered a long string of hits, including "It Might As Well Be Spring," "Come Rain or Come Shine," and "Moonlight in Vermont."

Her recording of Mercer's "Baby It's Cold Outside", as a duet with Mercer himself, has become a holiday perennial. Her recording catalogue includes over 700 songs, and a dozen million sellers; over the years, she became the preeminent interpreter of Johnny Mercer's work (she even headed the Johnny Mercer Foundation for a time, and was still touring her cabaret act dedicated to his work when she died earlier this month).

Margaret met the second most important man in her life in 1976, when she accompanied her gay posse to an exotic stage show starring porn star Jack Wrangler. An unlikely relationship blossomed between the two, a relationship which lasted decades; they actually married in 1994. "But I'm gay!" Wrangler remembers telling Whiting, to which she replied, "Only around the edges, dear."
I wrote a pretty swell obit of porn star Jack when he died of emphysema a while back, bring your best bow-chicka-bow-wow here to get the scoop.

I mentioned that Maggie had an actress sister, Barbara, and the two of them starred in a sitcom in the 50s called, appropriately, Those Whiting Girls. The show ran two summers as a replacement series for I Love Lucy, and was in fact produced by Desilu. Here's a fun little clip from the show, which presented a fictionalized version of the Whitings themselves. Back then, if you had a star who could sing (or in Desi's case, play the bongos), you wrote your episodes to include those talents. So here we get a bit of Margaret singing, as well as the comic interaction with her sister. Sharp eyes will detect two more recognizable faces in this scene. The hunk is Mike Connors, a decade before he became Mannix, and the actress playing the Whiting matriarch is Mabel Albertson, who maintained a long career playing comedic mothers, secretaries, and meddling neighbors. (Those of a certain age will recognize her as Samantha's mother-in-law on Bewitched, where her episodes usually climaxed with her moaning to her husband, "Frank, I have a sick headache.")

Have I wandered off track here? What are the odds of that? Here's that clip of Margaret Whiting, with admiration for a long and varied career: