The acclaimed international showman and band leader was born on March 28, 1890 in Denver, Colorado. His father, Wilberforce, was a music director for the public school district, and young Paul began his musical studies at age three on a toy violin, advancing to the real thing when he turned seven. Whiteman’s early musical instruction was not without turmoil. As recounted in volume one of Don Rayno’s biography, Paul Whiteman: Pioneer in American Music, having soured on a musical contract with his father, Whiteman smashed his violin against his mother’s sewing machine. He was then required to pay for his rash action through two summers of mowing the neighbors’ lawns.
Eventually, Whiteman settled into his practice and the music, playing professionally in Denver and San Francisco before he attained stunning success as the leader of his own orchestra. Whiteman toured the world and played sold-out engagements for decades. He was a pioneering presence in both radio and television, hosting talent search competitions, the distant descendants of which still air today. Whiteman shepherded the careers of young musicians such as Bix Beiderbecke and Bing Crosby (he was so beloved by those who worked with him that they called him “Pops”), and premiered the now-ubiquitous George Gershwin composition Rhapsody in Blue while Gershwin himself played the piano during the performance.
The scale of Whiteman’s achievement was great, and Whiteman celebrated with gusto to match. For his birthday, he was feted by friends and colleagues alike, with a salute by CBS airing in honor of his 70th birthday. While Whiteman often celebrated in style with public parties, his granddaughter, Cindy Magill, remembers a different kind of birthday festivity. “My most outstanding memory regarding my grandfather’s birthday was that no matter what public celebrations he might have, we always had a low key family celebration at a favorite restaurant or at home and he always had his favorite dinner – prime rib, Yorkshire Pudding and baked bananas. At heart, as much of a showman as he was, he was very much devoted to his family and treasured birthdays and holidays surrounded by family.”
Happy birthday, Pops!
Written by Laurel Rhame, Project Archivist