Born in Denver on March 28, 1890, Paul Samuel Whiteman was raised by musician parents. His mother Efrida was an opera singer, and his father Wilberforce James served as director of music for Denver Public Schools. As a student at East High School, Whiteman was highly encouraged to learn an instrument and gravitated towards viola. Showing an innate talent for the instrument, Whiteman was quickly picked up by the Denver Symphony Orchestra in 1907 at the ripe age of 17. From there, he moved to the west coast and joined the San Francisco Symphony.
In 1918, Whiteman enlisted in the U.S. Navy and led a 12-piece band known as the Mare Island Naval Training Camp Symphony Orchestra for the next year. After the war, he returned to San Francisco and formed Paul Whiteman & His Orchestra, serving as the house band for the city’s luxurious Fairmont Hotel. By 1920, the nine-piece ensemble relocated to New York City. There they played the Palais Royal for the next four years—the earliest dance band from the West to take the East Coast by storm. In 1924, Whiteman staged a concert blending symphonic music and jazz at Aeolian Hall, New York’s temple of classical music. For the event, Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin to write a new orchestral piece, though Gershwin only had five weeks to complete the project before the concert. Gershwin finished composing the now famous “Rhapsody in Blue” and handed it off to Ferde Grofé for arranging. The two made it work with eight days to spare. Gershwin himself played piano and introduced New York to “Rhapsody in Blue,” which quickly became Whiteman’s theme song.
Whiteman had the country’s largest and best paid dance orchestra, an imposing ensemble of up to 35 musicians with many firsts under their belts—the first to play arrangements; the first to use full brass and reed sections; the first to tour Europe. Sidemen included many greats and future bandleaders—Bix Beiderbecke, Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey, Johnny Mercer and Jack Teagarden. In late 1926, Whiteman signed The Rhythm Boys to sing for his band; Bing Crosby’s prominence in the trio helped launch his career. Whiteman had 28 No. 1 records during the Roaring ’20s. His version of “Ol’ Man River” with Paul Robeson on vocals would later be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2006.
Whiteman owned a significant number of other big bands and jazz orchestras. In 1922, he controlled 28 bands on the east coast, which netted him over $1,000,000 that year (in 2022, this translates to almost $18,000,000.
By 1928, Whiteman was on the air when live radio programming was on the rise. He and the band made The King of Jazz for Universal Pictures in 1930, one of the first feature-length movies filmed entirely in Technicolor. As the band became more of a show unit, the size decreased, but as late as 1938, Whiteman’s personnel roster included 27 musicians and a vocalist. Throughout the decades, Whiteman also published three books: Jazz, co-authored by Mary Margaret McBride (1926); How To Be A Bandleader, co-authored by Leslie Lieber (1941); and Records for the Millions (1948). Though the depression impacted the band, the orchestra remained popular into the 1940s before they finally dispersed later in the decade.
When disc jockeys took over radio, Whiteman worked as the musical director on the Blue Radio network, which later became the American Broadcasting Company, or ABC. Here, he continued to commission songs for the several radio programs he oversaw including the series Music Out of the Blue. Some of the names Whiteman commissioned include Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Duke Ellington, Igor Stravinsky, Richard Rogers and many, many more. He deejayed for the radio show The Paul Whiteman Club that broadcasted on weekday afternoons.
After television burst onto the market, he made a number of special appearances and was Jackie Gleason’s summer replacement in 1955. Whiteman died in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in 1967 at the age of 77. Paul Whiteman was inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame in the
20th Century Pioneers induction class of 2016.
The Paul Whiteman Orchestra was the earliest dance band from the West to take the East Coast by storm.
Paul Whiteman Discography
16 Classic Performances
1932 – Willow Weep for Me
1921 – Make Believe
1934 – You’re The Top
1978 – A Paul Whiteman Concert
1920 – Wang Wang Blues
1920 – Whispering
1924 – Somebody Loves Me
The Complete Capitol Recordings
1928 – Ramona
1952 – An American in Paris
1954 – Rhapsody in Blue
1929 – Coquette
1939 – My Fantasy
1972 – Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra
1921 – My Mammy
1923 – You Remind Me of My Mother
1928 – Mississippi Mud
1922 – Wonderful One
1942 – Trav’lin Light
1923 – I’ll Build a Stairway to Paradise
1921 – Say It With Music
1924 – Rhapsody in Blue
1998 – Greatest Hits
1921 – Second Hand Rose
1991 – King of Jazz
1954 – All Time Dance Party Vol 1
1921 – Cherie
1924 – When the One You Love Loves You
1959 – The night I played 666 Fifth Avenue
1922 – Three O’clock in the Morning
1926 – Birth of the Blues
1954 – Cavalcade of Dance
1930 – Body and Soul
1933 – As Thousands Cheer
1932 – Grand Canyon Suite
1954 – All Time Dance Party Vol 2
1959 – Cavalcade of Music
1928 – Ol’ Man River