Whiteman's place in the history of early jazz is somewhat controversial. Detractors suggest that Whiteman's ornately-orchestrated music was jazz in name only (lacking the genre's improvisational and emotional depth), and co-opted the innovations of black musicians.Defenders note that Whiteman's fondness for jazz was genuine (he worked with black musicians as much as was feasible during an era of racial segregation), that his bands included many of the era's most esteemed white jazz musicians, and argue that Whiteman's groups handled jazz admirably as part of a larger repertoire. In his autobiography, Duke Ellington declared, "Paul Whiteman was known as the King of Jazz, and no one as yet has come near carrying that title with more certainty and dignity."
Whiteman was born in Denver, Colorado. He came from a musical family: his mother Elfrida was a former opera singer, and his father, Wilburforce James Whiteman was the supervisor of music for the Denver Public Schools, a position he held for fifty years. It was his father who insisted that he learn an instrument, and wanted him to study the violin. But young Paul preferred the viola, and that was what he learned to play. His skill at playing the viola led him to an opportunity to perform in the Denver Symphony Orchestra; he was a member from 1907, and in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra from 1914. From 1917 to 1918, Whiteman conducted a 40-piece U.S. Navy band. After the war, he formed the Paul Whiteman Orchestra. Moreover, with his classical violinist and violist start, he led a jazz-influenced dance band, which became popular locally in San Francisco, California in 1918. In 1920 he moved with his band to New York City where they started recording for the Victor Talking Machine Company which made the Paul Whiteman Orchestra famous nationally. (In his first five recordings sessions for Victor, Aug 9 – Oct 28, 1920, Whiteman used the name "Paul Whiteman and His Ambassador Orchestra," presumably because he had been playing at the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City; from Nov 3, 1920, he started using "Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra.")
Whiteman became the most popular band director of that decade. In a time when most dance bands consisted of six to 10 men, Whiteman directed a much larger and more imposing group of up to 35 musicians. By 1922, Whiteman already controlled some 28 ensembles on the east coast and was earning over a $1,000,000 a year.
In the 1920s the media referred to Whiteman as "The King of Jazz". Whiteman emphasized the way he had approached the already well-established style of music, while also organizing its composition and style in his own fashion. While most jazz musicians and fans consider improvisation to be essential to the musical style, Whiteman thought the genre could be improved by orchestrating the best of it, with formal written arrangements. There were musicians, such as Eddie Condon, who criticized Whiteman for being a bad influence on the music due to his attempts to "make a lady" out of jazz. However, Whiteman's recordings were still popular critically and successful commercially, and his style of jazz was often the first jazz of any form that many Americans heard during the era. In all, the "King of Jazz" wrote more than 3000 arrangements.
For more than 30 years Whiteman, referred to as "Pops", sought and encouraged musicians, vocalists, composers, arrangers, and entertainers who looked promising. In 1924 Whiteman commissioned George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, which was premiered by Whiteman's orchestra with George Gershwin at the piano. Another familiar piece in Whiteman's repertoire was Grand Canyon Suite, byFerde Grofé.
In late 1926 Whiteman signed three candidates for his orchestra: Bing Crosby, Al Rinker, and Harry Barris. Whiteman billed the singing trio as The Rhythm Boys. Crosby's prominence in the Rhythm Boys helped launch his career as one of the most successful singers of the 20th century. Paul Robeson (1928) and Billie Holiday (1942) also recorded with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
Whiteman had 28 number one records during the 1920s and 32 during his career. At the height of his popularity, eight out of the top ten sheet music sales slots were by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra.
He provided music for six Broadway shows and produced more than 600 phonograph recordings.
His recording of José Padilla’s Valencia topped the charts for 11 weeks, beginning March 30, 1926, becoming the #1 record of 1926.
Whiteman signed singer Mildred Bailey in 1929 to appear on his radio program. She first recorded with the Whiteman Orchestra in 1931.
Jazz musician and leader of the Mound City Blue Blowers Red McKenzie and cabaret singer Ramona Davies (billed as "Ramona and her Grand Piano") joined the Whiteman group in 1932. The King's Jesters were also with Paul Whiteman in 1931.
In 1934 Paul Whiteman had his last two #1 hits, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes", with vocals by Bob Lawrence, which was #1 for six weeks, and "Wagon Wheels", which was #1 for one week, his final hit recording. From 1920 to 1934 Whiteman had 32 #1 recordings, charting 28 of them by 1929. By contrast, during the same period, the 1920s Jazz Age, Louis Armstrong had none.
In 1942 Whiteman began recording for Capitol Records, cofounded by songwriters Buddy DeSylva and Johnny Mercer and music store owner Glenn Wallichs. Whiteman and His Orchestra's recordings of "I Found a New Baby" and "The General Jumped At Dawn" was the label's first single release. Another notable Capitol record he made is the 1942 "Trav'lin Light" featuring Billie Holiday (billed as "Lady Day", due to her being under contract with another label).
Whiteman was married four times; to Nellie Stack in 1908; to Miss Jimmy Smith; to Mildred Vanderhoff in 1922. In 1931 Whiteman married motion picture actress Margaret Livingstonfollowing his divorce from Vanderhoff that same year. The marriage to Livingston lasted until his death.
"Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra" was the star of King of Jazz, a feature-length musical filmed entirely in two-color Technicolorduring late 1929 and early 1930. The film was technically ahead of its time, with many innovative visual effects complementing the musical numbers. Whiteman appeared as himself and good-naturedly kidded his weight and his dancing skills. A highlight was a concert rendition of Rhapsody in Blue. Unfortunately, production delays precluded the completion and release of the film in 1929 as originally planned. By the time King of Jazz reached theaters in the spring of 1930, audiences had seen too many "all-singing, all-dancing" musicals and much of the moviegoing public stayed away. It did not help that the film was shot as a revue with no story, a form which had fallen into particular disfavor. The expensive film did not show a profit until 1933, when it was successfully reissued to cash in on the popularity of 42nd Street and its elaborate production numbers.
Whiteman also appeared as himself in the 1945 movie Rhapsody in Blue on the life and career of George Gershwin and also appeared in The Fabulous Dorseys in 1947, a bio-pic starring Jimmy Dorsey and Tommy Dorsey. Whiteman also appeared as the baby in Nertz(1929), the bandleader in Thanks a Million (1935), as himself in Strike Up the Band (1940), and in the Paramount Pictures short The Lambertville Story (1949).
In the 1940s and 1950s, after he had disbanded his orchestra, Whiteman worked as a music director for the ABC Radio Network. He also hosted Paul Whiteman's TV Teen Club from Philadelphia on ABC-TV from 1949–1954. The show was seen for an hour the first two years, then as a half hour segment on Saturday evenings. In 1952 a young Dick Clark read the commercials for sponsor Tootsie Roll. He also continued to appear as guest conductor for many concerts. His manner on stage was disarming; he signed off each program with something casual like, "Well, that just about slaps the cap on the old milk bottle for tonight."
The Paul Whiteman Orchestra introduced many jazz standards in the 1920s, including "Hot Lips", which was in the Steven Spielberg movie The Color Purple (1985), "Mississippi Mud", "From Monday On", co-written and sung by Bing Crosby with Bix Beiderbecke on cornet, "Nuthin' But", "Grand Canyon Suite" and "Mississippi Suite" composed by Ferde Grofe, "Rhapsody in Blue", composed by George Gershwin who played piano on the Paul Whiteman recording in 1924, "Wonderful One" (1923), and "Wang Wang Blues" (1920), covered by Glenn Miller,Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Joe "King" Oliver's Dixie Syncopators in 1926 and many of the Big Bands. "Hot Lips" was recorded by Ted Lewis and His Jazz Band, Horace Heidt and His Brigadiers Orchestra (1937), Specht's Jazz Outfit, the Cotton Pickers (1922), and Django Reinhardt Et Le Quintette Du Hot Club De France.
Herb Alpert and Al Hirt were influenced by the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, particularly the solo work of trumpeter Henry Busse, especially his solo on "Rhapsody in Blue".
Whiteman composed the standard "Wonderful One" in 1922 with Ferde Grofé and Dorothy Terris (also known as Theodora Morse), based on a theme by film director Marshall Neilan. The songwriting credit is assigned as music composed by Paul Whiteman, Ferde Grofe, and Marshall Neilan, with lyrics by Dorothy Terriss. The single reached #3 on Billboard in May 1923, staying on the charts for 5 weeks. "(My) Wonderful One" was recorded by Gertrude Moody, Edward Miller, Martha Pryor, Mel Torme, Doris Day, Woody Herman, Helen Moretti, John McCormack; it was released as Victor 961. Jan Garber and His Orchestra, and Ira Sullivan with Tony Castellano also recorded the song. Henry Burr recorded it in 1924 and Glenn Miller and his Orchestra in 1940. On the sheet music published in 1922 by Leo Feist it is described as a "Waltz Song" and "Paul Whiteman's Sensational Waltz Hit" and is dedicated "To Julie". "Wonderful One" appeared in the following movies: The Chump Champ (1950), Little 'Tinker (1948), Red Hot Riding Hood (1943), Sufferin' Cats (1943), Design for Scandal (1941), Strike Up the Band (1940), and Westward Passage (1932).
In 1924 Whiteman composed "When the One You Love Loves You" with Abel Baer and lyricist Cliff Friend. Whiteman recorded the song on December 24, 1924 in New York with Franklyn Baur on vocals and released it as Victor 19553-B backed with "I'll See You in My Dreams". The single reached #7 on the Billboard national pop singles charts in April 1925, staying on the charts for 3 weeks. The song is described as "A Sentimental Waltz Ballad" on the 1925 sheet music. Singer and composer Morton Downey, Sr., the father of the talk show host, recorded the song in 1925 and released it as Brunswick 2887. Eva Shirley sang the song in Ed Wynn's Grab Bag, a Broadway musical which opened in 1924 at the Globe. Leo Feist published the sheet music for the Shirley version in 1924 featuring Eva Shirley on the cover.
Paul Whiteman composed "Flamin' Mamie" in 1925 with Fred Rose, one of the top hits of 1925, which was recorded by the Harry Reser Band, Merritt Brunies and the Friars Inn Orchestra, Billy Jones and Ernest Hare, the Six Black Diamonds in 1926 on Banner, the Toll House Jazz Band, Aileen Stanley in 1925 with Billy "Uke" Carpenter on the ukulele, Hank Penny in 1938,Turk Murphy, the Frisco Syncopators, the Firehouse Five Plus Two, Bob Schulz and His Frisco Jazz Band, and the Coon-Sanders Nighthawk Orchestra led by Carleton Coon and Joe Sanderswith Joe Sanders on vocals. The lyrics describe Mamie as a Roaring Twenties vamp: "Flamin' Mamie, a sure-fire vamp/When it comes to lovin'/She's a human oven/Come on you futuristic papas/She's the hottest thing he's seen since the Chicago fire."
Paul Whiteman also composed "Charlestonette" in 1925 with Fred Rose which was published by Leo Feist. The song was released as Victor 19785 backed with "Ida-I Do" in 1925. Ben Selvin's Dance Orchestra and Bennie Krueger and His Orchestra also recorded the song in 1925.
Paul Whiteman composed the piano work "Dreaming The Waltz Away" with Fred Rose in 1926. Organist Jesse Crawford recorded the song on October 4–5, 1926 in Chicago, Illinois and released it as a 78 on Victor Records, 20363 . Crawford played the instrumental on a Wurlitzer organ.
In Louis Armstrong & Paul Whiteman: Two Kings of Jazz (2004), Joshua Berrett wrote that "Whiteman Stomp" was credited to Fats Waller, Alphonso Trent, and Paul Whiteman. Lyricist Jo Trent is the co-author. The Fletcher Henderson Orchestra first recorded "Whiteman Stomp" on May 11, 1927 and released it as Columbia 1059-D. The Fletcher Henderson recording lists the songwriters as "Fats Waller/Jo Trent/Paul Whiteman". Paul Whiteman recorded the song on August 11, 1927 and released it as Victor 21119.
"Then and Now", recorded on December 7, 1954 and released in 1955 on Coral Records, was composed by Paul Whiteman with Dick Jacobs and Bob Merrill. The song was released as a 45 inch single in 1955 as Coral 61336 backed with "Mississippi Mud" by Paul Whiteman and His New Ambassador Orchestra with the New Rhythm Boys.
In 1998, the 1920 Paul Whiteman recording of "Whispering" was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame.
Paul Whiteman's 1927 recording of "Rhapsody in Blue", the "electrical" version, was inducted in the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1974.
He was inducted in the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame in 1993.
He was awarded two Stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Recording at 6157 Hollywood Boulevard and for Radio at 1601 Vine Street in Hollywood.
In 2003, the 1924 Paul Whiteman recording of "Rhapsody in Blue" was placed on the U.S. Library of Congress National Recording Registry, a list of sound recordings that "are culturally, historically, or aesthetically important, and/or inform or reflect life in the United States."
1920 release of "Whispering" by Paul Whiteman and His Ambassador Orchestra, Victor 18690A. 1998 Grammy Hall of Fame inductee.Original 1924 "acoustical" release of "Rhapsody in Blue" by Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra with George Gershwin on piano, Victor 55225A. 2003 National Recording Registry selection.*Whispering (song), 1920, #1 for 11 weeks, the no.2 hit of 1920, 1998 Grammy Hall of Fame inductee
Grieving For You – Feather Your Nest, #26 hit of 1921
Play that "Song of India" Again, 1921, #1 for 5 weeks, music adapted by Paul Whiteman from the Chanson Indoue theme by Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov from the opera Sadko (1898) with lyrics by Leo Wood and Irving Bibo
1927 "electrical" release of "Rhapsody in Blue" as Victor 35822A by Paul Whiteman and His Concert Orchestra with George Gershwin on piano. 1974 Grammy Hall of Fame inductee.*Charlestonette, 1925, composed by Paul Whiteman with Fred Rose
Birth of the Blues, 1926, #1 for 4 weeks
Valencia, no.1 for 11 weeks in 1926, the #1 record of 1926
My Blue Heaven, 1927, #1 for 1 week
Three Shades of Blue: Indigo/Alice Blue/Heliotrope, 1927, composed and arranged by Ferde Grofe
Rhapsody in Blue, 1927, "electrical" version, Grammy Hall of Fame inductee
Chiquita, #36 hit of 1928
From Monday On, 1928, with Bing Crosby, the Rhythm Boys, and Jack Fulton on vocals and Bix Beiderbecke on cornet, #14 on Billboard
Mississippi Mud, 1928, with Bing Crosby and Bix Beiderbecke, #6 on Billboard
Metropolis: A Blue Fantasy, 1928, composed by Ferde Grofe, with Bix Beiderbecke on cornet
Ol' Man River, 1928, first, fast version, with Bing Crosby on vocals, #1 for 1 week. This recording was Bing Crosby's first #1 record as a vocalist. Crosby would have 41 such hits during his career.
"Ol' Man River" by Paul Whiteman with Paul Robeson, Victor 35912A, 1928. 2006 Grammy Hall of Fame inductee.*Ol' Man River, 1928, second, slow version, with Paul Robeson on vocals, Grammy Hall of Fame inductee
Concerto in F
Among My Souvenirs, 1928, #1 for 4 weeks
Ramona, 1928, with Bix Beiderbecke, #1 for 3 weeks
My Fantasy, 1939, Paul Whiteman co-wrote the song "My Fantasy", an adaptation by Paul Whiteman of the Polovtsian Dances theme from the opera Prince Igor by Alexander Borodin, credited to "Paul Whiteman/Leo Edwards/Jack Meskill". Artie Shaw recorded "My Fantasy" in 1940.
Trav'lin' Light, 1942, with Billie Holiday on vocals; no. 1 for 3 weeks on the Billboard Harlem Hit Parade chart; no. 23 on the pop singles chart in 1942; V-Disc No. 286A, released in October, 1944 by the U.S. War Department
Then and Now, 1955
The Night is Young (And You're So Beautiful), 1956, with Tommy Dorsey
Paul Whiteman was posthumously inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least 25 years old and that have "qualitative or historical significance."