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His Music Will Play Forever...

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Peoria's Greatest Composer, Richard Whiting

With the summer music concerts in full swing all over the area, it is fitting we pay tribute to one of America's most famous and successful music composers, Peoria native Richard Whiting.

Richard was born on November 12, 1891 to Frank and Blossom Whiting. They are buried in Springdale Cemetery. Their house still stands at 811 Moss Avenue. Both parents were musical and Blossom had a piano in every parlor of their house.

So it was only natural that music would seep into their son Richard's young being. By age 5, he was called a child prodigy at the piano. It was written that Lydia Bradley would sit on her porch at all hours of the day to enjoy listening to young Richard play, as the Whitings would leave all their windows open for the neighbors to hear the music.

In 1905, the Whitings sent Richard to Los Angeles to spend his high school years at the Harvard Military Academy, which had one of the best music programs in the nation.

After Richard graduated in 1910, he dabbled on the vaudeville stage in Peoria, but he was quickly hired by the Jerome Remick Company of Detroit, Mich., to write sheet music.

For vaudeville shows, he wrote "Dixieland" and "Mammy" for such singers as Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor. For Sophie Tucker, he wrote her famous "Somebody's Wrong Song."

Richard and his new wife Eleanor wanted a piano for their Detroit apartment. Richard made a deal with Mr. Remick that he would give him the rights to his next song if Remick would buy them a piano. The song was "It's Tulip Time in Holland and Two Lips Are Calling Me." It went on to sell 3 million copies of sheet music and could have bought Richard a whole house full of Steinway Grands.

When World War I began in 1918, a national patriotic song contest was announced. Richard wrote a song for the contest, but threw it in the waste basket. Later that night, a secretary fished it out of the garbage and gave it to Mr. Remick. He liked it so much he entered it in the contest without Richard knowing. The song's name was "Till We Meet Again." It conjures up a time of heartfelt leave-taking, hasty romances, and the enormous promise of an America developing into a world power.

"Till We Meet Again" not only won the contest, but became the anthem of World War I. The sheet music sold 17 million copies and is still one of the top selling single-song sheet music ever.

With their international success, the Whitings moved to New York and Broadway in the 1920s. Hit after hit, such as "Sleepy Time Gal," "Honey," and "Breezin Along with the Breeze" were enjoyed in the Broadway revues. His two biggest songs of the era were "Japanese Sandman" and "Ain't We Got Fun" and they defined the happy upbeat rhythm of the roaring 20s decade.

When the silent films became talkies in 1927, Hollywood raided the best songwriters on Broadway. The first composer Paramount Pictures hired was Richard Whiting. His first assignment was to write songs for a new singer from Paris who knew little English, Maurice Chevalier. Eating apples and Camembert cheese, the two slaved for hours trying to come up with English words Chevalier could sing easily. Then Richard hit on a word that Chevalier could sing very well — "Louise."

For Jeanette MacDonald, the 1930 film "Monte Carlo" had her singing on a train. Whiting's classic song "Beyond the Blue Horizon" captures the train's chug-chug wheels and piston rhythms to become one of the first movie songs to imitate the camera's action.

In 1934, Shirley Temple was six years old and Fox Studios hired Richard Whiting to write songs for her first starring musical "Bright Eyes." Richard was having trouble writing the little girl songs even though his daughter Margaret was the same age as Shirley Temple. (Yes, this is the same Margaret Whiting who would become a famous jazz singer in the 1950s and 60s.) Margaret had a gigantic candy sucker and smeared the sticky stuff all over her dad's piano keys. As Richard was wiping it off, he yelled out the word lollipop and thus began one of the most popular children's songs of all time, "On the Good Ship Lollipop."

Richard wrote a song in 1934 for Jack Benny called "Rock and Roll" for the movie "Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round." Richard is given the credit as one of the first people to publicly coin the phrase rock-and-roll.

Bing Crosby, Nancy Carroll, William Powell, Frederic March, Ethel Merman, Jack Haley, Lew Ayres, Spencer Tracy, Billie Holliday, Alice Faye, Will Rogers, Gracie Allen & George Burns, Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Ronald Reagan and even the Marx Brothers were all fortunate to perform Richard Whiting's songs on film.

But Richard's favorite performer was Ruby Keeler. In 1936 in the movie "Ready Willing and Able" for example, Ruby is tap dancing Busby-Berkley-style on the huge keys of a monster typewriter with dozens upon dozens of swooning chorus girls typing out Whiting's beautiful song "Too Marvelous for Words."

On Feb. 10, 1938, Richard Whiting suffered a massive heart attack and died. He was only 46.

He was eulogized as a man who since he was a boy in Peoria wanted to write popular songs. That he was successful and wealthy from having his dreams come true made him what his friends described as the happiest man in the world. His daughter Margaret then sang what she said was his absolute favorite of the over 500 songs he had composed: "My Ideal." Listen to Frank Sinatra's version sometime, and you will understand why.

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