Whistling up spring

Whistling precisely is hard. Try whistling the same tune with someone else – you will wobble out of key with each other, for sure. There are, however, some people who can whistle with great precision. A few have made a career out of it, and had novelty hits with whistled versions of popular tunes.

Such a one is Fred Lowery. Born in Texas in 1909, Lowery lost his sight at the age of two as a result of scarlet fever. While attending a school for the blind, he met a bird imitator who encouraged him to develop his whistling. Lowery became a featured act on variety shows and in 1939 he had a huge hit with his whistling version of Indian Love Call. It sold two million copies, a staggering number for the time. He had other hits over the years, including the theme to the 1956 Western film, The Proud Ones.

Fred_Lowery

Fred Lowery: a blind man with extraordinary skill at whistling.

This track comes from an LP late released much later – guessing mid-1970s? It is on Word, a gospel label. As you would expect it has plenty of golden fave hymns: Oh Happy Day, Old Time Religion, Precious Memories. All the usual suspects, and delivered beautifully, bang on key.

But the track I want to share is of a different character. Bring Back The Springtime channels Lowery’s old mentor, the bird imitator. It is unlikely as it sounds: a tone poem, for whistling and piano. And it is beautiful. Just listen.

  • Artist: Fred Lowery
  • Album: Precious Memories
  • Track: A6 Bring Back The Springtime
  • Format: 12”, 33⅓ rpm, vinyl
  • Label: Word
  • Made in: United States
  • Catalogue: WST-8516-LP
  • Year: Unknown (mid-1970s)

That whistling man with the bones

Freeman David was a shoeshine boy from Alabama. While he worked, he would whistle and tap out percussion with whatever was to hand. He became good at it, a precise whistler and able to play the bones, holding four sticks in each hand rather than the usual two. As a performer, under the name “Whistling Sam”, he worked the circuit in restaurants and nightclubs during and after World War Two. Then, in 1948, he performed one night in a Chinese restaurant in Los Angles, where one of the clientele happened to be a record company executive …

3056-side-aUnder the name “Brother Bones,” he released a whistling, percussive version of the jazz standard “Sweet Georgia Brown”. Released in 1949, it became a huge hit, including in Australia. You know this track, even if you don’t realise it yet, because it was later adopted by the Harlem Globe Trotters as their theme tune.

Planet Vinyl is not usually the place for hits, but David – “that whistling man with the bones,” someone calls him in the introduction – gives such a joyous and original performance that we will make an exception.

A piece of music history trivia: this was the first commercially successful record to use a synthesiser. You can hear it on “Sweet Georgia Brown”, but it is clearer on the B-side, “Margie” The synthesiser was manufactured by Hammond. Called the Novachord, it was a monster: inside were 163 vacuum tubes and more than 1000 capacitors. It is used here subtly, with nice warm left hand notes, filling out the bass sound. I love both tracks, so let’s give it a spin.

3056-side-b

  • Artist: Brother Bones and His Shadows,
  • Title: Sweet Georgia Brown / Margie
  • Format: 10” shellac disc, 78rpm
  • Label: Fidelity
  • Catalogue: FY-1067
  • Manufactured in: Australia
  • Year: unknown (early 1950s?)

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