The difference between an artist’s image and an artist’s art is sometimes great, and that was certainly the case with Margaret Whiting, who died this week at the age of 86. Until just a few years ago, when late-life illness kept her largely homebound, Whiting was a fixture in the Manhattan nightclubs where singers carry on the vocal tradition she took up in 1940s. From time to time, Whiting would perform, usually a song or two in a group concert. More often, she would go to see other performers do her kind of music, and to be seen. Whiting loved to go out, dolled up in jewels and fur, and she seemed to embody old-school show-biz grandeur done to excess. I’ve never gone much for all that, and I had to fight a temptation to think of Whiting as nothing more than an archaic caricature of feminine glamour.
When she sang, Whiting showed that she could make music from another sphere—understated, complicated music rich in nuance. She could go show-bizzy when the material called for it, but she preferred to sing more subtly and excelled at material too fragile to tolerate empty show or ostentation. Her album of music by Jerome Kern, recorded for Verve in 1960, demonstrates Whiting’s early mastery of suggestion, and so does a video clip of Whiting singing one of her signature songs, “It Might As Well Be Spring,” on a TV show from the late ’50s or early ’60s. (I don’t know the provenance of the clip, but Whiting looks and sounds as she did around 1960.)
The song, from the movie musical State Fair, is the kind of sunny goo that gave Rodgers and Hammerstein their reputation for pandering. In Whiting’s hands, the song takes on gray tones, and it deepens. Whiting draws out the doubt in the line, “I keep wishing I were somewhere else,” and transforms the song, practically inverting it into “Spring Is Here,” the lament of brokenheartedness by Rodgers and his more ruefully inclined early partner, Lorenz Hart. (“Spring Is Here” could have been titled “It Might As Well Be Fall.”) Whiting is outfitted ridiculously in a yokel get-up on loan from Minnie Pearl. Still, as she would for the rest of her life, she declined to let her image undermine her art.