THE WHISPERING PIANIST
Pioneer Radio Artist 1922-1954
On 300 radio stations before network broadcasting
1924 Election night broadcast 18 station hookup from WEAF
CBS depression era Syncopated Pessimism
First television demonstration in South 1939
Pioneer Recording Artist
First Western Electric electrical recording to be released
Exclusive Artist for Columbia Records 1924-1931
Piano Rolls - Songwriter - Vaudeville Theater tours
One of the first crooners
Georgia Music Hall of Fame Collection & Exhibit
|Last Updated: June 20, 2003|
Art Gillham was born on January 1, 1895. His family lived in Atlanta, but
he was born while his mother was on a visit to St. Louis. His
father had been a Texas Ranger. His mother was a pianist and began teaching Art to play when he was
5 years old. He and his parents spent a few early years in Atlanta before his family moved to St. Louis
by 1901. In addition to his mother's teaching, he was influenced by the ragtime or stride music
he heard in St. Louis. Art
attended Wyman Elementary School, Central High School and enrolled in Washington University.
Art Gillham's Society Syncopators 1919
After the war Art worked as a song plugger for Chicago music
publisher, Ted Browne. He traveled around the country
appearing at dime stores, music stores, and on the Keith circuit plugging songs by playing piano and
one of whom was his first wife. Art also made piano rolls. When radio began in 1922, he began appearing on WDAP, a local
Chicago radio station in the Drake Hotel to play his publisher's music. As he
traveled, he began appearing on the local radio stations of the towns he
visited. In December 1923 at WBBM, in Chicago, he was dared to sing. Not being a singer, he
challenge, but sang
in a quiet manner. In February 1924, he appeared on WSB in Atlanta. Lambdin Kay,
the WSB Program Director at the time, was also the
radio columnist for the Atlanta Journal. Mr. Kay featured Art's photo with the caption "Whispering Pianist".
The nickname stuck, and Art continued to use
that as his billing throughout his career. Though he never recorded it, he used
Whispering as his theme song on radio and
Phonograph And Talking Machine Weekly, November, 1924
Atlanta Journal: February 24, 1924
1924 Acoustic Recordings
On May 2, 1924 Art began his recording career from his popularity as a
radio performer. His first recording session
was with Gennett in Richmond, Indiana. None of those records appear to have been released. In early October he was in
New York and recorded two songs for Pathe. The Pathe songs were issued on Pathe, Perfect, Starr and Apex labels. Some
of those recordings were issued under the pseudonym "Fred Thomas", probably after he began recording for Columbia. It
was a common practice at the time for an artist to record with several record companies at the same time, often recording the same
songs on several labels. After making the Pathe recordings, Columbia Records signed Art and an "Exclusive Artist". On
October 22, 1924 he began recording exclusively for Columbia with the aptly titled
How Do You Do, a song he was plugging for Ted Browne Music. After
Art introduced the song, it became the theme of Billy Jones and Ernest Hare,
"The Happiness Boys". He
also introduced Ted Browne Music's Angry, and I'm Drifting Back To Dreamland.
ELECTION NIGHT 1924
On November 4, 1924 Art was one of the entertainers on the WEAF election night program which was the first
commercially sponsored national "hookup" of 18 stations, a precursor of network broadcasting.
hook-ups were only regional. The program on WEAF was the regular broadcast of
The Eveready Hour, starting at 7:00 pm. This broadcast extended into the early hours of November 5.
Other entertainers performing on the show were Will Rogers, Wendell Hall "The
Red Headed Music Maker", Carson Robison, The Eveready Quartet, and the Waldorf Astoria Dance Orchestra led by
Joseph Knecht. Election returns were given by Graham McNamee. Calvin Cooledge was elected President.
Election night, November 4, 1924. WEAF's commercially sponsored Eveready Hour was on an 18 station national "hook-up". Standing from right: Will Rogers, Art Gillham, Wendell Hall, Eveready Quartet, Graham McNamee (?). Sitting on right is Carson Robison. The orchestra is the Waldorf-Astoria Dance Orchestra led by Joseph Knecht (not pictured). Violinist Ben Posner is standing by the microphone.
FIRST ELECTRICAL RECORDING
On February 25, 1925, Art recorded You May Be Lonesome, one of his own compositions on what became the first recording using the new Western Electric electrical recording system, to be commercially released: Columbia 328-D. Two songs were recorded electrically on February 26 and 27, but had a lower release number: Columbia 326-D. He recorded five other songs with the microphone on February 25. All but one of those songs were released. Three of the released songs were his own compositions. On February 26, 1925 Art recorded another song with the microphone. On February 27, 1925 Columbia began using the microphone with other artists. In a 1961 interview, a week or so before his death, Art said Columbia asked him to help them test their Western Electric recording equipment, presumably because of his experience with microphones in radio. Columbia gave him a "gift" of $1,000.00.
May Be Lonesome.mp3
Art's sense of humor creating an image
Art had a sense of humor about himself. On records and radio, he created an image of himself as a fat, balding, poor boy
from Georgia who couldn't keep a sweetheart. He was in fact tall, slim, with thick wavy hair and
had a wife and two sons.
Most of his songs were of seeking love and fortune only to have it pass on by, or of lost love. He referred to himself as the
world's worst piano player and would talk to his fingers and comment on his love of
coffee during his recordings and performances. In a series of publicity pictures
about recording for Columbia, Art is shown sleeping on a park bench with the caption "Art's luxurious New York hotel
suite". Another is one of a man directing him to leave captioned as, "Art is greeted by thousands as he enters the studio to make
Art continued traveling the country appearing on radio stations and making appearances at record stores
while he continued to make piano rolls for Vocalstyle, Mel-O-Dee and Duo-Art. He
would sometimes fly between cities and at times broadcast
from the airfield. Newspapers ran full-page ads about his Columbia
recordings, his appearances on the radio or on stage, and articles about
him. At times, the newspapers held contests based on his appearances. In 1927, the peak year of his
career, Art appeared at Atlanta's Loew's Grand Theatre and held the attendance record for the theatre until
Gone With The Wind premiered there in 1939.
Columbia "house musicians" included Red Nichols, Mannie Klein, and Benny Goodman
Before recording for Columbia, Art had a small jazz band. On his Columbia recordings he is usually singing
playing piano. Some of his recordings have a novelty accompaniment of violin. Others have a small band billed on the label
as Art Gillham's Southland Syncopators, which were Columbia "house musicians" that included Red Nichols, Andy Sannella, Murray
Kellner Mannie Klein, and Benny Goodman. On a recording session of October 7, 1930, he does not play piano at all, but Alex
Hill plays piano. On some recordings there is a second piano for boosted rhythm, played by Rube Bloom, Lew
Pollack, Peter de Rose and others. He made one recording with another group when the scheduled singer did not show up:
Lanin's Red Heads (Red Nichols) Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue.
Art Gillham was a popular artist in his day. His primary competitor was Gene Austin at Victor. Gene Austin
in Atlanta in the Fall of 1953 and was a guest on Art's radio program on
WQXI in Atlanta. They discussed "the good old
days", and recalled how Frank Walker, recording director at Columbia and
the Recording Director at Victor tried to get them to
record the same tunes. Art and Gene were friends and would talk together before recording to try to avoid recording the
same songs. Victor countered by having Jack Smith record Cecilia, on September 15, 1925, a title Art
June 27, 1925. Victor billed Jack Smith as "Whispering" Jack
Smith. (After Art's death, a popular country singer, whose parents lived in
the Atlanta suburb of Decatur were fans of Art Gillham, billed himself as
"Whispering" Bill Anderson.).
Nick Lucas, Cliff Edwards, and Little Jack Little were other competitors
at the time.
Art Gillham and Gene Austin on Art's WQXI program 1953
Art recorded 132 sides which were released. Only one record was not backed with another Art Gillham number. He recorded many songs of his own composition. Among his best sellers were: You May Be Lonesome, Hesitation Blues, Angry, Cecilia, I'm Sitting On Top of The World, I'd Climb The Highest Mountain, Tenderly, Tonight You Belong To Me, I'm Waiting For Ships That Never Come In, So Tired, In My Sweetheart's Arms, Chinatown My Chinatown, On The Alamo, Just Forget, I'm Confessin', Shine On Harvest Moon. Walter Winchell recommended Art's Shine On Harvest Moon. Benny Goodman was a young sideman on I'm Confessin'. Art also recorded some blues numbers under the name Barrel-House Pete. One was released on Columbia 14308-D. Other Barrel-House Pete recordings were approved for release but their release was cancelled by the Depression.
Lobby display for Art's Columbia Records and
Mel-O-Dee and Duo-Art piano rolls
Vaudeville and Theater circuits
Art toured on the Keith circuit in the early 1920's. In 1926-1929 he toured the Pantages circuit on the West Coast and the
Loew's- Saenger circuit in the South. The intimate style that made him popular on radio and records did not translate well
into large theaters. His style limited him to the smaller theaters, as the microphone had not been placed in theaters. He was
on stage by himself with a piano and a telephone. The telephone was for
"conversations" with his sweetheart, who no doubt
was jilting him. Art used this as an introduction to his "sob" songs and
to promote his image of not being able to get or keep a sweetheart. His radio
and record image of being an old, balding fat boy could not have been used where his audience could see he was young,
thin, with a head full of dark wavy hair. His appearances were usually well advertised, frequently with full pages of ads for
his appearance and his Columbia Records.
Stock Market Crash
In 1929, Art lost most of his money in the stock market crash. He lost more money when his bank closed, lost his home and divorced. The Depression and radio took a large toll on the recording industry and record sales declined sharply. In 1930, Variety listed him as Columbia's second most popular male vocalist. Art made his last Columbia recording in 1931. Art's records continued to be listed in Columbia catalogs through 1933. His first recording issued was How Do You Do. His last Columbia recording was aptly Just A Moment More To Say Goodbye. About the same time he recorded a dozen titles for Allied Transcriptions.
Encouraged Irene Beasley
While on radio in
Memphis in the late 1920's he was approached by a school teacher who
wanted him to sing a song she had written. Art agreed for the song to be
played on his program, but only if she sang it. It was Irene Beasley's
first radio performance.
In 1931 Art had two programs on CBS; one called Syncopated Pessimism, a Depression era program that Art ended with the phrase, "Have you got a cup of coffee in your pocket?" His other CBS program was Breakfast With Art. The Post Office delivered a letter to CBS that was simply addressed "Have you got a cup of coffee in your pocket, New York City". His mother became seriously ill. Art left New York to be with his mother in St. Louis where he continued his Syncopated Pessimism program from WIL.
In 1932, Art worked at Chicago's WBBM. His program was followed by a program of beauty hints by Gertrude
Sheldon. She had never heard of him, which intrigued him. The two were
soon married. They returned to St. Louis in 1933
where Art was on KMOX. In December, they moved to San Antonio where his song writing
partner Billy Smythe lived.
Art was on WOAI. In 1934 he followed in his father's footprints and became an honorary Texas Ranger. In March
of that year, Art recorded his only two sides for Bluebird. Later in 1934, he began traveling radio stations working for periods of time in St.
Louis (WTMV), Chicago (WBBM), New Orleans (WWL), Cincinnati (WLW).
Home to Atlanta
Radio and Early Television
In January, 1937 Art returned to Atlanta to stay. He had program on WSB and became Sales Manager for a local business school. In 1939 he broadcasted from WAGA and WGST. On August 7, 1939 he appeared on the first demonstration of television in the South, at Rich's Department Store in Atlanta. After 1939, Art made occasional radio appearances, devoting most of his time to being Principal of Crichton's Business College.
During the 1940's, Art's recordings were primarily disk recordings made for his
friends at home. He also made a set of audition
records for King Records. In the early 1950's Art made guest appearances on WAGA-TV on the Saturday Night Dance
Party that was hosted by Arthur Murray Studio dancers. In 1952 he made an
audition tape for Victor. He had a Sunday afternoon radio program on WQXI.
home recordings for friends on the new technology of reel-to-reel tape.
Television was demonstrated for the first time in the South at Atlanta's Rich's Department Store in August, 1939.
Thanks to daughter Peggy Blau for editorial assistance!