ART GILLHAM

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

Discography

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. 

In 1914 Art left school and went to the west coast to play in dance bands. He also had his own band: Art Gillham and his Society Syncopators. By 1915 he returned to the mid-west where his first composition, Hesitation Blues, was published, but his part was not acknowledged until 1922 and in the 1926 republication by Mills Music with a different arrangement and different words from the 1915 publication. Though the Mills Music publication carries a copyright notice, the copyright apparently was not filed. Current editions by Edwin Morris carry the 1915 credits. His co-writers were Billy Smythe and Smythe's brother-in-law Scott Middleton. During same year, W.C. Handy published a similar song, Hesitating Blues. Both appear to have been based on the same hymn or folk song. W.C. Handy acknowledged the two songs were independently composed based on an older hymn. Art was in the army during World War I and became a marksman and sang in an Army chorus at Theodore Roosevelt's last public appearance..

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 accompanying singers, 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 accepted the 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 personal appearances. 

 

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. Earlier 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. 

You May Be Lonesome.mp3
(size: 5281KB)

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 Columbia records". 

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 solo and 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. 

Competition 

Art Gillham was a popular artist in his day. His primary competitor was Gene Austin at Victor. Gene Austin appeared 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  recorded on 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.

Depression Radio 

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. 

Home Recording

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. Art made home recordings for friends on the new technology of reel-to-reel tape. 

After retiring from Crichton's, Art opened his own business in Atlanta's Buckhead area for Sales Representatives to have office space. Art had a little over three acres in an undeveloped area north of Atlanta. He built a modest house on a dirt road where he previously used the property as his own firing range. The property is now considered "close-in" and is in a currently prime residential area. In 1952-1954 he had his own weekly radio program on Atlanta's WQXI. In September, 1953 Gene Austin was playing at Atlanta's Henry Grady Hotel. Gene and Art had been friends in the 1920's when Gene was recording for Victor. They renewed their friendship on Art's Sunday afternoon program, Gene playing My Blue Heaven, and a medley of other songs associated with him, and they talked about the "good old days" and music of that era. 

Television was demonstrated for the first time in the South at Atlanta's Rich's Department Store in August, 1939. 

Art had a heart attack in 1955 that affected his left arm and he confined his playing to gatherings of friends. He was interviewed on NBC's Monitor program. He had a second heart attack about two years later. Jim Walsh wrote an article about him in his "Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists" series for Hobbies Magazine. Art died of a heart attack upon getting out of bed on June 6, 1961. He is buried at Arlington Cemetery in Sandy Springs, a northern suburb of Atlanta.

References:

Art Gillham's scrapbook

Jim Walsh, My Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists: Art Gillham, Hobbies Magazine, September, 1957

Woody Backensto, Art Gillham, Record Research, March, 1963

Russ Connor, Benny Goodman, Listen To The Legacy

Brian Rust, Jazz Records 1897-1942

Brian Rust, Complete Entertainment Discography 1897-1942

Brian Rust, The Victor Master Book, Vol 2

Brian Rust, Columbia Master Book Discography, Vol III: 1924-1934 

Roger Kinkle, Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music

Joel Whitburn, Pop Memories 1890-1954

Tom Lord, Jazz Discography, Vol 7

Ross Laird, Tantalizing Tingles

Michael Pitts and Frank Hoffman, The Rise of the Crooners

GEORGIA MUSIC HALL OF FAME

The Georgia Music Hall of Fame has an Art Gillham exhibit including a selection of his recordings. Visit the GMHF in Macon, GA at 200 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd, approximately 90 miles south of Atlanta.  


Links To Other Sites of Vintage Music

http://64.33.16.23/ian.html Ian Whitcomb's home page; performer, author; check his literary corner re First Crooners.

http://www.garlic.com/~tgracyk  Tim Gracyk's Home Page: Phonographs and Old Recordings

http://www.rag-time.com  Ragtime and pianist Richard Zimmerman

http://artists.mp3s.com/artists/60/richard_zimmerman.html Offerings of Richard Zimmerman albums and downloadable MP3 files.

http://www.foxtail.com/MMMedia/CoCap/supertone.html Listing of Supertone Piano Rolls, including Art Gillham

http://www.78rpm.com  Nauck's Vintage Records, usually has some Art Gillham records for auction

http://maddocks.net/78record.htm  List of links to e-mail list servers, Usenet newsgroup resources, related web sites

http://history.acusd.edu/gen/recording/ortho.html University of San Diego History Dept.: Electrical Recording

http://www.ebay.com Ebay  frequently has Art Gillham records and sheet music or piano rolls listed as well as Columbia catalogs and supplements. Use the search for  "Art Gillham" (include quotation marks) and check "Search all ebay" and "Search Descriptions". Use search also for "Columbia".

http://www.gamusichall.com Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon, GA: the George Blau collection includes all 78 rpm issues, photographs from Art Gillham's scrapbook, sheet music, and a 14 CD collection of  Art Gillham commercial and private recordings and a monograph on the career of Art Gillham. The collection is not on line, but available for researchers in the Zell Miller Library.

My Association With Art Gillham

Thanks to daughter Peggy Blau for editorial assistance!

George Blau

mail to: lwhisper@mindspring.com

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