ART GILLHAM THE WHISPERING PIANIST
Art Gillham was born on January 1, 1895. His family had moved to Atlanta from Texas three years earlier, where his father had been a Texas Ranger. Art believed he was born in Atlanta, but late in his life he discovered his mother had gone to St. Louis on a visit and he was actually born there. He and his parents, Ada and George Gillham, spent a few of his early years in Atlanta, where he began music lessons, taught by his mother, before his family moved to St. Louis in 1904, when he was 9 years old. In St Louis, his mother, Ada Lewis Gillham, was well known as pianist and vocalist. Art attended Wyman Grade School and Central High School. Art was influenced by the St. Louis ragtime style of piano. Art's father wanted him to study medicine and Art enrolled in St Louis University. But in 1914, after two weeks of being a college student, a traveling orchestra came to St. Louis, and he left school to play in the dance band. He wrote his parents from Denver where he was pianist in an orchestra.
In California he had a group known as Art Gillham’s Society Syncopaters. Art met his long time song writing partner in St. Louis. Billy Smythe and and Billy's cousin, Scott Middleton appear to have gone with Art to California. By 1915 they returned to the midwest and in Louisville, Kentucky published their first composition, Hesitation Blues. The same year, W.C. Handy published a similar song, Hesitating Blues. Both appear to have been based on a folk song. W.C. Handy acknowledged the two songs were independently composed. The Smythe-Middleton-Gillham team wrote a large number of lyrics to go with the song. One of the phrases Art wrote was "Ashes to ashes and dust to dust, show me a man a woman can trust." Art, Billy and Scott went to New York as song pluggers. In New York Art studied music with Ernest E. Brambach.
Art was in the army for seventeen months during World War I with a gas and flame outfit, became a marksman with the rifle, and was a captain when discharged. He also sang in an army chorus.
After the war, Art met, Louisa Canada, his first wife when he was accompanying her. She was a singer in the San Carlos Opera Company. She appeared in vaudeville as "Delores Valesco" with Art accompanying her on piano. They married in 1919 and soon had two boys.
SONG PLUGGER AND EARLY RADIO
Art worked as a song plugger for Ted Browne, a Chicago music publisher. He traveled around the country plugging songs on the Keith and the Publix circuits and in dime stores and music stores. As a song plugger he played solo piano or accompanied singers.When radio began in 1922, he began appearing on the local Chicago radio station at the Drake Hotel to play his publisher's music as a solo piano or accompanying singers, one of whom was his wife. At WDAP, in Chicago, he was dared to sing in December, 1923. Not being a singer, he took the challenge and sang in a quiet manner. Reportedly his singing was so soft that it could barely be heard in the studio, but there was immediate positive response from listeners.
1924: THE WHISPERING PIANIST OF RADIO
In February, 1924, he appeared on WSB in Atlanta. Lambdin Kay, WSB program director, was also the radio columnist for the Atlanta Journal. He featured Art's photo with the caption "Whispering Pianist". 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. From his popularity as a radio performer, he began his recording career by 1924. An article in the Atlanta Journal in February, 1924 states he had made phonograph records and Art said he made records for Okeh, but no information about them has been found. Perhaps he made some recordings for a small label either on the west coast or in Chicago, but no such recordings have been found. On May 2, 1924, his first known recording session was with Gennett in Richmond, Indiana. As Art Gillham, The Whispering Pianist, he recorded four of his own compositions. None were released. In early October he was in New York. He sent telegrams to the major record companies telling of his radio following and invited the recording directors to listen to him on radio while he was in New York. He was contacted by Pathe and recorded two songs. The Pathe songs were issued on Pathe, Perfect, Starr Ajax and Apex labels. Some of those recordings were issued under the pseudonym "Fred Thomas", probably after he began recording as an Exclusive Artist for Columbia. His first known recording to be released was released in December, 1924.
On October 22, 1924 he began recording for Columbia Records with the aptly titled How Do You Do. The song was one he was plugging for Ted Browne. It later became the theme of Billy Jones and Ernest Hare, "The Happiness Boys". Art's recording was made using the acoustical horn.Two days later, Columbia made its first session of electrical recordings by Paul Specht and His Orchestra with seven takes, none of which were released. Brian Rust's Columbia Masters Discography, Vol 3 (1924-1934) indicates these were not made using the Western Electric system that Columbia later used. Columbia's next electrical recording session was February 25, 1925 with Art Gillham.
WEAF ELECTION NIGHT BROADCAST
On November 4, 1924 he was one of the entertainers on the WEAF election night program which was a "hookup" of 18 stations, a precursor of network broadcasting. The program was the Eveready Hour, sponsored by the National Carbon Company, which broadcast each Tuesday evening over WEAF. The other entertainers were Will Rogers, Wendall Hall "The Red Headed Music Maker", Carson Robison, and the Everyready Quartet. TheWaldorf-Astoria Dance Orchestra was led by Joseph Knecht. Graham Mcnamee announced the election returns. Calvin Coolidge was elected President. Among the stations on the "hook-up" were Boston (WEEI), Washington (WCAP), Buffalo (WGR), Pittsburg (WCAK), and Davenport (WOC). Art and Wendell Hall first met in Chicago. They both were song pluggers for Chicago music publishers. Wendell and Art became friends. They each traveled plugging songs and frequently were in the same town at the same time. Wendell recalled that he and his wife were eating in a top resturant when his wife said, "Here comes Art Gillham!" Wendell turned to look. Art was not there, but when he turned back around his wife had taken his steak. Art appeared on Wendell's radio program, The Eveready Hour, several times. Art and Wendell wrote a song together, I'm Just A Rollin' Stone. When I asked Wendell about it he said he was mad at Art because Art promised to record it but never did. I told him Art had recorded it and Columbia did release it, but on Columbia's "Race" label under the name "Barrel-house Pete". Wendell Hall wrote many songs, the most popular being It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo'.
In an interview in May, 1961, a few weeks before his death, Art stated that when Columbia brought in the Western Electric equipment to make electrical recordings, he and Ted Lewis were asked by Frank Walker to donate their time in helping the technicians adjust the equipment. Art said he made test recordings for five days. A recording would be made, listened to, the equipment would be readjusted, and another recording made for most of the five days until the engineers were satisfied they had the correct settings and adjustments. A few months later, Columbia gave Art a check for $1000.00 "for being a nice guy" - "not a salary or bonus, a gift". He also said that his radio listeners could not detect that it was him on the acoustical recordings because he had to shout, but his style was the same as his radio style on the electrical recordings. On February 25, 1925, Art recorded five songs using a microphone instead of the acoustical recording horn. Other recordings on February 25 were made by the Clover Gardens Orchestra with vocalist Billy Jones, but they were made using the acoustical horn. The next day Art recorded another song using the microphone and another on February 27. Those recordings were all released and were the first first seven electrically recorded masters to be released using the new Western Electric system. (Autograph Records, which primarily made recordings for private concerns rather than for the commercial market, in Chicago were made electrically by late 1924, with a primitive system of electric recording, which Brian Rust describes as "some of the most painfully distorted recordings in the entire history of the industry.") Beginning on February 27, 1925, Columbia began using the microphone, and Western Electric process, for most of its recordings. Victor became licensed to use the Western Electric system in March, 1925. According to Brian Rust's The Victor Master Book, Vol. 2 (1925-1936), Victor's first electrically recorded master to be released was recorded on March 16, 1925: master 32160, Joan of Arkansas by the University Of Pennsylvania Mask And Wig Club, Victor 19626. According to High Fidelity Magazine (January, 1977, p 95), Joan Of Arkansas may have been released in April, 1925, presumably prior to Columbia's release of Art's You May Be Lonesome on Columbia 328-D, which was released in June. Electrical recordings he made on February 26 and 27 were released on Columbia 326-D in May, 1925. Sony, which bought Columbia, reports the first electrical release as by the Associated Glee Clubs of America, which was recorded in March and released in June. Neither Victor nor Columbia publicized the change from acoustical to electric recording until 1926, presumably to build up a catalog before telling the public that acoustical records had been surpassed. Columbia used an etched "WE" on the runoff area by the label to designate Western Electric. Victor used a "VE" etched on the runoff area. Art said he generally went to the studio, made his records, got paid and did not pay attention to which records were released and which were not, yet even though there was no publicity building up for the first electrical releases, Art was very much aware of the fact that his recordings on February 25, 1925 were the first Western Electric recordings made that were released. He was under the impression they were the first electrical recordings, not being aware of the small Autograph label in Chicago.
PERSONAL APPEARANCES - THEATER TOURS
Art continued traveling the country appearing on radio stations and making appearances at record stores. Newspapers would have a full page of ads about his Columbia Records, his appearance on the radio or in a theatre, and articles about him, sometimes there were contests based on his appearance. In 1927, the peak year of his career, he 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. He made tours of the Pantages theaters on the west coast and the Loew's theaters in the south and other theaters in the midwest and east. In each town he would also appear at record stores and on radio. By 1930 he had appeared on over 300 individual stations.
Art had a sense of humor about himself. He would refer to 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 a wife and two sons. Most of his songs were of seeking love and fortune to have it pass on by, or of lost love, "sob songs". He referred to himself as the world's worst piano player and would talk to his fingers. In a series of publicity pictures about recording for Columbia, he is shown sleeping on a park bench with the caption "Art's luxurious New York hotel suite" and one of a man directing him to leave captioned as "Art is greeted by thousands as he enters the studio to make Columbia records".
RED NICHOLS - BENNY GOODMAN
Before recording for Columbia, Art had a small jazz band. On his Columbia recordings he is usually solo singing and playing piano. Some of his recordings have a novelty accompaniment of violin. Others have a small band billed on the label as his Southland Syncopaters, which consisted of Columbia house musicians that included Red Nichols, Andy Sannella, Murray Kellner Manny Klein and Benny Goodman. On one recording session, October 7, 1930, he does not play piano at all, but it is played by Alex Hill. 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 said he and Red Nichols were friends and that he always chose Red Nichols to play on the Southland Syncopaters recordings. He said he was given the choice of which musicians would be on his records. Benny Goodman has a short solo on I'm Confessin'.
GENE AUSTIN - WHISPERING JACK SMITH - WHISPERING BILL ANDERSON
Art Gillham was a popular artist in his day. His primary competitor was Gene Austin at Victor. Frank Walker, recording director at Columbia and Victor's recording director 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 on September 15, 1925 by having Jack Smith record Cecilia, a title Art had recorded on June 27, 1925, and by billing him as Whispering Jack Smith. Jack Smith recorded for Victor from September 15, 1925 to October 25, 1929. Art never spoke ill about Jack Smith, only of Victor's behind the scenes accusations that Art was imitating Smith. Art always stated that Smith was the better singer, and that Art was the better pianist. Columbia countered Victor's campaign by publicly advertising Art as "famous enough to be imitated". Surprisingly, Columbia had an artist who made a few records in 1927 who was billed as Whispering Billy Day. Art's "whispering" style was done on purpose to create an illusion of intimacy between himself and the listener, as if he were talking only to the one listening to the record or radio. Jack Smith's whispering style was due to a war injury. After Art's death, a popular country singer from Decatur, Georgia, whose parents were fans of Art Gillham, billed himself as Whispering Bill Anderson.
Art recorded 182 sides, 132 of which were released. Only one record was not backed with another Art Gillham number. He recorded many songs that he had composed. 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.
1929 STOCK MARKET CRASH
In 1929 he lost most of his money in the stock market crash. The crash almost resulted in the demise of Columbia Records. The number of recording sessions for all artists dropped, but Art continued recording. In 1930, Variety listed him as Columbia's second most popular male vocalist. But with the depression all record sales dropped and Art made his last Columbia record in 1931 and his records continued being listed in Columbia catalogs through 1933. His first Columbia recording issued was How Do You Do. His last Columbia recording was aptly Just A Moment More To Say Goodbye. It was also in 1931 that he and his wife were divorced. He had a program on CBS radio called Syncopated Pessimism, and another called Breakfast With Art. In 1932, Art was working 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. Soon they were married. About 1931-1932, Art made recordings for Allied Transcriptions. Twelve titles are known. He made one additional recording on March 31, 1934 for Bluebird. The recording took place in San Antonio, Texas and he was accompanied by his long time song writing partner, Billy Smythe.
RETURN TO ATLANTA
Art returned to Atlanta, GA where he continued to broadcast on WSB, WGST, and WAGA. He appeared on the first demonstration of television in 1939 at Atlanta's Rich's Department Store. Art became principal of Crichton's Business College.He confined most of his performing to Atlanta's Buckhead Elks Club and for friends. When television came to Atlanta, Art made appearances on various local programs. and was frequently on WAGA-TV's Saturday night Arthur Murray Dance Party. After retiring from Crichton's, he 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 had previously used the property for his own firing range. In 1953-1954 he had his own weekly radio program on Atlanta's WQXI. He had a heart attack in 1955 which affected his left arm and then confined his playing to gatherings of friends. He had a second heart attack about two years later. He died of a heart attack upon getting out of bed on the morning of June 6, 1961. He is buried at Arlington Cemetery in Sandy Springs, northern suburb of Atlanta.