Thursday, September 13, 2007

Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians

Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians
By Virginia Waring
University of Illinois Press tradepaper with retrospective CD

Time is relentless. Fred Waring was one of FDR’s favorite bandleaders and a close friend of Pres. Eisenhower. Yet, today he is largely forgotten, despite his enormous success and an influence which extended into America’s kitchens—as in the Waring Blendor. Waring’s third wife and one-time Pennsylvanian Virginia Waring’s biography of her husband, Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians attempts to re-establish his place in American music history.

Waring’s band, the Pennsylvanians, tended towards the “sweet” ever since its inception in the 1920’s. However, there were swing elements, perhaps more pronounced early in its history. During those beginning years, Waring periodically rose to the defense of jazz as a genre. In one such statement to the press Waring argued:

“The older forms of music, including those we call the classics, have exhausted themselves and have nothing new to offer. The only hope of future progress lies in the wider application of the rhythmic principles revealed and developed by ‘jazz.’” (p. 93)

In later years Waring would incorporate large choral ensembles into his group, which at the time became tremendously popular. Biographer Waring convincingly argues for the long term influence of Waring’s choral music, particularly bandleader Waring’s methods for ensuring the lyrics be understandable, and his choral music publishing company that is still a going concern. However, Waring’s music now seems to fall between genre crevices, too sweet for swing, and too big band for easy listening. Waring also hired auxiliary Pennsylvanians, including classical pianist Virginia Waring (then Morley) and for a time the Les Paul trio (which argues for more jazz cred, but fans will be disappointed that biographer Waring did not write more on Paul’s stint with the outfit).

In addition to being a musical leader, Waring was an entrepreneur and civic activist. In the 1960’s he hired African-American vocalist Frank Davis, and faced the opposition one would expect on tours south of the Mason-Dixon. He did not invent the blender, but perfected and largely financed the Waring Blendor, which bears his name. That venture would ultimately end in litigation. According to biographer Waring:

“And so the royalty payments rolled in for some thirty years until the mid-seventies, when suddenly the quarterly checks did not arrive. The parent company—Dynamic Corporation of America—went into Chapter Eleven bankruptcy, and was using its profits from its little subsidiary, Waring Products, to pay off creditors.” (p. 151)

Waring was also a proud Republican, and a friend and enthusiastic supporter of President Eisenhower. Waring extracts a journalist’s account of Waring leading Gen. Eisenhower and the campaign contingent travelling with him in a late night sessions of songs, concluding with The Lord’s Prayer, that actually reveals much about the private Ike. However, Waring’s independent streak also led to conflicts with unions. On his General Electric television show, he discovered he had to pay for a union designated handler to move his rocking chair. Waring quotes Waring:

“That was the gimmick. They’d hired a chair mover, a union man, whose job it was to keep that chair where it was comfortable for me, but I had to pay his salary.” (p. 234)

Waring represents Waring well. We get a little too much about life with Fred, but there is some great material in the book. His early professional correspondence sounds Runyonesque and his salad years on network radio and television encompass some very telling anecdotes. While his music may sound dated to some, his life makes for fascinating reading.