It seems natural to ask Debbi Whiting if she ever fancied a career in show business. After all, her mother was Margaret Whiting, a popular singer from the Big Band era who had classic hits: "Moonlight in Vermont," "That Old Black Magic" and "It Might as Well Be Spring." Her grandfather, songwriter Richard Whiting, penned other standards including "Hooray for Hollywood" and "On the Good Ship Lollipop."
"I gave it a shot. I did some musical comedy, some commercials, but I didn't really have the chutzpah," says Whiting, 64, of Northport, where she's lived for more than 30 years. For her launch into show biz, she took her mother's last name, hoping it would open doors.
She kept the name but chose other careers. As president of My Ideal Music, a company she formed after her mother's death in 2011, she's happy promoting her family's music catalogs, which include the songs of her father, Lou Busch (her mother's third husband), a singer-songwriter known as Joe "Fingers" Carr. That dedication to her family's legacy strikes a chord the moment you enter her house. Lining the walls of the hallway are dozens of framed pieces of sheet music associated with her family. In her home office is a bevy of photos of relatives and their celebrated friends, including one of her mom with actress-singer Rosemary Clooney that takes up most of one wall and an autographed photo of Shirley Temple.
Not that seeing those famous faces fazed Whiting when she was growing up in Beverly Hills. "I knew my parents were in the business called show, but to me, their friends who would come to our house were just people," she says. "I heard my mom rehearse for years and just thought, 'This is what she does.' "
One moment that stands out was a recording session with her mother and Mel Tormé. "That I will never forget," she says. "I know every song they did together by heart."
Now she wants a whole new generation to get that same thrill discovering her mom's music. Through her company, she's put together concerts saluting her mother's work and she's in the process of trying to get a CD released of recently discovered tracks recorded in 1963.
"She was probably the greatest singer I'd ever heard," Whiting says. "She had perfect pitch. And she had such a warmth in her voice."
Len Triola, a radio promoter who was also a friend of the singer agrees. "She had a certain something," he says. "She was beautiful, suave. She never hit a bad note. Every singer occasionally has that clunker, but not Margaret."
Mother and daughter
While Whiting praises her mother's musical talent, she's frank about the singer's lack of domestic skills. An amusing story she tells involves her mother whipping up ranch dressing by adding mayonnaise and buttermilk to a dry mix and serving it over gritty spinach. "She thought she was Julia Child when she made it," Whiting says. In 1953, when her parents divorced, her mother opted to move to Manhattan where she became a fixture among the city's supper clubs and cabarets.
Busch insisted that his daughter remain with him in Beverly Hills. Holidays and summer vacations were spent with her mother. "She was a lovely woman," Whiting says, "but she just didn't know what to do with a kid. Her mother didn't know what to do with a kid either, except put tap shoes on them and put them in a show."
Whiting's grandmother Eleanor Whiting was a proverbial stage mother who pushed her daughters, Margaret and Barbara, into show business at an early age, Whiting says. The singer was only 7 when she performed for songwriter Johnny Mercer, a frequent collaborator with Richard Whiting, and by 18, was signed by Mercer to a contract with his label, Capitol Records. From there she became a star on radio and in concert halls, and even co-starred with her younger sister in the sitcom "Those Whiting Girls" from 1955 to 1957. The show was a summer replacement for "I Love Lucy."
Perhaps Margaret Whiting's greatest success was "4 Girls 4," a musical revue that began in the late 1970s and played to packed houses for years across the country. Members of the group occasionally changed; she toured with Rosemary Clooney, Helen O'Connell and Rose Marie for eight years.
Margaret Whiting's career should have had even greater momentum after that, her daughter says. "Rosemary Clooney did some of her best albums after '4 Girls 4.' Rose Marie had 'Hollywood Squares,' she was hotter than a pistol. Margaret . . . splat."
HUSBAND NO. 4
Instead, her mother focused on the theatrical career of Jack Wrangler, 22 years her junior, who would become her fourth husband. They met at Backstage restaurant in Manhattan in 1976 and, at the time, she had no idea that Wrangler was an adult film star; nor did it matter to her that he was gay. During an argument at a restaurant, when Wrangler shouted about being homosexual, she replied "Only around the edges, dear." The two lived together for a long time before marrying in 1994. Wrangler also wrote and produced a cabaret show for her in 1985.
The relationship stunned many of the singer's friends, and also created a rift with her daughter. "She kind of pushed me away," Whiting says. "Mom loved him very much and . . . I respected her decision, whether I agreed with her or not. So I pulled out and let her have her freedom."
Her mother's health deteriorated, especially after a debilitating stroke in 1997. She never fully recovered, but managed to perform again. "It was obvious she wasn't the Margaret Whiting we all knew and loved," her daughter says. "I have a recording of her doing 'Send in the Clowns' when she was stroked out. It will bring you to tears. There's just so much meaning in the words." Her final cabaret show was in 2004.
When Wrangler died from emphysema in 2009, Whiting knew she had to step in and care for her mother. "I thought for sure we'd have a moment of rekindling, but she had gotten stroke dementia and turned into a child," Whiting says.
Eventually, she moved her mother into the Lillian Booth Actors Home in Englewood, New Jersey, where she lived until her death at age 86 on Jan. 10, 2011.
Whiting admits she's always liked being out of the spotlight, even during the 30 years she worked as head of shipping and distribution for a fashion company in Manhattan's Garment District. "People just assumed I would be a designer," she says. "I would leap out of bed to go to work in the morning."
At the time, she was living in Forest Hills, but after her father died in 1979, she used the money from the sale of his home to buy her house in Northport. By then, she had been divorced from, her husband, Metrov, a fine arts painter.
My Ideal Music
Whiting's career as the family's musical caretaker began shortly after her mother's death, when she heard from Kathy Brown. Brown was working on turning Rosemary Clooney's home in Lexington, Kentucky, into a museum honoring Clooney. She approached Whiting about donating memorabilia from "4 Girls 4" and invited her to Clooney's house.
"We just hit it off immediately," says Brown. "I put on some DVDs and videotapes of shows Rosemary and Margaret had done together and watched them in Rosemary's bedroom. It was so surreal."
Whiting also mentioned that she wanted to put together a video on YouTube of her father's song "My Birthday Comes on Christmas." Within days, Brown had created it. From there My Ideal Music was born with Brown handling sales, marketing and web design.
In June last year, Whiting and singer KT Sullivan hosted the Mabel Mercer Foundation's tribute concert at Carnegie Hall celebrating Margaret Whitings's 90th birthday. The event featured nearly two dozen performers from the cabaret community including Marilyn Maye, Karen Oberlin and Carol Woods.
"She wasn't a movie star," Whiting says of her mother. "She doesn't have 'The Wizard of Oz' or 'White Christmas.' Talking about her, you always have to say that she was same era as Rosemary Clooney or Judy Garland. But once you hear her, you go 'wow, she really sings that beautifully.' . . . I just want to dust her off and put her back in the sandbox with Rosemary, Frank, Peggy and Nat."