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Featured on Leroy Holmes' Top 10 cover of the theme from The High and the Mighty, Fred Lowery was the most successful professional whistler of the 1940s and 1950s. Blinded by scarlet fever at the age of two, he was sent to the Texas School for the Blind in Austin when he was seven. He was inspired to take up whistling seriously when his fellow students encouraged him to demonstrate his ability for Ernest Nichols, who put on his act of imitating bird calls for the school. The enthusiastic reception led him to practice seriously, and a music teacher encouraged Lowery to develop the talent as his way of making a living in the sighted world.
Lowery had the good fortune to come into his prime during radio's golden age, since his act was entirely audio in its effect, and the medium was constantly in need of new material. Whistling was then accepted as a novelty musical act, and Lowery was certainly not the only whistler to be heard on the airwaves. His whistling, however, was far more than just a novelty, and he was quickly picked up by Dallas station WFAA where he quickly became one of the stars of its variety show, "Early Birds," and picked up the tag of "the Texas Redbird."
In the late 1930s, he decided to try his chances in New York and after a few largely jobless months was hired by Vincent Lopez to appear in his club act. Lowery's whistling was something of a sensation, and after four years with Lopez, he was lured away by Horace Heidt, who had a national audience and a bigger bankroll. He returned to Lopez briefly, until nightclub owner Billy Rose told Lopez that his patrons didn't want to see "a blind guy whistling when they're eating." Luckily, Heidt soon hired him back. Lowery usually performed in one or two spots in Heidt's show as a featured soloist, and he can be seen and heard as part of the Musical Knights' appearance in the 1941 film, Pot of Gold.
His success as one of Heidt's Musical Knights motivated him to move out on his own in the early 1940s, in partnership with singer Dorothy Rae, another Heidt vet. While he was never huge star, he had no problem keeping a busy schedule of appearances on national and local radio shows and at clubs and concert halls. His single of "Indian Love Call," still popular from its association with the Nelson Eddy-Jeannette MacDonald film, "Rose Marie," was a one-hit wonder of the war period and the tune most people from that era remember him for. He also won spots on many of the variety shows that played in the first years of network television.
He settled in California after the war and began working regularly in studios in addition to his road work. He can be heard on singles and albums by Paul Weston, Leroy Holmes, Norman Luboff, and others. During this period he recorded Whistling for the Birds, a 10-inch instructional album that had Lowery playing the part of the bird on one side, and Lowery performing such stunts--er, "training exercises"--as whistling words on the other.
Lowery's place among whistlers is rather like that of Art Tatum's among pianists. Fats Waller is reputed to have said one night when he spotted Tatum in his audience, "God is in the house." Fellow whistlers could say the same of Lowery. His technique was so advanced and sophisticated that there really was no comparison. "People sometimes ask me what attributes make a great whistler," he once wrote. "Well, I think they're really just the same as for any other musician. He needs musical sense--good phrasing, good timing, good improvisational instincts--and mastery over his instrument, which in this case is his whistle."
His album Walking Along Kicking the Leaves is without question the finest whistling record there is--though the cover belies the beauty within. I mean, I've seen plenty of dull easy listening record covers, but this is among the dullest. It's almost criminal, because there are tracks on this album where Lowery's whistling is so delicate and beautiful it's almost painful.
With such a remarkable gift, it's perhaps not surprising that Lowery was a deeply religious man who moved away from popular music to focus almost exclusively on religious melodies in his latter years. In the 1960s and 1970s, while he remained active as a touring performer, his venues changed from nightclubs to churches. He recorded a number of albums for the Christian market. His first were on Gra-Low (as in Gra(cie), his wife, and Low(ery)), his own label, and these records were mostly sold at his church appearances. Later, he worked with Waco-based Word, the biggest Christian record company, and moved back to Texas. Lowery's autobiography, Whistling in the Dark, published in 1983, is still in print.
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