With the encouragement of his piano teacher at the Texas School for the Blind, Fred Lowery got up the nerve to audition for a radio program on July 31, 1929.
A few days later, the station manager phoned the 19-year-old blind orphan to tell him he had the job. For the first time in his life, he would be paid for what he loved most to do – whistle.
In reality, Fred Lowery was neither an orphan nor completely sightless. His mother had died soon after his birth in 1909 at Palestine, but his no-account father was very much alive when he abandoned the boy and his three older sisters.
The four waifs were living with their grandmother, when little Fred came down with scarlet fever. During a nip-and-tuck battle with the life-threatening disease, he developed complications that practically destroyed his vision. He lost all sight in his right eye and could make out only fuzzy colors with the left.
The aged caregiver did her best to cope with her grandchild’s condition but in time came to understand that it would take more than good intentions to prepare him for a life in the dark. With a heavy heart, she entrusted the 7-year-old to the Texas School for the Blind.
The state-supported institution, which opened in 1857, provided pupils with a standard curriculum as well as vocational courses and recreational activities. Fred adapted to the regimented routine becoming an above-average student and an outstanding athlete.
For years, he amused himself by whistling, a hobby which kindled an interest in a musical career. Although most of his teachers pooh-poohed the impractical dream because of his inability to read sheet music, Fred committed dozens of popular tunes to memory by listening to records and the radio.
One day, the student body was treated to a performance by a blind entertainer, who made a living in vaudeville doing bird calls. He stopped in the middle of his act to invite the amateur whistler to join him onstage. Fred overcame his shyness and responded with a perfect rendition of “The William Tell Overture” that brought down the house.
“I left that stage a different person,” he recollected a half century later. “I had found my identity.”
Fred also found a life-changing mentor in his piano teacher. At her own expense, Peggy Richter took him to Chicago for acting lessons and invited him into her home after he graduated from the state school.
During the two years Fred lived with Richter, he worked as a page in the Texas Senate and whistled on the “Farm and Home Hour” radio show. Newspaper articles about the “blind and whistling page” led to more and more live and broadcast dates.
With $200 in his pocket and sky-high expectations, Fred caught the train for New York in 1934. He did not have to wait long for his show-business break. In a few short weeks, none other than Rudy Vallee introduced the talented Texan to his national radio audience, and the professional career of “The Blind Whistler” took off like a rocket.
Much of the credit for Fred’s overnight success went to Walter Winchell, his biggest fan. The renowned newspaper columnist and radio commentator regularly praised him in print and on the air as a uniquely gifted artist and an inspiring example of courage in the face of daunting adversity.
Impressed by his Val-lee debut, orchestra leader Vincent Lopez hired Fred for his weekly radio show. Before their association ended four years later, he had whistled his way into America’s heart as a coast-to-coast celebrity.
In 1938, Horace Heidt signed Fred to a long-term contract, which not only kept him on the radio, but also resulted in hundreds of personal appearances and a role in the motion picture “Pot of Gold.” Two million fans bought copies of his unforgettable version of “Indian Love Call,” and millions more tuned in every Christmas Eve to hear him whistle “Silent Night.”
“Whistling is an off-the-wall kind of talent on which to base a life,” Fred remarked with typical modesty at the peak of his popularity in the 1940s. “No college of music offers a major in whistling. It is, however, a sort of magical gift, and there is always a place in the world for magic.”
The White House was one of those places, where Fred puckered up for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. So, too, were Carnegie Hall and the Palace Theater. Not bad for a blind boy once told to forget his pipe dream and to play the grim hand fate dealt him.
Fred resisted retirement despite the wear and tear of age and health problems like diabetes and heart trouble. He whistled the national anthem at home games of the Texas Rangers in his 70s and in 1983 published his autobiography Whistling in the Dark.
“People don’t whistle much anymore,” Fred Lowery observed sadly shortly before his death in Jacksonville in 1984. “I guess it’s a sign of the times. Whistling is a carefree, happy thing, and these aren’t carefree, happy times.”
Bartee welcomes your comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 130011, Spring, Texas 77393.