Elmo Tanner

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Elmo Tanner
Elmo Tanner.JPG
Elmo Tanner circa 1940's - 1950s.
Background information
Birth name William Elmo Tanner[1]
Born (1904-08-08)August 8, 1904
Nashville, Tennessee
Died December 20, 1990(1990-12-20) (aged 86)
St. Petersburg, Florida
Genres Big Band, Easy Listening, Traditional pop music
Occupation(s) singer, whistler, DJ
Years active late 1920s – early 1960s
Associated acts Ted Weems, Perry Como
Notable instruments

William Elmo Tanner, known as Elmo Tanner (August 8, 1904 – December 20, 1990) was an American singer, whistler, bandleader and disc jockey, best known for his whistling on the chart-topping song “Heartaches” with the Ted Weems orchestra. Tanner was originally hired by Weems as a vocalist; the bandleader discovered Tanner's whistling ability while the band was traveling to an engagement. He then became a featured performer as a whistler. Weems considered Tanner's whistling important enough to his orchestra that in 1939 he insured Tanner's throat for $10,000.

He earned the nicknames ““Whistler’s Mother’s “Boy””, “The Whistling Troubador,” and “the nation’s best-known whistler.” Tanner, like Bing Crosby, was able to whistle from his throat due to the muscles in his larynx.

Early life[edit]

Tanner was born on August 8, 1904 in Nashville, Tennessee.[3] He grew up in Detroit, moving with his family to Memphis by 1926. As a youngster, Tanner studied the violin and was successful with it until eye trouble made it difficult for him to read notes. His musical training helped him to develop an ear for music. Tanner also had the ability to scan music or lyrics quickly and then either sing or whistle what he had just read.[4] On his walk home from work, Tanner passed a cemetery each night and started whistling as he passed by; this was the start of his whistling career.[5][a] Tanner worked in Memphis as a mechanic and liked to whistle and sing while he worked. One day he had a repair job for a customer who happened to work at WMC radio. After hearing Tanner singing while working on his car, the announcer suggested Tanner audition for the radio station. His subsequent on-air appearance brought a call from Paramount Records, which had offices in Chicago.[1]


Early Recordings[edit]

By the late 1920s, Elmo Tanner had moved to the Chicago area and had established himself as a professional musician.[1] Although Elmo Tanner never gained a large reputation as a singer,[7] (though occasionally featured as such with Weems,)[8] it was as a vocalist that he made his initial recordings. He recorded a few dozen sides as a soloist for Paramount and Vocalion in 1927 through 1929.[9][10] Interestingly, the Paramount discs appeared in the Race record series,[10] and the Vocalion sides were likewise marketed to African Americans.[11][b] His versatility was noted by Vocalion, who utilized him to provide vocals for jazz outfits such as Jimmie Noone[13] and for more sedate recordings with the Victor Young orchestra and with organist Eddie House.[14] Not having signed an exclusive contract with any recording company, he was able to appear on the prestigious Victor label with Nathaniel Shilkret.[14] In 1928 he formed a duet with Fred Rose as “The Tune Peddlers” and appeared on radio stations WLS, KYW, and WBBM.[15][16]

When Tanner received an offer from Ted Weems, he was working with Rose at KYW in Chicago and had a salary of $40 a week. He told his station manager that Weems had offered him $50 a week. Tanner was hesitant because he did not think he would like the travel connected with the job for Weems. The station manager offered him $50 to stay at KYW. A few days later, Tanner said that Weems was now offering him $60 a week; the KYW station manager said he would pay Tanner the same amount to stay with the radio station. The station manager believed he would still have Tanner working for him until Tanner later told him Weems had increased his offer to $75 a week. The station manager was prepared to match Weems' $75 per week salary, but the next day, Tanner did not come to work. When Fred Rose arrived, he told the station manager that Ted Weems offered Tanner $100 a week and he accepted the offer. Days later, his former boss heard Tanner on a radio progam whistling as part of Ted Weems' orchestra. Tanner's former boss did not know of Tanner's whistling ability until he heard him on the radio with Weems.[17]

Ted Weems Orchestra and “Heartaches”[edit]

Tanner joined the Ted Weems band as a singer in 1929[18] and became a prominent feature of the group. Tanner's whistling talent was unveiled by accident. In high spirits on their way to their next performance, the band members were singing, yelling and whistling on the bus. When Tanner joined in, Weems was impressed enough to add a whistling segment to one of the band's sets. Tanner whistled the Show Boat song, "Make Believe"; the audience asked for an encore.[19] Tanner's whistling became so popular that Perry Como, another featured performer in the band, said “The whistler was the whole band.” [20] On occasion, Tanner’s lips would pucker up, interfering with his whistling. Although generally noted for his graciousness as a bandleader, Weems would have fun at Tanner’s expense, running him through the most difficult songs in his repertoire when he noticed Tanner was struggling. Perry Como said “I used to sit there in the bandstand and watch, and my heart would really bleed for the guy.”[21] In an era when whistling was commonly featured on popular recordings, Tanner was often confused with Fred Lowry, who was blind and worked with Horace Heidt and his Musical Knights.[22] People would come up to Tanner and ask if was true that he was blind. “Only on Saturday night,” he would reply.[23] Ted Weems considered Tanner's whistling so important to his band, he insured the musician's throat with Lloyd's of London for $10,000 in 1939.[24] Like Bing Crosby, Tanner was able to whistle from his throat due to the muscles in his larynx.[25][24][26][c] Tanner became known as ““Whistler’s Mother’s “Boy””,[27] “The Whistling Troubador,”[28] and “the nation’s best-known whistler”.[29][30]

Tanner began appearing in films as part of the Ted Weems Orchestra in 1936; his first film role was in The Hatfields and McCoys,[31] In 1938[32] he appeared in the movie “Swing, Sister, Swing” with the Weems outfit.[33] Tanner also appeared with Ted Weems and his Orchestra in a 1942 musical film short, Swing Frolic.[34] During this time period Tanner appeared on the popular radio show Beat the Band with Weems.[25][35] which ran from January 28, 1940 until February 23, 1941.[28]

Ad for Tanner and his Orchestra in The Milwaukee Journal, 1947.

Tanner, Ted Weems, and the rest of his orchestra joined the Merchant Marine in 1942.[14][36][37] At (and intermittently before) his discharge in 1944 he pursued a solo career.[38] He headlined in various nightclubs and theaters such as Chicago’s Oriental and Colosimo’s[38][39] and at the Orpheum in Los Angeles alongside the King Sisters and Maurice Rocco.[40] He would continue to perform songs that were associated with Weems, such as “Nola”.[39] Tanner announced he would be fronting a twelve-piece band in September 1946.[41] He took over the Andy Anderson unit that was based in Atlanta and signed on with the William Morris Agency. His orchestra featured his whistling and vocals by Carol Bridges.[42] However, this proved to be short-lived because of the surprise success of an old recording.

The delayed success of "Heartaches"[edit]

“Heartaches”, composed by Al Hoffman and John Klenner in 1931,[43] was recorded as an unusual half-rumba, half washboard rhythm. In 1933, Victor had assigned the recording of the song to Ted Weems and his Orchestra, and wanted it recorded quickly. Weems and his band had time for only one rehearsal before recording the song. Initially, Weems did not like the song; he decided to omit the lyrics by way of having Tanner whistle instead. While running through the song at rehearsal, someone thought of trying it with a speedier tempo than initially written.[36][44] It was not a large seller initially, and the master was filed away. In 1938, Weems was now working with Decca Records and was preparing to make another record. When someone had forgotten to assign a song for the "B" side of the record, Weems and Tanner made another recording of Heartaches; the Decca record was not any more successful than the Victor one had been five years earlier.[44][d]

In 1947, a young disk jockey in Charlotte, North Carolina who worked the overnight shift had recently received some older records which he brought to work with him. He chose one at random and put it on the turntable. Shortly after the record had finished, the radio station's telephones began ringing with people asking about the song and requesting to hear it again. By afternoon, the city's music stores were calling the radio station, hoping to learn where they could order copies of "Heartaches". Both Victor and Decca went into their vaults to find their masters of the record and began pressing them for Southern United States sales. As disk jockeys in other parts of the US began obtaining copies of the record and playing it, the demand for "Heartaches" went from coast to coast.[44][46][47] This older recording went to the top of all the main charts in 1947, including sales,[48] juke box play,[49] and airplay.[50]

Unusually, two separate recordings were given equal credit in the charts. Victor’s version was recorded on August 4, 1933 and issued on Bluebird B5131. Decca’s recording was made on August 23, 1938 and originally appeared on catalog number 2020B. The hit records were credited to RCA Victor 20-2175 and Decca 25017, respectively.[48] Altogether the recordings were credited with selling 8.5 million copies.[14] Tanner said in a 1960 interview that neither he nor Ted Weems received any compensation for the "Heartaches" re-issue as they both had let the contracts on the song expire while they were in the Merchant Marine.[19][36][51]

Because of the renewed success of “Heartaches”, Tanner joined the re-formed Weems outfit in March 1947,[52][53] and both were signed to Mercury records.[54] This later outfit often received poor reviews, with the exception of Elmo’s “outstanding” whistling,[55] and it was Elmo’s whistling that audiences most responded to.[56]

Later career[edit]

Tanner left Weems in 1950 to open a restaurant in Nashville. This occupied him for a year and a half, but it proved to be a failure and Tanner suffered financially.[36] He formed the Elmo Tanner Quartet and resumed touring for the next few years, until, tired of travel, he broke up his group in Seattle in 1958.[36] He spent the next fourteen months in Birmingham as a disk jockey.[36] He reunited briefly with Weems,[36] then settled in the St. Petersburg, Florida area in Treasure Island. In 1959, Tanner began working as a disc jockey on radio station WILZ in St. Pete Beach, Florida, a position which lasted several years.[14][57] During this time he continued to make recordings with orchestras such as David Carroll[58] and Billy Vaughn to continued positive reviews.[59] His association continued with Weems, making the occasional guest appearance with the band he was closely connected to.[60][61] In the early 1960s, Tanner was also selling Datsuns at a local St. Petersburg auto dealership.[62][1]

Personal life and death[edit]

In 1936, while Tanner was living in Chicago, he was divorced from his first wife, Verne.[63][64][e] Tanner married Eleanor Jones of Birmingham on January 31, 1939 in Indianapolis.[20] While playing an engagement with Weems, Tanner got his marriage license between the first and second acts on the bill, bought a wedding ring between the second and third acts and was married between the third and fourth acts. He met his second wife while working with the Weems band on Catalina Island.[65][1] They had four children together: Elmo Jr., twins Margaret and Patricia, and John Emmet.[36] By 1969 he was retired.[46] Tanner underwent gall bladder surgery in 1985 and was able to recover at his home in St. Petersburg.[66] He died on December 20, 1990 in St. Petersburg, Florida.[33][67] Tanner is buried in Mount Olivet Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.[68]


Tanner was noted for the ease with which he hit high notes and performed trills.[38] He had the ability to whistle while Triple-tonguing.[36] His range was from low G to high B.[25][26] Besides musical whistling, he imitated birds for Disney.[69]

Partial discography[edit]

as solo[edit]


with David Carroll[edit]


  • Let's Dance (1958) – Mercury SR 60001/MG 20281[58]

with Buddy Morrow[edit]


  • “Theme From "The Proud Ones"” – Wing 90079[73]

with Jimmie Noone’s Apex Club Orch[edit]


  • “Virginia Lee” – Vocalion 1518 (recorded July 1, 1930 Chicago)[70]
  • “Little White Lies” – Vocalion 1531 (recorded August 23, 1930 Chicago)[70]
  • “Moonlight on the Colorado” – Vocalion 1531 (recorded August 23, 1930 Chicago)[70]

with Jay Richards[edit]


  • “Sweetness” – Vocalion 15835 (recorded August 29, 1929 Chicago)[70]

with Frank Sullivan[edit]


  • “An Old Guitar and an Old Refrain” – Vocalion 15648B[9]

with Ted Weems[edit]


  • Dance Set (1952) – Mercury MG-25144[74]



  1. ^ Not everyone appreciated Tanner's whistling in the evening. A 1939 news story says that he was once jailed in Albuquerque, New Mexico for whistling after 10om.[6]
  2. ^ A possible explanation for this may lie in a news story from 1935 written about Ted Weems and the members of his band. Tanner was described as "a dialect specialist. Brings down the house with his Negro imitations."[12]
  3. ^ The policy provided payment for any medical expenses related to Tanner's possible inability to whistle and included payment to the holder if Tanner was unable to perform.[26]
  4. ^ Tanner made one more recording of Heartaches in 1953 with Billy Vaughn for Dot Records.[36][45]
  5. ^ The former Mrs. Tanner was granted payments of $1,000 a week as part of the divorce settlement.[64]


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