In February 1937, an event took place at the White House that signaled a watershed moment for any person ever considered “crippled.” A young blind whistler from Palestine, Texas, gave a command performance before the president of the United States, cabinet members, Supreme Court justices, U.S. senators and representatives and other VIPs, including Babe Ruth.
The president, Franklin Roosevelt, was in a wheelchair. Both he and the whistler, Fred Lowery, had the strength and courage to erase the word “handicapped” from their vocabulary, each achieving the pinnacle of success in his profession. Lowery could whistle “Flight of the Bumblebee” with pitch-perfect tone, note by note. He could perform other classical selections as well, but FDR requested his favorite tune, “Home on the Range.”
The beginning of Fred Lowery’s life was devastating. Born in Palestine on Nov. 2, 1909, he was the last of four children. His father, Bill Lowery, worked for the railroad. Fred never knew his mother — she’d died shortly after his birth. At 18 months, Fred contracted scarlet fever. The disease left him completely blind in his right eye, and he was later fitted with a glass eye. He had vision in the left eye to a good degree, but several botched operations diminished that vision down to just 1%, where he could see see only fuzzy shapes and colors. He was legally blind.
Bill Lowery couldn’t cope with four small children, one of them blind. He made a decision that must have haunted him to his grave. He abandoned his children at the railroad depot in Gould, Texas, tying a note addressed to his mother-in-law on one of his daughter’s dresses. Bill begged forgiveness in the note. He was never seen again.
The kids were discovered an hour later, all crying, with the note still pinned to the dress of Fred’s sister. Fred’s grandmother, Lucy White, was outraged; she took all four children into her home. Lucy never forgave Bill for abandoning his children. Grandma White was a poor widow; her son Ed, a lifelong confirmed bachelor, lived with her. The family lived the hardscrabble life of sharecropping, moving from one shack to another, picking cotton from daylight to dark. Fred started working the fields in Troup, Texas, at age 5.
He was shaped for the future by his grandmother, who never treated him differently than his siblings. He’d pick cotton all day and hit the local swimming hole with his siblings or other friends late in the evening. Fred never seemed to be blind.
At age 7, Fred, aware that other children were attending school, threw a hissy fit one night at the supper table. “I want to go to school!” he raged. His grandmother and uncle tried to explain to him, “Fred, you can’t see to read or write!” with Uncle Ed adding, “You’ll never fit in.” Then, while discussing Fred with another field hand, Uncle Ed was told about the Texas School for the Blind. Ed submitted an application for Fred, who was accepted to the school at age 8. He’d ride the train to Austin alone. It was his beginning of a new life.
Fred attended school during the school year, and each summer he rode the train home to pick cotton in the fields. He was an outstanding student — his drive and determination were without equal, and his skills were almost beyond human comprehension. He became a star athlete and musician. He ran track almost as well as sighted students.
Many teachers at the school were blind, including Bill Allen, the school director. Allen loved music; he was a talented baritone. But because his singing career had failed, he felt blind people couldn’t succeed in the “sighted world.” Over the course of his years at the school, Fred would use Bill’s words as the fuel to feed his desire to achieve. Bill Allen became Salieri to Fred’s Mozart.
Fred noticed that while he was home in the summer, his uncle would whistle in the cotton patch. “It was a happy sound,” Fred noted later, “and I wanted to learn to whistle.” Fred did learn, and he practiced endlessly, trying different sounds. He came to believe whistling could be an instrument in a band, just as a voice is an instrument.
Fred had a remarkable memory — he could whistle any tune he heard, including complicated classical pieces. In the early 1920s, whistling was a novelty. Most professional whistlers imitated bird calls. A teacher at the school, Peggy Richter, became Fred’s greatest mentor. Richter, who was sighted, had given up a promising concert career to care for an invalid sister. She pushed Fred relentlessly, working on tunes daily. He practiced with Richter up to four hours a day after school. He learned hundreds of tunes and created his own whistling style — he didn’t pucker but used his tongue to control the air flow, a style of whistling called puccalo. Fred could whistle two notes at once!
In early 1929, a blind whistling vaudevillian named Ernest Nichols was signed to entertain at Fred’s school, imitating bird calls at a school assembly. After his performance, Ernest asked for volunteers to perform. Fred’s fellow students cheered for him to take the stage. Before an astonished Nichols, Fred performed the “William Tell Overture” — perfectly. The assembly went wild.
Nichols urged Fred to go professional, remarking that “He’ll be the greatest whistler of all time.” Richter raised funds and received help from the Lions Club and, with school permission, accompanied Fred to Chicago to the prestigious American Institute, where Fred learned acting and stage presence. Despite his success, when he came back to school in Austin, he faced a furious Bill Allen. “Blind performers can’t make it in the regular world,” Allen fumed. Allen also threatened to fire Richter if she didn’t stop putting ideas in Fred’s head.
For the rest of his life, the stinging words of Allen would motivate Fred each time he faced failure. After that Thanksgiving, Fred left home and moved in with Richter and her family in Dallas. True to his word, Allen fired Richter, who started teaching piano to earn a living while Fred sold can openers door to door. He often woke up saturated in a deep sweat, suffering from nightmares where he’d end up making brooms for a living.
A performance at a local Lion’s Club led to an offer to perform on a popular local morning radio show at WFAA out of Dallas. That show, “The Early Birds,” was the top-rated show in the Dallas area, featuring a variety of talent, including female singer Dale Evans and comedian Jerry Scroggins. Scroggins would later write and sing the theme song for the Beverly Hillbillies (with Flatt and Scruggs supplying the instrumental accompaniment).
Fred’s performance was an instant hit, and he became a regular in 1931, known as the Texas Redbird. Fred’s spot-on whistling and ability to hit upper notes was unique. Before the age of musical contraptions and computers that could mimic the sound of whistling, no one had ever heard any whistling like the sounds created by Fred Lowery.
While working at WFAA in Dallas, Fred met the love of his life, Gracie Johnson, from Jacksonville, Texas. It was a long courtship, with Gracie waiting 10 years for marriage. Fred wished to be secure financially, and he had some hard times where he went hungry. He toured with a variety show called Head’s Up in smaller Oklahoma and Texas towns for a while.
After touring, he set his sights on the “big time” — New York City. Gracie and others tried to dissuade Fred from going, but he was determined to become a star. Bill Allen’s words rang in his head.
In 1934 Fred left on a bus to New York City with his savings of $200, plus a $300 gift from the Salesmanship Club of Dallas pinned inside his suit pocket. He landed in New York City without a clue where to start, but, luckily, he ran into a friend from his school, another blind student, Stafford Chiles. Chiles helped Fred find a room and introduced him to some booking agents.
Fred went several months without a booking; his money was about to run out. Once again, fortune smiled on him, and he met an old friend. Vinde Lindhe worked with Fred at WFAA, and she’d become the musical arranger at Radio City Music Hall. Lindhe helped Fred land a spot on Major Bowes Amateur Hour, an early version of America’s Got Talent. Fred’s appearance on Amateur Hour got him noticed by Rudy Vallée, who had the top radio show in America.
Fred was a huge hit on the Vallée show, but his joy turned to sorrow when con artists robbed his room one night while he was away. All his money was stolen, except for a $20 check. Fred went to a local bank for help, though he’d never before been in a bank. Jere Buckley, vice president of the bank, took an interest in Fred and arranged a $300 loan. He also took over handling Fred’s finances.
Additionally, Buckley had connections, and he introduced Fred to Clara Bell Walsh, a wealthy art patron. Walsh, in turn, lined up Fred with an audition to join the Vincent Lopez Orchestra. Lopez had a radio show on NBC, and, for the next four years, Fred whistled on Vincent Lopez’s radio show and in live concerts. Lopez was heard coast to coast, and Fred received great exposure as a featured artist. He became friends with major stars like Bing Crosby (who loved whistling) and boxing champ Jack Dempsey.
In the late 1930s, Lopez’s style of dance music gave way to the new Big Band swing of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and Benny Goodman. Lopez was bumped from the radio and took a contract for his orchestra to become the house band for Billy Rose’s club, the Diamond Horseshoe. With tears in his eyes, Lopez told Fred he had to fire him. “Rose said no one wants to look at that blind freak whistle!” Lopez said. Fred was barely out of work when Horace Heidt called him to join his orchestra. Heidt was known for his cornball characters, a cast of oddballs all fitting together as a madcap group. Art Carney was the comedian and voice imitator with Heidt, and he and Fred roomed together and became lifelong friends.
Fred and Art were wild men, once getting arrested for faking a mugging at a famous New York intersection, 42nd Street and 5th Avenue, at 5 p.m., the busiest time of day. In 1939 Fred was featured with Heidt’s orchestra performing a whistling version of “Indian Love Call.” The record cracked the Top 10 and sold 2 million copies.
Finally feeling secure financially, Fred married Gracie on Dec. 20, 1940. Their son, Fred Jr., was born on Oct. 8, 1941. Gracie fit right in with Fred’s lifestyle. She gave up her nursing career to travel with Lowery the rest of their married life. Big bands started folding after World War II; it was no longer possible to travel and pay so many musicians. Heidt folded his band in 1945 but continued to sponsor Fred on the road. Fred would travel with several female singers and smaller orchestras for years.
In 1954 Fred whistled with the Leroy Holmes Orchestra on a recording of the theme to The High and the Mighty, a John Wayne film where the Duke played an airline pilot. The record sold over a million copies and reached No. 9 on the charts. In the mid 1950s, Fred and Gracie settled in Indianapolis, where he managed and appeared at a nightclub for five years. Fred appeared with every major star of his era, appearing on the Tonight Show with both Steve Allen and Johnny Carson. He also appeared at live shows with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, who once said about Fred, “This king of whistlers is inimitable.”
Fred appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and whistled for several characters in Disney movies. He also did commercials, whistling for Hires Root Beer and Duncan Hines. His version of “Silent Night” closed the NBC broadcast on Christmas Eve for decades. It’s still a favorite whistled tune and eerily beautiful.
Fred and Gracie moved home to Jacksonville, Texas, in the early 1960s to be close to family, but Fred couldn’t stop performing. He began doing shows at schools, at assemblies, across the nation. He ultimately performed in 48 states and at over 20,000 schools.
At one school in Idaho, Fred said he experienced his most beautiful moment. After the performance, a young boy came up to him and handed him a nickel. “Mr. Lowery” he said, “that’s the best performance we’ve ever had. I paid a whole quarter to hear it, but it’s worth more. Here’s a nickel tip … it’s all I got.”
Fred’s courage, spirit and laughter inspired many people with disabilities to overcome adversity. In 1983 he wrote his biography, Whistling in the Dark. He died on Dec. 11, 1984. He’s buried in Jacksonville City Cemetery.
Click here to read more stories in our Fall 2021 issue, including our picks for the 25 best album covers in Texas music history, how James McMurtry carries his father’s storytelling legacy in his music, a Q&A with Parker Woodland’s Erin Walter, and an excerpt from a collection of interviews about songwriter Mickey Newbury.