Dick Shaw gives new meaning to the phrase: "whistle while you work." That's because whistling is Shaw's work; he's a professional whistler. "I've always whistled, even as a little kid," said the 78-year-old Apopka resident, who performed recently at the Late Bloomers Senior Fellowship Luncheon at First United Methodist Church. "I guess I'm just a natural-born whistler." Indeed. Whether it's popular music, folk, hymns, classic or country, the World War II Navy veteran can perform tunes as effortlessly as a contented songbird in early spring. One minute he's whistling "Dixie," the next he's whistling a number from The Phantom of the Opera. And the next moment Shaw deftly permeates the air with the sweet sounds of "Amazing Grace," in perfect pitch and key, all to the amazement of his captive audience. "He's wonderful," said Nancy Staal, a member of the church who attended the fellowship luncheon. "He almost doesn't sound real, he's always on key, too. It's amazing." Shaw said that's the typical reaction he gets from most folks nowadays, especially older residents who remember a time when whistling was as popular as hip-hop is today.
the 1940s and '50s, professional whistlers such as Fred Lowery and
others were common, drawing fans from across the country, he said.
Today, there are just a handful of professional whistlers in the United
States, said Shaw, president of the International Whistlers' Association
and publisher of "Whistlers' Notes," a trade newsletter. "There aren't
too many of us left, maybe six," said Shaw, who moved to Florida 24
years ago and credits his wife of nearly 60 years, Joyce, with getting
him started in the business shortly thereafter. "She saw an ad in the
back of a magazine about professional whistling and sent it in; I've
been performing ever since," said Shaw, who routinely performs at venues
across Central Florida including retirement communities, retreats and
church functions. The father of two said he doesn't have to practice too
much and has a repertoire of hundreds of songs across nearly every
genre of music. His costumes range from a suit reminiscent of a bygone
era, complete with a scarlet bow tie and matching cummerbund, to a
candy-striped jacket and hat akin to a Dixieland quartet. His shows,
normally from 30 to 45 minutes long, are filled with sing-along tunes as
well as one-liners. "If you folks know this song, feel free to sing
along," he joked during the recent performance before whistling a
familiar classical-music song. The retired print-shop owner, who later
worked at an engraving plant in Orlando, gained professional acclaim
when he won first place at the annual International Whistlers Convention
in 1993, beating out whistlers from all over the world. The year
before, he placed third in the competition. "Whistling in front of an
audience is one thing," said Shaw, who was inducted into the Whistlers'
Hall of Fame in 2002. "It's completely another when you're competing
with others." Shaw said at his age he's not sure how much longer he'll
be able to whistle a happy tune. "My lungs and lips are about the only
thing that's working properly nowadays," he quipped. "Everything else is
giving up on me."
Ask Dick Shaw to whistle a happy tune and you're likely to get a medley of them. Need some inspiration? The Apopka man will be happy to throw in a whistled version of ''Amazing Grace.'' Shaw, a printer by trade, is a whistler by habit and hobby. He puts his lips together and blows (mostly show tunes) all over town - at retirement homes, schools, hospitals, charity events and private parties. 'I've been whistling all my life,'' says Shaw, 69. ''My mother whistled. Maybe I got it from her.'' But Mom didn't whistle professionally, as Shaw started doing seven years ago. It was then that he learned about the 50 or so kindred souls he has worldwide - people who, like him, thoroughly enjoy making music through their teeth and lips. He also joined the competitive-whistling circuit, with Joyce, his wife of 49 years, as his official ''manager.''
1992 he won first place in one of the competitions at the National
Whistlers Convention in Louisburg, N.C. His repertoire: songs from The
Music Man. In 1993, he won third place at Louisburg for his Phantom of
the Opera medley. For most of his life, though, Shaw's tendency to pucker up and make music wasn't always welcomed. "In
school I'd be working on something and be so deep in my work that I'd
unconsciously begin to whistle - and they'd throw me out of the
classroom.'' Co-workers over the years have preferred his off-key singing to his perfectly pitched but relentless whistling. Whistling
- at least of Shaw's caliber - deserves more respect. From my
observations, whistling is right up there with opera when it comes to
breath control and range. (OK, so I don't know squat about opera. Humor me.) Like
opera, whistling is a special talent. Not everybody can do it. I know.
I've tried for years. Not only your stars but also your teeth have to be
in alignment. Even braces didn't help my whistling. But dentures haven't hurt Shaw's. ''I told my dentist, if you can't do me a nice job and allow me to whistle, I don't want 'em,'' Shaw says. His dentist came through, crafting a dandy set of choppers that haven't hindered Shaw's stylings a bit. Even a heart attack 18 months ago hasn't diminished his enthusiasm. "I
used to be able to hold a note that long'' (he spreads his arms wide to
illustrate prodigious capacity), ''but now I chop it up into little
pieces. I just don't have the air I had then - but I think I'll get it
back.'' Shaw is hard at work in a Central Florida studio now, producing a tape of his best selections for whistling aficionados.
"PUCKER UP: The Fine Art of Whistling"
EAST COAST PREMIER - IN COMPETITION
THE FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2005
By turns joyous, wistful, and astonishing, "PUCKER UP: The Fine Art of Whistling" takes us on a
romp through one of the most universal (and now endangered) musical art forms. The 31st Louisburg
International Whistling Competition forms the core of this film as a Washington, D.C. investment
banker, a Dutch social worker, a turkey hauler and others descend on North Carolina to battle for the
whistling world's top prize.
Throughout the film, moments of high comedy modulate into virtuoso performances of Vivaldi,
Mozart and pulsing Texas Swing. While the competition narrows, heading toward a tie-breaking
"whistle-off'. PUCKER UP pays homage to the glories of whistling's past. Clips from Al Jolson,
Harpo Marx and Elvis, to Andy Griffith and Monty Python, reveal how whistling is firmly imprinted
in our cultural memory. And commentary by sound-effects legend, Fred Newman, harkens back to
a simpler era when the World had time to pucker up and blow.
As Louisburg judges crown the World's top whistler, a larger question remains. In an age of hand-
held technology, will whistling become a lost art, or can it still thrill, soothe, fascinate and remind us
of our natural selves?
Emmy Award winning filmmakers, Kate Davis and David Heilbroner, along with whistlers, Steve
Herbst, of New York, Whistlin' Tom Bryant from Key West, Geert Chatrou of the Netherlands and
Orlando's Dick Shaw (President of the International Association of Whistlers) will host a Q & A
session following the screening on Friday, April 15th at 2:00 p.m. at the Regal theater in Winter Park.
Dick Shaw - 407-862- 2903 [email protected]
Tom Bryant - 305-923-3640 [email protected]
Kate Davis and Davis Heilbroner [email protected]
TUNE MATES. Dick Shaw, known to many as ''The Whistler,'' has joined forces with Johnny ''Banjo'' Bruce, a prominent strummer. Both live in Apopka. Shaw, 69, bumped into Bruce, 71, one night at a Forest City church benefit. Turns out that Shaw met Bruce's tutor, Eddie Peabody, 50 years ago on the U.S.S. Custer. ''Eddie came to entertain the fleet in the Pacific,'' Shaw said. ''He's gone now but his banjo lives on with Johnny.''