Obituaries vary widely in their historical value. Sometimes they’re elaborate; at times they are understated; some leave out important facts; and some, well … some are just hard to explain. Like this one from March 1952: “Richard A. Whitby, a native of Warrensburg, died on Wednesday of last week at his home in Albany. Survivors are his wife, Mrs. Kathryn M. Waring Whitby; two sisters, Mrs. Frank Chapman and Miss Kate Whitby of Yonkers.”
That notice appeared in his hometown newspaper. Accurate, no doubt, and surely succinct, but brevity isn’t always a good thing. In this case, the inattention to detail is stunning, and it’s quite a stretch from what’s true to what’s important. I’d like to take a crack at bridging that gap.
Richard Augustus Whitby (not Richard E. or other variations that appear in many records) was born to Louisa and Richard James Whitby on January 22, 1879. The family’s background played an important role in Richard’s legacy. Once established, the Whitby surname remained prominent in the Warrensburg-Glens Falls area for decades.
In 1872, the Whitbys (they had two young sons) emigrated from Yeovil, England, where Richard J. had operated a cloth manufacturing business employing 61 laborers. He pursued the same work in America, first at Leeds in Greene County, and then at Salem in Washington County, before finally settling in Warrensburg, where he was superintendent of the woolen mill.
Financially sound, Mr. Whitby was able to pursue his interests, which were family and music. He managed to combine the two in remarkable fashion, and mix work in as well. Each family member learned to play a musical instrument, and as they entered adulthood, each was employed in the family business. By 1899, son Percy was managing the mill with his father, while Eloise, Eustace (salesman), Kate (stitcher), and Richard (buttonhole maker) toiled for Whitby & Co.
As good as they were at making clothing, the world of music is where the family excelled. The Whitby dance band played countless gigs and was in great demand, but the family performed solos and joined other musical groups as well. In 1895, the GAR Band and the Citizens’ Band ended an ongoing competition by merging into the Warrensburg Military Band. Among the dozens of members were several Whitbys—Percy, clarinet and Musical Director; his father, Richard J., cornet; Eustace, saxophone; and young Richard A., baritone horn.
After a performance on baritone by Richard in 1893, one prescient local reviewer said Whitby’s effort “… would have done credit to a professional player.” Besides the baritone horn, Richard also played two related instruments, the euphonium and the trombone. By the mid-1890s, his euphonium solos were known far and wide and were highly praised.
During the next several years, he performed at dozens of graduations, church events, and the like, routinely accompanied by his mother, Louisa, on the piano. In the summer of 1895, Mr. and Mrs. Whitby and son Richard formed the star attraction at the Leland House in Schroon Lake.
In 1896, the 17-year-old was hired by Scribner & Smith’s Circus to play slide trombone during the summer. In 1899 he signed with a traveling comedy and music act, followed by several years as trombonist for the Broad Street Theater in Richmond, Virginia.
Word of his ability spread, and in 1910, “Dick” Whitby was the trombone soloist for Carl Edouarde’s 60-piece band, a top act in Philadelphia and New York City. (Edouarde, who later composed film scores, conducted the music for Steamboat Willie, the first sound cartoon.)
In October 1911, Whitby married Bertha B. Lancaster (yes, Bert Lancaster) of Peekskill, and the couple moved to New York City. All the while, Richard’s fame continued to grow.
Though he had made steady progress over the years, Whitby’s rise now seemed meteoric. Outstanding performances in Edouarde’s band were soon followed by a stunning announcement in 1913: Richard had been offered the second chair in John Philip Sousa’s band, which for decades had featured some of the world’s finest musicians. Second chair meant the number two position, but Whitby was also promised first chair upon the lead trombone player’s imminent retirement.
Next week, the conclusion: Whitby rises to the top.
Photo: A euphonium, one of the instruments mastered by Richard A. Whitby.