Lord of the lips

Whistlers of the world exalt a local warbler, who isn't fond of Dixie.

Published April 29, 2007

[Times photo: Scott Keeler]
Tom Bryant whistles while drumming a water cooler jug with fabric stretched across it. To him, this is a serious art.

Hear Tom Bryant whistle
  • Listen to the "Boogie Woogie Whistle" from Whistlin' Tom's "Puckulations Plus" CD here.


ST. PETERSBURG - Tom Bryant can't stop whistling.

He whistles while he works. He whistles while he shops for groceries. Later, when he cooks dinner, he whistles some more.

"I can't help it, " the 66-year-old St. Petersburg resident says.

For him, whistling is so much more than a hobby.

A few years ago, Bryant produced his own CD, Puckulations Plus by Whistlin' Tom, which included some original compositions mixed in with the covers.

He also was featured in the documentary Pucker Up: The Fine Art of Whistling, which won a first place award at the 2005 Florida International Film Festival in Orlando.

His biggest whistling achievement to date came last weekend, when he was named Entertainer of the Year at the International Whistlers Competition in Louisburg, N.C.

On receiving his award, he performed Beethoven's Minuet in G.

Bryant said he learned to whistle when he was about 13.

Maybe it was the fact that he grew up in a house in which music had no words. His father, a Baltimore chef, liked classical compositions.

"Instrumental, " Bryant says. "Not opera stuff. I lived in a home where there was no rock 'n' roll.

"It never seemed difficult to whistle. I think I had a gift for it because my father whistled as well."

Bryant whistled throughout his Navy career. In Philadelphia, where he lived once his Navy days were over, he wore black from head to toe and whistled in South Street's Italian coffeehouses.

"Then I got into busking in Key West, " he says. He sold time shares, was a part-time charter boat captain, raised parrots and had a weekly whistling gig performing for participants in Barry University's Elderhostel program. "They paid me good, " he says.

In 1989, Hurricane Hugo took nearly everything he had in St. Croix. Nine years later, Hurricane Georges did the same thing at Big Pine Key. "You just start over, " he says. "What else can you do? My pastor recommended St. Pete."

He loves it here. Wishes he'd moved earlier. He's kept his real estate license active and picks up a little money entertaining older adults with his whistling.

He whistles exhaling and inhaling, and he provides his own backup music (recorded) and percussion (live), drumming an office water cooler jug with fabric stretched across it.

When he whistles without accompaniment he calls it "a capuckalo, " after the Italian-derived a cappella.

His favorite tune? Under Paris Skies. The most-requested? The theme from The Andy Griffith Show.

"However, I never really give them time to make requests, " he says with a smile.

Chances are he'll be happy to whistle for you if you spot him around town. He's not hard to identify. The license plate on his bright yellow Mazda Protege reads: WHISTLE.

On the web

Lend an ear

Listen to Whistlin' Tom perform his own composition Boogie Woogie Whistle, go to links.tampabay.com.

Fast Facts:

Pucker power

Most requested tune: The theme from Andy Griffith.

Most famous quote: "You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow." - Lauren Bacall to Humphrey Bogart in To Have and Have Not, 1944.

Least favorite tune: Dixie. "I will perform Dixie if I think the request is serious, " he says. "However, it is infrequently requested, and I usually ask them if they are serious, and they usually say, 'No.' I am not impressed with it as a good whistling tune."

Web site: www.whistlingtom.com.


Whistlin' Tom's tips for whistling like a pro

1. Experience the hard and soft palates of your mouth.

2. Say "ee" and feel the sides of the top of the tongue touch the inside edges of upper molars on both sides so that a flat air channel is left open.

3. Say "poo" with lips pursed way out (known as fish lips).

4. Say "pah, tuka, dada, ladle, loo, oodle, you-you-you, oy, oy-you" (all are used in whistling; observe your tongue and lips while doing).

5. Your lip opening should be fairly round rather than oval.

6. For lower tones, your tongue will be farther down and back like "oo" and your lips will be tighter.

7. For higher tones, your tongue will be farther forward and up like "ee" and your lips will be tighter.

8. Check out your lip positions with a mirror.

9. Hissing sounds may indicate your tongue is too close to the roof of your mouth or your teeth are too close together.

10. Place lips in the indicated positions and make whistling sounds.

11. Once you have done this, move your tongue while maintaining the whistle. This should change the tone of the note while keeping the notes connected. Do not take breaths between notes.