Pinky Tomlin: The Object of Your Affection

A little thing on Truman Virgil “Pinky” Tomlin (1907-1987), a nationally known pop culture figure for decades, who has since swallowed up by the sink hole of history.

Born in Arkansas, raised in Oklahoma, Tomlin got his nickname due to the propensity of his pale skin to sunburn. He picked up the banjo as a teenager, and was only a teenager when he was hired to play with Louis Armstrong’s band for a riverboat engagement in 1923. A short time later he switched to guitar, which became the instrument he was primarily associated with. He majored in geology at the University of Oklahoma, but he kept a hand in music. While there, he wrote “The Object of My Affection”, his best known song and the one that put him on the map. He sang the song with Jimmie Grier’s Cocoanut Grove Orchestra; the recorded version went to #1 in 1934. That year Ella Fitzgerald sang the tune in her debut at the Apollo Theatre. The Boswell Sisters had a #1 hit with it again in 1935. Peter Bogdanovich later used the song in his Depression era period movie Paper Moon (1973). He penned a couple of dozen other hit songs throughout his career, although none as popular as that one.

From live dates, records and radio Pinky went to Hollywood, almost immediately. In rapid order he was in the movies Times Square Lady (1935) with Robert Taylor and Virginia Bruce; Smart Girl (1935) with Ida Lupino; King Solomon of Broadway (1935) with Edmund Lowe and Dorothy Page; Paddy O’Day (1936) with Jane Withers; Don’t Get Personal (1936) with James Dunn and Sally Eilers; With Love and Kisses (1936) and Sing While You’re Able (1937) with Toby Wing, with whom he was briefly involved romantically; Swing It, Professor (1937) with Paula Stone; and Thanks for Listening (1937) with Maxine Doyle. Third billed in the first few of these films, he was the star by the last few.

Tomlin’s screen character occupied an interesting niche, simultaneously “collegiate” and rustic and musical. With his spectacles and hat, he was kind of like a mash-up of Jack Oakie, Bob Burns, Robert Woolsey, and Glenn Miller. In 1937 he was a regular on Eddie Cantor’s radio show Texaco Town. When rumors emerged suggesting the sponsor wanted to replace Cantor with Tomlin, Eddie got him axed. Tomlin formed his own orchestra in 1938, while continuing to appear in movies like Down in Arkansas (1938) with Ralph Byrd, the Weaver Brothers and Elviry, followed by several short subjects in 1939 and 1940. He toured with the USO during World War II and appeared in the movies Here Comes Elmer (1943) with Al Pearce et al; and Sing Me a Song of Texas (1945) with Rosemary Lane, Big Boy Williams, and Tom Tyler.

Tomlin’s later screen career included appearances in The Story of Will Rogers (1952): She Couldn’t Say No (1953) with Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons; a recurring role on the tv show Waterfront (1954) with Preston Foster; and a 1958 appearance on You Bet Your Life with Groucho Marx.

In the ’50s, Tomlin gradually faded out of show business, and made a pile of money in the gas and oil drilling business, the field he had originally studied back in college. He retired from that in the 1970s and wrote his memoir in 1981.

For more on show business history, please read my book No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous