Jim Whitley made his name as a busy midfielder with Manchester City and Wrexham, until a serious knee injury halted his career in 2006.
Yet far from allowing his world to implode, the 32-year-old has re-invented himself as an all-singing, all-dancing stage star; having made his bow at Christmas as Nat King Cole, Whitley can now be seen treading the boards as Sammy Davis Jr in tribute act The Rat Pack’s Back.
“While football has been my first love, the arts have followed in tandem; I went to the same school – Bryn Alyn in Wrexham – as Robbie Savage and while he was always playing football, I spent some of my time in the school choir and I played the flute. Inevitably I would get some stick, invariably from Sav, but as I grew up and football came to the fore, my singing was reserved for a drunken night in front of the karaoke machine.
Yet it surfaced again last year when a local girl recorded a song about Wrexham and the players were invited to do backing vocals at a nearby studio.
I enjoyed being in such an environment, to the extent that I was invited back by the producer. I’d been listening to a lot of Sinatra at the time, so we laid down a couple of tracks and within a couple of weeks he had me performing Lady Is A Tramp, Fly Me To The Moon and Come Fly With Me in front of 40 at Rhyl Theatre.
Through word of mouth, I found myself performing in clubs, weddings and, indeed, at Wrexham’s 130th anniversary celebrations. In those early performances the nerves were overwhelming – give me 30,000 fans at Maine Road any time!
But my big break came through my brother-in-law, Dave Simpson, who works in theatre. His friend, Stephen Leatherland, owns Theatre Productions, who needed someone to play Nat King Cole for a show called Christmas Crooners. Dave put my name forward and having heard a sample CD, Stephen put me up for audition. I was handed the part – even if my American accent sounded more Glaswegian!
Being thrown into the deep end was, in hindsight, the best approach. I tried to learn Nat’s mannerisms and style as much as possible, but the good thing about the show was that it was as much about the banter between songs as it was any individual performance, and that took the heat off me a little.
We toured from Glenrothes to Torquay, followed by one in Ireland, and it was a fantastic, if hectic, experience. I grew into the role as we went along and was then handed the role of Sammy Davis Jr in The Rat Pack’s Back which I duly accepted.
This is a more diverse production; the show is choreographed, so there’s a lot of tap-dancing as well as singing and interaction with the crowd. My wife Helen can tap, so she’s helped in that respect, but again, it’s been a case of being thrown in the deep end and trying to immerse myself with the rest of the cast, many of whom were trained in the West End. As a corporate entity, we often perform in front of massive audiences – for instance, the other week we played at a Bar Mitzvah in front of 800 people – and it’s an on-going project so I will appear at different venues as Sammy Davis Jr throughout the year.
But I haven’t given up all hope of playing; I’m hoping to train with the kids at either Macclesfield or Stockport soon and that will give me a indication of where I stand. If it’s not possible to continue then it won’t be the end of the world – as one door closes, another has already begun to open.”
Check out Jim’s website here.