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Monday, September 17, 2012

Ian Whitcomb: A Portrait

From the Vault Dept.: For a wonderful few years as the millennium turned, Cool and Strange Music Magazine celebrated the oddball, the forgotten, the exotic, the hilarious – anyone who caught the fancy of founding editor Dana Countryman, who since has gone on to write a biography of electronic music wizard Jean-Jacques Perrey. My article about Ian Whitcomb was the second feature I wrote for the magazine; the first was about the phenomenon of song poems.


Ian Whitcomb
NOT FAR FROM THE Cal-Tech campus in San Marino, California, is the well-known Huntington Art Gallery, Library & Botanical Garden. Deep within the basement, past the lookalike stacks of reference volumes, a solitary figure hunches at a green metal desk, inscribing a sheet of foolscap with a throwaway pen. Here he is safe from the intrusions of cell phone and pager – safe from the technology of the computer age.

And, because he is musicologist/recording artist/Mae West producer/ukulele virtuoso Ian Whitcomb, he’s also safe from the ravages of contemporary music. Because, despite his Top Ten hit “You Turn Me On,” which charted in 1965, his heart is in the days of vaudeville and the black-and-white movie musical. He sings – and sings of – the classic songs that defined America’s native musical tradition, songs of Tin Pan Alley and the ragtime era.

Sure, there are academics who have charted this history, but Whitcomb adds a voice with music in it. He’s a performer who tasted stage success as an overweight eight-year-old persuaded onto the beachside stage at Felpham, a resort town on England’s south coast. He was only supposed to jump on an acrobat’s trampoline, but he threw in some just-learned jokes and finished with a favorite song, “I’ve Got a Lovely Bunch of Cocoanuts,” as the acrobat seethed with jealousy.

The musical world changed quickly in those days. Young Ian discovered the cowboy twang of Tennessee Ernie Ford, the wail of American blues, the clangor of rock and roll, and England’s answer in the form of skiffle bands all in a short few schoolyears. What could an adolescent offer in response? He formed a kazoo band with some school chums. He tried his hand at skiffle. And he studied each new Elvis release as if it were a Rosetta Stone. By the time he reached Trinity College, Dublin, American rock and roll was his obsession. Even so, he pursued it with a cheerful sense of detachment. As he wrote in an essay titled “I Hate the Beatles”:

“In those days, in the ‘50s and very early ‘60s, the worlds of pop and real life were separate. And we, bring intelligent, though innocent, teenagers, knew that. We were sensible enough to see pop music as akin to eating a mammoth hot fudge sundae. In other words, pop was a treat. Too much of the stuff could make you sick. ... Music and Pop were worlds apart. Pop had, and should have, little to do with music, but a lot to do with youth society.”

When he made his first trip to America in 1964, it was to visit the music capitals. Nashville. New Orleans. Los Angeles. And he ended up performing in a coffeehouse in Seattle, impressing the patrons with his knowledge of American folk songs. Back in England, the Beatles were skyrocketing to fame; by the time Whitcomb returned to the Seattle a year later, his interest in things American was completely eclipsed by the Americans’ interest in everything British. But his return engagement nevertheless set in motion the events that would lead to his brief rock stardom.

As he recounted in a recent article, “The patrons liked the rock songs best; by simply shouting, sighing, panting, I was able to get the attention of lots of lovely girls. One night one of them murmured, ‘Ian, your accent is really turning me on!’ What an odd image, I thought. You turn on a tap, not a person.”

Jerry Dennon was known as the King of Northwest Rock after having put the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” on the map. Dennon agreed to release a single Whitcomb brought from Dublin–a recording titled “Soho” which went exactly nowhere, but which opened the door for his next record, a bluesed-up version of an old ragtime song called “This Sporting Life is Killin’ Me,” re-christened simply “This Sporting Life.” It charted, even making it to Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” Dennon flew to Ireland to wrest an album out of Whitcomb and his band.

“With a few minutes left at the end of the session, we decided to record a version of a song with no name, a funny thing we’d been exciting the girls with at local beat clubs. It involved some orgasmic panting and no lyrics except the repetition of the phrase ‘You turn me on,’ the words that the Seattle girl had murmured to me.”

It was very offhand, and it seemed doomed when an ashtray fell off the piano during the opening chorus. (You can hear it, by the way, on the Varese-Sarabande CD reissue “The Very Best of Ian Whitcomb,” in which the ashtray falls about six seconds into the test pressing version of the song. In the released version, it’s neatly razor-bladed out.)

“I thought I might as well contribute a vocal for the heck of it since the take was already ruined. I sang in a high-pitched, whimpering voice, and I made up the full lyrics as I went along.” Tower Records, a subsidiary of Hollywood-based Capitol, soon was shipping 50,000 copies a day. “You Turn Me On,” a/k/a “The Turn On Song,” shot up the charts, eventually peaking at number 8.

He was banned in Portland. Just by virtue of being British, he was adored. Whitcomb was whizzed back to the States to appear on “Shindig, ” where an old stagehand told him he was performing on the very spot on which Al Jolson sang “Mammy” in “The Jazz Singer” in 1927, which impressed him more than the tumult around him.

As quickly as it landed, that level of fame slipped away. Whitcomb writes that his future “lay in the past. I left the pop scene to its apocalypse and, in the seventies and eighties, its subsequent coagulation into a monstrous corporate business that had nothing to do with roots music.”

Since then, Whitcomb returned to those roots. He has been tireless in his promotion of the music that lured him to this country. His rock and roll career continued, quirkily, peppered with such numbers as Jolson’s “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night?” which also featured his ukulele playing.

And he stayed here. He embraced America to the fullest by relocating to Lotus Land, settling in the suburbs of Los Angeles.

His exploration of American’s blues and pop-song traditions also sent him to the doorsteps of almost-forgotten songwriters and musicians. In the late ‘60s, he located Shelton Brooks, writer of “Some of These Days” and “Down Among the Sheltering Palms,” and turned the experience into a moving essay. Irving Berlin refused to be interviewed, but Berlin refused everybody. He produced and wrote “Legends of Rhythm and Blues” for British television in the early ‘80s, ferreting out Big Mama Thornton, Lowell Fulson, Big Jay McNeely, and others to play for the cameras.

Most notoriously, he produced one of Mae West’s rock and roll albums. Two of Whitcomb’s songs were on her first, and he was so taken with her style and delivery that he persuaded her to record a second, which necessitated careful consideration of material. At the age of 73, she wasn’t interested in vintage material. A 1910 ragtime number, “The Grizzly Bear,” which she had featured when the song was new, took special persuasion, but Whitcomb talked her into a private performance, complete with “special actions”: “which involved her patting most of her erogenous zones.” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and “Light My Fire” were among the chosen selections. It’s now a long out-of-print camp specialty that awaits CD rediscovery.

Whitcomb’s transition from rock star to Tin Pan Alley avatar was completed by the early 1980s. On the scholarly end of things, he was writing well-received books about the business. “After the Ball: Pop Music from Rag to Rock,” “Irving Berlin and Ragtime America,” and “Rock Odyssey: A Chronicle of the Sixties” are among the titles. On the performing end, he brought his ukulele for TV appearances with Johnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Tom Snyder, and others, while putting together a band to feature vintage songs. And he married a dancer-singer named Regina who’s also now a feature of his concerts.

“I have various shows coming up with my band, the Bungalow Boys,” he said recently, speaking by phone from his home. “At the end of last year, we did four stage shows at a major theater in Glendale, the Alex, which is a ‘20s-vintage vaudeville theater that’s been restored. The shows traced the history of American popular songs with my band and with my wife, Regina, in charge of the dancing.”

Was it something about that “Shindig” spot? He produced a recording of Al Jolson songs for Rhino Records, leading to an ongoing relationship with that label. The Bungalow Boys transformed themselves into the White Star Orchestra for a recording of songs played on board the Titanic, approached with more scholarship (and better musicianship) than what was heard in the recent film. In none of Whitcomb’s research could he find proof that “Nearer, My God, to Thee” was the band’s sign-off number: survivors said that the band played “Songe d’Automne” as they dropped into the drink, and that’s how the CD ends. He wrote liner notes for a recent Rhino collection of Irving Berlin songs, and continues to record the songs he enjoys for Varese Sarabande.

Whitcomb is also featured as one of the Legends of the Ukulele on a Rhino collection but together by uke fanatic Jim Beloff, and here’s where we discover that Ian’s professed Beatles antipathy is just a sham. “Beloff told me that George Harrison spent three hours with him recently,” said Whitcomb. Harrison loves the uke and  George Formby and that sort of thing. Beloff mentioned my name and Harrison said, ‘Oh, yes, I love his stuff, I have his rock and roll records.’” Which means that at least two Beatles are Whitcomb fans, because the recent Barry Miles biography of Paul McCartney depicts that Beatle working to the strains of “You Turn Me On,” which he obtained from writer William Burroughs. “Burroughs was a tremendous fan of that song,” said Whitcomb. “He told me himself that he used to write his books to it.”

Whitcomb’s latest contribution to the instrument will be a new book, “The Golden Age of Ukulele.” “And I’m about to do another record for Varese Sarabande, to celebrate the coming millennium. It’s part of a project called ‘A Century of Song,’ and this one is ‘American Popular Song, Part One,’ with material from 1900 to 1950. I dread doing part two because–well, I do have an interest in songs of the ‘50s, but when it comes to the ‘60s and beyond I’m not much interested and have to deal with that Lloyd Webber stuff.”

He adds a dignified British presence to movies (he was the BBC announcer in “Contact”) and commercials (he just did one for Beringer wine), and he continues to write for magazines like American Heritage. “I have an article coming up that traces the story of how surfing came to southern California. It’s the story of a man named George Freeth, a surfer brought from Hawaii to draw people down to Redondo Beach to persuade them to buy land there. And I’m writing a couple of poems. They asked me to select the world’s most overrated and underrated songwriters, so I’ve written about Stephen Sondheim as the most overrated and Walter Donaldson as the most underrated.” Although he professes a horror of technology, he has a web presence at, where books and CDs are described and are available for online sale.

“So I keep going with the stage shows,” he says. “I’m constantly working with my band, performing around the west coast. We’re at the Sacramento Ragtime Festival every year, the LA Classic Jazz Festival, and we’re looking forward to the annual Joplin Festival in Sedalia, Missouri, which is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the publishing of the ‘Maple Leaf Rag.’”

With plenty to write, he’s thinking about even more. “I’d like to do a piece on Jack Tenney, who wrote ‘Mexicali Rose’ in 1923, and twenty years later was a California state senator leading the communist witch hunt. And I should take a crack at another novel,” he says. His first, “Lotusland,” celebrated southern California. “But first I have to get back to my desk in the basement, away from these phones and pagers.” It’s a lotus land of his own devising, with much happier music than you’d otherwise hear.

Cool and Strange Music Magazine, May 1999


Bonus Review Dept.: Shortly before the above originally was published, a "Best Of" CD of Whitcomb's stuff appeared. Here's my C&S Mag review of it:

You Turn Me On: The Very Best of Ian Whitcomb
Varese Saraband (Out of Print)

AS HIS GROUP Bluesville launched into an instrumental number to wrap up a recording session, an ashtray fell off Ian Whitcomb’s piano. Knowing the cut was ruined, he launched into an absurd, improvised vocal. Cleaned of extraneous noise, “You Turn Me On,” cracked the Billboard Top Ten in 1965. Whitcomb slipped into the U.S. on the heels of the British Invasion, and wound up in California, pursuing a range of music far more eclectic than his hit single suggests.

He anticipated Tiny Tim with a West Coast hit in 1966: “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night?,” an old Al Jolson number that Whitcomb sang to a ukulele. He tweaked the upper classes with “The Notable Yacht Club of Staines,” which he describes as “a violent fantasy sung as a Dylan travesty.”

These are among the two dozen numbers on “The Very Best of Ian Whitcomb,” which actually only brings together the very best up until 1984. It’s a strange mix, revealing Whitcomb as a songwriter writing about the rock scene – “Heroes of the Rocker Pack,” “When Rock ‘n’ Roll was Young” – as well as offering a by now rather dated social conscience (“Sally Sails the Sky,” “Groovy Day”).

These aren’t the parody, dadaist songs of the Bonzo Dog Band – Whitcomb established a solid roots in blues, and the collection really rocks. And, as a bonus, you get both the before and after versions of the hit song.

Cool and Strange Music Magazine, Feb. 1999

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