Travis Elborough on a great uke player, pop star, gentleman and scholar
Ian Whitcomb, the 1960s British Invasion US chart star, ukulele virtuoso, Grammy award-winning recording artist, actor, television presenter and original co-host of the Old Grey Whistle Test, radio DJ, author and flame-keeper and witty exponent of old time song, has died in California aged 78.
Born in Woking, Surrey in 1941, and educated at Bryanston School in Dorset, Whitcomb studied history at Trinity College, Dublin. The choice of course is revealing, for Whitcomb as an artiste would consistently be drawn to the musical past, in particular to music hall, ragtime and the Tin Pan Alley tunes of the pre-rock era. In his memoir Playing for Time the author and editor Jeremy Lewis, a close friend at Trinity, recalled Whitcomb’s slightly nostalgic bent even as a student:
“He saw the world, not as it was, but through a filter of films that featured Will Hay and Frank Candle, and the down-trodden clerk of Darts Are Trumps, of Film Fun and Radio Fun and Dandy and Beano, of Jack Buchanan and George Formby and Ealing Comedies; like a kindly alchemist, he made magic of the mundane and everyday.”
Judging him ‘prodigiously talented’, Lewis remembered that within weeks of arriving at college, Whitcomb was already making his name as an entertainer, “designing posters for the Players Theatre, writing and performing songs, playing in various groups, and in the jazz club.”
It was in 1963, while an undergraduate taking advantage of a cheap student ticket deal, that Whitcomb first visited the United States, a trip that proved fateful. For not only did he undertake musical pilgrimages to Nashville and New Orleans, the spiritual homes, respectively, of American country music and jazz, but in a pawn shop in Los Angeles he bought a secondhand Martin ukulele – an instrument that he almost single-handedly helped revive and was playing long before it was adopted by Tiny Tim.
Two years later, he was back in America, with Beatlemania in full swing. Billed in the US music press as ‘The Next Peter Sellers’, Whitcomb stormed the Billboard top ten with the novelty beat record ‘You Turn Me On’. The psychogeographer Iain Sinclair, another college contemporary, recalled that a promotional photo for the record was taken at Trinity. Sinclair’s friends Tim Booth and Ivan Pawle of the folk band Dr Strangely Strange, were recruited to pose as Whitcomb’s backing group because they ‘looked the part.’
A follow-up single ‘N-E-R-V-O-U-S’ also charted in the States and Whitcomb was soon sharing bills with the likes of the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones, fooling around on TV’s SHINDIG! with the Shangri-Las and producing an LP of rock n roll songs with Mae West.
But, ironically, it was with his next single, a version of the old Vaudeville staple ‘Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night?’, a hit for Al Jolson in 1916 but alas largely a miss outside of Los Angeles for Whitcomb in 1966, that he came into his own musically.
His 1967 album, Yellow Underground, contained a sparkling rendition of the Joe Goodwin and Halsey Mohr tin pan alley classic ‘They’re Wearing ‘Em Higher In Hawaii’ and came with endorsements by Christopher Isherwood and a cover portrait drawn by Isherwood’s partner, Don Bachardy. But Whitcomb’s assault on the American pop charts was now effectively over.
Returning to London at the end of the 60s, he was hired to be the very first presenter of BBC TV’s legendary music series The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1971. But as he confessed to me in 2011, his stutter, which he’d parodied on the single ‘N-E-R-V-O-U-S’ proved something of a stumbling block on the first programme.
‘We were doing’, he remembered, ‘a run through of the opening show on the day it was going to air, and I had to do a little introduction to start with. So off I went, “Good evening, I am Ian Whitcomb and this is The Old Grey… Whoo whoo whooistle Test” – I just couldn’t say the name without stuttering. In the end, they called the music journalist Richard Williams in, and we hosted those first shows together.’
Reinstalled in California soon after that, where he’d settle permanently, Whitcomb would go on to present a peerless documentary about the British in Los Angeles for the BBC, LA My Home Town, its scenes with the erotic photographer Suze Randall attracting the ire of Mary Whitehouse and her National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association.
But by then he was already carving out another career as an author. His first book, After the Ball: Pop Music From Rag to Rock, a witty but learned history of popular music appeared to critical acclaim in 1972. More recent admirers include Bob Stanley, the author and member of Saint Etienne, who has described After the Ball as one of his favourite books and ‘an absolute romp through pre-rock pop history’.
In the intervening forty years, there were film and television roles, and Whitcomb kept on recording and performing music, gigging regularly with his Bungalow Boys trio at Cantalini’s Salerno Beach Restaurant at Playa del Rey, and writing several other books, including a novel, a couple of volumes of memoirs, numerous songbooks and a biography of Irving Berlin.
As a broadcaster, his radio shows on Los Angeles’ station KROQ in the late 1970s and early 1980s became required listening for a whole future generation of American musical archivists. Among them the producer and historian Andy Zax, whose recent remastering of the complete recordings of Wood-stock for the 50th anniversary of the festival was nominated for a Grammy. Zax credits Whitcomb with spurring his own crate digging tendencies:
“He was,” Zax maintains, “probably the first person I ever heard talking (with incredible erudition and enthusiasm) about old music; hearing him filled me with curiosity about things that are easy to access now but at the time were impossible to hear unless he was playing them.”
Whitcomb would earn a Grammy himself for his 1997 album Titanic: Music As Heard On The Fateful Voyage, a re-creation of the music played by the White Star Orchestra on the fateful Titanic voyage in 1912, and continued to broadcast into the digital era with a show on the Extreme Talk station.
Whitcomb suffered a stroke in 2012 but recovered enough to continue performing and still had potential live dates outstanding at the time of his death. Though his health deteriorated sharply in recent months. He is survived by his wife Regina, a singer who often partnered him on stage and record too.
The year before the stroke I had the chance to interview Whitcomb at his home in Altadena, where he graciously served us champagne and regaled us with songs and told stories, some outrageous, all entertaining, before some hours later finally bidding us adieu with a rendition of George Formby’s ‘When I’m Cleaning Windows.’ The ultimate Englishman in California, he was a consummate performer with a knowledge of song that stretched far and wide and into the most neglected corners of the canon, with his passing the world of popular music can quite genuinely be said to have lost both a gentleman and a scholar.
Described as ‘one of Britain’s finest pop culture historians’ by the Guardian, Travis Elborough is an award-winning author whose books include Wish You Were Here, A Walk in the Park and The Atlas of Vanishing Places.