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Remembering Ian Whitcomb, An Eccentric Singer-Songwriter Who Became An Author

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember Ian Whitcomb, an eccentric figure in the world of pop music. He died last month in Pasadena from complications of a stroke. He was 78. Many people knew him for his 1965 novelty record "You Turn Me On," which was a top-10 hit. But after a brief career in rock music, he turned to the music he loved most, early American popular song.

He wrote books about those songs, covering the years from the early 20th century to the dawn of rock 'n' roll, including "After The Ball: Pop Music From Rag To Rock," published in 1972, and "Irving Berlin And Ragtime America," whose publication was the occasion for my interview with him in 1988, which we're about to hear. Let's start with his recording of an obscure Irving Berlin song, "When The Folks High Up Do The New Low-Down (ph)."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE FOLKS HIGH UP DO THE MEAN LOW-DOWN (SWING QUICKSTEP)")

IAN WHITCOMB: (Singing) Lenox Avenue is known for doing the low-down. But you'll find they're not alone in doing the low-down. Fifth Avenue's learning how. They had to fall. Fifth Avenue does it now. But that's not all. Whenever the folks high up do the mean low-down, there ain't no low-down lower than that. Whenever the swells slow down and go, go, go low-down, there ain't no low-down lower than that. You may believe it or not - when they start getting hot, there is no hot Hottentot that's hotter than that. So you can lay on, on, on, on down when they're going, going, going low-down. There ain't no low-down lower than that. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Was American music ever considered a bad influence when you were growing up?

WHITCOMB: Oh, it certainly was. It certainly was at the rather expensive prep school that I was sent to to improve me. The vice headmaster of the school - and he was vice in all senses of the word - he had a collection of records...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHITCOMB: ...Gilbert and Sullivan and so forth. And he was called Captain - he's dead now, so we can talk about it - Captain Manning (ph). And he had Gilbert and Sullivan. But he had a little bit of this American stuff. And he had some Sophie Tucker, and he also - which I liked. And the other record, though, that I liked - and it was being played on the BBC at that time - which he didn't like was "Kiss Me Big" by Tennessee Ernie Ford.

It had these lines, (singing) kiss me big, make me know it. When I've been kissed, I want to show it. When our lips meet just under my nose, don't turn me loose until it curls my toes. That's the kind of kissing I've been missing. Baby, won't you kiss me big. Well, the vice headmaster, he didn't mind songs about the American South in the '20s. But he did object to "Kiss Me Big." So he said, this was American decadence.

GROSS: Well, because it had the word kiss in it? No. Not because of kiss. It implied sex.

WHITCOMB: These were pre-rock 'n' roll records. But in all senses and sounds, they were rock 'n' roll. I mean, they were about the same things. They were about sex. And they were set to a syncopated beat.

GROSS: How did you finally get to go to America? And how old were you the first time you came?

WHITCOMB: Let me see. I was, I think, 20 - yeah. I must have been 21 - 21, 22. It was 1963. I'll never forget that year.

GROSS: The first hit that you had - actually, the only...

WHITCOMB: No. Actually, the...

GROSS: ...Hit that made the charts (laughter) was...

WHITCOMB: No, no, Terry I must get this...

GROSS: Was "N-E-R-V-O-U-S!" on the charts, too?

WHITCOMB: No. They were all - no, no. You...

GROSS: They were all on the chart, OK.

WHITCOMB: No. Sporting life - "This Sporting Life" was on the charts. It reached 99.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WHITCOMB: Well, that was the first sort of minor hit.

GROSS: How did you write "You Turn Me On?"

WHITCOMB: Well, what happened was I didn't really write the song. What happened was that in 1964 when I was in America, I was in a couch late at night in Seattle somewhere. And this young girl said, Ian, I love your accent. You're really turning me on. And I thought, what a phrase. You turn on a tap. You turn on other things. You turn on a light. You don't turn somebody on. So I kept the phrase in my mind, went back to Trinity College Dublin and put it into a sort of 12-bar blues thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU TURN ME ON")

WHITCOMB: (Singing) Come on now, honey. You know you really turn me on. Come on now, honey. You know you really turn me on. And when - and when you do, (panting), that's my song.

GROSS: What did you have to do to promote the record? Did you do anything? I think promoting novelty rap records - and that was really a novelty record - is probably different than, say, promoting a ballad or, you know...

WHITCOMB: Terry, I didn't promote it. I tried to stop it. That is absolutely...

GROSS: You really did? OK.

WHITCOMB: That's absolutely true. I tried to stop the record. I thought it was so disgusting. I had a protest song about - "No Tears For Johnny." It was an anti-war song. This bloody record company, they said, oh, no, man. This is a stone fox smash. Don't knock success. I said, but this is going to ruin me culturally. And, indeed, it has.

GROSS: Well, once you were no longer on the charts - and it was a pretty short time that you were - is that when you really started seriously turning to Tin Pan Alley?

WHITCOMB: Well, I'd always liked music - old songs. And I started researching. By that time, I discovered the real ragtime, Scott Joplin. And then I started getting - you know, because I'm really a novelty man, I began to sing the old songs. And so, yes, I found myself washed up in the late '60s, totally irrelevant in this new - brave, new world. And so I went back into the past. And I've stayed there. And I wrote a book. And I wrote a book because I couldn't get any other work. It's as simple as that. But now, I'm proudest of my books.

GROSS: You've just completed a book about Irving Berlin. Why did you want to write a book about him?

WHITCOMB: Well, because I - you see, I centered in on him as the man who was the beginning and, perhaps, the end the sort of pop that I like. I mean, he really did start modern American popular song. There was only one man before him, Stephen Foster. He didn't get organized.

GROSS: Has living in America given you a different perspective on American Tin Pan Alley?

WHITCOMB: Yes. I admire it even more. You see, I see this spirit, this American spirit. Sometimes I get misunderstood. Sometimes people here say, how dare you come here, an Englishman and a failure at that, and tell us about ourselves in such rude terms? But, of course, I mean this as a compliment. I love this wonderful Mark Twainian - well, Mark Twain was the first to talk about all this, this mixture of art and commerce. And they are quintessentially American. And Americans are always on the move. They're always - and they've got tremendous hope, and they have ideals, and they love making money, too. And they have wonderful, open hearts, too.

And it's so - you know, I mean, you only have to go to Britain today or the rest of the world to see that this doesn't exist anywhere else. So I've always said, God bless America.

GROSS: That's the name of a song (laughter).

WHITCOMB: Well, that was Berlin's song, which he wrote, by the way, for his big soldier show "Yip Yip Yaphank" in World War I. You know, that song was canned from the show in World War I in 1917 - 1918, I mean, because they said, oh, Irving, you've gone over the top here. I mean, no, that's too much. God bless America? How can you say that? So he put it away. He put it away. And then Kate Smith rediscovered it in the 1930s, and the rest is history.

GROSS: Well, Ian Whitcomb, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

WHITCOMB: Terry, thank you very much for putting up with me.

GROSS: (Laughter) Ian...

WHITCOMB: And America. Thank you, America.

GROSS: (Laughter) Ian, that was fun.

WHITCOMB: Thanks a lot, Terry.

(SOUNDBITE OF IAN WHITCOMB AND HIS BUNGALOW BOYS' "WHEN THE FOLKS HIGH UP DO THE MEAN LOW-DOWN (SWING QUICKSTEP)"

GROSS: My interview with Ian Whitcomb is recorded in 1988. He died last month of complications from a stroke. He was 78.

After we take a short break, Lloyd Schwartz will review new recordings of music by Bach and Handel. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLENN BOULD'S "THEMA AND VARIATIONS 1-5 FROM GOLDBERG VARIATIONS, BWV 988") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.