Tuesday, 2 March 2010

They Turned Me On - Part One: Ian Whitcomb

I quoted from Ian Whitcomb's amusing and touching essay Bill Haley's 1957 Hellbound Train to Waterloo, about the rock'n'roll pioneer's ill-fated UK tour, a few posts ago. It's available to read in full, along with other pieces by him, on the Sonic Boomers' website here. Ian Whitcomb's own website can be found here, with links to all sorts of goodies including CDs and songbooks.

It would be misleading, despite the evidence above, to describe Whitcomb as an untarnished Golden Rock God on the level of Robert Plant - in fact it would be plain wrong - but he did have US hits during the British Invasion including You Turn Me On, and he's interesting in the context of the themes to which I keep returning in this blog: unlike Haley himself, he has not had to resign  himself to being an oldies act - or only in one sense.

Like many another in the 60s, Whitcomb had an epiphany on hearing Zimmerman. In his case, however, this happened to be ragtime pianist Professor Dick Zimmerman, who "rescued me from rock & roll, setting me on the road backwards" - in which direction he has been strolling ever since, stooping to pick up discarded tin pan alley sheet music as he goes; he has even written an acclaimed book about the development of the popular song from its late nineteenth century roots, After the Ball. (Note the presence of Jolson alongside Presley on the cover of this edition; Jerry Lee Lewis might question his own absence from the cover but he wouldn't quibble about Jolson's right to a place.)

I'm prompted to mention all this just now because of my belated discovery of his wonderful radio show, which I can thoroughly recommend to the happy few who may read these words, especially if you share more than one of the musical interests listed in my profile.

Whitcomb's awareness of the deep, tangled roots of popular music means that he is able to make the most illuminating comments in his show en passant, seeing the sort of connections others wouldn't, aided by the slightly different perspective offered by rock'n'roll expert Jim Dawson, who prepares his own segments for the show. There might be a themed programme, as for Valentine's Day, or several different topics in the one evening, but the point is you might hear anything from around the 20s to around the 70s, enhanced by the comments of someone with a wider musical perspective than most.

The presentation, it would be fair to say, is not slick, but that's part of his charm. He doesn't see himself as a DJ, and effort has clearly gone into the right area: programming the shows. At worst, you will be treated to some surreal moments such as rockabilly star Ray Campi trying to foist his British accents on an unsuspecting public; that I can live with. Odd moments from recent programmes which I have heard: the Beatles' Your Mother Should Know from the original mono EP, followed by the comment that it must have derived from the influence of Macca's bandleader father; a segment of Jimmie Rodgers songs and an enlightening discussion of what made his voice so special, not to mention my first chance to hear Emmett Miller; ukelele songs including a Hawaiian Christmas song; lots of music hall,  a tribute to the late Dale Hawkins etc etc.

I have just been listening to the latest download (24th February), devoted to the early years of Jewish American music. This would be a good place to start, I'd say (though downloads going back to mid December are available at the time of writing).

This recent show included several Sophie Tucker songs (how many others would remember the Beatles' both namechecking her during a stage show and featuring her on the cover of Sergeant Pepper?), My Yiddishe Mama in English and Yiddish, Slim Gilliard and Slam Stewart doing a kind of jiveYiddish, an intriguing record mocking advertising jingles, and - a connection which I suspect few others would have made - early doo wop group the Ravens' Mahzel (the last three chosen by Dawson, I think). Oh, and the original version of Cry by a Jewish female singer. Not to mention Al Jolson and a whole host of others.

But what gives all this an extra spin is the connections bit: for example, seeing links between African American and Jewish American music (both produced by outsiders); the centrality of the mother figure in both and, in the case of Jewish American music, Whitcomb suggested (if I'm remembering aright), symbolic of the old culture which has to be shuffled off for survival. And as I happened to have watched The Jazz Singer again a few months ago it all handily slotted into place for me.

Yes, you would hear a certain amount of the above - in the evenings, anyway - on BBC Radio 2 and, I'm sure, on other internet radio stations - including my beloved rock-it radio, where Clarke is now up to Show 15 of his valiant effort to explore the whole of 1963's musical output - and I have recently begun tuning into Marv Goldberg's Yesterday's Memories broadcasts, to be found here: Part 4 of a series of doo wop and R&B songs about the moon entitled Lunacy.These two, and Steve Propes' shows, also on rock-it, are highly recommended.

But most shows are far more compartmentalised than Mr Whitcomb's. That's not necessarily better or worse, but it does give him a USP. So if you've been interested in more than the doo wop dialog[ue] entries on this site, do sample The Ian Whitcomb Show, where the presenter's enthusiasm spreads to popular music in the widest sense of that word and may well extend your listening horizons. Provided your interest in new music tails off when his does - and luckily mine does, give or take a decade - there are riches to be found.

There is a link on his website to archived shows but that doesn't work on my computer for some reason, so here is a link which will take you directly to the Luxuria podcast list; scroll down, ignoring all other temptations, and click on the show bearing his name. Or, go to the Luxuria home page which is findable from Ian's page then, as indicated on the screengrab below, click on podcasts near the top of the page.

For me, it's the radiophonic equivalent of those wash'n'go shampoo and conditioner combos so essential for today's busy lifestyle: why waste valuable time absorbing half a dozen  shows rigidly defined by musical genre - which would not, in any case, have the bonus of a guide who can explain how it all knits together down the decades - when you can just listen'n' ... well, actually, filling up the yawning chasm of time to which you are thereby exposed is not really my responsibility. You can always download another edition, I suppose. Or read a book, why don't you? Using Alexander's Ragtime Band as a starting point, Whitcomb has examined the start of that strange symbiosis between Jewish American and African American music in Irving Berlin and Ragtime America, so this would be an ideal companion to the podcast. His writing is not drily academic - as in the radio show, he wears his knowledge lightly - but it's permeated with his good-humoured awareness that the development of popular music is equal parts the chasing of a buck and the forging of a sort of art which could transcend racial barriers: Berlin's song was, he writes, "A clarion-call summons to everybody to come take part in some twentieth-century fun," which, characteristically, he is then immediately able to link to the later exhortation to "put your glad rags on" in Rock Around the Clock.

Some portions of Ian's show - the 20s/30s novelty songs and the likes of Whispering Jack Smith and Jack Hulbert - remind me of what I used to hear on the late Hubert Gregg's BBC radio show in the  seventies and eighties, and listeners to Russell Davies's current Radio 2 programme, with its emphasis on the great American songwriters, would find much to enjoy here. Unlike Ian, however, neither broadcaster would have embraced Fats Domino as readily as Fats Waller, let alone given studio space to a fartologist (Dawson has written a book on the subject). Long may Mr Whitcomb continue to ride the airwaves bearing such gifts.

Part Two: Ken Sykora
Part Three: Hubert Gregg
Part Four: Benny Green & Robert Cushman
Part Five: Russell Davies
Part Six: Those Unheard  or There is a Balm in Islington

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