Ian Whitcomb has been entertaining the world for over 30 years. Hitting the American Top Ten charts in 1965 with his novelty record, "You Turn Me On" (an orgasmic panting song), he soon abandoned life as a British Invader (born in Surrey, England, in 1941) to devote himself to resurrecting the roots of pop music, especially Ragtime and the simple, heartfelt songs of turn-of-the-century Tin Pan Alley.
.....The result has been a steady flow of records, books, documentaries, radio shows, and concerts dedicated to this neglected music. He has performed everywhere, from the Hollywood Bowl and the Montreux Jazz Festival to shopping malls and private homes. Not only has he preserved such gems as "I Go So Far With Sophie On Sophie's Sofa" and "The War In Snider's Grocery Store", but he has also added to the library of sturdy songs with his own contributions such as "Wurzel Fudge--The Village Idiot" and even serious ballads. He has been allowed to perform on such TV shows as Johnny Carson's "Tonight Show"; he represented Ireland at the European Variety TV show contest (Ian is a graduate of Trinity College, Dublin, and The Father of Irish Rock); he was the original host of the longest running rock TV program in Britain, "The Old Grey Whistle Test".
.....As an author, he is best known for his classic book on the history of pop music from rag to rock, entitled "After The Ball", still in print after a quarter of a century. He has published ten other books, including a biography of Irving Berlin, a memoir of his life in Los Angleles, and a novel set in Southern California.
.....He lives near Pasadena, California, with his singing wife, Regina, and his mongrel dog, Inspector. Fittingly, this animal was inherited from the late Rudy Vallee, the world's first star crooner--for Ian Whitcomb is the last in the line of such gentle, friendly song delineators. He doesn't only sing comedy songs, you see, he can jerk tears with such numbers as "Who Wants A Bad Little Boy?".......... Return to the menu
Ian Whitcomb Biography (long version)
Ian is English and was born in Woking, Surrey, England on July 10, 1941. The war years were spent in Scarborough, Yorkshire, where his father was an instructor of RAF pilots. The family consisted of his father Pat, his mother Eileen, his older sister Suzanne and his younger brother Robin.
His paternal grandfather, Hubert “Jack” Whitcomb, born in humble circumstances, became the founder/manager of the Motor Union (one of the first auto insurance companies), bought a holiday island in Scotland complete with castle to complement his London mansion with its five chauffeurs and countless servants, sent his children to the top British boarding schools, and then went ahead and launched a car company, Harper Bean, in 1919, which lost him a million pounds within two years. Next he started a movie company, lost more money, and got rid of the rest by backing an early television system, Baird, which turned out to be the wrong one. At the time of Ian’s birth he had long been bankrupt. Ian really admires him.
His maternal grandfather, another Jack, kept his money, having made it in his father’s oil company, one of the world’s first. This Jack, a youthful fellow and fond of his scotch whiskey, liked to be called “Uncle Jack”, taught Ian British music Hall songs, and jokes which he didn’t understand until much later. His sister ran off with a songwriter, a member of the lower classes who redeemed himself by making money writing the lyrics to such hits as “Lady Of Spain” and “Let’s All Sing Like The Birdies Sing”. In his 60th year Ian was to record one of his great-uncle’s lesser-known numbers, “Fairy On The Clock”.
In 1945 the family moved to Thorpeness, Suffolk. In 1947 they moved, finally, to London where eventually they found what was to be a permanent home at Wildcroft Manor, 1930s "luxury" flats on Putney Heath.
His father, having stuck with his own father through the good times and bad times, was now reduced to being a Builder’s Merchant, which meant offering bricks from the back of his car. But he always kept good cars, like a Rolls Bentley and a Fraser Nash BMW. And, although he had to deal with coarse bastards, he remained a gentleman to the end. He played the piano beautifully. He recommends that everyone look into hiring private piano teachers.
Ian was sent to boarding school in 1949: Newlands, Seaford, Sussex. He was already fixated by popular songs, performing them a capella---notably, a version of Phil Harris's recording of "Never Trust A Woman". At prep school
he quickly formed a comb-and-lavatory band to sing such current hits as "Shrimp Boats Are A-Comin'" and "Answer Me". He was also taking piano lessons and even won a prize for his playing. But he relied on his ear rather than his eye, wanting to entertain, impatient about practicing. To this day, despite a string of piano teachers, he struggles with printed music even
though he loves to study it. Moving on, in 1955, to Bryanston, his public school (meaning "private" in England), he joined the school jazz band on tea chest bass, then graduated to guitar in a skiffle group and finally, in his last year, he started the school's first rock & roll band and was a hero to many small boys as he strummed three chords on an amplified acoustic guitar.
By this time he had already started making up songs, the first being, "I've Strayed Too Long From You", and a song for the school revue (sung by a boy dressed as a monk) called "A Simple Soul Like Me". Even though American pop and its rootsy music steadily absorbed Ian, he did not neglect his own British heritage in the shape of music hall songs. At Bryanston he gave a lecture on the subject. He wrote comic songs for the amusement of his family on their summer holidays: there would be one about a yacht club ("Are The 'X's Out Today?") and another about his flying uncle ("Daredevil Dick In His Flying Machine"). He never forgot he was English and that he needed to, from time to time, reflect that fact.
After leaving school in late 1959 he worked as a salesman in the record department at Harrods in Knightsbridge, London, where, on Christmas Eve, he gave away most of the inventory while the rest of the staff were imbibing and scoffing at their office party. Soon he was playing in a small group consisting of his brother Robin on drums and Johnny Toogood, a fellow Harrods giveaway artist, on clarinet. They played at pubs, mostly pop songs and trad jazz standards. Ian's father drove them to the gigs and helped count the money on the pavement.
Inspired by the vogue for trad jazz, with a flavor of 1920s dance band vo-do-deo, Ian formed an outfit called The Ragtime Suwanee Six (including his brother and Mr Toogood) which was quite popular at Surrey parties. They started featuring numbers recorded by the seminal Original Dixieland Jazz Band. By this time Ian was devouring books on early jazz, on ragtime, on boogie and blues. A dazzling image of musical America filled his mind, distracting him from his work as a fifth assistant director and then third assistant film editor at Shepperton and Pinewood studios. In other words, he made the tea and glued bits of film together, but it so happened he worked in a film that was to become a classic: "Tunes Of Glory".
The technical side of the film industry proving not to be his vocation, Ian decided to indulge in historical research and extend his childhood by becoming a university student. Trinity College Dublin was easy to get into so in I961 he flew over to Eire and enrolled as an undergraduate in the four year course named Modern History & Political Science. Immediately he joined the TCD jazz club and its band--as pianist. By now he could really crush the notes, thus making a crowd-pleasing blues sound, and he also kept a steady pounding two beat rhythm. During the winter vacation of 1962, just after his father had unexpectedly died, The Ragtime Suwanee Six made a private recording at John Hassell Recording , located in a terraced house in Barnes, near Putney Heath. Around six copies were made.
Returning to Trinity in 1963 Ian turned his energies towards blues and boogie. At the The Jazz Band Ball he introduce Warren Whitcomb's Bluesmen. "Warren" sounded sexier and more All-American than "Ian". Pushing onward he
next started a rhythm & blues group with with fellow student Barry Richardson, a bassist and clarinetist (with mouth organ as a sideline). Barry agreed with Ian that trad jazz just wasn't cutting it. They both felt an urge to guttural cry like urban American blackmen. Ian was really getting into the tempo of his times. In fact, he was in the vanguard. This was on the eve of
The British Invasion.
"Bluesville Mfg." contained two electric guitars, an electric bass, plus a saxophone, and drums. Barry played mouth organ and Ian played piano and shouted songs like "I'm Your Hoochie Coochie Man", learned off listening to a Muddy Waters recording. The band was raw and sexy. The local girls screamed. The R&B aficionados nodded their heads in approval.
In the summer of 1963, the previous year, Ian had made his first trip to America, the source of his excitement. He had managed to get himself hired as an entertainer at a Seattle coffee house known as "92 Yesler", a student hangout in Pioneer Square. There he had charmed his audiences with British music hall songs, and comedy numbers originally made famous by George Formby, a British banjo-ukulele star of the 1930s. Ian had been strumming a ukulele since the 1950s and now he acquired a Martin and grew to love its sweet sound. In Seattle he kept off the blues and boogie since this was the folk
era. Rock & Roll was anathema to the crew-cut folkies.
But in 1964, following the conquest of America by the Beatles, Ian realized that now was his time to strike.
The opportunity arose when he was invited to contribute an overture for a college revue called "Pall Me Mantle". He had already contributed comic songs to past revues ("Let Me Call You Sweet Magnolia Blossom") and he had also begun recording--in a basement studio in Merrion Square, near Oscar Wilde's birthplace. It was here he produced an instrumental first entitled "The Dickens Waltz" and released later as "August 1914". He also recorded a comedy song called "Saucy Seaside Sue". Both these self-written numbers were later included on Ian's second Tower LP, "Ian Whitcomb's Mod, Mod Music Hall".
On an afternoon in the summer of 1964 in that lair of a basement, Ian (piano) and Barry (mouth organ), together with a Dubliner who banged a mean bass drum, and with the recording engineer helping out by rattling a pair of maracas, the "Pall Me Mantle" theme was recorded . There was more than a tip of the hat to the Bo Diddley shave-and-a-haircut beat but Ian consoled himself with the thought that there had been a popular music hall catch-phrase "Hi tiddley hi ti--hi, yi!" back in the 19th century.
The tape of the theme was played loudly at the start of every performance of the revue. It was a great success. One night a visiting American told Ian that he wished the music was available as a recording. This fired Ian up. He and Barry had already started recording sessions with Bluesville in the Merrion Square basement: "Bony Maronie" and "Built For Comfort" plus a
few other R&B standards. That summer, on a return trip to the Seattle coffee house, Ian took tapes of the basement sessions, determined to seek out a recording contract as the latest British sensation. He managed to convince local czar Jerry Dennon ("Louie, Louie" by The Kingsmen).
The "Pall Me Mantle" tape was released as "Soho" (with "Bony Maronie" as the flip-side) on the Jerden label. An excited Ian was able to stop Barry on his bicycle in Front Square at Trinity and proudly show off to him the neat 45. Barry smiled and rode away. Bluesville was not mentioned on the label. The record made not a ripple.
But Ian, goaded by the promise of the contract, determined to reassemble Bluesville for some more recording with a view to having a bash at the hit charts. By the winter term of 1964 Barry Richardson had graduated and would soon find himself in the supermarket industry. Ian was now leader of the band. Also, more importantly, he had some suitable recording material: an old American folk song that he felt could batter him to fame: during the skiffle era of the 1950s he’d been rather taken by a number called “Sportin’ Life” as recorded by Chas. McDevitt and his Skiffle Group. It was from the same provenance as a recent hit, “The House Of The Rising Sun” by The Animals. A little rock & roll revamping could do the trick.
With some reluctance--after all, they were supposed to be an R&B group--Bluesville, under Ian’s producing, went into the basement and recorded a version of the song. But it wasn’t good enough so they re-recorded at the Eamonn Andrews studios in Henry Street, a proper professional place. Then, at Christmas, Ian flew to Seattle with the tape to present to Jerry
Dennon (and also to spend the holidays with a girlfriend called Leslie). There, as the snow fell, Jerry and and Ian went in to Audio Fidelity with Gerry Roslie (Hammond organist from the local band, The Sonics) where was added a big throbbing canopy of chords. Piano arpeggios and organ sustain--the sound of gospel, but secularized. A potential hit record was ready.
Early in 1965 “This Sporting Life” by Ian Whitcomb & Bluesville was released on Jerden Records and was immediately “Pick Of The Week” on powerhouse radio station KJR. Don the coast, in Hollywood, Tower Records, a new subsidiary of Capitol, read about the action and took over the disc.
A minor sensation was caused on the West Coast where it was considered weird and different. Bob Dylan’s producer heard it and determined the “Sporting Life” sound should be borrowed for their next single (“Like A Rolling Stone”). But the disc barely made the Billboard Hot Hundred. However, he was invited to appear on the hot rock TV show, “Shindig”. And
Tower were demanding an album.
Back at Trinity, between lectures, Ian and the band recorded enough songs to make the required album. Jerry Dennon came over to supervise and issue more contracts The Henry St. studio was again used. Many of the songs were Ian’s own compositions: “River of No Return” “Too Many Cars On The Road”, “The End”, “N-Nervous”. And, as a final number, with only a few minutes left, they decided to lay down a leg-pull novelty song that had been getting shrieks of pleasure from the local girls at recent Dublin gigs. It had no name so Jerry and Ian settled on “The Turn On Song”. Everybody, including
Ian, thought it would never get released. Ian was hoping to hit with a protest song on the lines of “Sporting Life”. But it was not to be.
In the Capitol Tower, back in Hollywood, the curious panting and odd bass drum patterns were overheard by one George Sherlock, head of the company’s West Coast promotion. He rushed into the A&R man’s office shouting, “That’s a record! That’s the one!”. Tower gave him a week or so to go out on the road and sell it to the radio stations.
Retitled “You Turn Me On” the disc was an immediate smash. Nothing could stop its fast ride up the charts, even as far as #8 in the Billboard chart by July, 1965. Incidentally, this was the first Irish-made record to get into the American Top Ten, thus allowing Ian the sobriquet of “Father of Irish Rock”.
Ian became a rock star, but only for a short time in that idyllic summer when Californians looked beautiful and seemed innocently gorgeous and current affairs meant girls and not war or race riots.
It’s always a hard job to follow-up a novelty hit: A re-recording (in Hollywood) of “N-Nervous” only reached the middle of the chart. There were to be no more hits, but a lot of touring as a British Invader, with the Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Peter and Gordon, Chad & Jeremy.
He starred at The Hollywood Bowl. His younger brother Robin had joined him in Hollywood and as he was solid drummer (starting back in those pub nights in London) he was invited to accompany Ian at the Bowl concert. Also
on the bill were The Beach Boys, The Righteous Brothers, Sam The Sham. And Sonny & Cher: Robin had just been in the studio with this furry folk-rocking pair: he’d contributed the tambourine rattles to their now-classic, “I Got You Babe”. And Tower Records, taking advantage of another Whitcomb, had released a couple of Robin singles under the pseudonym “Robin Kingsley”. At the end of that halcyon summer Ian gladly escorted his brother back to the safety of England where he eventually became a sports master at Dulwich College Prep, joining, in respectability, their sister Suzanne whose soldier
husband was to later become Major-General Tyler, Governor of The Tower Of London and Keeper Of The Crown Jewels. But Ian has always stuck to showbiz, hoping his ship will come home..............
Even after graduating from TCD in late 1965 he continued for two years to cash in on his fame, with Los Angeles becoming a home-away-from-home. In 1966, at the height of a sort of new vaudeville craze (when Ian’s first foray
into peddling vintage songs, “Ian Whitcomb’s Mod, Mod Music Hall” had just been released), he almost had a hit with a track from the album, his version of a 1916 song, “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday On Saturday Night?”. It reached #101--which means it “Bubbled Under”.
The important feature of the “Crusoe” song was Ian’s ukulele strumming -- and this long before Tiny Tim. The ukulele and vintage pop song now began to take over Ian’s life and it became his passion to spread the words about these hearty, self-supporting songs created in Tin Pan Alley many years ago.
In the summer of 1966, with “Crusoe” in the Southland’s Top Twenty, Ian was invited by Doug Weston to appear at his famous folk-style club, “The Troubadour”, in West Hollywood. This was revolutionary and caused a little controversy since Ian was the first rocker to be allowed to grace that stage. However, Ian used his stint there to quickly segway from his rock numbers into the Alley material he was now absorbed in. He became a must-see: among those who came to his shows were Derek Taylor, ex-Beatles press officer, painters David Hockney and Don Bachardy (who asked Ian to sit for him--resulting in a series of drawings and paintings that continue to this day--a Bachardy drawing fills the cover of Ian’s 1967 Tower album, “Yellow Underground”) and novelist Christopher Isherwood (who contributed a liner note to “Yellow Underground”).
It was while he was appearing at The Troubadour that he met and immediately became friendly with pianist and syncopation scholar Dick Zimmerman, a maven of ragtime, a man with an evangelical mission to spread the word about such (then) forgotten syncopators as Scott Joplin and Joseph Lamb. Ian had been studying these ragtime composers since the late 1950s and had already written and recorded a Joplinesque rag called “Luscious Slices”(included on “Mod, Mod Music Hall”). Dick attended a Whitcomb performance, giving him a few pointers about his playing and encouraging him--ordering him-- to give up the rock & roll and come and be a ragtime missionary.
Nevertheless, in 1968, with Tower anxious for more contemporary material, Ian obliged with one last stab at rock: an album called “Sock Me Some Rock”. But by that time his star had waned and his music was definitely not in the current groove. The album was a homage to the classic rock of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Gene Vincent, a music now very much
out-of-fashion. So he was retired from the rock scene. Besides, he wanted no part of the growing pretentiousness of rock with its mandatory drugs and wishy-washy spiritualism and its increasing loud and metallic guitar sounds.
In 1969, after living for a time in a house in trendy Laurel Canyon, where he found time to produce an album starring Mae West as a rock singer, he returned to the family flat on Putney Heath and turned his attention to early American and British popular music, especially Tin Pan Alley, Ragtime, and British Music Hall. That year he was commissioned by Penguin Books to write a history of pop from rag to rock. This, the first book to cover the subject, was published as “After The Ball” in 1972 to great acclaim. A companion double album on EMI records was released simultaneously, the first time this had ever been done.
Ian’s interest in ragtime songs spilled over into an LP for the British branch of United Artists, “Under The Ragtime Moon” (1973). He also made an LP for Argo, a branch of British Decca, called “Hip Hooray, Neville Chamberlain”. Around this time MGM finally released the Mae West album as “Great Balls Of Fire”. The rest of the 1970s saw him working both in England and in America, almost exclusively in the field of vintage music:
He was the first host of the long-running BBC rock show, “The Old Gray Whistle Test”; he wrote and presented segments on music for BBC’s “Late Night Line Up”; his revue “Under The Ragtime Moon” was Ireland’s entry in the annual European television variety show contest; he wrote and starred in a musical journey, “Tin Pan Alley” (based on his EMI songbook of the same name) made for PBS and produced by Taylor Hackford in Hollywood. He wrote, advised, and appeared in several TV documentaries, notably “The Friendly Invasion”(BBC), “All You Need Is Love”(London Weekend) and “L.A.--My Home
Town”(BBC). As a guest he made many appearances on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson”, “Merv”, “Mike Douglas”, “Today”, “Tomorrow”.
EMI’s subsidiary World Record Club released a collection of old songs recorded during his Tower Records years (with a couple of tracks from the Dublin basement), appropriately titled “On The Pier”; Warner Bros. Records’ branch in London released another old-time collection, “Ian Whitcomb’s Red Hot Blue Heaven”, in which Ian sings and plays with a fine bunch of Hollywood session musicians who, when playing ragtime for kicks, called themselves, “Crystal Palace”.
Where did he really live? By this time he was spending as much time in America as in England. While in London, at this period, he made a few humorous rock & roll sides for producer Mike Hurst (Cat Stevens, etc.) including “When Rock & Roll Was Young” and “Life’s Not All That Bad, Is It?”. These were supposed to have been released by Warner Bros. but never
were--his old champion Derek Taylor having left the helm of that company and the new man being of a somewhat accountant mentality. One single emerged: a pathetic attempt to cash in on the Disco trend--”You Do Something To Me”,
the Cole Porter standard.
In the middle 1970s, when he was renting a small 1920s stucco apartment on a Hollywood hill, he started working for the then fledgling Books On Tape Inc. and he continued to record books for them (at home) until the mid 1990s. He has recorded nearly all of his own published books.
He worked with his fellow Englishman, Andy Wickham (an A&R man at Warner Bros. Records) to establish Warner’s Country Music division in 1973: the pair journeyed to Nashville where Ian’s songs such as “Hands”, a massage parlor
ballad, and “A Friend Of A Friend”, a humorous monologue, were recorded. A few more of these peculiar numbers were recorded and released before the major label caught on to their pranks and killed the collaboration.
Meanwhile, in Georgia, George Buck, the enterprising traditional jazz aficionado and owner of several record labels, had caught on to Ian’s charms. He commissioned him to cut a few Tin Pan Alley numbers for an LP. For the session Iane used his good pal Dick Zimmerman, with whom he’d been appearing as a duo at traditional jazz festivals and at the new Scott Joplin Festival in Sedalia, Missouri. The album, “Treasures Of Tin Pan Alley” appeared on the Audiophile label in 1975, the first of many Whitcomb releases by George Buck.
The same year, and in the same studio in Hollywood, he recorded in one day all the special music for the movie, “Bugs Bunny Superstar” (United Artists/MGM), hosted by cartoon director and a Bugs parent, Robert Clampett. The latter had been showing up for Ian’s performances at The Mayfair Music Hall in Santa Monica and had become a fan. Of course, Ian had been a Bugs fan since his TCD days when he and his fellow students would skip lectures on medieval history in order to spend an hour at the News Theatre on Grafton St. (which they referred to as “The Funnies”). Music cues that Ian wrote and recorded for the Bugs salute include “Chew Turn Me On” and “Kleig Kindly Light”. The movie still plays all over the world and Ian enjoys the royalties.
Meanwhile, he had kept up his writing, thanks to the encouragement of his original Penguin Books editor Oliver Caldecott. This meant that when he was in London, staying at the family apartment in Wildcroft Manor on Putney Heath with his widowed mother--his father having died suddenly in 1962 during Ian’s second year at TCD--he would drop in on Mr Caldecott to spin him a yarn that might become a book. In this way, he persuaded Oliver to sign him to a contract for a novel called “LotusLand--A Story of California” which he researched at The Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and which he started writing at Wildcroft and completed in his rented apartment on the Hollywood hill, just before the hill, full of water, collapsed onto Ian and his pad in the Spring storms of 1978. "Lotusland” was published by Wildwood House, Oliver’s new company, in 1979. The first copy arrived in April when Ian was temporarily living in a 1920s house in West Hollywood. He was looking for somewhere more peaceful, more normal, somewhere he could call home.
A few months later, on an impulse he has never regretted, he bought a house in Altadena, CA. (near Pasadena). Here he lived with his dog Beefy and a succession of boarders (For an account of those years, up until he was rescued by Regina, his future wife, see Ian’s “Resident Alien”, published by Century of London in 1989). He had started researching for a Doubleday commission, a book published in 1983 as “Rock Odyssey--A Musician’s Chronicle Of The 60s”.
From 1980 his recording activities increased and have never stopped. “Pianomelt”, concentrating on piano rolls that Ian had cut for the Play-Rite company in Turlock, California, and to which vocals were added, was released by Sierra/Briar. This was followed by re-issues of Tower tracks by First American (a retrospective of his rock years had appeared in Britain on Ember in the early 1970s, the first of many retrospectives), followed by an odd album, “In Hollywood”, which contained some pretty jaundiced and even lavender numbers. This trend continued with “The Boogie Woogie Jungle Snake” (a final stab at rock & roll) under the new ITW label (Ian’s initials) but bank-rolled by a British company. Some of the new songs
were dangerously autobiographical, for example: “The Yellow Bird” in which Ian’s father returns from the dead to chat with him.
In contrast Stomp Off Records, specializing in traditional jazz, paid for Ian to reunite with Dick Zimmerman for two albums, “Don’t Say Goodbye, Miss Ragtime” and “My Wife Is Dancing Mad”. These sold briskly at the jazz and ragtime festivals that Ian and Dick were now regularly booked at. They even made it to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, sharing a bill with Art Blakey & His Jazz Messengers. Then Australia called and Dick & Ian, aided by Molly Kaufman, and calling themselves The American Ragtime Company, brought their jollity and knowledge to the denizens of Surfer’s Paradise, Queensland. On their return they made another album for George Buck, “Steppin’ Out” (Audiophile,1987). Buck was also kind enough to release one of Ian’s first CDs, a live recording of his dance band playing at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood and at the Variety Arts Centre in downtown Los Angeles: “Happy Days Are Here Again”(1988)
Since 1968, when his first article about pop music was published in The Los Angeles Times, Ian had been contributing to newspapers and magazines: the BBC publication, “The Listener”, the British rock paper, “Let It Rock”, etc. Now, in the 1980s, he started writing fairly regularly for “The Radio Times”, another BBC magazine, but one with a weekly readership of millions. He wrote about the TV soap opera, “Dallas”; he lunched with Walter Matthau; he had tea with Tom Jones; he talked to Christopher Isherwood . He also wrote book reviews for “The Los Angeles Times” and “The Daily Telegraph” (London). Many of his stories of L.A. life appeared in “The London Magazine” under the editorship of Alan Ross, until his mentor’s death in 2001. By this time he had contributed two articles to “American Heritage” (about life as a British Invader, and a biography of George Freeth, the Hawaiian who introduced surfing to California and the world). A book containing much of Ian’s journalism was published in 1994 by California Classics as “The Beckoning Fairground”.
From his foothill Altadena home, where he lived with his dog Beefy and put up with a succession of boarders (some of whom he got to know and who became friends), he produced a documentary film on the history of rhythm & blues in Los Angeles for the series, “Repercussions--A Celebration of Afro-American Music”. He also wrote a chapter, “Legends Of Rhythm & Blues”, for the companion book. Thanks to Oliver Caldecott, his editor in London, he was able to publish the biography, “Irving Berlin & Ragtime America”(1987) which was later used as the basis of a BBC TV musical of Berlin’s early
years, hosted by Tommy Tune.
Movie work came along, too: he wrote two songs for “Cold Sassy Tree”, a TV movie starring Faye Dunaway and Richard Widmark. His songs were used as the main title and end credits for a teen horror pic called “Terror Night”, co-directed by Andre de Toth.
He also became a disc-jockey. Starting in the early 80s at the Pasadena alternative rocker KROQ, “The Ian Whitcomb Show” moved over the years, first to KCRW, an NPR affiliate in Santa Monica, and then back to Pasadena, when he
was invited to join KPCC, another NPR station. This was in 1990, just after his wedding to Regina, and the show was broadcast nightly from 10 pm to midnight from Monday through Thursday for four years. Re-broadcasts can be heard on radiofreeworld.com. Since the KROQ days he had also been hosting in-flight entertainment programs for AEI and these were offered on many of the world’s airlines.
Realizing that his taste in music was becoming less and less au courant Ian left the mainstream record companies alone, continuing to bankroll and issue music on his ITW label. In the last LP years there was “On The Street Of Dreams” and “Oceans Of Love”. By the end of the 1980s he was making CDs: “Let The Rest Of The World Go By”, “Spread A Little Happiness”. At the same time, collections of his rock & roll tracks started to be released by proper companies: Rhino put out “The Best Of Ian Whitcomb”; BBC / Prestige followed with “All The Hits Plus More”
Following a KPCC live broadcast of his musical comedy, “Lotusland” (based on the novel), he went into the studio with a 17 piece orchestra, conducted by David (“Laura”) Raksin, and recorded the music. Guest vocalists were Buck Henry, Noel Harrison, and Michael Feinstein. His wife Regina performed the heroine’s songs. She had already sung on two of his CDs. What a clean and clear and refreshingly unjazzy voice she has! Ian was able to afford the “Lotusland” indulgence because he’d just been paid a hefty sum from the Disney company to license “You Turn Me On” for use in “Encino Man”, a silly film.
Just after his marriage Ian inherited the late Rudy Vallee’s favorite dog, Inspector (who came with one of his master’s megaphones). Inspector was a welcome addition for the house had become cat-dominated (Regina’s dowry) after Beefy’s death in 1988. A video short starring Inspector and shot in the Alabama Hills near Lone Pine so impressed a director/friend that soon Ian was producing a segment on B westerns for BBC TV.
For some time he’d wanted to have collections of the old songs he performed at shows available for sale at these events. All the oldtime music hall artists used to peddle songbooks after their performance. In 1994 Mel Bay Publications put out what was to be the first of several songbooks compiled and annotated by Ian: “Treasures Of Tin Pan Alley”. Ian always included a section of his own compositions, and a recording of the songs so that customers could play and sing along. The subsequent titles were: “Vaudeville Favorites”, “The Best Of Vintage Dance”, “Songs Of The Ragtime Era”, “The Titanic Songbook”, “Titanic Tunes”,” Songs Of The Jazz Age”, “Ukulele Heaven”, and “Uke Ballads”.
In the mid-1990s he was contacted by Julie D’Angelo of Rhino Records and asked to produce a CD of songs from the soundtracks of Al Jolson movies from his Warner Bros. period. This he did with relish. Next he produced a film noir music compilation for Rhino.
Then he struck gold with a whizz of an idea: a talent agency had started getting him auditions and he done some voice-overs and bit parts as British broadcasters in the movie “Contact” and in the TV series, “Star Trek Voyager”. One of the auditions was for the blockbuster movie “Titanic” and although he didn’t get the part of the ship’s bandleader he made the best out of his disappointment by proposing to Rhino that a decent record could be made of the period salon music played aboard the actual ship. Julie D’Angelo got the project green-lighted and “Titanic-- Music As Heard On The Fateful
Voyage” went on to win a Grammy (for design) and a nomination (for Ian’s liner notes). The clever and haunting package sold briskly in many parts of the world. Ian even spoke a French version of the Thomas Hardy poem heard on track two. The success of the Rhino CD led to a follow-up on Varese Sarabande called “Titanic Tunes--A Singalong in Steerage”. And the Mel Bay company published, as we noted above, two companion songbooks.
Another failed movie audition led to the start of what looks like becoming a career as a movie songwriter in the tradition of the great Harry Warren, a pal of Ian’s from the early 1970s. He didn’t get the part of Stanley in “Stanley’s Gig” but he wrote many songs for the film, provided the singing voice of Stanley as well as his ukulele strumming, and played the ghost of Smiling Jack, a character Ian created for the picture. Faye Dunaway appeared in a supporting role, dancing to one of Ian’s songs, as she had years before in “Cold Sassy Tree”. We’re not sure if she’s aware of this.
“Stanley’s Gig” has been shown many times on the Starz cable network and has achieved a cult status. As has another film for which Ian provided an end-credits vocal, “Man Of The Century”, a Fine Line release that came and went on the big screen and has never been sighted since. Around this time Julie D’Angelo left Rhino to start “Music For The Masses”, a company providing song licensing for movies and television. She placed two Ian recordings in “After The Storm”, a Trimark film starring Benjamin Bratt that played on cable.
And then she managed to put Ian on the phone with Peter Bogdanovich. The legendary director was in need of 1920s music to replace the, too expensive, period recordings he’d placed in his new feature, “The Cat’s Meow”. On the phone they got along famously and Peter took Ian aboard his film, appropriately set aboard William Randolph Hearst’s yacht in 1924 and starring Kirsten Dunst as Marion Davies. In March of 2001 Ian, with musicians he’d worked with over the last decade or so in his various bands, recorded over an hour’s music for the picture. Kirsten Dunst, with Ian accompanying her on Ukie, sang a sexy version of “After You’ve Gone” for the end credits.
Lion’s Gate released the movie in April, 2002 and there’s a CD from RCA Victor/BMG.
Another period picture, “Last Call”, a Showtime production about Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood, starring Jeremy Irons and Sissy Spacek, has plenty of old Whitcomb songs (including several from “Lotusland”) as well as a few specially composed ones, featuring Regina on vocals. Ian looks forward to more assignments as a movie songwriter.
He continues to perform at local venues such as Altadena’s Coffee Gallery and the Workman & Temple Family Homestead in the City of Industry. He is in his 14th year at the Homestead and his dance band concerts attract thousands.
The smaller group, The Bungalow Boys, play at private parties and at certain Huntington Library functions as well as The Getty. Ian also provides accordion in Johnny Crawford’s orchestra and is one of Janet Klein’s Parlor Boys.
He has two new CD compilations available on his own private labels: “Sentimentally Yours”, a collection of sweet ballads, and “Dance Hall Days”, a program of vintage dances. There’s also his 50 page introduction to a new hardback book, “The Rise Of The Crooners”, published in January 2002 by Scarecrow Press.
Ian, at age 60, is now a California State employee. Dr. Kevin Starr, the State Librarian, has appointed him Roving Minstrel in his own chautauqua, traveling every other month to rural libraries in order to give entertaining and educational lecture-concerts on the subject of popular music. Regina accompanies him, as does Rollo (their new dog--Inspector having re-joined Rudy Vallee a few years back). Ian is very much enjoying these trips: seeing the California he loves so much, meeting new people, making discoveries.
So, at this writing, we have a happy man. He would like to write another novel but at present real life is more stimulating. His journals would make the stuff of a really good roman a clef. He has kept a journal since 1972 and they are part of the Huntington Library manuscript collection. What else can
this fellow do--except become famous?
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