by Alan Swyer
Some of our greatest music was created in strange ways. A Ray Charles classic came to life when the manager of a theater feared that the audience would tear out the seats if Ray, who’d run out of material, didn’t take the stage again. Instructing his band to follow his lead, Ray then informed the Raelets to echo his groans and grunts. The result? “What’d I Say!”
The spark for a New Orleans gem resulted when another singer – R&B star Lee Dorsey – exhausted his limited repertoire during a recording session. With time remaining on the clock, he took a stroll around the neighborhood whereupon he heard some young girls singing a local ditty while playing hopscotch. Into the studio he went, turning “Sitting here lala/Waiting for my yaya,” into a record called “Yaya.”
But perhaps the most bizarre tale of all is that of the surprise hit which started life as a joke: Ian Whitcomb’s “You Turn Me On.” Before we get to the events that led to its recording, and the aftermath that sent it soaring up the charts, let’s examine the life of one of the world’s most anomalous rock stars.
Imagine, if you will, the dreary gray 1950’s in Merry Old England. In the ever-so-proper Whitcomb household, something was awry. In contrast to his handsome, athletic, and popular younger brother Robin, Ian was a chubby stutterer likely to sequester himself in his room listening to music day and night – sometimes British music hall fare, other times George Formby on ukulele. Not surprisingly, the two brothers drifted into separate universes, with little antipathy but even less connection. By their teens, Robin had embraced things British with a passion, especially those related to class – hail-fellow-well-met, stiff upper lip, foxhounds, and the old school tie – making him seem older than his years. Whereas Ian, having embraced whatever American culture he could get his hands on – comic books, blue jeans, and especially the rock & roll of Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Little Richard – behaved considerably younger.
In tradition-bound England, where the vestiges of primogeniture meant the first-born son was traditionally entrusted with carrying on the family holdings, Mr. and Mrs. Whitcomb found themselves in a quandary. Ultimately it was reason, rather than convention, that led them to groom Robin to oversee the family’s oil interests, while first-born Ian was packed off, not to Oxford or Cambridge, but to Trinity College in chilly, damp Dublin. There, with few friends and even fewer dates, Ian’s only solace came from going deeper and deeper into the American roots music – Blues, R&B, and Gospel – that spawned rock & roll. Imports by the likes of Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, and Solomon Burke spoke to the aching in his soul, and gave him not only hope, but direction. For it was Ian – shy, stuttering, overweight Ian – who put together Ireland’s first Blues-based rock & roll band.
Because he was hardly Mr. Social, it was from the fringes that he attracted band members – loners, outcasts, those considered weird or even losers – with himself on keyboards and vocals. Then came a startling discovery. Though speaking in public had long been Ian’s worst nightmare, due to laughter and teasing induced by his stuttering, while singing “Got My Mojo Working,” or “What’d I Say,” or “Cry To Me,” even in public, there was no trace of a speech impediment. Not that he was fully cured, for in class his stutter remained a nuisance. But as a Black-influenced-R&B-singer, everything was different, even when speaking between songs.
How did I become privy to all this information? The beginning was a lunch at the Hollywood landmark known as Musso & Frank’s. Ian, whom I knew through mutual friends, felt that I, having worked on one of the first rock & roll movies, was the person who could best bring his story to the screen. That led to a series of subsequent meals in which more and more of his strange-but-true odyssey was revealed, enabling me not merely to take notes, but also to live vicariously through Ian’s adventures and misadventures.
The newly confident, outgoing Ian, together with the erstwhile outcasts in the band dubbed Bluesville, quickly became the toast of Dublin’s college and club scene, with their rendition of “Bonie Maronie” engendering squeals of glee at every gig. Embracing the adulation, Ian shed what was left of his baby fat through a combination of running, lifting, and, for the first time, watching what he ate. That brought about a change in status not just among the chaps at stuffy Trinity, but also among the “birds,” who oohed and aahed each time he wiggled his hips on stage.
Eager for greater horizons, the “new” Ian announced that it was time for the band to conquer the land that spawned their music: America. The other members in Bluesville, however, were not so inclined. Whereas to Ian the music was a salvation, to his bandmates it was a lark, a way to get dates, and not what they dreamed about or longed for. Undaunted, Ian scraped together enough money for a summer trip, much to the chagrin of his parents, who would have preferred that he do something “constructive.” Picking a city at random – Seattle – off Ian went, expecting to find a world where people hummed “Hoochie-Coochie Man” on the street, listened to Big Mama Thornton on car radios, and saw Solomon Burke and Etta James play in juke joints and clubs. Instead, he found white kids in coffee houses listening to covers of folk songs by Dylan, Tom Paxton, and Phil Ochs.
Determined to keep the trip from being a total loss, Ian drew upon his unhappy childhood in England. Taking a turn at coffee house pianos, he dished out folkie versions of songs like “This Sporting Life,” which made him enough of a novelty to get bookings, plus fringe benefits like a gal who took him to her room one evening and startled him with a term he had never heard from an Irish lass. “Ian,” she moaned as they were making out, “you really turn me on.” Despite his attempt to display British savoir-faire, finding himself in a young lady’s bed was astonishing. So much so that the next morning he phoned his brother. “At last, I’m a man,” he reported via trans-Atlantic call. “As opposed to what?” asked an eminently disinterested Robin. “A fish?”
Even though his bubble was burst, Ian’s spirits were swiftly buoyed when he was approached by jive-talking Jerry Dennon, a local record exec who billed himself as “The King Of The Northwest Sound” for having discovered the Kingsmen, whose version of “Louie, Louie” he shepherded into a hit. Though, instead of being the next Ray Charles or Big Joe Turner, Ian’s debut in a recording studio yielded interpretations of British folk tunes from his childhood. Then, come September, it was back to a reality called school. Though “This Sporting Life” inched up the charts in a handful of American cities, no United Kingdom release was scheduled. As Ian explained to Robin, who flaunted his new-found prosperity by treating his big brother to a fancy dinner while passing through Dublin on business, “It’s as if it was all a dream.” “Just as well,” Robin’s replied patronizingly. “After all, dreams are for kids.” Overcome with loneliness and frustration, Ian trudged back to his dorm room, fearing he’d been consigned to a life of misery.
Then suddenly, the whole world seemed to change.
With the overnight success of the Beatles, then the Rolling Stones, the Dave Clark Five, the Animals, Gerry & the Pacemakers, Peter & Gordon, Chad & Jeremy, and others, America was clamoring as never before for everything British. Into Dublin came Seattle’s own Jerry Dennon, who whisked his piece of potential British gold into the studio, together with the remnants of Bluesville. It was rock, rock, and more rock Dennon wanted as he worked the band until they’d depleted their not particularly vast repertoire. With fifteen minutes of studio time left – time that was paid for in advance! – Jerry demanded that his shot at a potential British jackpot give him one more song, whatever it might be. Exhausted, Ian begrudgingly played a riff the band had occasionally used to warm up, and then went into a silly falsetto while improvising lyrics based on a memory from Seattle. “Come on now, baby,” he sang, mockingly, complete with heavy breathing, “You know you really turn me on…”
“Dy-na-mite!” Jerry Dennon bellowed when the band finished. “Dy-na-fucking-mite!
Convinced that Jerry was putting them on – that he had to realize they were thumbing their noses at him – Ian his mates laughed uproariously. So, imagine Ian’s shock when Dennon called three weeks later with a bombshell. Capital Records wanted to release what they termed a surefire hit with “a big-time dy-na-fucking-mite campaign!” Lo and behold, “You Turn Me On” exploded on the charts, aided by the publicity generated when the mayor of Portland banned it from his city’s airwaves, so as to protect his God-fearing constituents from “wanton suggestiveness.” Right-wingers and church groups climbed on the bandwagon, accusing Ian’s improvised ditty, which began life as a put-on, of promoting drugs, cheap sex, and licentiousness. Thanks to the controversy, “You Turn Me On” zoomed higher and higher up the charts.
“Who is this crazy Ian Whitcomb?” asked DJ’s, reporters, and kids across the States.
“You’re a fucking star!” Jerry Dennon shouted on a call from Seattle. “Get your ass to LA, ’cause they want you on Shindig!”
With nary a clue as to what Shindig was, and zero inkling of what lay ahead, Ian arrived in Los Angeles, where he was whisked away by a surreal figure of indeterminate age who introduced himself as Jumpin’ George Sherlock. Gushing about being the living legend who put Nat “King” Cole on the map and changing America by breaking Bill Haley’s “Rock Around The Clock” – which explained why he was later memorialized by the Stones’ “Under-Assistant-West-Coast-Promo-Man” – Sherlock announced he was going to work his magic with Ian. “Baby,” he enunciated in his inimitable way, “I’m gonna make you a star!” Then, after giving his new project a once-over, he shook his head. “Won’t do,” he declared. “A star of your magnitude needs a very special image. Leave it to Jumpin’ George.”
To Ian’s dismay, a makeover began. First, a haircut that made him look like a demented Prince Valiant. Next, Mod suits of velour and herringbone, plus a deer-stalker hat. Then, dance steps that made him squirm. Plus encouragement, in Sherlock’s cheesy garden apartment just off Hollywood Boulevard, not just to play the piano, but to pound it, beat it, attack it. All the while Ian was dragged to music biz hangouts like Martoni’s & Musso’s where Sherlock introduced his new “star” to Sonny Bono, Mike Curb, the Byrds, Mae West, and even doormen and trees.
Assuming Sherlock was in the know, Ian resisted his urge to balk, even during photo sessions where he was put at the wheel of a convertible, surrounded by lovelies in bikinis. Even when Sherlock poured him concoctions of carrot juice, wheat germ, kelp, and spirulina. Even when he heard “You Turn Me On” not just from Sherlock’s car radio, but from other cars as well, making him want to scream, “That’s me! My falsetto! My song!” And even when he was dragged from radio station to radio station, where DJ after DJ fawned over the new British sensation whose ancestry (“Heard you live in a castle.” “Is it true you’re royalty?”) seemed to be augmented with each passing hour. Seeing how unsettled Ian was becoming – tense, bedraggled, uncomfortable, and at times downright morose – Jumpin’ George sat him down one evening. “Baby, let me explain something. It’s one guy – one in a million – the magic spotlight shines on, and right now it’s you. All around the world people would give their right ear to trade places with you. So enjoy the chicks, money, and fame. If the goods are there – and I think they are – no one can make things happen like Jumpin’ George!”
Taking the pep talk to heart, Ian tried his best to loosen up. To his surprise, he actually began enjoying himself. But when something unseen – a fish? Bug? Lost scuba diver? Alien? – took a bite out of his thigh while he was swimming early morning laps in Jumpin’ George’s garden apartment pool, reality came crashing in. “I’m tired of drinking vile concoctions, dressing like a clown, and being eaten alive while promoting a song I can’t even abide!” he screamed at Sherlock. “I’m putting on real clothes and going back to Dublin!”
“But, you’re my last hope,” implored Sherlock, dropping his bluster. He revealed that, in truth, he was a frightened soul with little to show for all his years of hustling. “If I blow it, they’ll put me out to pasture.” Confronted by desperation so profound, Ian hesitated, allowing his mentor to seize the moment. “I’m gonna make you a star,” Sherlock stated, his bravado and jive patter returning. “I’m not sure I want to be,” Ian said. “You will,” Sherlock said. “Oh, you will.” More than the hope of stardom, it was the fear of hurting Sherlock, who’d been genuinely nice to him, that kept Ian in L.A.
Amazingly, Jumpin’ George’s prophesy proved to be true. By the time Ian started doing guest spots on TV, he was not only beginning to enjoy the glamour and glitz, but also to acknowledge, albeit begrudgingly, Sherlock’s savvy. Surrounded by scantily clad go-go girls never seen near Trinity College; encouraged by screaming fans; hanging out with fellow TV guests – the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Shangri-Las, and Dick & Dee Dee – proved to be such a head-spinning experience that Ian did indeed act like a maniac: pounding the piano as though possessed, jumping up and down, falling on his back while singing, even dancing like a wild man. Shindig! Hollywood A Go-Go! American Bandstand! Hullabaloo! One after another Ian hit them as “You Turn Me On” continued to climb the charts.
It was only when Ian started going out with a dancer from Hollywood A Go-Go that doubts and misgivings again interrupted his roller-coaster ride. The go-go girl, whom we’ll call Gail for purposes of discretion, looked like a SoCal goddess, statuesque and gorgeous. While Ian enjoyed her attention, there always seemed to be a catch, with him wishing it were the real Ian she cared about rather than the Jumpin’ George creation. Yet when Ian tried to level with her – to explain that he wasn’t really a rock star, and that his hit was a put-on, a goof, a fake – Gail laughed it off. Her proof? A hit record, appearances on the hippest TV shows, and above all that he was British. “If you’re not a star,” Gail asked, “how come you’re headed back to the studio, then going on tour?”
Wishing there were someone – anyone – with whom he could share his thoughts and feelings, Ian became a study in confusion: on top of the world, yet embarrassed. Living out a fantasy, yet unwilling – or maybe even unable – to accept it as real. And just when he was convinced that there was no one to whom he could explain his predicament, a visitor arrived: his brother. Surprisingly, instead of the condescension that had long been Robin’s forte, what Ian found was a combination of excitement and enthusiasm he never could have imagined. Robin was thrilled, and even a little jealous, that his big brother was a success in a world he, himself, would love to be part of. Years of resentment, differences, plus slights both real and imagined gave way to a new openness and warmth.
As a first step toward shedding the trappings of a life he’d come to detest, Robin checked out of his stuffy hotel so as to become the third occupant, for his few remaining days in Los Angeles, of what Sherlock termed Casa de George. Thus was Robin present when Ian made a triumphant return to a recording studio. But whereas “You Turn Me On” was recorded at bargain-basement rates, with Ian backed by nobodies from Dublin, the Hollywood session featured high-priced musicians, state-of-the-art equipment, and lavish catering, plus media attention and groupies. Ian assumed it would provide the opportunity he’d always dreamed about: a chance to do ambitious and meaningful work. But the powers-that-be, including Jerry Dennon, couldn’t have cared less about meaningful or ambitious. What they wanted was “commercial.” So Ian dipped into his Bluesy bag of tricks and transmogrified a Willie Dixon riff into something that tickled the fancy of the execs: a ditty called “N-N-Nervous.” He even gave Robin, who long fancied himself a percussionist, the thrill of pounding on a bongo drum.
Finishing what was deemed by one and all a sure-fire hit – Gail beaming, Jerry Dennon bellowing “Dy-na-fucking-mite!,” Jumpin’ George strutting, and the label guys lighting big cigars – Ian bade a fond farewell to Robin, who vowed to return to La-La Land as soon as possible. Feeling that perhaps the vicissitudes had been worth it after all, Ian embarked on a voyage of his own: his first rock & roll package tour. Traveling from city to city, and gig to gig, part of the fun was what took place on-stage, where each artist or group did three numbers. But the real joy was what happened backstage… on buses and planes… and at hotel after hotel… for this was the dawning not just of the Age of Aquarius, but also of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. For a shy and proper lad like Ian, it was an eye-opener.
However, whereas Ian got on great with the Beach Boys, Sam the Sham, the Righteous Brothers, and Jan & Dean, with the other Brits – the Kinks – it was not so peachy. To Ray Davies, Ian was not merely an upper-class twit, but a fraud as well, since “You Turn Me On” had still not been released in England. Nor did Ian get on any better with other English acts. Patrician Peter & Gordon looked down on him for doing what they called “trash with no redeeming social value.” Eric Burdon of the Animals, in contrast, was too working-class to give a university chap like Ian the time of day. The only star from that part of the world who enjoyed talking with Ian was Mick Jagger, who got a kick out of the irony that not only was “You Turn Me On” considered salacious in some quarters, but it was also starting to be heralded as an anthem of sorts for the fledgling Gay Lib movement. “Don’t take any of this shit too seriously,” counseled Mick. “I’m a cricket buff and I don’t mind a good Trollope to go to bed with – the literary variety. But I let ’em have the bumps and grinds on-stage, then run the business side off-stage so I won’t have to be singing “Satisfaction” when I’m forty.”
With the rock & roll tour grinding to a finish, and “N-N-Nervous” about to be released, reality reared its head in an unexpected and unpleasant way with the arrival of a telegram: Father failing. Return home ASAP.
“Take me with you,” Gail pleaded.
“Can’t do that to you,” Ian said. “It’ll be awful.”
“Not as awful as life without you,” she said, fearing she’d never see him again. Allowing her bubbly side to disappear, Gail for the first time showed her vulnerability, revealing what she’d long kept hidden: running away from an abusive home, living on the streets of Hollywood until carving out a life as a dancer. Though there were guys, she added, not one meant anything until she met Ian. “Now that I’ve got you,” she said, “I can’t bear to lose you.” For the very first time, Ian recognized that it was not the rock star she was beseeching, but the real him. “I’ll be back,” he promised.
Because to Ian a trip to England was a journey back in time – to a place where life seemed rigid, inflexible, and unchanging – what he found was devastating. Not only was his seemingly indestructible father fading fast, but Robin, too, was totally different. No longer stalwart, unquestioning, or smug, Robin seemed troubled, adrift, virtually immobilized. With the verities he’d been bought into no longer sustaining him, Robin disavowed the workaday world, his old school ties, and hail-fellow-well-met demeanor. All he wanted was to get stoned, let his hair grow, and play the drums. For the first time ever it was Ian, not Robin, to whom Mrs. Whitcomb turned for support. Through the hospital vigil, the funeral, and the period of mourning, he was the man of the family.
When it was time to get on with both business and life, it was Ian whose opinions were sought by attorneys, whose presence was solicited by the oil company’s board, whose say-so was requested by one and all. It was a heady experience for someone long accustomed to being dismissed. When his mother begged Ian to make his new-found role permanent, he found it impossible to say no. His previous life was thus expunged from the record, with no reference to his childhood, or that he’d been passed over in favor of Robin. Gone, too, since “You Turn Me On” had still not been released in Britain, was any acknowledgment of his adventures in the States. “I’ll give it a try,” Ian found himself saying. And try he did, with surprising success. Along with the meetings, decision-making, and business travel came a way of life that radiated privilege: bespoke clothes from Saville Row, his father’s Jag, charitable functions, social commitments, even foxhounds. Plus, the companionship of a sensible, well-bred woman whom we’ll call Margaret.
As the life he’d embraced became all-consuming, Ian found his relationship with Margaret growing ever more serious. Plans were broached by her – marriage, a home of their own, kids – with Ian reluctant to demur. Then one Tuesday, Robin popped by to announce that he was moving to L.A. Stunned, Ian drove his brother to Heathrow, then helped him check his bags. Together, they walked toward the boarding gate, where Robin suddenly faced his brother. “Come with me,” he said. Ian refused, he simply couldn’t. Robin considered him. “Are you happy?” When Ian failed to answer, Robin added, “More importantly, is this really you?” Despite Ian’s attempts to shrug off the questions, they lingered, gnawing at his entire being. Unable to focus, he found himself spacing out in meetings, drifting while spending time with Margaret, and wandering through strange neighborhoods at night.
At last, Ian paid a visit to his mother. “There are offers for the family’s holdings,” he informed her. “I think we should sell.”
“Because I no longer want to run things. In fact, I no longer care to be here.”
“B-but darling,” Mrs. Whitcomb stammered, “you’ve become a man.”
“Not the one I want to be.”
As though emerging from a stupor, Ian found himself thirsting for a life he never thought possible. After shedding the trappings of his “serious” life, the bespoke clothes, and even Margaret, off to Los Angeles he flew. Although what he found was not the world he remembered. Hippiedom had arrived, changing fashion, music, and even Gail, whose apartment had become a crash pad filled with lethargy, dope, and, to Ian’s amazement, his brother Robin, who was basking in the glory of having played drums on a Sonny & Cher session.
“I’m sorry about what happened,” Ian told Gail, after luring her outside. “Before, no matter what I did or had, I felt like a fraud. But now I’ve shown myself I’m not a failure or a fake. There’s nothing I can’t do, especially if I’ve got you.”
“You can crash here if you want,” Gail said. “But you and me? Over.”
Wanting no part of the brown rice, incense, weed, and sitar music that now defined Gail’s life – especially if it meant being near her but not with her – Ian took off, but not before a failed effort to persuade Robin to join him. That, Ian discovered, was not the only visit which proved to be in vain. At his record company, instead of receiving a warm greeting, he was given the cold shoulder. After a meteoric rise, Ian was seemingly done, over, a musical footnote. And the success he never took seriously was all the more painful in its absence. A lost soul, he wandered around a city that once was his, hoping, praying, pleading for a break. But no one – not Jerry Dennon, whom he bumped into at Martoni’s, nor even Jumpin’ George Sherlock, to whom he paid a visit – was interested.
Then, out of the blue, came an offer to play a festival in Northern California. Thrilled, Ian arrived, ready to recapture the hearts of America. What he discovered, however, was an outdoor gathering where fans who’d been promised the likes of Janis Joplin, Country Joe & the Fish, and Moby Grape instead found Ian Whitcomb on stage. In the heart of the Summer of Love, instead of peace, love, and understanding, Ian was confronted by anger and scorn. Just barely did he escape with nothing wounded but his pride.
Curiously, though his stardom disappeared even faster than it materialized, Ian was not daunted. Marrying his energy to his memories, he started writing a book about his adventures, which he titled: ROCK ODYSSEY – A Musician’s Chronicle Of The Sixties. It was this opus, plus magazine articles, newspaper clippings, and a treatment I had written, that he and I used as a form of Show-And-Tell while visiting producers and studios with the hope of getting a movie deal. One of the ironies of the movie business, however, is that instead of labors of love making their way to the big screen, too often it’s commissions taken begrudgingly, or re-writes done to keep bill collectors at bay, that wind up in production. Though Ian and I received much praise, over the weeks, months, then years that we pitched his unlikely but true tale, invariably we were told that either there were too many music-driven projects being made, or that music bios were out of favor because several had failed.
Then came a change I never could have anticipated. The man “saved” by American music and culture suddenly shed all ties to rock & roll. Embracing the English music hall music of his early youth, Ian switched from piano to ukulele en route to becoming Southern California’s lovable British eccentric. Old-time music became his stock and trade: ditties like “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday On Saturday Night?” and “Who’s Looking Over My Dead Dog Rover,” often accompanied by a lovely woman named Regina, who at a certain point became Mrs. Ian Whitcomb.
Their evenings together, both on-stage and off, sadly came to an end when Ian passed away on April 19, 2020 due to complications from a stroke.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.