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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...
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.
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")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz says he's not listening to a lot of classical music during the pandemic, but a couple of recent recordings of works that go back to such great baroque masters as Bach and Handel have really caught his attention. Here's Lloyd's review.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN'S "SUITE NO. 3, IN C MAJOR, BWV 1009")
LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: The news is so heavy these days I find it hard to listen to music that's too serious. But a couple of recordings of serious music have delighted my ears, and I've been listening to them over and over again. One is a fascinating experiment.
Several years ago, I heard Johnny Gandelsman, the wonderful violinist of the Brooklyn Rider string quartet, play a whole evening devoted to Bach's complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin. At the end of this marathon, Yo-Yo Ma, who was in the audience to hear his friend, shouted out encore. It got a big laugh. But Gandelsman was unflappable. He picked up his violin and started to play the opening of one of Bach's suites for solo cello, a Yo-Yo Ma specialty. That got an even bigger laugh.
Now Gandelsman has a new recording of his violin transcription of all six Bach suites for solo cello. And on the violin, these famous pieces sound like brand-new works. They are lighter, airier. A great cellist like Ma or the legendary Pablo Casals gives these pieces a deep, soulful beauty, as if the cello is singing of grief or mourning even in the liveliest movements. But on the violin, we can hear even more clearly the way a baroque suite is actually a set of dances. The violin emphasizes their buoyancy and lilt.
Bach composed his sixth and final suite for a cello with five strings instead of the usual four, and Gandelsman here uses a five-string violin, not unheard of to anyone familiar with country music fiddling.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOHNNY GANDELSMAN'S "SUITE NO. 6, IN D MAJOR, BWV 1012 I. PRELUDE")
SCHWARTZ: I've also been enjoying a new recording by one of my favorite young singers, Metropolitan Opera mezzo soprano Kate Lindsey. It's a set of three seldom-heard 18th-century cantatas by Handel, Haydn and Alessandro Scarlatti, all on the lugubrious theme of lost love.
The CD is called "Arianna," and each of the pieces tells the story of Ariadne, Arianna in Italian. She was the princess from Crete who fell in love with the Greek hero Theseus. She helped him find his way out of the labyrinth after he slew the Minotaur by giving him a ball of thread so that he could retrace his steps through the maze. Theseus took her to the island of Naxos but abandoned her there. Eventually, the god Dionysus rescued her and turned her into a constellation.
In the 20th century, this was the subject of Richard Strauss' famous opera "Ariadne Auf Naxos." But it was a subject that had already interested composers over 300 years earlier. Handel, like Bach, occasionally recycled his own music. The first aria in the Handel cantata that Kate Lindsey sings on this recording is actually the same music for a Handel aria she sang just this past season at the Met. She played a very kinky young Nero in Handel's viciously satirical opera "Agrippina," which was composed around the same time as the cantata.
In the opera, Nero's ruthlessly cynical mother Agrippina will stop at nothing to make him emperor. In one scene, she's gotten Nero to attract followers by throwing money at them. It's the very same music, down to the memorable introduction, that Handel uses in the cantata as a lament over lost love. Kate Lindsey was as nasty as Nero as she is moving in the cantata.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AH CRUDEL, NEL PIANTO MIO, HWV 78: II. ARIA 'AH CRUDEL, NEL PIANTO MIO'")
KATE LINDSEY: (Singing in Italian).
SCHWARTZ: I'm not quite sure why even the darkest music of this period should be so appealing in these dark times. Maybe the constant forward movement and the relative lightness of the scoring makes time seem to pass more quickly and an end is more clearly in sight. Maybe that's what we need to feel now more than ever.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz writes for WBUR Boston's online journal The ARTery and is the poet laureate of Somerville, Mass. He reviewed new recordings of Johnny Gandelsman playing his violin transcriptions of Bach's complete music for solo cello and Kate Lindsey singing arias by Handel, Haydn and Scarlatti on a CD called "Arianna."
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
We end today's show on a sad, happy note. Sad because our associate producer Mooj Zadie is leaving our show, but happy for him because he's moving to a great position as a producer of the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." I'll miss his creativity, his passion for audio, video and film and his production skills in all of the above. And I'll miss talking with him about radio and podcasts and movies. He's tipped me off to some great stuff to watch and listen to.
At the end of Monday's show, on the day of FRESH AIR's 33rd anniversary as a daily national program, I talked about how frustrating it is for all of us who have something, like an anniversary, that we should be celebrating together as a group, instead to have to celebrate quietly, in isolation or semi-isolation. Now FRESH AIR has to say goodbye to Mooj without throwing him a goodbye party, you know, with all of us in the same room. But we still will be celebrating with him online. So, Mooj, see you soon - on my computer. We wish you all good things in your new position, and we wish you good health.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)