Ian Whitcomb is the reason I am a critic. That’s a bit of an overstatement, and maybe too much to lay at any one man’s door. But it is true that, more years ago than I care to remember, I ran across Whitcomb’s first book, 1972’s After the Ball: Pop Music from Rag to Rock—and I confess, readers, it changed my life.
Part historical survey, part musical autobiography, After the Ball crackled with wit and insight. Whitcomb’s voice was idiosyncratic, learned and often screamingly funny. Like Greil Marcus (whose Mystery Train and Lipstick Traces were likewise important texts for me), Whitcomb excelled in drawing unexpected connections and charting secret histories—but without Marcus’s fog of pseudo-academic jive.
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Perhaps Whitcomb’s greatest innovation, as an historian of pop, was the notion that pop music had a history—that it did not simply explode into being ex nihilo circa 1962. Pop music fandom has the institutional memory of a goldfish. Every generation of pop fans likes to believe that they invented music, and that everything that came before was just a warm-up. It was a revelation to me to trace a straight line from the alt-rock that I dug back to earlier iterations of pop; not just to my older siblings’ David Bowie and Donna Summer records—which I’d already figured out—but to the Glenn Miller and Sarah Vaughan of my parents, and the parlor songs of their parents, back into a netherworld of vaudeville and the music hall, of song pluggers and minstrel shows, before the advent of recorded music, when there was a piano in every home and the commercial success of a song was measured in how many copies of the sheet music were sold.
With my mind thus blown, what was a poor boy to do but make a career out of drawing cultural connections? There was no hope for me after that.
Whitcomb is a music-industry lifer, but after a brush with one-hit wonderdom in the early days of the British Invasion, he has settled into a more congenial career on the fringes. Over the years, he’s been a film composer, radio host, producer, and staff songwriter. He currently holds down a musical residency at an Italian restaurant in Playa del Rey, and seems entirely content with his lot. But above all, he has been a tireless popularizer of Tin Pan Alley and pre-rock music through his CDs, his media presence (he was frequent Tonight Show guest in the 1970s), and the many songbooks he has compiled and arranged.
His latest book, Ukulele Heroes: The Golden Age, is typically Whitcombian in its eccentricity, looking at the history of pop through the prism of the titular instrument. Within such a tight framework, Whitcomb finds narrative threads that lead far afield—first to Hawaii, naturally enough, where the diminutive four-stringed Portuguese guitar got its name, and where the development of its repertoire carried political ramifications (the history of Hawaiian music is inextricably linked to the history of the island’s royal family), then to a host of forgotten music-hall acts like “Two-Ton” Tessie O’Shea, whose career was nearly ended in 1944 by a fall from the back of a pregnant elephant, but who survived to share the stage with the Beatles 20 years later.
Then there’s the legendary Cliff Edwards, aka Ukulele Ike, whose voice you surely know even if his name is unfamiliar—he was Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s Pinocchio—and radio and TV host Arthur Godfrey, who spearheaded a brief ukulele craze in the postwar years.
And, unavoidably, there is the infamous and ultimately tragic figure of Tiny Tim. Whitcomb initially viewed Tiny as a rival, even a nemesis, but gradually recognized him as a genuine, if problematic, talent. Whitcomb writes movingly and with sympathy of this troubled and troubling man, whose public eccentricities distracted from his scholarly devotion to the Tin Pan Alley canon.
It’s all lavishly illustrated, and rendered with Whitcomb’s trademark brio—an admirable blend of deep research and language that’s vivid, but never cloying. (Well...hardly ever.) If you have any interest in the history of pop music—even if you think you’re not interested in ukuleles, or the Hawaii, or vaudeville, or the Great Depression—you owe it to yourself to read this monstrously entertaining book. Ian Whitcomb is just that good. Don’t hold my career against him.
Jack Feerick is critic-at-large for Popdose and his dog does, in fact, have fleas.