King of the Ukulele
Ian Whitcomb brings his magical sound to Coffee Gallery Backstage
By Carl Kozlowski 07/30/2012
Nearly 50 years ago, Ian Whitcomb was part of the British Invasion, the wave of rock musicians from England who took over American radio and won over the hearts of millions of teenage girls with their songs. But after landing in the Top 10 with the hit song “You Turn Me On” in 1965, Whitcomb decided to lead an entirely different kind of revolution.
He began playing the ukulele, the miniature guitar with the high-pitched strumming sound that had long been associated with Hawaiian music and, soon after, with the strange career of the late singer and musician Tiny Tim. Having fallen in love with its unique sound and the whimsical effect it has on audiences, Whitcomb has continued playing the instrument ever since.
Perhaps it limited his run on the rock ’n roll charts, but lately Whitcomb has been having the last laugh. The ukulele has finally started catching on with hipsters. Even Pearl Jam singer/songwriter Eddie Vedder released an entire solo CD of ukulele-based tunes, and this Friday, Whitcomb will regale local music lovers with a special show at Altadena’s Coffee Gallery Backstage, which will also serve as an opportunity for him to present and sign his new book, “Ukulele Heroes.”
“It’s really a revolution these last few years, because everyone’s got one or is getting one,” says Whitcomb. “It’s not just a phenomenon of wanting to watch virtuosos play, as people are getting together to play, and even Warren Buffett is a huge fan. My mission now is to make world leaders play and have the peace rub off on them.”
Born in England in 1941, Whitcomb developed a love for musical merriment early in his life. At age 8, for instance, he started a band composed of tissue-paper-and-comb players that played covers of classic songs like “Riders in the Sky.”
Moving up in his teens and 20s through skiffle and R&B bands, Whitcomb was thrilled to finally score with “You Turn Me On.” The song’s hit status gave him the chance to tour the US and appear on numerous British and American TV shows. But he went to study history at a Dublin college after that and found himself intrigued with the pop music of the 1920s.
That interest inspired his decision to learn the ukulele and record his version of a 1916 comedy number, “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night?” The song was a West Coast hit, reviving the ukulele before the emergence of Tiny Tim, and launched an entirely new career direction for Whitcomb. He soon became one of the leading ukulele recording artists on the planet.
“I came across a ukulele in the 1950s in my cousin’s house,” recalls Whitcomb, who has lived in Altadena since 1989. “It was very useful — portable — and I didn’t have to lug a piano around. I toured with the Turtles and was playing ukulele on the tour bus, and they said I should record some of the stuff.
“It’s not electric. You don’t have to plug it in, and it always entertains people, because it has a joyous plangency that makes people smile,” he adds. “I’ve never had anybody get annoyed when I play, except by my best Englishman friend, who said ‘I’d like to take that wretched thing and smash it on your head.’ ”
While Whitcomb has never stopped touring or recording, he’s been unusually busy over the last five years, as he was hired by Sirius XM radio to host a national satellite-radio show about ukulele music. He’s also become a respected music historian, having written books and documentaries on the history of rock and ragtime music, and has written scores for numerous films and TV shows.
He may not be a full-fledged rock star, but having a niche career with the exotic instrument has probably enabled him to maintain a beloved following for a lot longer than countless other flash-in-the-pan rockers.
If you’re in the mood for music that inspires pure joy — and especially if you play a ukulele yourself and want to bring it along — head to the Coffee Gallery Backstage Friday.
“We’re doing a ukulele sing-along and strum-along, with three of us leading anyone who wants to join us from the audience,” says Whitcomb. “I invite people to bring their ukuleles, and I’ll give them sheets with songs and chords to play along. Anytime we do it, people really fill the place.”
Ian Whitcomb performs with Janet Klein at 8 p.m. Friday at the Coffee Gallery Backstage, 2020 N. Lake Ave., Altadena. Tickets are $15. Call (626) 798-6236 or visit coffeegallery.com.