The sad word has come to us tonight, that Ian passed yesterday, Sunday Morning the 19th. We have posted an obituary: Pop Idol turned Ragtime Legend Ian Whitcomb has Died at 78. If you are already familiar with his career I recommend you contemplate instead the essay below. Which Larry Melton wrote for our November 2019 issue.
Listen in your mind with me for a moment and hear the joyful “strummings” and vocals of an Ian and Regina Whitcomb routine. Recall the sense of carefree joy and exhilaration we felt every time we heard them perform over the long years of their careers. Ian was singing falsetto accompaniment to his ukulele years even before Tiny Tim made a career out of it.
I met Ian at the first ragtime festival in Sedalia in 1974. Richard Zimmerman brought him and together they performed several novelty numbers to the delight of the audience. They had been working together in Southern California at the new Maple Leaf Club gatherings and then they toured with their act and appeared frequently on the Tonight show. We were thrilled that they brought their upbeat routine to the Midwest for the first time. I remember when Ian first took to the stage back then and referred to his partner as Dickey. He has to be the only person who ever referred to Richard by that sobriquet. What a joyful experience their performance was indeed.
And that’s what Ian’s career has been all about…sheer joyfulness with a bit of happy nonsense and lots of playful banter not to mention considerable musical talent. A ukulele at a ragtime festival was just the element that added a British Music Hall touch to the affair. I had been striving for a purely “classical” ragtime event but by bringing Ian, Richard taught me ragtime comes in many different styles performed by many different talented personalities.
Ian is, after all, British having come to the states as part of the British invasion of the 1960s. His big hit “You Turn Me On,” brought him fame in the U.S. and he was set for a career in Rock and Roll. I have a delightful Teen Life magazine from 1965 featuring Ian. Its now yellowing pulp pages include a wonderful biography of the then twenty-five-year old pop star in photographs.
As Ian experienced America he turned from the popular culture that kept him gainfully employed to his real passion which was American and British novelty music, especially Tin Pan Alley and ragtime numbers. His “pull out all the stops” style of exuberant entertainment soon endeared him to audiences as his new interests led him back to the popular culture of an earlier age. His fan base modulated from screaming teenage girls to no less enthusiastic middle-aged and senior audiences.
Ian collected hats and that is an appropriate enterprise for someone who has worn so many “hats” in his long career. He has of course been a performing musician, and a composer, a radio personality, a record producer, music historian, author and filmmaker to list some of his endeavors but most of all, Ian has been an entertainer.
He has been fond of playing with the accuracy of musical facts and has often tickled our seriousness with some far-fetched tales done by inventively imaginary characters to amplify his effervescent stage presence. I am especially endeared to his Art Nouveau composer/character.
Through the years I have enjoyed following Ian’s career. He returned to Sedalia several times and brightened the festival stage with his talented wife, Regina whose own imaginary role was as Miss Lillie Langtry.
I’ve been listening to Ian playing and singing over his famous ukulele in my mind a lot lately. I enjoy his many records and CDs as well, but more and more I like to simply resort back in memory for pastime entertainment.
Ian has been especially in mind since his November 2012 major stroke left him paralyzed on the left side. Thanks to Regina’s quick thinking he was rushed to the hospital when she recognized the signs and even worse damage was avoided. After considerable therapy Ian can now walk with some difficulty though he can no longer swim as he did before. He is left-handed and that hand is still twisted and not usable.
The hospital discharged him far too soon and as a result Regina was left without support and only minimal care instructions. Since his stroke Ian has had to have a pacemaker implanted and he has had blood clots like the recent one that caused him the loss of toes. This has been a real setback, but he was transferred September 27th to a transitional care facility and plans for his future care are being considered, though all must be dictated by financial considerations.
Ian and I are about the same age and though our health issues differ we are still victims of aging, increasing debility, and growing dependence. So, when I learned of the couple’s mounting medical expenses and discovered their fund-raising effort on-line, I immediately wanted to respond and encourage those who haven’t yet contributed, to join the many who have.
The ragtime community has an enormous heart when it comes to our members health issue expenses. We are seeing more and more fund-raising efforts in the arts community in general since so many of these talented people have not had steady employment with benefits that have been the salvation of many of the rest of us mere mortals.
I recall how so many of Tom Brier’s friends have rallied to him after his paralyzing accident and more and more artists are using fundraising websites to support their enterprises. We all have limited resources, but sharing is part of what this great family is all about and Ian and Regina need our help.
You can send greetings to Ian at P.O. Box 451, Altadena, CA 91003. Contributions toward his hospital expenses and rehabilitation can be made by searching on-line for “Getting Ian Whitcomb Well – Go Fund Me” and clicking on the entry.
I was surprised when Regina told me that Ian is already aiming to walk again and regain use of his left arm. He would thoroughly enjoy being invited to events where he can lecture or simply regale an audience with the endless stories from his own experience and from the musical history he knows so well. Perhaps we will even get to read another of his books and hopefully some of his articles in The Syncopated Times.
I have listened several times recently to Ian’s 2017 appearance at the West Coast Ragtime Festival titled, “My Life in Ragtime,” that Adam Swanson kindly posted. Ian’s excitement is as contagious as ever.
And so, I return to Ian singing and “ukeing,” this time, “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go With Friday on Saturday Night,” recorded on my own “Melton Memory” label. With so many of his faithful friends, we send our appreciation and support to Regina and wish Ian a speedy recovery so he can return to his life-long career as an educator and entertainer.