Obituary: John Larkin

SCAT SINGING is a much-maligned jazz vocal technique popularised by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Slim Gaillard. In 1995, John Larkin, under the name Scatman John, gave the genre a new twist by mixing it with dance rhythms and taking "Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop- Bop)" and "Scatman's World" into the charts all over the world. His unlikely success was all the more ironic given the fact that Larkin was a lifelong stutterer triumphing over his predicament. "Scatting gave me a way to stutter freely. I'm a star not although I stutter but because I stutter," he would tell interviewers. "Stuttering has paid off!"

Born in El Monte, California, in 1942, Larkin developed a fascination for jazz as he grew up. He began learning the piano but, when he heard Ella Fitzgerald singing scat on "How High the Moon", the young Larkin was hooked. However, his stuttering made him a rather reluctant performer as he played piano in local jazz clubs. "I hid behind the piano because I was scared to speak," he later admitted.

Eventually, in 1984, Larkin found himself entertaining passengers on a cruise ship and, figuring that the captive audience could only go so far, added singing and random ad-lib syllables to his act. To his surprise, this new approach went down well and he began singing and scatting at all his subsequent engagements in piano bars and festivals.

In 1990, Larkin, now confident in his abilities, based himself in Germany, regularly bringing the house down at the Cafe Moscow in Berlin. The following year, he met Manfred Zahringer, who signed him to his production company, Iceberg, and became his manager and mentor. Zahringer tried to interest record companies in the improvised bits of be-bop poetry which Larkin had recorded on various demos. Adding frantic club beats to the mix made the proposition of a 50 year-old jazz pianist spouting nonsense somewhat more palatable and, in 1994, Axel Alexander, head of BMG Ariola Hamburg, decided to take a gamble on the unusual project.

Larkin and Zahringer began collaborating with the pop producers Antonio Nunzio Catania and Ingo Kays in their Bottrop studio. Recorded in six hours, "Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)" proved to be the catchiest of their early efforts and was released as a single. The track became a favourite with German radio programmers and was also remixed by the DJ Alex Christensen for the dance floor. By early 1995, the record had sold over 500,000 copies in Germany and the RCA/BMG operation flexed its promotional muscle, enabling Scatman to go Top Ten and earn gold or platinum status in most European markets.

In May 1995, the record peaked at No 3 in the UK charts while "Scatman's World", the follow-up single, reached the Top Ten later that year. An album, also entitled Scatman's World, performed well, although Christmas record buyers balked when presented with the ghastly "Song of Scatland", complete with seasonal choir.

Nevertheless, combined world-wide sales of eight million meant that Scatman John was nominated artist of the year in Japan; he also won the Golden Europa Award and MTV Music Award for best male artist. Larkin used his new-found fame to campaign on behalf of stutterers and was presented with the Annie Glenn Award from the National Association of Communicative Disorders in 1996.

"The fact that I've been a stutterer since I've been speaking has compelled me to find another way to speak another language," he said. "My greatest problem in my childhood is now my greatest asset. I'm trying to tell the kids today that Creation gave us all problems for a purpose, and that your biggest problems contain a source of strength to not only step over those problems, but all our other problems as well."

However, by 1997, even though Scatman was featured in the film Nothing To Lose, starring Tim Robbins and Martin Lawrence, the gimmick was wearing very thin indeed. Another album, Everybody Jam, appeared on the Logic label, but Larkin was diagnosed with lung cancer and slowed down his punishing schedule.

Pierre Perrone

John Larkin (Scatman John), singer, pianist, songwriter: born El Monte, California 1942; married; died Los Angeles 3 December 1999.

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