Tam White: Blues singer who gave voice to Robbie Coltrane in 'Tutti Frutti'
Thursday 29 July 2010
Tam White was one of Scotland's finest blues singers and although he had chart success in his own right, he was best known for being Robbie Coltrane's singing voice in the TV comedy drama Tutti Frutti (1987).
White was born, the son of a lorry driver, in Edinburgh in 1942 and the family lived above the White Hart Inn, whose clientele had included Robert Burns and Burke and Hare. He had piano lessons as a child and was a member of the school choir, even singing in St Giles' Cathedral.
By the time he left school, he was already hooked on the new rock'n'roll music and was learning about the blues. He met some US servicemen who were stationed outside Edinburgh and one of them gave him a Jimmy Witherspoon album. Then, after seeing Alex Harvey at a dance hall, he wanted to sing the blues. And write them.
"I'd been told that white guys couldn't sing the blues," White told me on a visit to Southport Arts Centre in 2008, "but I'd left school at 15 to become a stonemason. I was up on the scaffolding on a Monday morning when it was 12 below with a big hammer and chisel in my hands, so don't tell me that I can't sing the blues. I wrote "Stonemason's Blues" and that song is a true account of a day's work."
Dressing as gangsters from the 1930s and with White as Humphrey the Hood, he and his friends formed an R&B band, The Boston Dexters, who recorded for EMI in 1965. "I dreaded that they were going to make us the next Merseybeats," White said of the songs that they were made to record, but one of their B-sides for EMI, a cover of Ray Charles' "I Believe to My Soul" was excellent – and quintessential White.
With personnel changes, The Boston Dexters became The Buzz and recorded jingles for Radio Caroline and a single for the maverick producer Joe Meek. "We were going to do "Please Stay"... [but] The Cryin' Shames did that. "You're Holding Me Down" was probably ahead of its time, pre-punk, but Annie Nightingale did say it was the worst record she had ever heard."
With his versatile voice, White could turn his hand to almost anything, but he wasn't happy when Decca's producer, Dick Rowe, wanted to turn him into another Tom Jones. He moved to Decca's hippie subsidiary, Deram, and then made an album, Tam White (1969), for the Middle Earth label, which was a mixture of soul, folk and rock. He was soon back working as a stonemason.
In 1974, White won a round of the ITV talent show New Faces and was signed by another independent producer, Mickie Most, to his label, RAK Records. There was talk of White replacing Alexis Korner in C.C.S., but Most couldn't secure the funding for the next album. Instead, White recorded a big-voice revival of Jack Scott's 1960 hit, "What in the World's Come Over You". "I got on Top of the Pops but it was over the Easter weekend and the shops were shut. By Tuesday, the public had moved on to something else."
By 1980, White was tiring of odd jobs and wanted to form his own blues band. "I thought, 'Who would pay to see me if I didn't have anything to say for myself' and it's been very good since then." White made another album, Keep It under Your Hat, in 1991 and then a surprisingly good cassette of a live performance by his band Tam White's Shoestring was released as The Real Thing in 1998. "It was a Scotsman's dream," said White, "making an album for £1."
In 1987, White worked on Tutti Frutti. "One of the producers, Andy Parks, heard me on a TV show when he was looking for someone to do Robbie Coltrane's voice. Robbie could sing, but he had a wee high voice and they needed something more raucous."
White lost his good looks but his lived-in features were perfect for cameo work in films and TV dramas. He played the chief of the MacGregor clan in Braveheart (1995) and he acted in Cutthroat Island (1995) and the TV series Taggart, Rebus and EastEnders.
Even though his health was failing, he was still touring in 2008. "My lungs have gone with the smoking but I'm still out there playing. I couldn't sit at home all the time. I love singing great songs and I've just started doing Buddy Holly's "Fool's Paradise". I like a simple melody with an endearing lyric: that is the whole secret of the game, and that song is a perfect example."
Tam White (Thomas Bennett Sim White), blues musician: born Edinburgh 12 July 1942; married (1 son, 1 daughter); died Edinburgh 21 June 2010.
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