Obituary: Wally Whyton

To many people Wally Whyton was the voice of country music on British radio; to others he was the creator of the television favourites Pussycat Willum and Ollie Beak; and to record- buyers his talents spanned a wide musical spectrum: he was a leader of the short-lived 1950s skiffle movement before he moved into folk, and then he became one of the biggest sellers of children's records.

Born a short distance from Euston station in London in 1929, on the site where Capital Radio now stands, he trained as a commercial artist but it was the recordings of such as Bessie Smith, Charlie Barnet and Louis Armstrong, and associating with Lionel Bart, Mike Pratt and Tommy Steele (all then struggling to break into the entertainment business) that bred his ambitions for a musical career. At that time several of the British jazz bands had their own skiffle groups (comparable to American jug bands, with a repertoire founded upon folk and country), which convinced Whyton that he could present such music equally well.

So the Vipers were born, originally comprising Whyton as lead singer, Johnny Martyn and Jean Van den Bosch (and later expanded with Tony Tolhurst and John Pilgrim), and a residency commenced at the famed 2Is Coffee Bar in New Compton Street, in July 1956. A couple of months later the group had secured a record deal with Parlophone/EMI, with George Martin producing, and scored a Top Ten hit with their second single "Don't You Rock Me Daddy- O". The group enjoyed two more chart successes - "Cumberland Gap" and "Streamline Train" - within the following four months. Although the skiffle boom quickly faded, the Vipers remained together until the end of the decade, releasing singles of varying styles, including one adopting the name Sharkey Todd and the Monsters. Hank Marvin, Jet Harris and Tony Meehan were also passing members before joining forces with Cliff Richard. All the Vipers' material was recently released in a three-CD box set, 10,000 Years Ago, by Bear Family Records.

With the commercial pressures of heading a group behind him by the early Sixties, Whyton looked to pursue folk music interests but television intervened as a one-off guest spot led on to filling in for Rolf Harris on two other shows and, in turn, hosting his own children's series, The Five O'Clock Show, for Rediffusion. That led to the creation of the puppet Pussycat Willum. "The puppet's success was amazing - he was the biggest artist on the network", he once told me. "I was doing four shows a week for Rediffusion and Pussycat Willum used to get about 400 letters every week, more than anyone else involved with Rediffusion." The puppet's success led on to other creations - Ollie Beak, Joe Crow, Spike McPike - and Whyton started recording a series of children's songs albums, all of which achieved substantial sales.

Whyton was also active on the folk scene, working the clubs and recording for Argo and Philips, and wrote one of the first ever conservation songs, "Leave Them a Flower". By the mid-Sixties he had become a regular on radio, first with Radio 2 sessions and then presenting Folk Room, Strings 'n' Things and Junior Choice, among other shows. In 1967 he was approached by the producer Ian Grant to host Country Meets Folk, a new series which bravely brought together the realms of country and folk music. Originally intended as a six-week series, it remained on air for six and a half years. As a reason for the show's success, he explained that, "although both musical forms had their own identity, neither had the individual airplay that the ever increasing fans would have liked".

Another series, Both Sides Now, with no definitive musical ties, followed on the heels of Country Meets Folk and when the BBC launched its weekly Country Club show in the mid-1970s Wally Whyton was the natural choice as its presenter although the idea of being a "specialist" presenter worried him initially. "I had my own favourites like Hank Williams and Doc Watson, but I wasn't into everybody and felt I would do it until someone better equipped than myself came along. But then you start hearing the songs, meeting the artists, talking to the writers and covering the events, and the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place."

It was his interviews with countless country artists, and coverage of such events as the annual Wembley Festivals and regular visits to Nashville, combined with his informal presentation, that earned him respect within the industry as well as immense loyalty from the country fans. Although he never overlooked the stalwarts of the country music scene, he also introduced many new artists to the British public by giving their records their first plays, among them Garth Brooks.

During his career Whyton made over 2,000 television appearances and probably twice as many radio broadcasts, yet he always remained accessible to his audiences, meeting them at concerts and personally answering letters. It was a way of life developed from his skiffle days when audience association was just as important as performance. He was always willing to help another, although he admitted he was not always the best talent spotter. One of his favourite stories was about how he advised Kris Kristofferson, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, that he should change his name for the recording industry. Kristofferson subsequently recorded in London under the name of Kris Carson. A couple of decades later the two met again at Wembley, with the first words uttered by the famous singer/songwriter: "Hey, Wal, I changed my name back again." Such stories not only displayed Whyton's honesty but also revealed his great sense of humour, even at his own expense.

Wally Whyton left his BBC Radio 2 show in late 1995, but he continued his long-running BBC World Service show until last December.

Tony Byworth

Wally Whyton, broadcaster and singer: born London 23 September 1929; married (one son, two daughters); died 22 January 1997.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - West London - £...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment & HR Administrator

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Guru Careers: HR Manager / HR Business Partner

£55 - 65k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: A HR Manager / HR Business Partner i...

Recruitment Genius: Senior HR Assistant

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Company's vision is to be t...

Day In a Page

The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'