(en) Obituary: Wally Whyton

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Friday, 28 Feb 1997 20.41 GMT


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FREEDOM PRESS INTERNATIONAL 84b, Whitechapel High St., London E1 7QX UK (sample edition of FREEDOM on request from London) ---------------------------------- OBITUARY Wally Whyton

The singer and broadcaster Wally Whyton who died 22nd January 1997 played at the last of the Anarchist Balls at Fulham Town Hall. He had replaced Long John Baldry in the Thameside Four, then featuring the late Redd Sullivan and the multi-octaved Marian Gray. Philip Sansom and myself, pursuing the anarchist principle of getting one's friends to work for nothing, brought in the Thamesiders as a support act for the Mick Mulligan Band.

However his contribution to an anarchist society was rather more subtle than a freebie gig at Fulham Town Hall. As one of the Vipers Skiffle Group he was part of that extraordinary mid '50s breakthrough that made music an everyday activity for ordinary people. It is difficult to appreciate in today's musically crowded culture the extent to which southern Britain at least was musically barren. 'Popular music' had no demotic base. It was something provided by a class of professional musicians and the idea of music as a practice, as something people did for themselves, was almost entirely absent. - --------------------------------------------------------- >>>> a-infos in one *byte* <<<<
majordomo@tao.ca subscribe a-infozine - ---------------------------------------------------------- So Wally Whyton and the Vipers were the wellspring of a stream that fed into both the folk revival and the whole rock 'n' roll/blues take-over of the ' 60s . It seems an exaggeration to say that Wally Whyton changed the course of British popular music yet there is a sense in which it was true. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones, Martin Carthy of Steeleye Span and Dave Swarbrick of Fairport Convention, Davy Graham, Dannie Thompson and Dave Green have all spoken of the impact the Vipers had on them as teenagers. So have Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch and Jet Harris who eventually joined The Vipers mark three before going on to become The Shadows.

Although the '2I's' was the place where the Vipers achieved their brief fame they originated in a free floating group of instrumentalists who came together in the Bread Basket Coffee House in Cleveland Street, North London. It was here that Lonnie Donegan, already a name, heard Wally perform the Vipers big number, Don't You Rock Me Daddy 0, and went off and recorded it himself.

Wally's laconic sense of humour enabled him to overcome this sort of thing with equanimity. In those pre-animal rights days the Vipers travelled with a set of exotic animals (and yes we are ashamed of it now) including two monkeys named Elvis and 'Iggins. One night at a party I had 'Iggins on my shoulder and was being pestered by Donegan to "Gi'us a go of yer monkey". Finally Donegan took the animal on his shoulder. 'Iggins promptly lifted Lonnie's lapel, shat enthusiastically, patted the lapel back in place and departed, leaving Donegan incandescent.

"Well" said Wally reasonably, "it was something many of us had wanted to do for a long time."

In fact he already had. It was Whyton who wrote the withering Donegan spoof Putting on the Smile for Peter Seller's 'Songs for Swinging Sellers' album. Cautiously though he'd used the family name, Behan, as a credit to avoid any direct confrontations.

In the Vipers days Wally Whyton was not particularly politically active although he was always ready to give his time to events like the Sharpeville benefit concert we put on at Saint Pancras Town Hall, which also featured poet Pete Brown, later to become Cream's lyric writer. He'd always had a horror of racism vhich had been fed by listening to the tales of Big Bill Broonzy, Brownie McGhee, and Jack Dupree in my Waterloo flat. It was the unnecessary uprooting of some oak trees near his home that led to the writing of Leave them Flower, now something of an anthem for conservationists - it was heard at Newbury for example. In the album of that name he wrote number of songs that took an overt political stance. He made his views on black oppression clear with the still moving Selma Alabama, on growing social and economic inequality with The Rich and the Poor, and on political activism with The Auction.

Like many things in his life he fell into broadcasting more or less by accident and was highly popular on television in spite of odd letters from viewers, which he treasured, saying his puppet character Ollie Beak was a Communist. However he was a natural for radio and a brilliant interviewer with a rare natural talent for making his subject feel liked. His radio shows included Country Meets Folk where he managed to get away with a massively popular competition for conservation songs. There were two hundred entries in one week for this contest. It is a measure of the growing intolerance of dissent in our society that such politically pregnant material would be quite unlikely today. He presented a number of shows and had a highly regarded spot on the World Service but it was Country Club for which he was best known. He presented this show for twenty years until one of the BBC's inexplicable reorganisations made it impossible for him to continue.

He was always interested in the whole range of music and in those days when folkies and lovers of New Orleans music were not supposed to like bebop I have happy memories of his mock surreptitious arrivals at Pearman Street, clutching records of Charlie Parker, Basie, Clifford Brown and Ornette Coleman.

It was this catholicity of taste that made him one of the great interviewers of the post '50s BBC, although it seems doubtful whether the Beeb realised just how good he was. Musicians did though and the late Brownie McGhee (who once stunned the youthful Whyton's father by drinking the family's medicinal whisky in two swigs) always made a point of recording Whyton' s shows when he was in Britain. Black blues singers don't often admire white presenters, but Brownie was genuinely impressed by Whyton's ease and professionalism.

His wife Mary (they met at the '2 I's'.forty years ago) says that after the recent CD reissue of the Vipers recordings he had been looking forward to reuniting with his earliest musical companions at the 100 Club ' s fortieth anniversary skiffle party in March. As the tributes come in from Nashville stars it is a measure of Wally's diffidence that he always stayed in contact with his old friends and colleagues.

Wally Whyton, singer/guitarist and broadcaster, born London 23rd September 1929, married (one son, two daughters), died 22nd January 1997. John Pilgrim

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