LOS ANGELES, May 25 (UPI) -- Ian Whitcomb, who had a hit record during the British invasion of the 1960s, now calls himself an ex-rock star and concentrates on preserving musical traditions stretching back to the earliest part of the 20th century.
Whitcomb scored his biggest pop hit with the breathy falsetto, "You Turn Me On!" In the interim, he has specialized in performing and chronicling what you might think of as "The Great American Songbook" -- with a special emphasis on Tin Pan Alley in its heyday.
With his band, The Bungalow Boys, he also performs some of his own songs, mainly from the '70s and the '80s -- but he is probably best known for his meticulous research and musical rendering of the songs that made the hit parade going back as far as World War I.
He does not profess to be a musical archeologist, as cabaret singer Michael Feinstein often does. Nor is he a re-creationist.
"I'm not dressing up in sleeve garters and straw hat," said Whitcomb in an interview with United Press International. "I think (the old songs) are just as relevant today as they were yesterday."
Whitcomb said he was especially proud of an observation about him made by the English writer Christopher Isherwood: "Ian Whitcomb goes into the darkest past and brings his specimens back alive."
As a youth in England during post-World War II reconstruction, Whitcomb said he first developed a desire to come to the United States compelled by the newly emerging forms of American music.
"We actually lived World War II-style until 1955," he said, complete with rationing and bombing targets that had not yet been restored to pre-war conditions.
Whitcomb recalled that before the war, the prevalent music in his culture was smooth and sweet, suggestive of the Art Deco style popular during the '30s.
"But after World War II there was a rejection of this style," he said. "Rhythm and blues became popular, welded itself to country and western, and became rock 'n' roll."
Whitcomb said British youth were "thunderstruck" when they heard "Rock Around the Clock" in the opening credits of "Blackboard Jungle," writer-director Richard Brooks' 1955 movie classic.
"We got rock 'n' roll in a very neat package," he said. "We didn't know its ethnic background. We didn't know the suffering that blacks had been through to produce the blues. What we saw rock 'n' roll as was a purely all-American thing. I was immediately seduced by it and I immediately wanted to come to this country."
Whitcomb branched out from rock 'n' roll, delivering fox trots, waltzes, tangos, swing -- you name it -- to audiences.
"I even sang (the Marty Robbins hit) 'A White Sports Coat and a Pink Carnation,'" he said.
Whitcomb launched the literary component of his career with the 1969 book, "After the Ball." The book was an account of his experience with fame on the U.S. pop charts, but in the process of writing it he examined pop music all the way back to what is widely regarded as the first pop hit, "After the Ball."
"That started me becoming known as a historian," he said.
Whitcomb went on to write more than a dozen more books and produce documentaries such as "Legends of Rhythm and Blues."
In 2001 he was musical adviser to Peter Bogdanovich's period film "The Cat's Meow." In 1998 he released "Songs from the Titanic Era," a CD of music that the band on the ill-fated ocean liner played.
In August Whitcomb will join jazz legend Dave Brubeck, comedian Mort Sahl, guitarist Al Caiola and the Legends of Doo-wop for the annual Oregon Festival of American Music in Eugene. He said he is booked for the opening night concert and is looking forward to singing "Hound Dog" with a 30-voice male choir and orchestra.
For a man who holds the old songs so dear, Whitcomb shows perhaps surprising tolerance for contemporary popular music -- including hip-hop.
"I'm not against it, but it's not for me," he said. "I don't like to sound like an old fossil, but I suppose I am, in a way."
Whitcomb turns 63 in July.
"In fact, I think (hip-hop) is a very viable form of pop," he said. "The fact that it's popular proves that. The people who make successful pop are expressing what the masses cannot express."
But Whitcomb said that, as far as he can tell, there haven't been any new developments in music -- melody, harmony and rhythm -- since bebop.
"There have been some really great songwriters -- The Beatles and Burt Bacharach, for example," he said.
Whitcomb suggested that Tin Pan Alley -- more than a place where catchy tunes sprang up -- actually provided something of a historical guide to the eras that produced those songs. He mentioned the example of "When Alexander Takes His Ragtime Band to France."
"It tells you about the cultural effect of the war," he said. "At the end of the war (the song goes), the most powerful thing isn't going to be American guns -- it's going to be ragtime. 'They'll put their guns away, shout hip hooray and dance.'
"And indeed that's what happened," said Whitcomb. "After World War I, the next thing they heard after ragtime was jazz. And ever since then American culture has conquered the world."
(Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.)