Somewhere in the mid-1990s, as a teenager, I came across this song that was creating ripples in music circles. And the more I heard it, the more the song grew on me – the song did have a peppy beat and some unique vocals.
It wasn’t a song of one of those ‘aww-so-cute’ boy-bands with custom made love songs or a song from one of those stunningly beautiful singers from girl-bands whose sexuality oozed off the screen and distracted viewers from their actual music, which was, more often than not, mediocre.
This was the song of a very unassuming middle-aged aged man who wore a black suit, a bowler hat, and a rather unfashionably thick moustache. Clearly, his song’s popularity had nothing to do with his extremely modest looks.
At the age of 53, John Larkin, an almost unknown Jazz pianist-turned-singer was making waves with his songs that was a fusion of disco and scat singing (a type of singing in which the singer improvises melodies and rhythms using his voice as an instrument rather than a speaking medium) and was selling records by the millions and giving all the pretty boys and girls sponsored by the big corporate labels a run for their money.
John Larkin was better known by the name Scatman John.
Everybody has a story, but some stories are just way more inspirational. As was John Larkin’s.
Larkin, who was born on March 13, 1942 in El Monte, California, suffered from a serious speech disability from the time he could speak – a severe stutter that traumatized him throughout his childhood. His stutter was supposedly so bad that he was afraid to speak because he struggled to string two sentences together, and was constantly ridiculed by other children in his neighborhood.
John started learning to play the piano when he was 12 and grew up became a professional jazz pianist.
John’s piano was his voice.
He was quoted as once saying, “I hid behind the piano when I was performing because I was scared of talking.”
John’s lifestyle, compounded with his speech problems, took him through a dark phase in his life where he got caught up in drug and substance abuse – he apparently finally came out of it following the death of a close friend, and with the support of his wife and the couple’s inner social circle.
It is said that the most defining moment of John Larkin’s life was when he received a standing ovation for his rendition of a 30’s jazz song called “”On the Sunny Side of the Street”. That was probably the moment he decided to put aside his insecurities aside and tried singing for the first time along with his piano performance.
Till his late forties, John, never really found noteworthy musical success despite being active for 2 decades as a jazz musician. He even came out with a self-titled LP record in 1986, known today only because of his fame that came much later.
John left California to move to Berlin, Germany, where Jazz was more happening in 1990.
It was his agent who suggested he try scat-singing with a combination of dance music. Larkin adopted the name Scatman John and working with his producers came up with his first single in his newly adopted genre – a song called “Scatman (Ski Ba Bop Ba Dop Bop)”
And things took a turn.
In 1995, at the age of 53, became a worldwide star – his single went on to sell over 6 million copies. Ostensibly his scat singing not only improvised on his stuttering problem but the words of his song as an inspiration for those suffered from speech defects.
“Everybody stutters one way or the other
So check out my message to you
As a matter of fact, I don’t let nothin’ hold you back
If the Scatman can do it, so can you
Everybody’s sayin’ that the Scatman stutters
But doesn’t ever stutter when he sings
But what you don’t know I’m gonna tell you right now
That the stutter and the scat is the same thing to you”
Scatman John came up with another single the same year called “Scatman’s World” – the song debuted in the top 10 in the charts and built on the singer’s repertoire.
Both his hit singles made it to his debut album as Scatman John, titled Scatman’s World released later that year and was a huge international success and was even one of the best-selling albums in Japan! He was so popular there that Japanese toy stores sold dolls of his likeness, and he even appeared on phone cards and Coca-Cola cans.
John Larkin became a symbol of success for the community of people who suffered from speech defects and e was a recipient of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association’s Annie Glenn Award for outstanding service to the stuttering community and National Stuttering Association Hall of Fame.
In 1998, John Larkin was diagnosed with lung cancer and passed away on Dec 3rd 1999 at the age of 57.
It is tragic that somebody who found acclaim late in his life after so much struggle was destined to live for barely four years after tasting success.
But it is said that John Larkin, aka Scatman John, remained positive till the very end of his life. He said, “Whatever God wants is fine by me … I’ve had the very best life. I have tasted beauty.”
Scatman John may never be counted as an all-time musical great and very few would probably remember his name a generation from now.
But his story serves as an inspiration for those felt let down by their disabilities. Like he sang in his most famous song – “If the Scatman can do it, so can you”.