Ian Whitcomb, who topped the U.S. charts in 1965, carves out a residency in Playa del Rey
By Michael Aushenker
The spirit of the British Invasion is still alive and kicking in Playa del Rey.
Ian Whitcomb — whose song “You Turn Me On” reached No. 8 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 1965 — has maintained a residency at Cantalini’s Salerno Beach for going on 14 years, including this Sunday night.
“Customers love Ian,” said Cantalini’s owner Lisa Schwab. “He is a true entertainer!”
Whitcomb was there on Jan. 4, performing such popular tunes as “That’s Amore!” and “Alley Cat” at Cantalini’s 15th anniversary luncheon party to a neighborhood Italian restaurant packed with diners still flush from New Year’s Eve.
Whitcomb — who lives with wife Regina in Altadena — has become a fixture of the Culver Boulevard spot since 2001. He loves making the cross-town trek to perform for Westsiders because “the staff is very kind to us,” Whitcomb said. “Lisa loves us and she always gives us a nice dinner. It’s very congenial.”
A decade ago, Whitcomb organically became part of Cantalini’s fold after sitting in with his accordion alongside guitarist/mandolin player Tom Marion. Soon, he was playing alternate nights with bassist Dave Jones and guitarist Fred Sokolow; an expanded version of his trio plays other venues under the moniker Ian Whitcomb and the Bungalow Boys.
Some originals he’ll play at a Cantalini’s gig include “When You’re There” (from the 2002 movie “Last Call”) and one dedicated to Schwab’s seaside establishment, “March Cantalini.”
“He can engage the whole restaurant with one of his whimsical songs,” Schwab said. “The children love to sit at his feet or dance around when he sings. He has a wonderful energy, never overpowering … just easy and fun!”
Actor Henry Winkler, Motley Crue’s Mick Mars and Venice artist Don Bachardy (who years ago drew Whitcomb’s portrait) are among the Cantalini’s diners who have caught Whitcomb’s act.
Born in Woking, England, Whitcomb came from a musical household. His father played piano. His percussionist younger brother Robin played tambourine on Sonny & Cher’s biggest hit, “I Got You Babe.”
Inspired by musicians such as Elvis Presley, Johnnie Ray and Guy Mitchell, Whitcomb evolved into a musician himself, forming a skiffle group in 1957, followed by a rock band. In college, he founded the Dublin rhythm and blues band Bluesville. Their songs “This Sporting Life” and “You Turn Me On” both charted on the U.S. Billboard charts in 1965. That same year, Whitcomb played the Hollywood Bowl with The Beach Boys. He soon opened for the Rolling Stones, The Kinks and Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs.
Whitcomb’s interest in the ukulele pre-dated Tiny Tim’s infatuation with the quirky string instrument. In 1966, Whitcomb employed it on the old comedy number “Where Did Robinson Crusoe Go with Friday on Saturday Night?” and into the early 1970s on four LPs and a Mae West album he produced.
“I always played ukulele,” Whitcomb said. One day, The Turtles’ Mark Volman heard him. “He said, ‘You should record these songs.’ I never thought I was a rock ’n’ roller. I always was an entertainer. I didn’t need a rock ’n’ roll band. My heart is in the old ballads.”
Plus: the rock music he crushed on had gone down a rabbit hole of “drugs and psychedelia, and I wasn’t interested in that. I like healthy living, being outdoors — not staying inside, smoking marijuana and being pretentious.”
Whitcomb enjoyed collaborating with legendary silver screen comedienne West: “She was wonderful to work with. She’d make me a tuna sandwich wrapped in grease-proof paper.”
Whitcomb got the gig because West had recorded “You Turn Me On” and “Nervous.”
So after meeting at West’s Ravenswood apartment (packed with paintings of nude men) in Hollywood, they recorded “Great Balls of Fire,” financed by MGM Records’ Mike Curb (future lieutenant governor of California). West’s album included Whitcomb compositions “The Naked Ape” and “Men,” and her liberal take on The Doors’ “Light My Fire.”
“At the end of it, she shouts, ‘Where’s the fire?’ [then replies], ‘In your eyes, big boy, in your eyes,’” Whitcomb recalled, chuckling.
With 1997’s “Titanic: Music as Heard on the Fateful Voyage,” Whitcomb won a Grammy Award for package design and was nominated for his liner notes. Other Whitcomb tunes appear on soundtracks such as the Pauly Shore comedy hit “Encino Man” and “Last Call,” starring Jeremy Irons.
Whitcomb has also authored music industry-related books, novels and memoirs. He landed an L.A. Theater Award for “The Jazz Age,” has produced the documentary “Legends of Rhythm and Blues” for England’s Channel Four, backed Jazz Age-revival singer Janet Klein, and hosted a Sirius XM ukulele program.
On the 2000 solo album “Sentimentally Yours,” Whitcomb lilts over the accordion-kissed “Good Evening” while “My Dog Has Fleas” is kind of what “Martha, My Dear” was to Paul McCartney’s sheepdog: an ode to man’s best friend (specifically the late Rollo; Whitcomb also penned “Goodbye, Dear Friend” after prior pooch Inspector passed away). More originals —“I Love You,” “On Paradise Island”— express nods to romance while well-chosen covers (Al Jolson’s “Mother of Mine,” Irving Berlin’s “When I Lost You”) showcase Whitcomb’s taste and range.
Whitcomb bought his San Gabriel Valley home in 1979 but only secured his American citizenship in 2012, around the time he suffered a stroke, from which he has been methodically recuperating.
Come Sunday though, the seasoned musician has no idea what he’ll perform.
“I never know. I have a book full of songs and we play whatever we feel like playing,” he said.
“Dreams will heal your heart,” Whitcomb croons on his ditty “Dreams.” And apparently, given his rich resume, Whitcomb has made many of his own aspirations come true.
Whitcomb performs at 6:30 p.m. Sunday at Cantalini’s Salerno Beach, 193 Culver Blvd., Playa del Rey. Call (310) 821-0018 or visit salernobeach.com.