Obituary: Tam White
Jazz, blues and rock 'n' roll singer famous for the theme song to TV show Tutti Frutti.
Born: 12 July, 1942, in Edinburgh.
Died: 21 June, 2010, in Edinburgh, aged 67.
THE sudden death of Edinburgh singer Tam White left the Scottish jazz and blues scene reeling. For five decades, the gravel-voiced singer had worked in all sorts of bands and had sung all sorts of music – rhythm 'n' blues and soul with his cult group The Boston Dexters, rock 'n' roll on the soundtrack of the iconic BBC Scotland TV series Tutti Frutti and jazz with the likes of pianist extraordinaire Brian Kellock.
In the past 30 years, he was a fixture at jazz and blues festivals, where he invariably served up the unexpected, whether it was Celtic-tinged blues and jazz with the big band he formed with Boz Burrell, or powerful duets with Kellock.
Fiona Alexander, the producer of the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, says: "Tam was a mainstay of the festival programme. He lit up the stage and held audiences in the palm of his hand. And he was planning a new project for this year's event."
It wasn't only the White voice which was familiar; his distinctive face, craggy, mustachioed and bespectacled, and framed by long white hair pulled back into a ponytail, has been seen on TV and in movies, most famously Mel Gibson's Braveheart and in the BBC soaps EastEnders and River City.
White, who lived in a flat in the Grassmarket until he was 13, came from a musical family. His grandfather was bandmaster in Gilmerton, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. In 2002, in an interview commemorating his 60th birthday, White told The Scotsman that his parents loved music and that he and his dad used to cycle on a tandem at weekends, up to Perth or down to Moffat – "him on the front, me at the back, singing".
When he was 11, White's singing won him a talent contest at the Ross Bandstand in Princes Street Gardens, but he sold his prize – a ten-shilling book token – to an ice-cream man. He took piano lessons and sang in the school choir at Darroch Senior Secondary, but never learned to read music. Success in school opera productions led to his auditioning for the Edinburgh Opera Company, but the lure of rock 'n' roll proved irresistible and all-consuming to the teenager.
White began his apprenticeship as a stonemason when he was 15. At the same time, he started to become known around the clubs in Edinburgh that he talked his way into. He made his first professional appearance with a skiffle band, but was soon seduced by the blues, which he later said he first heard while he was hitch-hiking (in a kilt) in Holland. He heard the Ray Charles hit What'd I Say being played on the car radio. "And that was it," he later said.
The American servicemen he hung out with in Lothian Road clubs introduced him to the blues shouter Jimmy Witherspoon and what he called "the jazzier side of the blues" and this shaped his early repertoire.
In 1964, he formed The Boston Dexters and enjoyed his first taste of the big time when they were lured to London and became the house band at the Pontiac Club, a venue headlined by every notable band of the day.
A contract with Columbia Records turned out to be a poisoned chalice, as the label tried to fit the Scottish r'n'b band into a Beatles mould. Their single, I've Got Something to Tell You – the song was foisted upon them – flopped and bore no relation to the sound that had made record execs take notice in the first place.
The band split up, and White, who was signed as a solo artist to Decca, found he was being turned into "the next Tom Jones". Recalling this bleak time, he told The Scotsman in 2002: "Everyone wanted me to be somebody else. I did a series for STV in the 1970s, my own show, and I ended up in a monkey suit – it was incredibly embarrassing – and doing working men's clubs. I got hooked into that, anything to make a living."
Nevertheless, he made music history by becoming the first person to sing live on Top of the Pops, with a surprise Top 40 hit – What In the World's Come Over You.
After chucking it all in the late 1970s for a few years – during which time he returned to stonemasonry and, by his own admission, became "a pain in the ass nobody wanted to know" because of his drinking – White relaunched his blues career in 1980. He took up songwriting, stopped boozing and started exercising more discernment in his choice of gigs. So, when he found himself being tempted by a healthy fee to sing on a frozen foods advert being directed by the eccentric Ken Russell, he was able to walk away, credibility and self-respect intact.
One soundtrack gig he did accept was in the award-winning, career-making TV series Tutti Frutti, in 1987. Its writer, John Byrne, said yesterday: "Tam White was an absolute natural for the singing voice of Big Jazza, the Beast of Rock, in Tutti Frutti. We bless the day he agreed to accept the gig. A great guy and a great loss to down and durty rock 'n' roll."
White reformed the Dexters in the 1980s, and the new version included, at one stage, a young musician who went on to become one of his key collaborators, Brian Kellock. He remembers initially finding White "a frightening figure". However, they quickly became lifelong friends. "From then on, I can't remember a month without him, really. He was a constant in my life. He got me through loads of hard times, because he'd been through it. He was a sort of second dad, when my dad died. I tried to steer him to the jazz side, and I must admit I thought he sounded fantastic on the duo album we did."
Kellock adds: " His loss is immense – he had a massive personality, and he was still only 18 in his head."
Fiona Alexander adds: "He could be blunt, but underneath he had a heart of gold. Tam was one of life's originals. He'll be hugely missed by the festival and by Edinburgh's musical community and his many audiences."
He is survived by wife Moira, two children, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
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