Music History: The Unlikely Success of a 53 Year-Old Stuttering Singer

Not all musicians find success at a young age. For some, fame comes much later in life and for reasons they didn’t think possible. Take Scatman John, for example. Born in 1942 in El Monte, California, John Paul Larkin started stuttering from the time he could talk. It made communicating with others difficult for him and as a child, he would fight the neighbourhood kids who mocked him. He turned to music as a form of escape.

According to Tedium:

“Early in his life, music became a nonverbal source of creative expression. Larkin gravitated toward jazz piano and first learned about the scat style of singing listening to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald”.

As an adult, Larkin worked as a musician, playing at bars and festivals. Finally, at the age of 42, he released his first album. After sobering up from years of drug and alcohol abuse, the Scotsman and his wife moved to Berlin. There, he secured an agent and played the European hotel circuit, finally making enough money to make a living as a musician.

With Europe’s greater acceptance of jazz, Larkin found the confidence to add singing into his routine. After reporting standing ovations at some of his performances, Larkin began to really believe he could sing.

As Tedium points out, “Larkin’s growing musical reputation eventually led to a music contract with BMG Hamburg, which had a unique idea to incorporate his jazz scatting with the house music dominating Europe at the time”.

At age 53, Scatman had a surprise hit, “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)” after teaming up with producer Antonia Catania. With lyrics that told the story of Larkin’s stutter, the song blends jazz scatting, rap, and house beats in a very ‘90s fashion. An accompanying music video made the rounds on MTV. Steady airplay caused the single to eventually chart in two dozen countries, reaching number one in half of those, including Canada, France, and Italy.

In addition to his album and single sales, Larkin found his music a home in entertainment and advertising. A Good Humor ad campaign and the Martin Lawrence/Tim Robbins comedy Nothing to Lose (1996) used “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)”. The song’s music video was even featured in a Beavis and Butthead episode.

While in North America and most of Europe, Larkin’s subsequent releases made little impact, his third album became a massive hit in Switzerland and Japan. In Japan in particular, the Scatman became something of a pop icon. Not only did he appear in commercials, but he also received his own impersonation — complete with fedora and moustache — on the TV series Ultraman.

Unfortunately his pop-stardom only lasted four years, as he passed away of lung cancer in 1999. However, he fully embraced his unlikely mass success and took advantage of the platform to speak about issues near and dear to his heart. Particularly stuttering. In 2000, Larkin was posthumously inducted into the National Stuttering Association’s Hall of Fame for his contributions.

It took years for Scatman John to accept and become comfortable with his stutter. However, once he gained the confidence to use his voice in his music, he proved to not only himself, but also the world that even the most unlikely of people can become pop phenomenons.

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