SCATMAN CROTHERS (By Tony Wilkinson, with grateful acknowledgement to Dieter Moll)
Born Benjamin Sherman Crothers, 23 May 1910, Terre Haute, Indiana
Died 22 November 1986, Van Nuys, California
Film and television buffs will connect straightaway with the name Scatman Crothers.
He had first appeared in motion picture in 1935 and had worked as a comedian and singer since the thirties. He was the first coloured artist to obtain a regular role in 1948 in a TV show ('Dixie Showboat'). However in addition, he loved Rhythm & Blues, Swing and Jazz music and in fact was also an accomplished singer. Indeed, whilst lying in bed dying of lung cancer, he asked for his 1931 four string guitar to be bought to him and then played for the nursing staff. He had recorded for over four decades for numerous big and small record companies but without making a major commercial impact.
Scatman was born as Benjamin Sherman Crothers on 23rd May 1910 in Terre Haute, Vigo, Indiana. His father Benjamin came from Jonesboro, Arkansas, and operated a second hand clothing store together with repairing shoes and cleaning houses to make a living. Scatman has been quoted on his father that 'They called my father a black Jew, because he was always hustling, always trying to make a buck. He didn┤t believe in being idle' Scatman always recalled his childhood as being a good one, with lots of music in the family. Dad played guitar, brother Lewis blew the coronet while his sisters and mum sang. However Sherman soon became the entertainer of the family with his singing as well as performing magic card tricks whilst dancing and yelling 'Abadabadobe'.
The Crothers were not a poor family, mainly because of their cumulative efforts in earning a living and as a result they had a little house complete with a garden, chickens and pigs on 922 Gilbert Avenue in a part of Terre Haute known locally as 'Baghdad'. Scatman grew up in a strong cosmopolitan society where different races and religions successfully co-existed along side each other. Later on 15th July 1937 in Cleveland, Ohio, he married Helen Mae Sullivan (1918-1997) who was a white lady of Hungarian extraction from Steubenville and clearly racial harmony was evident, as the couple remained an item for 49 years until Scatman sadly passed on. Sherman Crothers danced and entertained people in the streets of Terre Haute gradually learning his trade as an entertainer. He became interested in the local vaudeville scene as well minstrel, ragtime, blues and jazz music. Sherman, who had become proficient on guitar and drums, was hired by Cammie - a lady piano player who played in one of the many clubs in the red light district.
Having worked as a dishwasher, a bell boy, in a bottle factory and metal plant as well as learning to play a Hawaiian guitar, drums plus singing and dancing at the 'Fort Heyden' night club, he decided at the age of 17 to leave his 40.000 population home town and venture out into the big wide world. Together with a friend, the pair journeyed to first to Indianapolis and then onto Chicago. However, there were no vacancies in the entertainment business at that time and so he returned back to his hometown in 1930 where he recommenced working for John Chalos as well as appearing in some local nightclubs.
However he eventually linked up with Montague┤s Kentucky Serenaders as their orchestra leader. This was a ten piece coloured band from Lexington, Kentucky. In their old beat up bus, the Serenaders toured through Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Texas und Louisiana playing to white audiences in theatres. It was whilst in Texas on this tour that Scatman met Louis Armstrong for the first time. Also, when the piano player for The Serenaders left, Sherman hired a replacement young piano and guitar player by the name of Aaron 'T-Bone' Walker. Scatman left this band in 1931 and, upon arriving back in Terre Haute, he purchased his legendary Martin-Tenor Guitar from a thrift shop. From here, he went to Dayton, Ohio where he got a daily 15 minute radio show on WFMK (later WING). When asked about what name to use for the show, he had the idea 'Call me Scat Man.
Thus Sherman formally became known as 'Scat Man, the man with a thousand tunes'. He was the only coloured guy at the station and he carried on with what Louis Armstrong had started in 1926 with his (Louis) version of 'Heebie Jeebies'. Scat Man discarded the music charts and filled the song up with "shabadebedebedo" or "dobedebedebam", utilising his voice for lyrics and instrumental parts. During his spare time from the radio station he performed at the 'Classic', a coloured musical theatre. Returning home once again, he had become well known and so it was relatively easy to get a job at a local radio station as well as in a band. The band consisted of white musicians and the then segregation laws did not permit mixed outfits and this prevented him being declared as one of their members. However, crazy as it may seem, it was okay to use Scatman as a MC and entertainer on the side.
From here, he went on to founding his own Scat Man and His Cats trio. Scatman was unable to read music charts but instead he composed many songs by ear. After this outfit broke up, he went out as a solo act until 1933 when he was hired by Eddie Brown and his Tennesseans working as one of their entertainers and musical director. Around late 1933 or early 1934, famous bandleader Jimmy Lunceford booked the band for shows in New York where they performed at the legendary "Cotton Club" in the spring of 1934. After this, and for the next few years, he changed bands and locations on a regular basis, as he did not feel comfortable with other groups and in reality wanted to do his own thing. In 1936 he founded his own five-piece band including a then unknown musician by the name of Sam ┤The Man┤ Taylor. For a year they played in a Caucasian club 20 miles outside of Terre Haute.
Up to now, Scatman had arranged bookings for his band but now he realised that he need the services of agents such as Bert Gervis, who aided him with some promotional campaigns. Crothers performed at many of the white clubs around the area and even had a five-night radio broadcast from his show at Sam Wilcox┤s ┤CafÚ de Society┤ in 1943. In 1944 Bert Gervis talked him into going to Hollywood with his new trio where he stayed for about six month, making many contacts. He also became a member of the cast of 'Insults of 1944' at the Playtime Theater, Los Angeles. Around this time he used Stan Getz, then an eighteen-year old tenor saxophone player. After moving back and forth to Ohio a few times, the Crothers eventually settled in a new home in Los Angeles in 1945. Times were tough as many had been drafted into the armed forces thus forcing some clubs to close due to lack of patrons. However one gig in December 1945 was at the San Quentin State Prison, long before Johnny Cash played there. Due to the lack of bookings, Scatman was forced into breaking up his band on more than one occasion. Subsequent to this, Crothers spent six months as a member of the Slim Gaillard Trio, but this was not appealing as he was not allowed any solo spots but had to be merely content with the drumming role.
In 1948, he met radio star Phil Harris (24.6.1904-11.8.1995) who hailed from Linton, Indiana, and they stayed friends for many decades thereafter. Phil, who recorded for RCA Victor, requested Scatman to duet with him on Chattanooga Shoe Shine Boy that was then heavily promoted on the Phil Harris and Alice Faye Show on NBC. (However Red Foley and Gene Autry had the big hit versions of the song, and later it was rocked up by Freddy Cannon). Along with Vic Dickenson (Trombone), Riff Charles (Piano) and other musicians, he recorded some tracks for Capitol in 1948/49.
In 1948, Crothers had worked as a vocalist with saxophone player William M. 'Wild Bill' Moore who had had his hit when, along with fellow sax player Paul Williams, on 18th December 1947, We┤re Gonna Rock, We┤re Gonna Roll (Savoy #666) made position #14 on Billboard's Rhythm & Blues charts. Now Jules Bihari┤s Modern Records commissioned their own version, titled Rock And Roll, with Moore (tenor saxophone) and Milt Buckner (piano) whilst Scatman took the lead vocal. The record was released on Modern #674 and Billboard gave the waxing a great review. Incidentally, the song was one of the first records that Alan Freed presented on his new radio show in Cleveland on 12th July 1951. Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Moon Dog House! (.) And away we go with Wild Bill Moore pickin┤ up that tenor horn to blow it strong, on the Savoy label, and ┤Rock and Roll┤. (.) Boy, there┤s a real rockin┤ thing to get us off and rollin┤!. Freed had goofed by playing the Savoy release instead of the announced Scatman Crothers version.
In 1949, he did the Paramount Pictures show 'Dixie Showboat' on KTLA-TV that was a regular one-hour programme that included coloured artists in leading roles. Together with R&B artist Jimmy Wilson, he recorded the duet It┤s A Sin To Tell A Lie that was released by the small Cava-Tone-Label (#252) under the name of Jimmy Wilson & The Scatman. This was subsequently re-released in 1952 by Aladdin Records (#3140) with Mistake In Life as the flip side. In spring 1951, Crothers signed a recording contract with the Intro Records, a subsidiary of Aladdin. The first two records, A Gruntin┤ And A-Groanin┤ b/w Free Samples (#6016) and King Berman┤s Stomp b/w Just Like Two Drops Of Water (#6017) were released in May 1951.
He met TV host Larry Finlay already in early 1950 and in the years to come was a guest on several of his shows like 'My Own Place', 'Strictly Informal' (KNXT) or 'Music Is My Beat' (ABC-TV). His television activities also comprised shows such as 'Beulah' (appearing in fifteen episodes playing the friend of the chauffeur) or 'The Colgate Comedy Hour' (his appearances lasted for two and a half years) with Donald O┤Connor and guest spots on 'The Jack Benny Show', 'Nat King Cole Trio' and the 'Steve Allen Show'. However back in 1949 he commenced doing voice-overs for cartoon or puppet characters with 'Time for Beany'. This facet of his career continued for a long time and he was, for example, one of the voices used in 'Aristocats' (1970).
Whilst he had made his first movie appearance back in 1935 in the nine minute movie short 'Symphony in Black' with Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, his film career commenced properly in 1951 with his inclusion in the fifty four minute Minstrel-Show 'Yes Sir, Mr. Bones'. The same company also made the thirty-five minute long 'The Return of Gilbert and Sullivan' on a two-day shoot in England. Scatman was the only American actor in the movie and the film won an award at the Cannes Festival in France. After appearances in a further three more shorts between 1952 and 1955, his movie career started to take off properly with the role of Enoch Jones in 'Meet Me at the Fair'. Another film role was in the 1953 'Walking My Baby Back Home'). Scatman recorded his version of the title song for Decca in 1953. Other movie starring roles included the films 'Johnny Dark' (1954) in which he sang, 'Between Heaven and Hell' (1956), 'The Gift of Love' (1958), and 'Tarzan and the Trappers (1958) with Gordon Scott as Tarzan as well as the being the voice of Wildman of Wildsville in the series 'Matty┤s Funday Funnies' (1959).
Whilst he had done well with his television and film appearances, Scatman still felt in need of the steady income derived from his live shows and therefore continued to perform in the clubs around the Los Angeles area. He also laid down tracks for John Dolphin┤s Recorded In Hollywood label sometimes using the name of his grandparents. The first was I Didn┤t Treat Your Daughter Mean (RIH #142) and was an answer song to Ruth Brown's Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean (Atlantic #986). This was followed by Elaine b/w Man Have I Got Troubles (RIH #152), I Love Your Mama Better b/w I┤d Rather Stay In The House (RIH 171) and Waiting For My Baby b/w Easy Money (RIH #401, circa spring 1953). Man Have I Got Troubles was in competition with the Wynonie Harris recording of the song on King #4468. Scatman then label hopped to the New York based Decca Records for two releases. Come 1955, Scatman was recording for Century Records, a company owned by Allen R. Blum in Burbank, California. The label issued two records that were followed in 1956 with Waitin┤ For My Baby c/w Sweet Lips on MGM (#K 12199, circa February 1956) whilst in 1957 he recorded Wandering and It┤s You for Modern (#20560).
Come 1956, rock 'n' roll was eclipsing all in its path. Two Los Angeles based businessmen, Ira Moss and Carl Doshay, had founded the Tops label with the aim of issuing quickly produced cover versions of hit parade tunes and selling them cheaply through outlets such as garages, supermarkets and elsewhere. Their mottos were '4 full length Top Hits for 49 Cents' and 'Build a Pops' Collection with Tops Records. The artists who made such recordings were either then unknown like Dave Burgess, who later found fame as a member of The Champs, or established stars who were no longer a hit parade item such as Lena Horne or the Ink Spots. Whilst Scatman Crothers was not an unknown in 1956, he was not a big star either and so he fulfilled the criterion of Tops Records. Moreover he was willing to make such recordings, some of which were issued under his own name whilst others were made available under a variety of names.
Scatman recorded mainly Rhythm & Blues songs that were released on 78s', EPs' and various artists albums. He also made a full album in his own right for the label that was titled 'Rock and Roll with Scat Man' (Tops L 1511). On this he was backed by well known swing and jazz musicians Babe Russin on tenor sax, guitarist Al Hendrickson, Larry Breen on bass percussionist Milt Holland, Jack Sperling on drums and pianist Paul Smith who also acted as arranger. The twelve songs on the album were recorded on May 21st and 28th 1956 at Radio Recorders in Hollywood. Amongst the titles were Ghost Riders In The Sky - a million seller for Vaughn Monroe in 1949, Exactly Like You, 1930 a hit for Ruth Etting, and September Song - which was sung by actor Charles Coburn in the 1944 movie 'Knickerbocker Holiday' but which made the charts in 1947 when performed by Sarah Vaughan. Also included was his own composition The Gal Looks Good along with Baby Won┤t You Please Come Home - a 1946 hit for Slim Gaillard, St. James Infirmary that came from 1926 via Louis Armstrong and was later made famous by Bobby Blue Bland and My Blue Heaven - 1936 a hit for Jimmie Lunceford and in 1949 was the title song for a Betty Grable and Dan Dailey movie. Two more recent songs, I┤m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter, which Billy Williams placed on the charts in 1957, and Please Don┤t Talk About Me When I┤m Gone were also included. Interestingly enough, Bill Haley and His Comets also cut both of the last mentioned.
Scatman then was called to record a varied selection of material such as his versions of the Huddie ┤Leadbelly┤ Ledbetter/Lonnie Donnegan classic Rock Island Line under the name ┤Scat Benny┤), Nervous Norvus's (aka Jimmy Drake) Transfusion, Gene Vincent┤s Be Bop A Lula, Big Mama Thornton┤s/Elvis Presley┤s Hound Dog and Sanford Clark┤s The Fool. Then there were his covers of Louis Armstrong┤s/Fats Domino┤s Blueberry Hill on Promenade under the name of ┤The Sugar Beat┤), I┤m Walkin' and I┤m In Love Again as well as Jimmy & Walter┤s/Ivory Joe Hunter┤s Since I Met You Baby.
In March 1957 movie actor and country star Gene Autry along with publishers Johnny Thompson and Joe Johnson started a new label on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood called Challenge Records together with the publishing company JAT Music (named after their initials). The Scatman Crothers recordings of Rock, Roma, Rock It! And Take Your Time were leased from Tops and issued as Challenge #59028 on 3rd November 1958. Whilst the cool night-club sound from Tops failed to achieve commercial success, Challenge released a second record by Scatman in the spring of 1960, namely Good Times Will Come b/w Planet Fazoo (#59065).
As the fifties drew to a close and into the early sixties, Scatman appeared in several movies such as 'Alias Jesse James' (with Bob Hope) or 'The Sins of Rachel Cade' (made in Zaire), but come 1964, he got another big shot by being included in the cast of 'The Patsy' during which he became friendly with the star, Jerry Lewis who then hired Crothers again for roles in 'The Family Jewels' (1965) and 'Three on a Couch' (1966).
When Hanna-Babera produced the television show 'The New Alice In Wonderland', it was with Sammy Davis Jnr. Performing the Cheshire Cat's voice in the ABC production on 30th March 1966. However, Davis was not available to do the title song and so Hanna-Babera Records hired Scatman to sing What┤s A Nice Kid Like You Doing In A Place Like This? for the album 'Alice In Wonderland' (Hanna-Barbera #2051). From here, Scatman went on to work in such movies as 'Bloody Mama' (1970) with Shelley Winters) and 'Chandler' (1971) with Warren Oates and Leslie Caron. He finally hired Don Schwartz, a professional agent, to give his film career a kick-start. Don succeeded in 1971/72 to obtain Crothers some roles in prominent movies such as the character Big Ben in the Diana-Ross starring film 'Lady Sings The Blues' based on the life of jazz legend Billie Holiday. To coincide with the film, he issued a self produced album in 1973 on Motown Records titled 'Big Ben Sings' .
Scatman signed up to appear as Lewis in the Columbia film 'The King of Marvin Gardens' and this brought him into contact with Jack Nicholson. The pair also acted in the 1978 Stanley Kubrick film 'The Shining'. For the last mentioned, Crothers won the award as Best Supporting Actor from the Academy of Science Fiction and Horror Movies.
From 1972 onwards, Scatman appeared in numerous television series such as 'Kojak', 'Petrocelli', 'Starsky and Hutch', 'The Love Boat', 'Charlie┤s Angels', 'Vegas', 'The Incredible Hulk', 'Magnum and 'Hotel'. In 1974, he gained one of the leading roles in the popular TV series 'Chico and the Man'. This success lead to more parts, including many in Hollywood blockbusters, which enabled him to work constantly up until 1986. On 8th April 1981, the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce presented him with a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame' His is located in front of the Egyptian Theatre.
On 23rd October 1985, he had been advised the devastating news by the doctor that his cancerous tumour could not be healed and that he may only have six months to live. This did not stop him on 2nd November1985 linking up by telephone from his hospital bed in Los Angeles to the ceremony that the NAACP (1) was holding at his hometown Terre Haute. He had not seen his hometown since 1969.
It also did not prevent him playing parts in the television series 'Morningstar/Eveningstar' as well as in 'Twilight Zone: The Movie'. However in June 1986, he decided that the work was getting too much for him. The hospital was unable to help any further and so he played on his Martin-guitar hoping for the best. The movie studios sent him many flowers and get-well presents that cheered him up. Eventually, it became clear that the illness was terminal and so his wife Helen took him home to spend his final days peacefully. Scatman died on 22nd November 1986 and he was buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Hollywood Hills with approximately 300 friends, fans and family attending the ceremony.
Hydra Records are shortly to issue a compilation of Scatman Crothers recordings, stay tuned.
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