May 13, 2018
Todd plays "Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Dop)" on the piano.
SCATMAN JOHN - SCATMAN (SKI-BA-BOP-BA-DOP-DOP)'
A one-hit retrospective
Todd: So, here's a major life event that happened to me recently.
Clip from The Blues Brothers of the brothers' car falling apart, captioned with "REENACTMENT"Todd: Heh. Well, that put me back some cash, so...
Screenshot from Todd's PatreonTodd (VO): ...I decided to sell some requests again.
Todd: I more than doubled the price, and even still...
Screenshot from Todd's Patreon, headline "Well that's a disaster"Todd (VO): ...I got swamped with requests before I realized I should put a limit on it. (Caption: I DON'T LEARN VERY FAST)
Todd: Ugh, but I don't really mind. I like doing the requests. 'Cause there's so much in the wide world of music that I wouldn't be exposed to if not for them. For example, let's take a look at...
Screenshot from Todd's Patreon, showing a patron's requestTodd (VO): Jetrix Adune, our first requester, and see what they requested.
Video for "Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Dop)" by Scatman John
Todd does a double take
Scatman: Ski-bi dibby dib yo da dub dub, yo da dub dub
Ski-bi dibby dib yo da dub dub, yo da dub dubTodd (VO): Well now, who could this dapper older gentleman be?
Todd: Sir, would you care to introduce yourself to the audience?
Scatman: I'm the Scatman!Todd (VO): That's right. The Scatman. John Larkin, aka Scatman John, was a 53-year-old man in 1995, who'd never once recorded a pop song in his life. And he was the world's unlikeliest eurodance star with his introductory hit, (single cover for...) ": "Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Dop)".
Scatman: Everybody stutters one way or the other...Todd (VO): He didn't look like a pop star. (picture of Scatman John) He looked like a wedding band guitarist at best. But he owned the charts across the globe with his breakthrough single.
Todd: How? With scat. And by scat, I of course mean...
Picture of an album titled Vocal JazzTodd (VO): ...the singing technique consisting of improvised nonsense syllables that mimic the solos of jazz instrumentalists.
Todd: Yes, I know that "scat" has picked up a second meaning. (picture of chocolate ice cream) I'm gonna need you all to be grown-ups on this one. I can't promise I won't make a couple cheap jokes, but if we giggle every time I say the word "scat", we're not gonna get anywhere. Get it out of your system now.
Scatman: You are the Scatman
Video continues under ToddTodd (VO): Oh yeah. People have been begging me for this one for years, and I've always blown it off because I have no memory of this song. In 1995, the only music I was interested in was the Sonic and Knuckles soundtrack. So what I knew of it was that was a goofy novelty single of the kind that the mid-90s spat out with machine gun repetition.
Todd: But I am glad that I got this one for a request, because the Scatman's story and music is just heartwarmingly wonderful.
Scatman: If the Scatman can do it, so can youTodd: So let's check out the guy who put the "ski-ba-di-bop" in "Ski-ba-bop-ba-dop-dop".
Ding dong dong dong, do-dong-ding. Where's the Scatman?Before the hit
Todd: Before we get to the song "Scatman", we have to get to the actual Scatman himself, before he was the Scatman.
Picture of Scatman JohnTodd (VO): His name is John Larkin, he's from California...
Todd: ...and he is extremely legit.
Footage of John Larkin playing jazz pianoTodd: (hesitantly) I... can... totally do that. Um... (raises hands to keyboard)
Todd (VO): He is an actual jazz cat who'd been performing for decades in LA before he got big. And he is the real deal. He emulated all the greats.
Todd: And by that, of course, I mean he had a serious drug problem in true jazz fashion. He did get over it, though.
Todd (VO): He did release one jazz album in 1986.
Todd: I did take a listen to it.
Album cover of John Larkin appears while the song "The Misfit" plays
John: 'Cause things you call dead haven't yet had the chance to be born (long piano solo)Todd: Jesus Christ. Thank God this wasn't the hit, or I'd never get through my intro.
More live footage of JohnTodd (VO): So you can tell when we say he was a jazz performer, we mean like the real jazz, not like Kenny G or anything. This is not like elevator music, this is the hard stuff with, like, 15-minute solos and time signature changes and everything.
Todd: Also important to know: he has a stutter.
Scatman John interview on the Norwegian TV series Rondo, 1995
John: Yeah, I'm a person that st-st-st-stutters. I have to tell everyone that so th-th-that they don't think I'm crazy up here.Todd (VO): That's obviously gonna be relevant when we start talking about the big hit, but... uh, yeah, he has a stutter, and if you know anything about speech therapy, you know that singing is a popular way to deal with it.
More live footageTodd (VO): But singing came late to the Scatman. His original instinct was to hide behind his piano and it took him many years to have the courage to add vocals.
Todd: So how on earth did a guy like this become involved in techno? Well, I dunno if you noticed, but jazz hasn't really been popular in many decades.
Screen shot of New York Times article, headline "For US Jazz Players, Europe Is the Place to Be"Todd: But it is a little bit more popular in Europe, so in 1990 he took a chance and moved to Berlin.
More live footageTodd (VO): And he started doing pretty well. You know, well enough over there. Good enough to snag a record deal.
Todd: But you know what was doing really well?
Video for "Mr. Vain" by Culture Beat
Tania Evans: I know what I want and I want it nowTodd (VO): Yes, it was the height of Eurodance. So his manager was like...
Live footage of Scatman John singing scatTodd (VO): ..."Hey, you do this insane scat singing and you're really good at it. Why don't we put a dance beat under it?"
Todd: And John was like, "But will people make fun of me when they find out I stutter?" And his wife was like, "Just make it part of the song." And so...
The big hit
Footage of Scatman John performing live at the Jazz Bakery
Female presenter: In January, he will have an album coming out on RCA Victor. They keep saying to me, "well, it's not exactly a jazz album", but it's gonna be good if it's him, and it's gonna be some kind of a little crossover album, and the title may be Scatman.
Video for "Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Dop)"
Scatman John: Ska-badabadabadoo-belidabbelydabbladabbladabblabab-belibabbelibabbelibabbelabbelo-doobelidoo
Todd interrupts with vaguely scat-sounding gibberish and flipping his lips, followed by a clip of Porky Pig saying "Th-th-th-that's all, folks!" and Popeye muttering
Scatman: I'm the Scatman!Todd (VO): Yeah, this song doesn't make you wait. It knows what you're here for. You're not here for the beat or the riff, or certainly not the verses.
Todd: You're here for rapid-fire incomprehensible nonsense. And you can get that from sports radio, obviously... (picture of Jeremy Conn and Scott Garceau at WJZ The Fan) ...but it's more fun this way.
Scatman: ...those things you call dead haven't yet had the chance to be bornTodd (VO): Hey, wait a minute. That's what he sang on (picture of...) his jazz album! What a weird mismatched pair of songs to be connected.
Todd: Now I can't imagine what the reaction was at the time.
Todd (VO): I don't know the last time that a jazz vocal record was popular before this.
Todd: (shrugs) Was it (performance footage of...) Louis Armstrong's "Hello, Dolly"? That was 30 years before this!
"Scatman" video resumesTodd (VO): So the Scatman bringing that to modern music was something new. But was it that weird?
Todd: Honestly, I don't think it was.
Todd (VO): Scatman John came out at a time when Eurodance producers realized that they could basically throw a thumping beat under anything.
Todd: Old soft-rock hits?
Clip of "Please Don't Go" by KWSTodd: Yeah. Cuban jazz?
Clip of "Magic Carpet Ride" by Mighty Dub KatzTodd: Sure. The Charleston?
Clip of "Doop" by DoopTodd: Absolutely. Old American folk songs?
Clip of "Cotton Eye Joe" by RednexTodd: Ugh. Not that you should, but yes you can.
"Scatman" video resumesTodd (VO): Still, of all the gimmicks, this is probably the best one. I mean, you can't get this anywhere else. Who would even think of combining jazz singing and Eurodance? These genres are a billion miles away from each other, right?
Todd: Well, kind of. On one hand, I do see what they have in common.
Clip of Ella Fitzgerald singing "One Note Samba"Todd (VO): Scat singing is a substitute for, you know, lyrics with actual words.
Clip of "Better Off Alone" by Alice DeejayTodd (VO): Lyrics aren't super important to techno, either. A lot of techno songs don't have lyrics at all...
Todd: ...and when there are lyrics, they're not usually the focus.
Clip of Cab Calloway performing "Minnie the Moocher"Todd (VO): Plus, scatting is, a lot of the time, using your voice like an instrument to play riffs and musical phrases.
"Scatman" video againTodd (VO): And a lot of these Eurodance songs are based around one synth riff. I mean, that's all the Scatman is doing there, he's singing the riff.
Todd: On the other hand, there is a lot of distance between these genres, and I'm not just talking about the time difference.
Random jazz clipsTodd (VO): Jazz is about soul. Scat singing is an entirely improvisational art form. Eurodance is not improvisational.
Clip of "Another Night" by Real McCoyTodd (VO): It's tight and controlled, and it's deeply, uncomfortably repetitive! It's the same 4/4 thump over and over again. There's no riffing, there's no solos, you don't have to play it live.
Todd: The Scatman's entire style clashes with all of that.
Scatman: Where's the Scatman? I'm the Scatman.
Todd (VO): And I think that's why I really like the Scatman. 'Cause he's got this raw, very not-slick edge he's bringing to this kinda sterile genre.
Scatman: I hear you all ask 'bout the meaning of scat
Well, I'm the professor and all I can tell you is...Todd (VO): He's a middle-aged man. He's done some living.
Clip of "What Is Love?" by HaddawayTodd (VO): He's not smooth like Haddaway...
Clip of "Cotton Eye Joe"Todd (VO): ...he's not a condescending joke like Rednex.
Clip of Scatman John singing live
Scatman: I'm the ScatmanTodd (VO): The thing about Scatman is, he's really not a polished vocalist. He doesn't have the most powerful of voices, he struggles to stay on-key, but let him spray some random syllables, and Bam!
Scatman: (rapid-fire scatting)
Todd (VO): But he does have one thing in common with Eurodance.
Todd: He is a total dork.
Todd (VO): His entire existence is pure camp, especially the rapping.
Scatman: Why should we be pleasin' in the politician heathens
Who would try to change the seasons if they could?
The state of the condition insults my intuitions
And it only makes me crazy and a heart like woodTodd (VO): You see, this isn't just a song about scatting. It's a message song.
Scatman: Everybody stutters one way or the other
So check out my message to youTodd (VO): A message of hope and inspiration.
Todd: It's his life story.
Scatman: Everybody's saying 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
You are the ScatmanTodd (VO): It's his story of overcoming his stutter...
Todd: Which, I mean, being real here, that's a fairly serious disability.
Todd (VO): He struggled with it all his life, and now here he is. He turned it into his career. He's a professional singer.
Scatman: As a matter of fact, I don't let nothin' hold you back
If the Scatman can do it, so can youTodd: No, no, no. I absolutely cannot do that. Here, this is me trying to do that. (tries to sing scat, stutters briefly and spits) See, it's not as easy as it looks. And it doesn't look that easy.
Todd (VO): This is, like, the speed metal of scatting. Even if I learned to scat sing, I couldn't sing it that fast. I can barely hear it that fast.
Todd: In fact, are we sure this isn't just (clip of...) the Micro Machines guy in a different hat? And maybe he was influential...
Clip of "Blue (Da Ba Dee)" by Eiffel 65Todd (VO): ...'cause I certainly noticed other people singing nonsense syllables in dance songs after him.
Todd: I only ever found it annoying. I just don't like Eurodance! It's an irritating genre.
"Scatman" video continuesTodd (VO): And I can honestly understand anyone who doesn't like the Scatman either.
Clip of Scatman John performing liveTodd (VO): He's just so cheesy and upbeat. He's like a children's singer.
Back to "Scatman" videoTodd (VO): But he's so sincere about it. There's just no cynicism in him whatsoever. He wants to make the world a better place, and who can deny that?
Todd: And now let's drain this one-trick pony for all it's worth!
The failed follow-up
Todd: Are you ready for "Scatman's World"?
Video for "Scatman's World"
Scatman: (scatting) Scatman's World.Todd: Yes, Scatman's World. Not to be confused with the other 90s artifact (promotional picture for...) Beakman's World, which taught you about science and got entirely forgotten because it wasn't as good as (picture of...) Bill Nye.
"Scatman's World" video continuesTodd (VO): The world of the Scatman is a magical place where everyone's free to be who they are. There is no pain or dishonesty.
Todd: It's called Scatland.
Scatman: Calling out from ScatlandTodd (VO): And I cannot emphasize enough... (picture of Google page with a big red X over it) ...do not Google "Scatland".
Todd: Especially don't click on any links in German.
Video titled "Welcome to Scatland", showing glass exploding in a woman's face before she drownsTodd (VO): Ugh, there's some gross imagery
Scatman: Calling out from Scatland
I'm calling out from Scatman's WorldTodd (VO): Well, anyway, as you can see, the Scatman John mythology is starting to get a little deep. He has a whole country now.
Man in video: Scatman's World is the place to go!Todd: This seems to be a thing with European dance stars. I mean... (clip of...) the Venga Boys had their Venga Bus, (clip of...) Eiffel 65 had their little blue alien guys' adventures. It's like they were all angling for their own cartoon show.
Scatman: Scatman, fat man, black and white and brown man
Tell me 'bout the color of your soulTodd (VO): And was this a hit? Yes, of course it was a hit. Not in this country of course, but Eurodance is for Europe. So naturally he reached almost as many countries as he did the first time.
Todd: Techno is not really a genre for long careers. But the fact that a guy like this made it to song number two is impressive in its own right. Even with this song, which... okay, it's not all that good.
"Scatman's World" video continuesTodd (VO): I mean, I wanted to hear more scatting, but it's at a minimum here. There's just not a lot to separate it from anything else out at the time.
Todd: But he never dropped the scatting gimmick entirely, as judging by his other works like "Scatman's Dance", "Scatmusic", "Scat Mambo", and "Scat Me If You Can".
"Scatman's World" video continuesTodd (VO): (laughing) And the dude's just so corny!
Todd: (makes the peace sign) Peace, love, happiness, and all that jazz.
Scatman: My intention is prevention of the lie, yeahTodd (VO): Yeah, the dude basically became a cartoon character. And I can definitely think of at least one guy this reminds me of. There was this one other German guy around at the same time, who was doing a lot of the same forced-fun schtick.
Todd: And that's good ol' Captain Jack.
Video for "Captain Jack" by Captain Jack
Captain Jack: Hey oh, Captain Jack (Hey oh, Captain Jack)
Bring me back to the railroad track (Bring me back to the railroad track)Todd (VO): You don't know who that guy is, well, you didn't play a lot of DDR. But he was very big in Germany. Me, personally, I prefer the Scatman. But if you like your dance music more in-your-face, you can go with the Captain.
Todd: Yeah, I bet they had a huge rivalry. Maybe the Captain led a military assault on Scatland at one point. And then, of course, we have to get to the other single off that album, the national anthem of Scatman's World, (single cover for...) "Song of Scatland".
Scatman: Imagine a land of love
Where people have time to care
Where everybody's equal...Todd: (chin in hand) Oh boy.
Scatman: The society of Scatland is composed of very loving, caring people who have never even heard of political corruption...
Scatman: We've got to believe in loveTodd (VO): I love you, Scatman. I really do.
Todd: But who in God's name is this for?! Who could possibly want this?!
Scatman: The people of Scatland speak in Scatish
Scatish is a language not quite like a leprechaun...Todd (VO): They speak in Scatish, huh?
Todd: That's great. I assume that's like Simlish?
Gameplay footage of The SimsTodd (VO): Just incomprehensible gibberish all around?
Video resumesTodd (VO): But he's still gonna scat over this, right? He's gotta. I don't know how you'd do it, but...
Scatman: (scat singing)Todd: ...He did it. He did it.
Did he ever do anything else?
Video for "Everybody Jam!"
Scatman: Hey, Louis!
Louis Armstrong: Yeah?
Scatman: Is that you?
Louis: Yes, yes.
Scatman: Oh, I'm Scatman John! Would you like to sing a song, man?
Louis: Well, I sure could!
Both: 1, 2, 3, 4!Todd: Okay, I love absolutely everything about this.
Scatman: Everybody party down in Louisiana
Everybody jam...Todd (VO): This is the single from his second album, "Everybody Jam!" And to me this is his best song.
Todd: "I'm the Scatman", you know, that was -- that was proof of concept.
Todd (VO): But this is the song where it becomes not a novelty anymore. That trumpet work is great, he's doing a virtual duet with Louis Armstrong, but it sounds like a real song. I mean, it's still cheesy as hell. He's teaching you about how great Louis Armstrong was. But if you ask me, this is the best thing you could've gotten by making this aging jazz hipster make his music work with a dance beat under it.
Scatman: Wanna hear the greatest trumpet in the world?Todd (VO): Sadly, in both America and Europe, the appetite for 40s jazz-influenced techno had finally run its course. Truly a shame. And you'd think that'd be the end of the road for the Scatman.
Todd: Except for one little thing. It turns out that the Scatman was absolutely huge in Japan.
Title card reading "Big in Japan" appears, accompanied by a gong
Clip of "Su Su Su Super Ki Re i"Todd (VO): And when I say huge, I mean huge. Scatman is one of the biggest foreign acts of all time in Japan. Here. Here's a (screenshot of...) list on Wikipedia I found. Best-selling foreign albums in Japan.
Todd: And there's all the same acts you'd expect. You know, the Beatles, Mariah Carey, Queen, and of course... (screenshot zoomed in, "Scatman's World" by Scatman John is encircled in red) ...the Scatman.
Live footage of Scatman John performing in JapanTodd: They loved him to fucking death in Japan. Here he is on (picture of...) a can of Coke. There's a (picture of...) Funko doll of him.
Clip of a pudding commercialTodd (VO): He sold pudding. I think we can all agree. Between Japan and America, Japan got the better pudding salesman.
Picture of a Jell-O pudding ad with Bill Cosby, whose face is obscured with a black box reading "redacted"
More live footageTodd (VO): Unfortunately, he would not get to enjoy his overseas fame for very long. This story has a sad ending. In August of 1999, he collapsed onstage. It turned out that he'd been performing despite being diagnosed with lung cancer. He passed away a few months later in December of 1999. But no matter how tragic the ending, it is still in an inspiring story to me. He's a man who got one shot late in life, and he took it.
Todd: God bless you, Scatman.
Did he deserve better?
Todd: Yes. Definitely. Abso-ski-bi dibby dib-lutely.
Live footage of Scatman JohnTodd (VO): This was just a stupid novelty song to me before I did this episode. And now it is a song from one of my favorite artists I've ever covered here. I feel nothing but happiness listening to this. And though he is no longer with is, I truly believe that the Scatman is still out there in Scatland, making our dreams come true.
Closing Tag Song: "Scatman" by the Axel Boys Quartet
"Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Dop)" is owned by RCA Records
This video is owned by me