Interview: Scatman John
'The Stutter And The Scat Is The Same Thing"
by Ira Zimmerman, Advance for Speech Pathologists and Audiologists Magazine, November 20, 1995For the speech-language pathologist, it is a challenge to get the attention of a teenager, because so many changes are happening in their lives. But it's no problem for John Larkin, a.k.a. "Scatman John." This Southern California jazz musician has, at the age of 53, become a teen pop star in Europe and Asia with his unique scat-rap dance music. His hit singles, Scatman and Scatman's World, have sold millions, and he has the platinum records hanging in his den to prove it. Now his unique scat-rap music is being introduced in the United States. It is ironic that at concerts Scatman John has thousands of teenagers repeating his words, yet he has had difficulty saying his own words most of his life because he is a stutterer. John told me that he "doesn't remember ever being fluent." Like most stutterers, he doesn't stutter when he sings. I first met John when he was a keynote speaker at the Annual Convention of the National Stuttering Project last June in San Diego, CA. He told the cheering audience of 400 fellow stutterers, "Now all of a sudden I'm a pop star. Wait till they find out who I really am." I can assure you that Scatman John is a nice guy who is not ashamed to talk about his stuttering. In fact he included it in the lyrics of his breakthrough hit, Scatman (BMG/RCA Records): Everybody stutter one way or the other, So check out my message to you. As a matter of fact, don't let nothin' hold you back, If the Scatman can do it, so can you. Everybody's sayin' that the Scatman stutters, But doesn't ever stutter when he sings. But what you don't know I', gonna tell you right now That the stutter and the scat is the same thing. Yo, I'm the Scatman! Recently I had the opportunity to talk with John at his home in California. Question: When you got around to writing the lyrics to Scatman, why did you decide to talk about stuttering and your experience with it? Scatman: I turned to my wife and said that I had to put this our there (because) if by some fluke it did become a hit and I had to do radio and TV, I wanted it to be known that I am a stutterer. It was more or less for a self-serving purpose: to make it easier for me. When I go out there, maybe they will remember that they are expecting me to stutter. This is a change from that horrible idea of "Don't Stutter!" Q: Isn't it like the idea of not talking about that elephant sitting in the middle of the living room--nobody wants to talk about it. Scatman: Stuttering is an interesting thing. I know how absurd it can sound for a stutterer to be told that it's "OK" to stutter. For me now it is OK to stutter. I don't like to stutter, but it has become OK. In the last six months I have had the opportunity to walk thorough every major career fear I've ever had. It kept me in the closet when I was a jazz player. Stuttering had control of me. I was a victim of my stuttering. Today I'm not the victim anymore. It doesn't sabotage my life anymore. If you are open about your stuttering, it is kind of attractive. Q: Don't you find that the good people in this world are accepting that we are all human beings and nobody's perfect? Scatman: That's the thing I've been putting out in Europe and Japan. Maybe Creation gave us problems for a purpose. Maybe we are supposed to stutter. For me it served as a source of pain at first and as fuel later on. Maybe I would be a type A personality if I didn't stutter. Q: How did you get into this kind of music--a combination of scat, rap and techno (synthesized) music? Scatman: I went to Europe in 1990 to try to supplement my income because I was starving in jazz clubs here. I came home from work one night and said to my wife, " Let's get out of here." So she and I packed and went to Berlin. (We) met some jazz cats, and I met an agent who started to put me into hotels. I thought, "this is as good as it gets--a thousand dollars a week." My wife, Judy, handed a tape of some of my best scatting stuff to my agent, Manfred Zahringer. He played it in his car driving home an called us from his car phone: "The tape is great. I'm going to do something with this tape. I never heard scatting like this." He tried for a year and a half to put me on a jazz record. There is a lot of talent out there, and the scat didn't get picked up. He called me one day and said he had an idea. "Don't kill me, but why don't we try scat- rap?" he said , which is a combination of jazz scat and urban rap music. "Sure, I'll try anything," I told him. He took the idea to BMG/RCA Records in Hamburg, Germany. They sent me to a recording company and out pops "Scatman John." The first single was I am the Scatman. The kids went crazy--they ate it up. It was No. 1 everywhere in Europe and Japan. Q: Was it a big risk for you that this scat-rap dance music might destroy your credibility as a jazz musician? Was there any risk-taking in this? Scatman: No. I had so much shame behind stuttering that I nearly destroyed myself with drugs and alcohol until 1987 when I got sober. Since that day, it wasn't as important for me to have to be a jazz musician anymore. I asked God, 'Which path do you want me to go (down)?' I put it in His hands and gave my life to God's care and trusted that He was directing my path. Since than, it has not been so important for me to be a jazz musician, but He apparently intended for me to keep that talent. But all that mattered to me after I got sober was that I was alive today. I had hit bottom, man. Since then, I got some outside help with support groups. My life has changed around. What is important for me today is to be sober and try to help other people. Q: Do you get a high from the audience's reaction to your music? Scatman: I would say that it is a better high than my old world. Thirty thousand kids are screaming for me when I come on stage. I can't sing my song for five minutes because they are screaming. And to see some of their faces--their beautiful faces--screaming, "Scatman, Scatman." These kids think that I'm the greatest thing since Weber's bread. There are older people out there, too, such as parents. They are grateful that I'm putting out something positive. The whole thing behind Scatman is that I don't put out stuff that says kill a cop or overthrow a country. I put out positive stuff, and that is what I'm trying to do. It is important to try to get kids to accept themselves to suggest the idea to accept themselves as they are. It's hard to do. Q: Was stuttering a major part of your life as a child? Scatman: It was painful. I repressed all that for a long, long time. It wasn't until I got sober and went to support groups that my feelings were brought out. It's crushing, man. I was taught that God was out to get me, and on top of that I stuttered. Wipe out a kid, why don't we? I couldn't grow up to become a functional member of this society. I couldn't even talk. Q: Were you bullied because you stuttered? Scatman: As a child, I had to fight a few times. I went into a rage a few times. I remember one instance where some neighborhood kids licked themselves in someone's house mocking my stuttering at the top of their voices. That really hurt. It just crushed me. I waited until the next day when they had forgotten about it. I didn't. I ran after them, and the rage was so strong I would have killed them if my father hadn't stopped me . But that pain, I hope, has made me into the good person that I try to be. Q: What are your feelings about other stutterers that you have met? Scatman: We stutterers are among the world's sweetest people. We know what humility is because we have been humiliated to death. We have experienced what black people have experienced-- oppression, suppression. "What's wrong with this child," people asked. It was awful in childhood. Q: Are you a member the National Stuttering Project (NSP), a support group for people who stutter? Scatman: My first NSP meeting was in 1991. I don't get to as many meetings as I like. There are people there like me who stutter. I believe that sense of community is real powerful, and I want to be wherever I can help. I just came back from Japan, and I got to speak to a group of stutterers there who came to my hotel. It was great. * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * Only time will tell whether SCATMAN John and his music will achieve the same kind of success in his home country that he has achieved elsewhere, although he is already a big his with the stuttering community worldwide. His first album, Scatman's World, already is a hit in Europe, It will be released in the United States in January
*About the author: Zimmerman is a frequent contributor to ADVANCE for Speech Pathologists and Audiologists Magazine on stuttering and its culture.
added December 4, 1995