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James Copp Dies; Put 'Genius' Into Children's Music

April 20, 1999|ELAINE WOO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In his first life, he was a New York cabaret artist who shared bills with Lena Horne and Billie Holiday.

In his second, he was a society columnist who hobnobbed with Los Angeles' elite.

In the third phase of his unusual life, James Copp's assortment of talents found yet another, more enduring outlet: From the late 1950s to the early 1970s, he composed, performed and recorded stories and songs for children, creating a loyal following with albums by such names as "East of Flumdiddle," "Gumdrop Follies" and "Sea of Glup."

Called an "unsung genius" of the peculiar idiom of children's recordings, Copp died at Midway Hospital on April 7 after a long illness. He was 85 and never married or had children of his own.

The nine albums he made with partner Ed Brown largely disappeared from stores in the 1980s after Brown died and Copp lost interest in recording without him.

But his compositions, praised for their sophistication and brainy zaniness in such highbrow publications as the New Yorker and the Atlantic, found a new audience in the 1990s, when they were reissued in compact disc and cassette with the help of a Berkeley fan who never grew too old for the loony tunes.

The albums are considered classics among children's recordings, called "deliciously fresh and funny" by the New Yorker in 1958 and "funny . . . uncondescending, and dark" by the Atlantic in 1993.

"He was an eccentric genius," said Ted Leyhe, the childhood fan who became Copp's business partner in 1993 and now runs the company that distributes the Copp and Brown recordings. "He is as important a person for children as Dr. Seuss or Walt Disney."

From 1958 to 1971, Copp created his "lunatic land," dozens of stories set to music and peopled with quirky characters. There is, for example, the feeble-minded Mr. Hippity, who believes his chicken pull toy is dying; Agnes Mouthwash, the girl who can't milk a cow because she has yellow jaundice; Miss Goggins, the scariest fourth-grade teacher on Earth who finally gets her due; Jennie Saucepan, the 8-year-old bride who wears her wedding cake on her head; and the perpetually provincial Glup family, who travel the country in a jalopy with their pet cow.

Copp wrote the script for each album, recording them at home in Los Angeles with a microphone and three Ampex tape recorders. "I didn't know how anyone made records," he said in a 1996 interview. So he invented his own form of multitrack recording, achieving what guitarist Henry Kaiser called "miraculous results with minimal equipment."

Copp was born in Los Angeles in 1913, the son of a prominent attorney. He studied political science at Stanford and creative writing in graduate school at Harvard.

From an early age, he had a talent for playing the piano and telling stories. After Harvard, he entered a talent show and won the prize, which was a stint with the Will Osborne band. That infected him with the show business bug and soon he formed his own act, called James Copp III and His Thing, which he described as "wild stories at the piano."

He was spotted by John Hammond, the talent scout for Columbia Records who in a long career discovered many major artists, from Benny Goodman to Bob Dylan. Hammond booked Copp's act in Manhattan nightclubs, where he headlined with performers such as Billie Holiday, Art Tatum and Lena Horne.

But Copp was never comfortable performing in public, his sister, Jayne Copp Berger, said. Then World War II intervened. Copp joined the Army, serving in the European theater and ended up commanding an intelligence unit in Germany.

After the war, he returned to Los Angeles and applied for a job as a society columnist at The Times. In 1950, "Skylarking With James Copp" made its debut, illustrated with Copp's own pen-and-ink sketches and bearing his brand of offbeat humor. ("We are not going to write about orangutans," he wrote in his first column.)

It was popular with readers, but after about five years he gave it up because the partying was bad for his health, Berger said. Still interested in writing music and stories, he decided to take his old nightclub act and revise it for the grade-school market.

Around 1958, he hooked up with Brown, a USC graduate, linguist and designer, and the two launched their bizarre enterprise, churning out an album a year for the next decade.

Copp, a tall, trim man who spoke in a baritone, never shied from using grown-up words, such as "precipice" or "velocipede" or "vituperative," in his songs. Admirers say his literate lyrics merit comparison to the verse of A.A. Milne, Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

Brown and Copp created all the voices, and Copp performed the music, using a motley assortment of instruments, including a piano in the living room, a pump organ in the bathroom, a celesta in a bedroom. He took pains to create the sound effects, building a fire in his shower to capture the crackling, and smashing a barrel of kitchen glasses when he needed the sound of a falling chandelier.

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