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John Larkin; Scat Singer Overcame Stuttering

December 08, 1999|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Larkin, a lifelong stutterer who in middle age turned his speech problem into international fame as "Scatman John," has died of lung cancer at the age of 57.

Larkin, a jazz pianist and songwriter before he turned to scat singing, selling 8 million CDs and earning 14 gold and 18 platinum records, died Friday in his Los Angeles home.

"I'm a star . . . not although I stutter, but because I stutter," Larkin often told his fans around the world. "Stuttering has paid off!"

That success and how he used it to inspire other stutterers earned him the Annie Glenn Award from the National Council of Communicative Disorders in 1996.

He set world records in 1995 and 1996 as the artist whose recordings were sold in the largest number of countries around the globe.

Stardom came to Larkin only in the last decade. After two top-selling singles, "I'm the Scatman" and "Scatman's World," his 1995 debut album, "Scatman's World," earned him Japan's artist of the year award, Europe's Goldene Europa and Echo awards and the MTV music award for best male artist.

"The fact that I've been a stutterer since I've been speaking has compelled me to find another way to speak another language," Larkin told The Times in 1990.

Scatting--adding random ad-lib syllables to vocalized lyrics--was his key.

Born in El Monte and raised in El Sereno, Larkin had been enamored of jazz since childhood when he heard a recording of Ella Fitzgerald singing scat on "How High the Moon."

"Scatting gave me a way to stutter freely," he said later.

He developed his career not by singing, but playing piano in jazz clubs around Southern California, later conceding that he "hid behind [the] piano because I was scared to speak."

It was 1984 before Larkin added singing to his act, while entertaining on a cruise ship. His scatting won applause, which gave him enough confidence to begin singing at all his performances.

Six years later, living and working in Berlin, Larkin earned standing ovations at the 400-seat Cafe Moscow. As he told The Times, "I began to own that I really could sing, that I was good."

Larkin had an unusual ability to sing chords with as many as four notes at a time, a technique he likened to ancient Hindu throat singing. Combining that with scat and modern urban rap and dance music, he became "Scatman John, the master of 'scat-rap,' " in 1994.

He was working in a Norway hotel at the time, and once the jigsaw puzzle fit together, his agent rushed him to a recording studio. Six hours later, the result was "Scatman."

"My greatest problem in my childhood is now my greatest asset," Larkin said in 1996. "I'm trying to tell the kids today that Creation gave us all problems for a purpose, and that your biggest problems contain a source of strength to not only step over those problems, but all our other problems as well."

Larkin is survived by his wife, Judy; his mother, Harriet; and a brother, Bill. The family has asked that any memorial donations be made to the Scatland Foundation, which aids people who stutter, at 9229 Sunset Blvd., Suite 505, Los Angeles 90069.

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