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A lot of pop in his head

Colin Larkin's obsession with wanting to know everything about popular music turned into an encyclopedia.

October 20, 2006|Robert Barr | Associated Press

LAVENHAM, England — Start talking with Colin Larkin, editor of the "Encyclopedia of Popular Music," and free association kicks in.

Anything, anyone, might come up. Dave "Baby" Cortez, for example.

And that's exactly what Larkin intends.

"The whole point of the EPM is to enthuse people," says Larkin, whose own obsession with pop over half a century has evolved into a full-time business.

The fourth edition of the reference work, now expanded to 10 volumes encompassing 3.5 million words in 27,000 entries, will go online in mid-2007, enabling scholars of doo-wop, bebop, hip-hop and space age bachelor pad music to gambol from topic to topic as their curiosity leads.

The print version, published this month in the United States, is priced at $995 until Dec. 31. In Europe, the print version will be published in November, with an introductory price of $1,037.75.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 29, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
'Encyclopedia of Pop Music': An article in the Oct. 20 Calendar section about the "Encyclopedia of Pop Music" misspelled the name of the group Dick Dale and the Del-Tones as the Dell-Tones.

The path to Dave "Baby" Cortez -- who had a No. 1 hit in 1959 with "The Happy Organ" -- started from considering why there were so few rock instrumental groups; the Ventures ("Walk Don't Run"), the Tornadoes ("Telstar"), Dick Dale and the Dell-Tones, and Duane Eddy came to mind.

That naturally followed from mentioning Cliff Richard's backing band, the Shadows. Which also started a thread about why Richard, Britain's Peter Pan of Pop, never hit it big in the United States -- maybe because America already had Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon and Fabian.

Larkin has opinions -- Cortez is dismissed as an exemplar of "cheesy organ." But he and many other artists go into the book along with his other non-enthusiasms: heavy metal, dance music and Elvis Presley.

"I never got Elvis," Larkin confessed. "I like some of the songs of the '50s -- liked -- but compared with Little Richard and Buddy Holly.... I've read 10 books on Elvis -- it's a great story -- but don't ask me to listen to him."

Even so, Presley rates the second-largest entry in the EPM, behind Bob Dylan. Next in order are the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Billie Holiday, the Beach Boys, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong.

Little Richard was a key figure in Larkin's musical development. As he tells it, he encountered the rock wild man's music by tagging along with his dad, who worked at a fairground on weekends.

"You heard this cacophony of wonderful music," he recalled. "I think I was a bit privileged in a way." The fairground was near London's docks and thus one of the first places to hear the latest sounds from America.

Larkin started writing at 17 for a German rock magazine for no pay beyond keeping the album that prompted the article. Along the way, he evolved from a fan to an obsessive, even trying to make it as a guitarist in a band, Closer Than Most (which never got close to rating a mention in EPM).

In 40 years, he said, "I have not thrown away a single music paper or magazine. I cannot throw things away.

"I wanted it all -- I wanted to know everything about anything that fell in the category of popular music."

His archive includes stacks of Melody Maker, New Musical Express and Rolling Stone. It even includes, he admits with a shudder, Kerrang! -- the heavy metal journal.

Music and his day job -- book design -- came together in 1976 when Larkin set up Scorpion Publishing. The success of one title, "Timeless Flight," Johnny Rogan's opus on the Byrds, made a big impression. It revealed, he said, the existence of "a culture of intelligent people willing to read about a group that broke up 10 years ago."

Larkin came to wonder why pop music had nothing on the scale of the "The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians," the classical music reference, now grown to 29 volumes.

"I always felt that popular music was never taken seriously," he said.

The first edition of the encyclopedia, in four volumes, appeared in 1992. The second, with six volumes, was published in 1996; the eight-volume third edition followed in 1998. Oxford University Press, whose titles also include the "International Encyclopedia of Linguistics" and the "Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures," is publishing the fourth edition and marketing the online version.

"It is part of the educational mission of Oxford University Press to put references into the hands of people who will use them," said Don Myers, senior publicist for the publisher in New York.

Essentially, Larkin embraces as "pop" any music genre that isn't in Grove, including musicals, jazz, folk, reggae, punk and country.

Space age bachelor pad music -- a category Larkin encountered in Seattle through his work with Microsoft -- isn't included, but there is an entry on Juan Garcia Esquivel, the leading light of the category.

The EPM is the biggest product to emerge from Larkin's database, which has so far spun out 56 separate titles.

Larkin, supported by a staff of half a dozen, tends the EPM database from his home on the edge of Lavenham, a quiet town of spectacular medieval architecture 60 miles northeast of London. CD cabinets cover several walls, and Larkin claims he makes a point of listening to every cut on every disc that comes his way.

"I truly don't want to do anything else," he said, though he sometimes feels overwhelmed. "There is too much music. I would give anything for the hamster wheel to stop -- just for one week.

"I'm sort of music-ed out. There's a lot of average and a lot of good, but there's not a lot of great."

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