Minor luminaries such as Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Chick Corea, Glenn Gould, Keith Emerson, Bill Evans, Joe Zawinul, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock come and go, but one keyboard artist stands head and shoulders above the rest. The genius of Scots home organ guru Eric McWhirter is renowned throughout the keyboard-playing universe, but for years, his very existence was a closely guarded secret. In the spring of 1993 Dave Stewart gained access to McWhirter's Arbroath council house for a rare interview with this most reclusive and private man, and their conversation was finally published (after much resistance from the editor) in the April '94 issue of the US magazine Keyboard.
The public response was overwhelming. Readers flooded the magazine with letters, many claiming that McWhirter had divine powers. Hundreds of anecdotes featuring the great man poured in - one reader recalled seeing him play an incandescent set at the Fillmore East in the late 60's, another sent in a rare tape which McWhirter, with exquisite irony, had recorded for the Musak company. The legend of the 'Paganini of the home organ' was reaffirmed, and overnight, a cult was born.
Here, by public request, is the very first Home Page dedicated to the man who the Dumfrieshire Advertiser and Motor Mart called "Scotland's very own J.S.Bach". We start off with the full transcript of Dave Stewart's second interview with McWhirter, which appeared in Keyboard in April 1996. Shocked by the bad language and sexual innuendo, Keyboard's editor insisted on savage cuts, but in the interests of free speech we can now bring you the unabridged version.
[A low thrumming sound, uncannily similar to the 50 Herz mains hum of an incorrectly wired electronic audio device, filled the room, and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. Suddenly, without warning, a shrill warbling pierced the air, like a laser beam through a nuclear winter. McWhirter, meanwhile, was sitting on a sofa several feet from the Maximus, smoking a cigarette and reading the Radio Times. What sorcery was this? The deep soporific powers of the Scot's music are well known, and I struggled to conceal a yawn . . . inevitably, as the familiar melodic 'black note' style of the master enveloped me, I felt my senses reel, and within seconds I was transported into a parallel universe three inches to the left of the main one, where time has no meaning and space doesn't get much of a look-in either. My last thought as I lost consciousness was 'Drat! Those anti-coma tablets are having no effect at all' . . . then all was darkness.]
(Three hours later)
McW (slapping Stewart's face): Wake up, laddie.
DS: Wha . . . ? Erggh. Must have dozed off . . . more tired than I thought. Erm - that music seemed to happen without you actually touching the keys.
McW: That's the beauty of it - I got them to put one of my pieces into the 'auto accompaniment' section. That way, I can just set it playing and nip off down the shops, have a wee bet, pop into the local for a wee dram, even visit a lady friend - eh? Eh? (Winks insinuatingly.) When I get back at midnight, the bloody thing's still playing. Magic!
DS: I bet the neighbours love that.
McW (heatedly): They can bloody talk, up at the crack of dawn with their fucking strimmer. Did they say anything to you?
DS: Er, no, I didn't see them. Eric, if we could perhaps talk a little about your musical career. We're all familiar with your recordings -
McW (proudly): I've got a new one out this month.
DS: You never stop, do you? Can we expect something along the lines of The Boring Side Of The Moon? [McWhirter's best selling concept album, an astonishing blend of AOR, New Age and Musak styles.]
McW: No, this one's got a religious theme . . . 40 all-time great hymns, played bossa nova style with a vibrato diapason sound. It's called Meet Your Maker With McWhirter - catchy title, eh?
DS: I'll say. Anything else in the pipeline?
McW: Aye, a classical release: From McWhirter To Messiaen. We reckon it could do well in Germany - they like the serious stuff there.
DS (impressed): You play Messiaen on home organ?
McW: It's nae his actual music, ye ken. I couldnae work out all that weird stuff - this is more like a light entertainment tribute to the guy, who was himself a keen home organist. Not many people know that.
DS: You're telling me that Olivier Messiaen, the man who wrote the 'Tarangulila' symphony and many other large scale orchestral works, the author of hundreds of distinguished polyharmonic and multi-metric pipe organ pieces, a devoted Christian and musical visionary who incorporated transcriptions of birdsong into his compositions, played HOME ORGAN? You're seriously saying that, after a hard day's work in the austere, spiritual surroundings of the magnificent 17th century French cathedral of St. Jacques-sur-Grosne composing music to the glory of God, Messiaen would go home to his bungalow and relax by playing 'This Guy's In Love With You' on a LOWERY HOLIDAY DE LUXE?
McW (uncomfortably): Aye.
DS: Well, I have to tell you, Eric, that not only my editor, but also the entire Keyboard readership are going to find that very hard to believe.
McW (brightly): Fancy a drink?
DS: Perhaps later - I've got a train to catch. Can you tell our readers how you got started in the music business?
McW: It was in 1958. Me and my mates were down at McNally's - it's the local organ showroom, d'ye ken it?
DS (through gritted teeth): You mentioned it at some length in our last interview, yes.
McW: It's down by the bus station, ye cannae miss it. Just ask for Hamish, he'll give ye a good discount on a Technics EA5. Anyway, it was a Saturday afternoon. We'd just been to the pictures to see 'Rock Around The Clock', and we were feeling a bit frisky. [Historical note: 'Rock Around The Clock', a 50's Rock'n'Roll film starring Bill Haley and The Comets, caused riots when first screened in British cinemas. The Arbroath Trocadero was particularly badly hit.] It started raining, and as the pubs were shut, we all went into McNally's for a laugh. One of me mates - I think it was big Dougal - sees this Lowery Citation Theatre Organ and shouts out, here Eric, I bet ye can't play that. Quick as a flash, I says, ye're on, a fiver says I can.
DS: So you walked out of there a fiver richer, a new spring in your step and a song in your heart, ready to start an exciting career as Scotland's premier home organ performer?
McW: Er, no. Dougal was right - I couldnae play it. But up there on McNally's 'Special Offer' podium, under the green and red forty-watt spotlights, with me mates cheering me on and old man McNally calling the police, I thought - this is the life for me. From then on, showbiz was in my blood.
DS: So then what happened?
McW (quietly): I, er, enrolled at Sheila Cruickshank's Stage Academy.
[It is often said in outdated sexist circles and dinner parties where everyone talks crap that "Behind every great man stands a great woman" - a ridiculous idea if you think about it, because eventually the man would turn round and realize with a start that the woman was there. Anyway, so the tired old cliché goes, Bill Clinton has his Hilary, Michael Jackson his Lisa Marie, Prince Charles his Camilla Polka-Bowels, and Paul McCartney his Yoko. (Ed. note: Surely 'Linda?') The mysterious,
unsmiling figure of Sheila Cruikshank has long been rumoured to be the power behind the McWhirter throne, but until now, Eric has steadfastly refused to discuss their association. With baited breath, I awaited details of the home console genius's relationship with the enigmatic persona whisperingly referred to on the mean streets of Arbroath as 'The Black Shadow'.]
DS: Sorry about that little speech. Go on.
McW: Och bejasus. [That's Irish, isn't it? - Ed.] Basically, Sheila showed me how to present myself. Christ, the woman taught me all I knew about stagecraft. Deportment . . .
DS: You mean your inimitable playing posture?
McW: (Crouches down with arms stiffly extended and hands curved into talons, head cocked to one side, with one eye closed and the other manically staring.) Aye. We spent a long time working on that. Costume . . .
DS: I know for a fact you were wearing a cape long before Rick Wakeman.
McW: That's right, though it was him that brought in the gold lurex. My one's black and mauve satin, more in the Dracula style . . . would ye like me to put it on?
DS: That would be terrific, but we're running out of time. What else did Sheila Cruickshank teach you?
McW: Och man, the woman's a walking encyclopodi . . . encirculo . . . enskipillodia . .
DS: What you're trying to say is, she's omniscient.
McW: That, plus she kens bloody everything. Stage Announcements - (shouts) "Hello, and a bloody guid evening to youse, one and all!" Movement And Dance - (Re-adopts the McWhirter Crouch as described above and sways dangerously from side to side.) Dealing With Hecklers -
DS: The cunning put-down which instantly silences, le mot juste, the crushing retort, the hilarious riposte, the razor-sharp, unanswerable satirical rejoinder?
McW: No, I just kick'em in the goolies. It's quicker.
DS: Ha ha. Kick'em in the goolies . . . that's a good one! Eric, I won't push my luck by asking you about your, er, extra-curricular dealings with Ms. Cruikshank (McWhirter growls something unprintable), but I must ask to clear up one piece of speculation about your career. We had a letter from one reader who swears he saw you play a "psychedelic home organ concert" at Fillmore East in 1968. "McWhirter was on stage with a Hammond S-6 chord organ played through about six Vox Super Beatles", he claims, "while Grace Slick, Keith Emerson and Pete Townshend looked on." Any truth in that rumour?
McW: Could be, aye. I vaguely remember it. I think someone must have spiked my whisky that night, 'cos it's all a bit of a blur, if you ken what I mean. I do remember having a great wee jam with that geezer that used to eat his guitar, what's his name? Ye ken (sings croakily) ' 'Scuse me while I kiss this guy . . . ?' 'Hey Jude, where you goin' with that bun in your hand . . . ?'
DS: You don't mean Jimi Hendrix?
McW: That's the fella, aye. He was showing off a bit on his guitar, and I thought to myself, 'all right, Jimi son, don't get flash. I can do that too, ye ken.' So I'm doing all the tricks, playing the keyboards with my teeth, rolling about on the floor, playing the organ behind my head, setting fire to it, all that business. The crowd went mad.
DS: That's amazing. Are there any tapes of that concert?
McW (embarrassed): Eh . . . no. Ye see, once the old Hammond S-6 started blazing, we couldnae put it out, and unfortunately, the whole theatre was burnt to the ground with great loss of life.
DS: Oh. That's terrible.
McW: Aye. (Brightens) Still - those were the days, eh? Or should I say, those were the daze? Heh heh heh. Talking of which - they're open. D'ye fancy a quick pint?
DS: Okay - just a quick one. I mustn't miss my train.
McW: Ye've plenty of time yet.
[The two head off for a so-called "quick drink" at McWhirter's local, 'The Muscular Arms'.]
Note - The Boring Side Of The Moon, along with most of the rest of Eric McWhirter's recorded catalogue, has been deleted by public request. Meet Your Maker With McWhirter and From McWhirter To Messiaen have now both been released on Lumbago Records, but have not sold well in Germany, nor indeed anywhere else.
Coming soon: Eric reviews the latest MIDI gear and answers readers' queries.
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