Wednesday 24 April 2019

The Enigma of Whistling Jack Smith

Last night's Front Row (Radio 4's Yarts magazine) included a sublimely uninteresting piece on Joe Orton's record collection. It seems that, despite having an irreproachably 'queer ear' (i.e. penchant for musicals and torch songs), Orton's taste in pop music was disappointingly mainstream. In the Summer of Love, he even bought Engelbert Humperdinck's Release Me, thereby helping to keep the Beatle's Penny Lane/ Strawberry Fields for Ever off the Number One spot. Orton disliked Dylan, preferring Donovan (yes, really), so it seems he was not a man of sound judgment in this field. He also appears to have had a taste for novelty singles: one of the records mentioned in the Front Row report was I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman by Whistling Jack Smith.
  Whistling Jack Smith! (I borrow this formulation from Osbert Sitwell, who begins each of the biographical essays in Noble Essences thus – 'Ronald Firbank!', 'Edmund Gosse!', etc). Inasmuch as I'd ever thought about Whistling Jack Smith, I'd vaguely imagined him as one of those Sixties survivors still clinging on to some kind of career – a sad and haunted man with the remnants of a Beatles haircut and a grubby faux-Victorian military tunic, wetting his whistle in a seedy Brighton pub before shambling up to the mike and delivering yet again his single imperishable hit. Not so, it seems.
  Whistling Jack was indeed the ultimate one-hit wonder – I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman reached number five in the UK charts in 1967, and that was that – but who was he? The question is not easily answered. It is generally agreed that the siffleur on the single was John O'Neill, a trumpeter and vocalist with the Mike Sammes Singers, but others press the claim of record producer Noel Walker. John O'Neill's Wikipedia entry has the look of an epistemological battlefield, and is hedged about with editorial warnings. What seems certain is that O'Neill was paid a flat fee for his efforts, and never got a penny more. Worse, when the single was performed on Top of the Pops, it was whistled – or rather mimed – not by O'Neill but by an actor known as Coby Wells, who subsequently toured as Whistling Jack Smith. John O'Neill continued with the Mike Sammes Singers, who, among other things, later contributed to the strange goings-on in the background of The Beatle's I Am the Walrus. They chanted, under George Martin's guidance, choruses of 'ho ho ho, ha ha ha, he he he', 'oompah oompah, stick it up your jumper' and 'everybody's got one'. Heady times.
  In case you have forgotten the pernicious earworm that was I Was Kaiser Bill's Batman, here it is, performed on this occasion by John O'Neill. I think.


  1. this thing reached here...those were the days.

  2. blimey never heard this one before, terrible!

  3. Actually I think I rather prefer that version, Ricardo. I haven't dared listen to the German version yet...
    Worm, it's what the Summer of Love was all about – Engelbert Humperdinck and Kaiser Bill.

  4. Nige, you are an evil man. I made the mistake of viewing this first thing this morning and now it will be my companion all day, no doubt.

  5. Wonderful! I was born in 1974 and, as an inveterate whistler, the habit being picked up from my dear old Dad, this has often formed part of my repertoire. I had no idea what it was until this moment. Huge grin.