Wally Whyton

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Wally Whyton played a major role in the shaping of post-World War II British music. As co-founder and lead singer of influential late-'50s skiffle band the Vipers, Whyton influenced a diverse range of…
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Wally Whyton played a major role in the shaping of post-World War II British music. As co-founder and lead singer of influential late-'50s skiffle band the Vipers, Whyton influenced a diverse range of artists, including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Martin Carthy, Dave Swarbrick, Davey Graham, and Danny Thompson. Later in his career, he became one of England's best-loved radio personalities. The voice of country music on England's BBC Radio 2, he hosted the popular show Country Club for more than two decades. Born in London, Whyton studied piano and trombone as a youngster. Inspired by the music of American folk musicians, including Pete Seeger, Josh White, and Woody Guthrie, he switched to guitar. Equally versed in blues and jazz, Whyton was a perfect choice to replace Lohn John Baldry in the early skiffle group the Thameside Four. Although he only played with the group for a few months, the experience proved invaluable when he met guitarist, vocalist, and the manager of London's Gyre and Gimbal Coffee Bar, Johnny Booker. Agreeing to work together, they formed the Vipers Skiffle Band with guitarist/vocalist Jean Van Der Bosch, bassist Tony Tolhurst, and washboard player John Pilgrim. Three months later, the group became the house band at London's Two I's Coffee Bar. Auditioned by George Martin, the Vipers signed with Parlophone in September 1956. Although their second single, "Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O" (which reached the British Top Ten), was followed by half a dozen other charting tunes, the Vipers recorded only one album, The Original Soho Skiffle Band, distributed in the United States. Whyton and the Vipers enjoyed a close relationship with skiffle singer Lonnie Donegan, who recorded "Don't You Rock Me Daddy-O." Whyton subsequently composed a spoof of Donegan's interpretation, "Putting on the Smile," that Peter Sellers recorded for his album, Songs for Swinging Sellers. Although they dropped skiffle from their name in May 1958 and had begun veering toward pop, the Vipers continued to influence British rock into the mid-'60s. Their constantly changing personnel included three musicians -- Hank Marvin, Bruce Welch, and Jet Harris -- who went on to form the Shadows. Whyton made his radio debut co-hosting a music-oriented program, Country Meets Folk, with Jim Lloyd. The show introduced Whyton's much-loved puppets, Ollie Beak and Pussycat Willum. Despite his busy schedule as a broadcaster, Whyton continued to find time to record. In addition to recording an album of Woody Guthrie tunes, Children's Songs of Woody Guthrie, he wrote and recorded one of the earliest conservation anthems, "Leave Them a Flower." Inspired by the release of a three-CD compendium of Vipers recordings, 10,000 Years Ago, Whyton was looking forward to a group reunion when he succumbed to cancer in January 1997.