So yesterday came word, via the New York Times, that John Wallowitch died. Now, unless you were in any way connected to the small universe of New York Cabaret and the supper clubs of the last fifty years you’re probably wondering "Who is John Wallowitch?" He was an amazing composer and performer my partner Pete and I had the chance to catch while in New York back in 2004. Here’s a slightly modified retelling of the story from my blog entry back then:
We got back at about 11 pm and I was pretty tired. And after the long crosstown cab-ride I was seriously in need of a restroom and dashed into the lobby facilities. Pete waited outside for me where he spied a line of gray haired sophisticates waiting to get into Opia, the small bar on the main floor. It being so late in the evening, it peaked Pete’s curiousity. The doors opened and they went in and then a group of hip 20somethings (in their best retro-1970s clothes) got in line and they too entered. The postcard read Wallowitch Uncensored: "an evening of filth and romance." It ended up being the highlight of what was already a pretty amazing trip.
Wallowitch was an amazing songwriter and cabaret singer. His show was stunning mix of songs by little known composers. I can’t remember a show that elicited so much laughter. He sang in small sets. There was one set celebrating the "emigrant experience." These were three songs by Irving Berlin, "Tokyo Blues," "Back in Italy," and "Cohen owes me 97 dollars" the last one a song I could easily hear Groucho Marx singing. He then added a tune about the Irish called, "Is Your Mother Drunk in Ireland this Evening?" We were on the floor by then and he’d barely started. Other highlights included a few double entendre tunes in a set he titled, "Naughty Tunes for Nice People, or Nice Tunes for Naughty People." These were: "It was hard when I kissed her goodbye," a song about a female athlete titled, "She ain’t much of a wrestler but you ought to see her box" and a wedding song called, "The Best Part of the Wedding is the Swelling of the Organ and the Coming of the Bride." These were all by a composer called Joe Davis. There was also a tune he described as being about filial affection and transportation titled, "I Went to See Jack Off at the Train." It was an amazing show and I recommend all my friends in New York catch it. I figure Wallowich is in his 70s so its one of those "catch him while you can" kinds of things. But he is a wonder. Looking online I found a review by Stephen Holden from the New York Times who wrote,
"While Noel Coward is no longer around to set the standards for a certain kind of sophisticated songwriting sensibility, Mr. Wallowitch nimbly carries the torch."
We spoke with him after the show to introduce ourselves as out-of-towners (Pete was clearly Jack Lemmon). He was extremely gracious and gave us his email and asked us to stay in touch. A few days later I wrote him an email of thanks and he wrote back at 12:05am:
Dan and Peter –
Promise me we will stay in almost constant touch. I certainly cannot afford to lose you two. I just got in from a performance down at the Red Lion in the Village. I wanted to answer your note before I retired to let you know I really appreciate hearing from you. More later. Wallowitch
We tried catching his show again whenever we were in New York but it never worked. The only time he happened to be performing an engagement was last Fall and he cancelled the run. We didn’t know why at the time, but according to the obituary in the paper, he’d been suffering from cancer.
I wish I could recommend a few of his songs to you but all of his CDs are out of print. I picked up some good used copies on ebay and you might try Amazon. Just search under "Wallowitch." His entry on Wikipedia is mostly my doing as I remember starting the page a few years ago when there wasn’t one up for him.
Rest in peace Wallowitch.
Stephen Holden’s obituary of Wallowitch on the New York Times
(including a really sweet picture of Wallowitch with his partner Bertram Ross)
Playbill’s really good obituary of Wallowitch
2 thoughts on “Remembering John Wallowitch”
I too was saddened by the loss of John Wallowitch last week. I hail from South Australia but had the chance to meet John in New York at Opia just like you did. It was one of the most ‘New York’ I’ve ever had. Your mention of his email reply sounds like the very gracious man and musician that I met.
I’ve discovered a cd of Dixie Carter singing Wallowitch songs on the Australian iTunes store – if you haven’t got that one you might want to check it out.
I wrote my recollection John at http://www.matthewcarey.com.au today if you’re interested.
God!, I’m so happy in that weird but grateful way that Dan posted this news about John Wallowitch—I did not see the obit in the Times, and usually I do read them. I knew John in a really beautiful manner. We met at a fundraiser my friend Mimi Sterne-Wolf put together in Tom O’ Horgan’s loft several years ago—maybe five or six years actually. I had seen the movie about John and Bertram and was just crazy to meet him. I introduced myself and he performed—he was wionderful, sparkling, effervescent. He was adorably gracious, and we talked on the phone a lot, and I saw several of his concerts afterwards, and we met a couple of other times. I’ve had about 50 poems set to music, and I wanted him to set something, something ribald and funny and . . . well, it never happend, although he assured me, “I will set something of yours, believe me.” He also told me that he loved gay porn from Eastern Europe, “those cute boys”; and was terribly overtaxed the last years of Bertram Ross’s life, and just overwhelmed with Bertram died, but able to go on. He really could go on—he had huge ability to do it.
I told him that he was like a living museum of something that is literally dead, that just did not exist anymore: the gay saloon singer, from a period when dozens of gay(ish) bars had cabarets and you went to them for some respite from a world that did not want to recognize you existed. I remembered some from my youth, from arriving in NY in the mid-60s, when the West 50s were full of these little smoky clubs—some were not all that little—the Candy Store, Upstairs at the Downstairs, the “bird circuit” bars—ands you put on a jacket and went to them, and listened to singers like John, with that constant wistfulness and spiky humor they had. He was the last of them. He agreed.
We both loved Irving Berlin, Cole Porter (of course), Bobby Short, and many singers who have almost disappeared. I think some of John’s work will continue to live, but the atmosphere that he engendered, with its cunning sophistocation and style—it’s about gone. And I’m so sorry he’s gone with it. Perry