JIMMY WISNER (a.k.a. KOKOMO)
Born James J. Wisner, 8 December 1931, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Pianist, arranger, producer, songwriter. Jimmy "The Whiz" Wisner was trained as a classical pianist. By 1959, he was a Temple University psychology graduate and had formed the Jimmy Wisner Trio, composed of himself on piano, Chick Kinney on drums and Ace Tsome on bass. They were playing local clubs in Philadelphia and had accompanied Mel Torme, Carmen McRae, Dakota Staton and the Hi-Lo's. Their first album, "Blues For Harvey", was released on Felsted Records in 1961. In that same year, Wisner recorded "Asia Minor", which merged a melody from Grieg's Piano Concerto in A Minor (hence the title) with a rock 'n' roll beat, on a cheap up-right piano to give the record a honky tonk flavour. He adopted the pseudonym Kokomo, fearing that making a rock 'n' roll disc would tarnish his reputation as a well-respected jazz musician. After being turned down by 10 or 11 labels, Wisner set up his own label, Future Records, with record distributor Harry Chipetz and the record's engineer, Amel Corset, for the release of "Asia Minor". Soon it started selling so well that they couldn't handle the distribution and it was picked up by Felsted. "Asia Minor" climbed to # 8 on the pop charts in April 1961 ; in the UK it went to # 35, in spite of being banned by the BBC. Three more Kokomo singles were released on Felsted (the best of these being "Like Teen"), as well as an LP, but nothing ever again charted.
Still, "Asia Minor" launched Wisner's career in pop music as a composer of film and television scores, as a session musician and as an arranger/producer. Among the countless artists he has worked with are Freddy Cannon (Wisner is the organ grinder on "Palisades Park"), Neil Sedaka, Len Barry, Miriam Makeba, Judy Collins, Paul Evans, Tony Bennett, Carly Simon, Al Kooper, Iggy Pop, Barbra Streisand, Tommy James and ... Brigitte Bardot. As a songwriter, his greatest success is "Don't Throw Your Love Away", which went to # 1 in the UK in 1964 in the version by the Searchers. "Somewhere" by the Tymes went Top 20 in 1963. Wisner has had over 250 of his compositions recorded. For some time he was also the head of A&R for Columbia Records in New York.
Though it never was a hit here, "Asia Minor" is very well-known in Holland, as it was the tune of deejay Joost de Draayer for almost two decades, first on the pirate station Radio Veronica (which existed from 1960 until 1974) and then on public radio. De Draayer (real name Willem van Kooten) has done more than anyone else to modernize (read: Americanize) Dutch pop radio.
CD: Kokomo, Asia Minor (Taragon Records, 1998). 21 tracks.
(With thanks to Wayne Jancik's Billboard book of One-hit wonders.)
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