What sets Jack White apart from his peers is not just that a lot of the music that’s important to him was made before he was born, but that he’s got a personal musical canon that isn’t quite like anybody else’s. He’s been collaborating with, quoting, alluding to and shouting out his heroes from the very beginning of his career, beginning with the first White Stripes single, 1998’s “Let’s Shake Hands.” Its B-side was a cover of a song called “Look Me Over Closely,” written by a man whose name might appear in a songwriters’ index next to White’s birth name John Gillis: Terry Gilkyson.
It’s a good bet that White had learned the song from Marlene Dietrich’s version, initially a B-side for her in 1953 — specifically Burt Bacharach’s arrangement from this live Dietrich recording, made in Rio de Janeiro in 1959 (with a little bit of “La Vie En Rose” introducing it):
White has actually followed Gilkyson’s example in a few other ways — both of them made careers of flitting from project to project, collaborating with artists both known and little-known. Gilkyson started his musical career as a folksinger (on Armed Forces Radio), writing songs in a sort-of-traditional mode for himself and others. His big breakthrough came when Frankie Laine had a #1 hit with his song “The Cry of the Wild Goose” in 1950:
The next year, Gilkyson had another hit with an actual traditional song. Pete Seeger’s arrangement of “On Top of Old Smokey” was an enormous success in a recording credited to “The Weavers with Terry Gilkyson” — and considering that the Weavers had just spent 13 weeks at #1 with “Goodnight, Irene,” it was pretty impressive that he got co-billing.
The Weavers disbanded in 1952 as a side effect of the Red Scare, but Gilkyson, who’d never done much overtly political material, was apparently untouched by the blacklist. A few years later, he joined Richard Dehr and Frank Miller’s project the Easy Riders, who were effectively the Raconteurs of early-’50s folk music. The three of them co-wrote “Memories Are Made of This,” which became a #1 hit for Dean Martin (with the Easy Riders themselves singing backup). Here they are performing it with him on TV:
It was actually an even bigger hit in Germany for Freddy Quinn, under the title “Heimweh”:
Terry Gilkyson and the Easy Riders recorded under their own name, too: Their biggest hit was 1957’s top-5 “Marianne,” a super-catchy piece of fake calypso, complete with embarrassing accent in its chorus.
Gilkyson kept his hand in folk and quasi-folk music over the next few years: The Easy Riders’ 1957 recording of “Send For De Captain” was part of the complicated genealogy that began with the early-20th-century song “The John B. Sails” and led up to “Sloop John B.” as we know it. And the New Christy Minstrels’ 1963 hit “Everybody Loves Saturday Night,” (whose original incarnation predates Gilkyson’s career), heard below, somehow ended up with Gilkyson, Miller and Dehr’s names in its credits, thanks to the Easy Riders’ version.
The Brothers Four’s 1960 folk-pop hit “Greenfields,” on the other hand, was a Gilkyson original.
By the early ’60s, though, Gilkyson had moved on to the gig that’s probably kept his songs in circulation more than anything else: writing songs for various Walt Disney productions. His song “The Bare Necessities,” written for The Jungle Book, got him an Oscar nomination in 1968. And even then, he was forming new alliances: he hired the young, then-basically-unknown Van Dyke Parks to arrange “The Bare Necessities” on short notice, so Parks could earn enough money to travel to his brother’s funeral.
Gilkyson also contributed “Thomas O’Malley Cat” to the 1970 Disney movie The Aristocats.
In the early ’70s, Gilkyson retired; he died in 1999. His daughter Eliza Gilkyson is still active as a folk musician, and his son Tony Gilkyson played guitar in the L.A. punk band X for many years. “Look Me Over Closely” remained in the White Stripes’ live repertoire for most of their career.