Monday, 3 March 2014

Tarzan Boy - How An Emergency Paramedic From Derry Conquered The Pop World - For Just One Beat



If you grew up in the '80s - or if you are a fan of One Hit Wonders/Italo Disco - you will remember the novelty song Tarzan Boy. 

Even if the title does not immediately ring a bell, the opening jungle call of “Wooah-oh-a-whooh-ah-oh-ah” will immediately bring you back to the Summer of '85.

It certainly brings back a lot of memories for me - it was my first summer as a real teenager - and I was seriously into The Smiths - so this song, which we heard everywhere - drove me into a kind of murderous rage. 


Tarzan boy went top five across Europe, reached number three in the UK, top five in Japan and reached No 13 in the US – staying on the billboard charts for six months.





It was a classic ‘80s one-hit wonder and briefly made Baltimora international popstars. But the frontman and singer wasn't a jungle boy and he certainly wasn't Italian – he was an Emergency Paramedic from Derry called Jimmy McShane. 

Jimmy probably wasn't even the singer – it's hardly a Derry accent singing those mostly nonsense, English-ish lyrics - he was the chosen as the face of Baltimora on his good looks, flamboyance and dancing skills.

And more often than not, Jimmy lip-synched to the vocals in the video and on stage. A one-man Milli-Vanilli with a soft Derry accent.

McShane was a gay guy from Northern Ireland in his early 20s, who had tried and failed to break into the West End musical theatre scene in London in the early '80s. 

He was back home and working with as an EMT with the Red Cross ambulance service in Derry at the height of the troubles when he got a dancing gig with an Italian pop singer.

It was a random gig got through an old friend, but it brought him to Italy, where he met Maurizio Bassi, a music producer and musician, who was looking for a new project.

McShane was recruited as the front man for Baltimora. And the single Tarzan Boy - with it's catchy jungle call and typically plinky-plonky, bass-line heavy '80s synths, became an international hit.

McShane was overwhelmed by the international success of Tarzan Boy. He briefly blazed a trail through nightclubs in the US & Europe as a bona-fide pop star. 

And the failure to come up with a follow-up single that could capitalise on the success of their big hit caused Bassi to pull the plug on Baltimora and cut the Derry man adrift.

Disillusioned, McShane left the music business, in 1994 he was diagnosed with AIDS. A few months later he returned to Northern Ireland where he decided to spend the last year of his life. He died in his native Derry on 29 March 1995 at the age of 37.

There is a plaque in Derry City Centre commemorating Jimmy McShane but his extraordinary story, going from Emergency Paramedic at the height of the Troubles to international pop star and then quickly back into obscurity is largely forgotten. 

There are a few clips on Youtube of Baltimora at their height, And one extraordinary clip of Jimmy on American Bandstand (The US answer to Top of The Pops) - being interviewed by Dick Clark. Clark opens with "How Does An Irishman End Up In Italy?" - breathless having just finished his performance, McShane talks about how he is over his "Novelty Trip" and working on more "serious material". 




Looking back now, it's a very poignant moment, Jimmy McShane at the very top, if only for a brief moment. 

·   **Here is the Song That Started it all - Tarzan Boy



8 comments:

  1. wow. beautiful piece. thank you for this article, ive always wanted to know more about this singer. thank you really.

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    1. Hi - glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for commenting.

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  2. Thank you for the information

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  3. Thanks for this terrific article. I've always been a huge fan of 'Tarzan Boy' and wanted to learn more about Baltimora's front man.

    Jimmy McShane is such a mystery since his time in the limelight was so brief and because the high point of his musical career pre-dates the internet. I was curious about what your sources were for this article. Was it perhaps printed news available only in the UK?

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    1. Hi - glad you enjoyed the piece - there are some bits of info out there on Jimmy - not a lot because he was a one-hit wonder - so I basically looked around for all I could find - the info is out there - just takes a bit of digging - joe

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  4. I was Jims best friend through the 70s, we met when taking part in local musical productions and kept in touch when he left Derry to pursue a career in London and beyond. Jim did do vocals on Tarzan Boy and when you comment about it hardly being a Derry accent, anyone knows that there is no accent when singing. If you listen to the Dick Clark interview, Jims soft Derry accent is barely recognisable but he is not lip syncing!!!! On hindsight Jim never had a typical Derry accent to begin with, neither do I as it happens. There was so much more to Jim and he was a great friend. It is true that homaphobia was one of the reasons he wanted to leave Derry also. We used to pretend to be girlfriend/boyfriend while out and about but our reason was unspoken. I loved that guy and met up and spent time with him a week before his death which devastated me and still does. He was too young and too big a personality to leave this world in such a tragic way. AIDS took him ever so quickly. I will, for the rest of my life miss him dearly. Paula.

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  5. Hi Paula,

    Thanks for contacting me and for sharing your story - I have always had a great interest in Jim's story and thanks for providing more info - all the best - Joe O'Shea

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  6. What a wonderful voice from a wonderful boy! His dead is so tragic for me!

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Hi - I welcome comments - even if they don't agree with what I say or simply don't like it. But I always try to treat people with respect and I would appreciate the same in return. There's no point in calling me names or getting into personal abuse because there are only a handful of people in the world whose opinion of me I respect and - no offense - you are unlikely to be one of them.
Thanks!