One purpose of art is to show people things they can’t necessarily see for themselves, whether the artist carves a figure out of a block of marble, puts colors on a canvas, words on a page, music on tape, or something else. Similarly, an artist can take people to places they’ve never been, from the bottom of the ocean to the mountains of the moon, create a whole world and then transport us there. The greatest artists do this without being bound by time. Shakespeare, Mozart, Austen—and Howlin’ Wolf and Kurt Vonnegut and Frida Kahlo and others—are long dead but still showing us worlds of theirs.
That is a long-winded and highfalutin way to get to what I really want to write about today: a record made over 60 years ago that still evokes the vivid image of a lost world.
David Rose got into the music business as a teenager in the 1920s and became musical director at MGM Studios in 1941 (the same year he married one of MGM’s biggest stars, Judy Garland). He scored movies and was also the bandleader on Red Skelton’s radio show. When Skelton moved to TV in the 50s, so did Rose, where he scored a number of successful shows. (You may know his themes from Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie.) In the late 50s, Rose began releasing albums of show tunes, movie themes, and mood music to capitalize on the popularity of stereo. Rose’s sound was often heavy on strings; his 1944 hit “Holiday for Strings,” Skelton’s theme and Rose’s best-known song, is a prime example.
In 1958, Rose scored a TV special called Burlesque, where he wrote a bit of incidental music to play offstage while the two lead characters did a scene. Not long after, he was in the studio cutting an album that featured a hired brass section along with strings. With 10 minutes left in the session, he had the brass musicians cut that incidental bit, calling it “a funny piece of music with no title.” He invited them to clown around with it, and then had it pressed into souvenir recordings for them.
Four years later, MGM was getting ready to release Rose’s version of “Ebb Tide” to help promote the movie Sweet Bird of Youth. It needed a B-side, so somebody at MGM looked through Rose’s unreleased masters and found the “funny piece of music with no title.” Los Angeles radio and TV personality Robert Q. Lewis heard the B-side and started using it on his radio show as a joke, and it caught on.
According to author Fred Bronson in The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, the song was #1 in Los Angeles before it made the national charts. That could be true, but I can’t confirm it myself. Although Lewis was on the air at KHJ in 1962, the first listings for the song at ARSA are from Bakersfield and San Diego. The first Los Angeles listings are from KFWB and KRLA in late April 1962. KDEO in San Diego is the first to show it at #1 on May 4, 1962; in that same week, it shows up on Billboard‘s Bubbling Under chart at #109. KRLA ranks it #1 one week later. The song would gradually take the country by storm until it reached #1 on the Hot 100 for the week of July 7, 1962.
The song is, if you haven’t figured it out by now, “The Stripper.” And although it was tossed off first as incidental TV music and second as a 10-minute studio goof, it does indeed show listeners a world they can’t necessarily see for themselves. The anonymous studio musicians on “The Stripper” had doubtlessly had spent time in burlesque houses, and through their lascivious horns and sleazy, sensual drumbeats, they give listeners a peek inside that bump-and-grind world as it existed in the late 50s—a very different world than the one you’d see at a modern-day club in your town.
Despite being a #1 hit, “The Stripper” probably reached an even bigger audience thanks to its use in a famous TV commercial that started in 1967 and ran for years after. And for a long time—maybe a whole generation, and as late as the turn of the 90s—movies and TV shows could punctuate a scene, make a joke, or evoke a world with no more than five or ten seconds of “The Stripper.” And that’s a powerful sort of art.