Fab Funny

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(Pictured: the Beatles pose with their cartoon selves in November 1964.)

I have written occasionally over the years about the Beatles’ 1960s cartoon series. The most extensive history of the project I’ve seen to date is in the new book Fab Fools: The Last Ever Untold Beatles Story by Jem Roberts, which discusses the Beatles as comedians, in the context of British comedy on radio, TV, and film from the 50s to the new millennium.

Producer Al Brodax of King Features made a deal with Brian Epstein for an animated series the day after the Beatles were on The Ed Sullivan Show. The scripts were written by showbiz veterans whose credits, among other things, included scripts for Gilligan’s Island and jokes for Milton Berle. Although a detailed bible was written explaining how to animate each Beatle to express his character, the look of the animation is fairly cheap; King Features, which had made Casper the Friendly Ghost and Popeye cartoons, farmed out the work, and sharp-eyed viewers would occasionally notice that various Beatles were sometimes missing various extremities. (Roberts says, “the animators always insisted on reshooting sequences with missing heads, no matter what the cost.”) Actual Beatles songs were used, although the wrong Beatle was sometimes shown singing, and songs were abruptly edited.

The Beatles wanted only to sign a contract and cash the checks; they were not interested in providing the voices for their animated selves. But it’s possible that ABC, the network buying the show, might not have wanted them. As natives of Liverpool, they had a very specific accent that sounded foreign even in their own country; there’d been talk of captioning A Hard Day’s Night to make them more understandable. ABC also feared that American viewers would find Liverpudlian accents unintelligible. So Brodax turned to English comic actor Lance Percival to do the voices of Paul and Ringo. When Paul first saw the show, he didn’t recognize what was supposed to be his voice; nevertheless, the Paul and Ringo voices are closer to the originals than those of John and George. Veteran voice actor Paul Frees, who had done radio drama, Disney cartoons, and The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, didn’t capture either man, and didn’t really try. Roberts says, “Harrison ended up with a strange kind of squeaky, Irish-cum-Mexican brogue, while Lennon’s famous tones were replaced with Frees’ stab at a Rex Harrison impersonation.… the complete misunderstanding of what made John John to this day utterly undoes all the things the animators strove to get right.”

Epstein hated what Brodax and King Features had wrought (although in later years, John and George had kind words for it). He intervened directly with British TV channels to keep it off the air in the UK. It was a hit in the States, however, from its premiere in September 1965. No new episodes were produced after 1967, although the show ran on ABC until 1969. It aired on local channels after that, on MTV in the 80s, and eventually in Britain.

(By 1967, the Beatles’ more psychedelic sound and look didn’t fit the TV mold anymore. It did, however, transfer to the big screen: Yellow Submarine, produced by Brodax with a larger budget and a better voice cast, fulfilled the Beatles’ three-picture deal with United Artists in 1968.)

Today, episodes of The Beatles can be found at YouTube and Dailymotion, although they come and go. Apple owns the rights to the series, but Roberts says it’s filled with “staggeringly crass and offensive cultural and racial depictions throughout,” and suggests that the series would generate complaints today “from those of a Chinese background—and Japanese, Italian, German, Romany, Native American, Hispanic, Indian, British, Extra-Terrestrial … and so on.” While a restored release is high on the wishlist of many Beatles fans, it seems unlikely.

Fab Fools is a great idea for a book; part of what made the Beatles so appealing was their sense of humor. Their humor came from some very specific inspirations in post-World War II Britain, however, and an American reader who knows little about the place and the period will get lost now and then. Similarly, there is much about the comedians and the humor that inspired the Beatles that does not translate; an American reader sometimes just isn’t going to understand why some stuff is supposed to funny. (Also, what’s funny when it’s performed on stage frequently loses something on the page.) Nevertheless, Beatles-as-comedians is a unique angle, and the book is worth your time.

I Do My Swingin’ at Home

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(Pictured: This much cool will give you frostbite: Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and Glen Campbell.)

You asked for it, now you have to read it.

I experienced the country music of the mid-70s somewhat directly. It was an era when WMAQ in Chicago became a sensation by programming country music with Top 40 formatics (and even employed Chicago legend Fred Winston for a while). Mother and Dad listened to it in the house, the barn, and the car, and I recall turning it on myself.

The country music of the years before is a different story. What I picked up I got by osmosis or heard in years after, including some songs from the Billboard country chart from May 16, 1970.

1. “My Love”/Sonny James. There is a long list of one-time country superstars who are absolutely forgotten today. “The Southern Gentleman” had 23 #1 hits, 16 of them in a row between 1967 and 1971. “My Love” is a cover of the 1966 Petula Clark hit, and although it hasn’t aged well, it was a big deal in its day.

2. “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone”/Charley Pride. “Kiss an Angel Good Morning” is Charley Pride’s biggest hit, but “Is Anybody Goin’ to San Antone” is the Charley Pride-iest. It’s everything that made him great in a couple of minutes.

3. “I Do My Swingin’ at Home”/David Houston. Here’s another guy who, like Sonny James, was straight money for several years, with an eye-popping record of chart success. In 1966, “Almost Persuaded” had a run at #1 country not beaten until the download era, but today, it’s the only Houston hit people remember now, if any.

5. “What Is Truth”/Johnny Cash
9. “Hello Darlin'”/Conway Twitty
11. “Tennessee Birdwalk”/Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan
12. “My Woman My Woman My Wife”/Marty Robbins
60. “Everything Is Beautiful”/Ray Stevens
62. “Long Lonesome Highway”/Michael Parks
Crossovers from country to pop and back again have always been a thing. “Everything Is Beautiful” would top the Hot 100 as May turned to June. “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” made #42. I wrote about it a few years ago. “Hello Darlin'” made #60 but was Twitty’s longest-running country #1. You don’t need to hear me bang on about “Tennessee Birdwalk” again.

10. “Rise and Shine”/Tommy Cash. Younger brother of Johnny, and with a modestly successful career of his own during the 70s.

26. “Oh Happy Day”/Glen Campbell
32. “All I Have to Do Is Dream”/Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell
America was at peak Glen Campbell in 1970; his TV show was a hit and his records were ubiquitous. Campbell and Gentry did two Everly Brothers covers, this one and “Let It Be Me,” both of which crossed over from country to pop, and theirs might be the first version of “All I Have to Do Is Dream” I ever knew. “Oh Happy Day” ran the country chart at about the same time the gospel version by the Edwin Hawkins Singers was climbing into the Top 10 of the Hot 100.

35. “Togetherness”/Buck Owens and Susan Raye
38. “Tomorrow’s Forever”/Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton
47. “Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries”/Kenny Vernon and Lawanda Lindsay
58. “I’m Leavin’ It Up to You”/Johnny and Jonie Mosby
67. “A Good Thing”/Bill Wilbourne and Kathy Morrison
Bobbie Gentry and Glen Campbell were established solo stars who got together. Owens and Wagoner were established stars who took on duet partners, while other duets came up as duets. Dolly’s solo career began while she was partnered with Wagoner. Raye and Lindsay, who appeared on Owens’ TV show Hee Haw, scored their own hits later on. Raye had five straight country Top-10 hits between 1970 and 1972, including “L.A. International Airport,” which went to #54 on the Hot 100.

(“Pickin’ Wild Mountain Berries,” first recorded by R&B singers Peggy Scott and Jo Jo Benson and more famously by Twitty and Loretta Lynn in 1971, is not really about procuring fruit.)

50. “Down in New Orleans”/Buddy Alan. Buddy Alan was the son of Buck and Bonnie Owens and the stepson of Merle Haggard. After a handful of minor hits in the 70s, he gave up recording for a successful career in radio programming.

53. “Running Bare”/Jim Nesbitt. In 1960, Johnny Preston scored a #1 pop hit with “Running Bear,” about an Indian brave who “loved little White Dove with a love big as the sky.” Sonny James took it to #1 country in 1969. After that, Jim Nesbitt (whose name we have mentioned at this website before) did “Running Bare,” a parody that in retrospect seems inevitable.

Our pal Bean Baxter pointed out on Twitter the other day that a large amount of 70s country is out of print and/or missing from streaming services. That’s a great loss to history geeks such as we, but also to people who simply enjoy good tunes.

God’s Gonna Getcha for That

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(Pictured: Bill Anderson in the 70s.)

The other day on Twitter I threatened to start up a whole new blog devoted to 70s country, which I love, but which I have always suspected is of somewhat limited interest to the readership of this website (which itself is already of limited interest to the world at large). A handful of kind readers chimed in to say they’d read it, which is gratifying. So for today: the great Radio Rewinder Twitter feed posted the Billboard Top 75 country chart from May 17, 1975, earlier this week, and there’s lots of good stuff on it.

The first thing you notice is the number of pop crossovers: the top three songs were all significant pop hits, and two of them, by B. J. Thomas and John Denver, were #1 on the Hot 100. In all, 10 of 1975’s #1 country singles were significant pop hits, and six of them were Hot 100 #1s. Other crossover hits on the 5/17/75 chart include “I’m Not Lisa,” “Misty,” “When Will I Be Loved,” “Lizzie and the Rain Man,” “Reconsider Me,” “Rainy Day People,” and “T-R-O-U-B-L-E.” But beyond the pop crossovers, several songs at the top of this chart would be considered country classics for the next couple of decades: “She’s Acting Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” “Too Late to Worry,” “Tryin’ to Beat the Morning Home,” “Roll on Big Mama.” Record charts from any genre and any bygone year can impress us with the number of legends appearing, and this one certainly does: George Jones, Tammy Wynette, Buck Owens, Brenda Lee, Don Williams (just starting his Hall of Fame career), Hank Williams Jr., Sonny James, Roy Clark, Lynn Anderson, Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Mel Tillis, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Reed, Mac Davis.

Let’s dip into the chart and see what’s interesting.

10. “Misty”/Ray Stevens. Let me again praise this version of the Erroll Garner piano bar standard, which is done straight and is brilliantly produced by Stevens. It made #14 on the Hot 100 in the summer of 1975.

44. “The Tip of My Fingers”/Jean Shepard. A now-forgotten pioneer of country music, one of the first women to headline country concerts in her own right, and a member of the Grand Ole Opry for 60 years until her death in 2016, Jean Shepard hit the country Top 40 31 times starting in 1953; “The Tip of My Fingers,” which had gone to #16, was her last Top 40 entry. It was written and first a made a hit by Bill Anderson (about whom there’s more below) in 1960; later versions by Roy Clark (1963)  and Eddy Arnold (1966)  are probably the best-known.

50. “Boilin’ Cabbage”/Bill Black’s Combo. Bill Black, Elvis Presley’s bassist and with a successful career in his own right, died in 1965. His widow sold his recording studio and the name “Bill Black’s Combo” to Bob Tucker and Larry Rogers. Tucker had taken over leading the combo when Black’s health failed in 1963. “Boilin’ Cabbage” was on the 1974 album Solid & Country, released on the Hi label (also home to Al Green), and it is quite the country stomper. Their next album, World’s Greatest Honky Tonk Band, was successful enough for Billboard to honor them as the top country instrumental group of 1976.

53. “Fireball Rolled a Seven”/Dave Dudley. Dudley is most famous for the 1963 hit “Six Days on the Road.” “Fireball Rolled a Seven” name-checks every major Southern stock car race and Richard Petty too, and is mentioned here entirely because the phrase “fireball rolled a seven” just sounds cool.

62. “Freda Comes, Freda Goes”/Bobby G. Rice. Fans of obscure pop tunes may remember “Freedom Comes, Freedom Goes” by the Fortunes. This is the same song except for the change from “freedom” to “Freda.”

73. “Country DJ”/Bill Anderson. I’d never heard “Country DJ” before I saw this chart, and I do not have sufficient words to describe how much I adore it. Anybody who ever worked in small-market radio will recognize practically everything in it as God’s Own Truth.

95. “God’s Gonna Get’cha (For That)”/George Jones and Tammy Wynette. While I don’t know it for sure, I have to think this record was inspired by Maude‘s TV catchphrase “God’ll get you for that, Walter.”  “God’s Gonna Get’cha (For That)” is a minor entry in the George and Tammy catalog (eventually making #25) , but it’s worth 2:41 of your time, and the harmonies are great.

Y’all better be serious about wanting to read more along this line, because there will be more of it next week.

Modern Minstrels

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(Pictured: blackface minstrels onstage in 1925.)

I recently read Stomp and Swerve: American Music Gets Hot, 1843-1924 by David Wondrich. (It’s the subject of an episode of the always-terrific Let It Roll podcast, which you can listen to here.) One of its topics is the birth and growth of the minstrel show, a popular form of entertainment from the 1840s well into the 20th century. White performers put on blackface and told jokes, sang, played instruments, and danced in appallingly racist caricatures of Black people and others. However, despite their racist content,  minstrel shows were a significant ingredient in the stew that eventually became American popular music as we would know it in our time.

As it happens, I have seen a minstrel show. More than once.

In the 1960s and 1970s, my Wisconsin hometown, population about 8,700, was 99 and 44/100 percent white, heavily Swiss and German. And every year, the local Lions Club put on what it called a “modern” minstrel show, which featured our city band and an all-local cast. It was a very popular ticket, often selling out the local school auditorium on a Friday night, Saturday night, and Sunday afternoon.

The show opened, as in days of old, with a musical number, then a group of performers took their places on the stage. In the middle was the master of ceremonies, known as the interlocutor. He was flanked by six “end men,” who told jokes and bantered with the interlocutor, and with each other. This was a variation on the traditional 19th and early 20th century shows, where there were but two end men, frequently named Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo (as pictured above). The end men and interlocutor were played by prominent local businessmen and professional men of the kind likely to be members of the Lions Club. They appeared in the same roles year after year, as did many of the featured singers and dancers. I can’t remember if any women were part of the cast.

After a round of jokes, banter, and pratfalls by the end men, there followed the olio, in which the end men and interlocutor left the stage, and various singers and dancers performed straight. The olio was followed by the afterpiece. In traditional minstrel shows, this was often a skit set on a plantation, or a cakewalk. What it was in my town’s show I don’t remember, although the end men and interlocutor eventually came back for more comedy before a big musical finale involving the whole cast.

When the minstrel show in my town began in 1953, the performers wore blackface. By the time I was attending, in the late 60s and early 70s, the performers wore whiteface, as well as all-white costumes meant to be similar to the shabby costumes blackface minstrels sometimes wore—castoff clothing and junkyard chic, another caricature of Black people. (If this seemed odd to me, I don’t remember it; it was just the way they dressed at the minstrel show.)

I dug into the archives of a hometown Facebook group to read a discussion from a few years back about the minstrel show. A number of people who commented had fathers, uncles, or grandfathers who had been cast members. Many people pointed out that the shows were “politically incorrect” without getting much into specifics. I doubt that the modern shows were as crudely racist as the traditional shows, but traditional minstrel shows were equal-opportunity offenders: they parodied not only Black people but other non-white people and immigrants. (Facebook commenters remembered that our town’s minstrel show frequently made fun of hippies; a classmate of mine remembers appearing as a “Swiss Indian.”) I scrolled expecting somebody to go off on an anti-PC tirade, but nobody did. One commenter even noted that she has a large collection of photos from the minstrel shows but was reluctant to share them because of their potential to offend. (That nobody called her a woke liberal snowflake is a minor miracle.)

Time passed, and the Lions Club eventually decided to stop doing the minstrel show. No one in the Facebook group gave a reason; surely if it had been due to some outcry over the content of the show, somebody would have remembered that. It seems more likely that the show simply petered out because of a lack of interest among the public, or the performers. The last show was presented in 1983—astoundingly late in history for such a problematical form of entertainment to continue, even in a “modern,” sanitized, whiteface form. But in a small, lily-white town, perhaps not all that surprising.

Groovin’ All Week With You

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(Pictured: Donny Most, Ron Howard, and Henry Winkler on Happy Days, 1974.)

It’s well-known that Happy Days started in 1972 as an unsold pilot that was broadcast as an episode of Love American Style. Ron Howard was cast in American Graffiti as a result of the pilot, and after the success of the movie, ABC decided to pick up the show after all. It premiered on January 15, 1974, at a moment in American pop culture when the kids who had grown up in the hot car/jukebox/drive-in world of the late 50s and early 60s were pushing 30, and thereby ripe for a show that capitalized on their fond memories of those days.

Happy Days was not the same show at the beginning that it was at the end. Although it was always a sitcom and never a dramedy, it was at first intended to be an character-oriented portrayal of the trials Richie Cunningham and his high-school friends faced growing up. The first season of 16 episodes was fairly successful, placing at #16 in the ratings for the entire year. But in the fall of 1974, in the same timeslot and with the same approach, the show fell out of the Top 30 and was in danger of cancellation. It survived, however, finishing at #46 for the season, after executive producer Garry Marshall made some mid-season changes. The show started filming in front of a live audience. and a raucous episode about Fonzie accidentally marrying a stripper pointed the way forward. In the third season, with a greater focus on Fonzie, Happy Days became broader, louder—more “sitcommy”—and one of the most popular shows of the 70s. It made #1 in the weekly ratings for the first time during March 1976 and ended at #11 for the year.

During its first two seasons, Happy Days used Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” as its theme song, and as the first season ended, the song returned to the Top 40 for a single week (May 25, 1974). Starting in the fall of 1975, the show got a new theme song, written by prolific TV and movie composers Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel and recorded by the duo of Truett Pratt and Jerry McClain. Pratt and McClain had a band called Brother Love, which had recorded one album, although most of their work lately had been making commercial jingles. They got the gig through producer Michael Omartian, who had been in a band with McClain a decade before.

As Happy Days was rising in the ratings during the spring of 1976, the new theme—a much better version of the song than the one used on TV—was released as a single. The first listing for “Happy Days” at ARSA was at KHJ in Los Angeles in March, and it hit the Hot 100 on April 3. Before April was out, it was on the air everywhere. While it recorded only a single local #1, at WRAW in Reading, Pennsylvania (in mid-May), it became a Top-10 hit in dozens of cities between April and July. It spent the weeks of June 5 and June 12, 1976, at #5 on the Hot 100; in Cash Box, it peaked at #6. It would place at #76 on the Cash Box Top 100 of 1976; oddly, it didn’t make Billboard‘s Top 100 of the year, thanks to a relatively short chart run.

Although Happy Days didn’t win the weekly ratings race even once during the summer 1976 rerun season, having its theme song on the radio all summer could not have hurt it one bit. And when the new TV season began in September, Happy Days was unstoppable. For the 1976-77 season, Happy Days and its spinoff, Laverne and Shirley, would finish #1 and #2 in the season-long ratings while airing back-to-back on Tuesday nights. For the ’77-’78 season, they would swap places at the top, still airing back-to-back, each drawing better than a 30-percent share of the audience, between 20 and 25 million viewers each week. (Between October 1977 and March 1978, one show or the other was #1 in the ratings every week but two: Christmas week, when reruns lost out to The Bob Hope All Star Christmas Comedy Special, and two weeks later, when Super Bowl XII beat all comers, as Super Bowls do.)

On the radio in the summer of 1976, “Happy Days” was both nostalgic and right on time. Decades later, it’s purely nostalgic, and for more than one reason. There’s just nothing like it anymore. It’s not just that nobody pays attention to TV themes nowadays. The major-key joyfulness of “Happy Days” is out of style, too. But on a sunny spring day, on the highway with the car windows down, you can hardly do better.

There But for Fortune

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(Pictured: the New Christy Minstrels perform at the halftime show of Super Bowl IV in 1970. As an indicator of changed times, you can’t do better.)

Since this is a week for potentially dubious historical theorizing, here’s something I wrote in 2012, with annotations.

Among the CDs in my archives is a Time/Life compilation called The Folk Years, released in 2002, which stretches the definition of the genre to snapping. One does not generally think of Otis Redding, Van Morrison, Sonny and Cher, or Nilsson as folk acts, but there they are, and so are Glen Campbell, Chad and Jeremy, and Dion. All of them may have once walked down a street with an acoustic guitar on their backs, but they’re not folksingers the way Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and Pete Seeger are. [Although they were often folk-inspired.—Ed.] Some of this is because Time/Life repeatedly anthologizes whatever they can get the rights to, which explains why the Lovin’ Spoonful and the Mamas and the Papas are on every Time/Life set having anything to do with the 60s–-Classic Rock, AM Gold, The Folk Years, etc. Some of it is probably to make the set as commercially attractive as possible—Paxton, Tim Hardin, and the New Christy Minstrels won’t move late-night TV viewers to dial that 800 number as effectively as Peter Paul and Mary and the Spoonful might.

So The Folk Years is not anything like a comprehensive history of the genre in its heyday. But when you weed out the questionable inclusions, a couple of impressions remain about what’s left.

[And now to the theorizing.—Ed.]

American popular music repeatedly assimilated African-American forms into the mainstream, from slave-era songs adapted by blackface minstrels in the late 19th century to the development of jazz in the early 20th to the hybridization of blues and country that gave birth first to R&B and later to rock ‘n’ roll in the mid 20th. It occurs to me that folk gives us a glimpse of what American pop might have sounded like without those influences. Baez and Paxton had beautiful voices and the acoustic guitars that accompanied them glittered like diamonds, but there’s no Elvis anywhere in those records. (Elvis was a white guy, but you know what I mean.) Even though folksingers often adopted and adapted Negro spirituals and traditional songs, they sometimes bleached the soul out of them entirely. Example from The Folk Years: “There’s a Meetin’ Here Tonight” by the Limeliters, which wants to be a spiritual, but ends up so stiff you start to fear the singers will break a hip. [Compare the version by Joe and Eddie.—Ed.]

Although folk prized its rural roots in addition to its ethnic ones, you do not imagine the artists on The Folk Years singing on front porches; instead, you picture them in ramshackle coffeehouses found on gritty urban streets. The popularity of folk on college campuses in the early 1960s confirms this image. The songs may have celebrated roamers and ramblers, but most fans were neither. I suspect that for some—fans and singers both—folk was fashion, representing how they wanted to be as distinct from who they actually were. In their defense, however, although that sort of thing happened with other genres and fans, and it still does. . . .

Trying to be something you’re not might account for how painfully jive some of this stuff sounds. I’m thinking of the Limeliters again, trying to sound black and being unable to. One of the biggest hit singles of the folk boom, the New Christy Minstrels’ “Green Green,” is marred by Barry McGuire’s faux-gospel exhortations. Folk’s preoccupation with relevance can become wearying after a while (which is why the 1980s-vintage Saturday Night Live game show, “Make Joan Baez Smile” was so funny), but some attempts at levity were disastrous. The Serendipity Singers’ “Don’t Let the Rain Come Down” and “Beans in My Ears” sound like nothing so much as clueless adults trying to do something the kids will like [or: “like something a group of middle-aged middle-school teachers might do to sublimate an unmet desire to get laid”—Ed.]. . . .

All that said, however, folk musicians were capable of astoundingly beautiful music: “Today” by the New Christy Minstrels leaves me beautifully wrecked every time I hear it; “There But for Fortune” might be the greatest thing Joan Baez ever did; the version of “500 Miles” by the Journeymen, featuring future California folk-rock stars John Phillips and Scott McKenzie, just might be the definitive one.

As always, I crave your two cents’ worth, because this is just my opinion and I could be completely wrong.