Monday, June 15, 2015

The Return of Novelty Songs

Novelty Songs: Part 2
Since this blog is nearly turning into an obituary site for rockers, let's liven things up a bit with classic novelty songs! Last summer, I made a "Silly Songs" playlist for my kiddo and it was a huge hit. And in case you were wondering when Part 1 was posted, it was a special Father's Day post from my first year blogging here, a real hoot. Now onto more hilarious tunes from the back of your memory banks!

Best remembered for originating the Harold Hill role in the musical The Music Man, American stage and film actor Robert Preston was asked to make a recording as part of a program by the President's Council on Physical Fitness in 1961 to get schoolkids to do more daily exercise. The song, "Chicken Fat" (also known as "The Youth Fitness Song"), which was written and composed by Meredith Willson and performed by Preston with full orchestral accompaniment, was distributed to schools across the nation for free and played for students in calisthenics every morning. Willson and Preston volunteered their services on the project, while Capitol Records, which produced and distributed three million copies of the LP, paid for the backup musicians, studio time, and production and distribution. The song later became a surprise novelty hit was widely used in schools in the 1960s and 1970s. "Go, you chicken fat, go!" Can they please bring this back to gym class?!!

 A trio of cousins from New Jersey, The Ran-Dells scored a one-hit wonder novelty song in 1963 with "Martian Hop," which reached #16 on the Billboard chart. At an era when pop culture was saturated with the beginning of the Space Age, the song is a product of impromptu beach jam sessions when the three band members joked around about Martians throwing a dance party for "all the human race." Though the Ran-Dells have been recognized for innovative and pioneering use of a sine wave generator (a first for the pop music genre), the 12-second introduction at the beginning of the song is an uncredited sample from the first 30 seconds of "Moon Maid" by Tom Dissevelt and Dick Raaymakers from their 1962 experimental album, one year before "Martian Hop" (check it out here).

A successful pop singer and actor in the late 50s and early 60s, Pat Boone had 38 Top-40 hits and still holds the Billboard record for spending 220 consecutive weeks on the charts with one or more songs each week. In 1962, Boone found a hit with novelty tune with a cover of "Speedy Gonzales" about the "fastest mouse in all Mexico." The Boone version peaked at the #6 on the Billboard chart during a total chart run of 13 weeks, doing better in many national charts in Europe, where it sold a million copies.The female voice ("La-la-la...") on this song was of session singer Robin Ward (Elton John stated that the "hook" in his best-selling single "Crocodile Rock" was inspired by his listening to Ward's vocal on "Speedy Gonzales"). This song also incorporated Mel Blanc voicing Speedy Gonzales as he did in the Warner Brothers cartoons.
American folk singer and songwriter Tom Glazer found his greatest commercial success with his original 1963 recording of the song parody "On Top of Spaghetti" based on the "On Top of Old Smoky," which he recorded with the Do-Re-Mi Children's Chorus. It is the tale of a meatball that was lost when "somebody sneezed," and discusses what happened to the meatball after it fell off of a pile of spaghetti and rolled away. Call and response songs are always a hit with the kids!
Although definitely not a one-hit wonder, American soul music singer and songwriter Shirley Ellis capitalized on her novelty hits like "The Clapping Song" (previously featured here during our Dance Craze post) and "The Name Game." Written by Ellis with Lincoln Chase and recorded in late 1964, this record went to #3 on the Billboard chart and #4 on the R&B charts in 1965. With lyrics featuring a rhyming game that creates variations on a person's name, Ellis performed this novelty hit on the major television programs of the day, including Hullabaloo, American Bandstand and The Merv Griffin Show. The song later became a popular children's singalong.

Known as the King of Skiffle, Scottish singer-songwriter Lonnie Donegan was probably Britain's most successful and influential recording artist before The Beatles, with 31 Top-30 UK hits, 24 being successive and three at #1. He scored his biggest US hit with the novelty song, "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour (On the Bedpost Overnight)?" first hitting #3 on the UK chart in 1959 and then peaking #5 on the US chart in 1961. The song is a cover version of "Does The Spearmint Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?" first released in 1924 by The Happiness Boys. The title and lyrics of the Donegan version were changed in the UK because "Spearmint" is a registered trademark there, and the BBC would not play songs that mentioned trademarks. 

American country music singer-songwriter Roger Miller is best-known for his chart-topping country pop hits and honky-tonk-influenced novelty songs. In fact, I enjoy this novelty tunes so much, I couldn't pick just one! From his classic 1965 album The Return of Roger Miller, two singles were released including his biggest hit "King of the Road" (previously featured during our Country Crossovers posts here) and this novelty hit "(And You Had a) Do-Wacka-Do" (#15 on the country chart and #31 on the Billboard chart). The expression "do-wacka-do" is a funny way of saying "do-like-I-do," and the song itself expresses envy in a humorous way. Here's great live footage of this classic.

And the other novelty tune I couldn't leave out is this other Roger Miller gem that my kid adores too.
From the same album, the track "You Can't Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd" was later released as a single in 1966. This wacky tune was actually Miller's favorite song that he wrote. Here's a live performance for a bit later, Miller still sounding great. Not that the lyrics are meant to make sense,, but the part where "you can't change film with a kid on your back" is an especially mind-boggling line for the youngsters these days! Haha.