When I was growing up my family was always ahead of the crowd, or else way behind it. We were one of the first in our neighborhood to get an automatic dishwasher, for example, and we were among the last to get a television. (I don’t think my father actually believed in television till he became chief engineer for a Portland television station in the eighties.) For many years we were the only family I knew (outside the radio business) to have a tape recorder in the house, and we were definitely the only family I knew where the children were allowed to play with it. Friends would come by to record their voices and hear them played back at them so they could giggle hysterically at the result. (As a matter of fact my whole second-grade class made a field trip to our house just to be recorded and listen to the playback.) When I started a band in imitation of Spike Jones around fifth grade or so we often recorded the ongoing mayhem for our own entertainment.
To save wear and tear on our records, as well as to create anthologies of favorite pieces, my father used to make tapes bearing typed labels like “Mostly Eddie Lawrence” or “KOS and chipmunks.” One of them was titled simply “Mostly Stan Freberg.” This one was a collection of comedy singles by the great satirist, Stan Freberg, interspersed with songs—I think. It’s been a long time. I’m pretty sure it had Freberg’s version of “Yellow Rose of Texas” (lampooning Mitch Miller), “The Great Pretender” (targeting the Platters), and “Rock Island Line” (aimed at Lonnie Donegan). Oh, and I’m quite sure it contained the Lawrence Welk takeoff as well.
Now I have to say that as a kid I didn’t necessarily know the originals of the people Freberg targeted, but I still found the situations funny. Lawrence Welk patiently explaining to Larry Hooper why he couldn’t perform the same song that the Lennon sisters had just sung for example (“I’m sorry, that number has been taken”) and receiving the resentful reply, “Well, I’ll sing ‘The Funny Old Hills,’ then.” Harry Belafonte desperately trying to placate his over-sensitive bongo drummer by leaving the room to do his calypso shouts. Ben Franklin trying to avoid Thomas Jefferson, who wants him to sign some kind of declaration of independence—“Too late—he’s seen you. We’ll have to let him in.” Lonnie Donegan explaining to a skeptical A&R man why the recitation is so important—“Well, it makes a difference to the sheep.” A witch replying to a protest by another character that the piece had to have a happy ending: “Why? This isn’t the Shirley Temple Storybook.”
At his worst Freberg could be clichéd (“The Lone Analyst”), obvious (“Which is the Girl and Which is the Boy”), or preachy (“Yulenet”) but at his best (interviewing the abominable snowman about his choice of footwear, say, in a devastating satire on celebrity interviews, or discoursing on the unreasonable demands of wives as Hermann van Horne, Hi-Fi expert, who will deny their husbands new speakers to buy shoes for the children or perhaps a second dress) no-one can touch him. Few even come close. George Washington clashing with Betsy Ross over the design of the American flag (“Stars? With Stripes? … I deliberately said polka dots”), Johnnie Ray coming apart during the performance of the parody “Try” (where the single word “more” manages to stretch itself out over a full two measures), Freberg offering to show the door to a sleazy record promoter (played by the inimitable Jesse White) and receiving the reply, “No, I’ll just slide out under it”—so many unforgettable moments.
Thanks, Stan—and, oh, by the way, happy birthday.
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