ith Stan Freberg it’s always hard to know where fantasy ends and reality begins. He liked to tell a good story, and his autobiography—which he rehearsed in interview after interview—is made up of good stories. For this piece, however, the good stories will have to take a back seat. This one’s going to be, you know, just the facts, ma’am.
Born 7 August 1926, the son of a Baptist minister, Stan Freberg (like Walt Kelly) never shed his Christian upbringing despite being on the liberal end of the sociopolitical spectrum. Occasionally it got the better of him (“Yulenet” comes to mind here), but most of the time it just helped to ground him, to give him a place to defend in the storm of moral relativism that seemed always to be lurking at the edge of the fifties and sixties. After a stint of doing voices for cartoons and Cliffie Stone’s radio show Freberg had a fluke hit on Capitol with “John and Marsha”, which was actually banned on some radio stations for being too suggestive. The year was 1951. He followed that up with a send-up of Pete Seeger’s then group, the Weavers, giving “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” the “On Top of Old Smoky” treatment. (As a child I particularly liked the line where Freberg apologizes to the singers—“I’m sorry. I loused it up. Let’s start the thing over” only to have them sing it back to him in perfect harmony with the melody.) The release of “Maggie” in February 1952 seems to have fallen relatively flat, as far as I can tell, but the release of “Try” the next month, co-written with Ruby Raksin (the brother of the composer of “Laura”) did not pass unnoticed. A near-perfect send-up of Johnnie Ray, it enraged the owners of the original song (“Cry”) who responded by suing both Freberg and Capitol Records. That year also saw the forgettable “Abe Snake for President” and the technically clever “The World is Waiting for the Sunrise” issued.
Spike Jones must have seen the writing on the wall at this point; he had a few more singles left in him but Freberg’s rising sun was burning out the repertoire of the King of Corn. 1953 brought one of Freberg’s most memorable pieces—“St. George and the Dragonet”—which applied Jack Webb’s understated style to the medieval legend of St. George and the Dragon. Co-written with Daws Butler and also featuring June Foray as a maiden who’d almost been devoured (“Believe me, I got it straight from the dragon’s mouth”), the piece instantly became a pop classic. “That’s Right, Arthur,” scheduled to be released late that same year, might have done as well—but Capitol’s lawyers, perhaps afraid of another lawsuit like the one over “Try”, ran the savage Arthur Godfrey takeoff past that entertainer’s lawyers, and they refused to okay it.
For the next several years it seemed that Freberg could do no wrong as he released takeoff after takeoff on the likes of Ferlin Husky (“A Dear John and Marsha Letter”), the Chords (“Sh-Boom”), Eartha Kitt (“C’est Si Bon”), the Platters (“The Great Pretender”), Elvis Presley (“Heartbreak Hotel”)—well, you get the idea. And then in 1957 CBS radio gave him the 7:30 Sunday slot, following Jack Benny repeats. And the Stan Freberg Show was born.
The actual show was not nearly as revolutionary as the best-of compilation double album made it appear. The album dropped the more conventional sketches, the songs by Peggy Taylor, and most of the reprises. But even so it was too close to the edge for CBS. It started with arguments over the perhaps too-long “Incident at Los Voraces,” which simultaneously satirized the Las Vegas trashing of culture and morals and the Cold War arms race. Freberg probably didn’t make things any easier by his obvious disdain for conventional advertising (ruthlessly mocked on more than one episode). But he managed to produce some great comedy bits—the interview with the abominable snowman, the coverage of a rocket launch, the tuned sheep, the Lawrence Welk parody, the Sam Spade send-up, and a surreal bit where a man tries to use cash to buy a tool for his home workshop instead of credit, with unfortunate results. And of course, “Elderly Man River.” And that noxious muckraker with the inside scoop on historical events. (That one Freberg would recycle a few years later into the far superior Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, possibly his masterpiece.)
Struggles over the CBS radio show, the release of his Yuletide satire “Green Chri$tma$,” and a prolonged struggle with a producer over a stage version of the Freberg USA album seem to have robbed him of his enthusiasm for the record business. Commercials were perhaps more lucrative; at any rate he made a success of them. I personally kept hoping to hear him back in the saddle again—Bob Dylan or Jim Morrison trying to record “Subterranean Homesick Blues” or “Celebration of the Lizard” against Freberg’s clueless A&R man, for instance, or Tommy James performing “Crimson and Clover” overwhelmed by effects gone wrong. But there was nothing. Oh, there were the commercials, and I collected them when I could, but it wasn’t exactly the same.
You might not know it, but Stan Freberg has been around, active and performing, in the seventies, eighties, nineties, and beyond. I don’t feel that any of his later work, including the disappointing sequel to the original United States of America album, lives up to that of his glory days, but in that time and place he was incomparable. I received the news of his passing with inexpressible sorrow. His work was unique, and he will be missed.