Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top Cat

A little piece of my childhood is gone.

Last Sunday, Arnold Stang, the voice of Top Cat, died at the age of 91.

Arnold Stang was a character actor with a face like an owl and a nasal voice that reminded you of a smart-alec kid on the streets of New York City. He once told people, "I look like a frightened chipmunk who's been out in the rain too long." Although he stood only 5 foot 3 inches and never tipped the scales at much above 100 pounds, Arnold Stang was a very big man.

Arnold Stang was born in Manhattan on September 28, 1918. His father lost his job as a lawyer after the 1929 stock market crash and later became a salesman. When Arnold was still a student at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, he wrote a letter to a New York children's radio program called "Let's Pretend" asking for an audition. He got the job! Later he also worked on another radio show called "The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour."

In addition to doing voice work for one of my all-time favorite cartoons, Arnold had a stunning career. I remember hearing him on the Chunky candy commercials in the 1950's saying, "Chunky! What a chunk-a chocolate!" Later on he became the voice of the Honey Nut Cherrios Bee and a spokesman for Vicks Vapo-Rub.

Arnold played a gas station attendant named Ray whose station was destroyed by Jonathan Winters in the 1963 film "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." In that same film, by the way, a second gas station attendant named Irwin was played by Marvin Kaplan, who did the voice of Choo-Choo on the Top Cat cartoons (he's still with us at age 82).

In 1955, Arnold Stang was Sparrow, Frank Sinatra's friend, in the Otto Preminger film "The Man With The Golden Arm." He also appeared in another Otto Preminger film called "Skidoo" with Jackie Gleason. He worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Hercules in New York" in 1970, and with Walter Matthau in "Dennis the Menace" in 1993 as a photographer. He also appeared in "Hello Down There" in 1969.

As a teenager, he performed in dozens of radio programs, including 1930's and 1940's soap operas, mysteries, and comedies, often playing multiple roles. He played Seymour Fingerhood, the teenage neighbor in "The Goldbergs," a family series set in the Bronx. Later he became a familiar sidekick to stars like Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, and Milton Berle. He was a regular on "The Henry Morgan Show" doing skits, like a goofy New Yorker named Gerald.

He got involved with television when that medium first began as a regular on a program called The School House on the DuMont network in 1949. He was a regular on a comedy show called Doc Corkle in 1952. From 1953 to 1955 he played Francis, a stagehand who was always pestering Milton Berle on Texaco Star Theater. His was a regular on a 1960's comedy show called "Broadside," and appeared numerous times as a guest star on "Bonanza," "Batman" and "The Cosby Show," where he appeared with Sammy Davis Jr.. He also appeared as a guest several times on The Colgate Comedy Hour.

He acted on Broadway three times, the last being a revival of "The Front Page" in 1969. He was also the voice of many cartoon characters, other than Top Cat. He was Nurtle The Turtle in "Pinocchio in Outer Space" in 1965. He was the voice of Shorty, Popeye's friend. He was Tubby Tompkins in Little Lulu. He was Catsfish on Misterjaw. He also did voices for the Cartoon Network's Courage The Cowardly Dog. He also did the voice of Herman the Mouse in several Famous Studios cartoons.

He married JoAnne Taggart in 1959 and they stayed together for 60 years. Their wedding rings were made by fellow character actor, Wally Cox, who was also a skilled goldsmith. He and his family lived in New Rochelle, New York until very late in life when he relocated to Needham, Massachusetts. He was also blessed with a son David, daughter Deborah, and two grand-daughters.

According to his wife, Arnold Stang loved the cartoons. He liked doing commercials, too. But most of all, he loved radio. It offered him a great span of roles.

His cartoon character, the mischievous Top Cat, was a parody of Phil Silvers, who was the star of the television show "Sergeant Bilko." Here's the opening theme song from that cartoon, which you will sometimes hear on MusicMaster Oldies, performed by the Golden Orchestra and Chorus:

And here's Arnold Stang doing the voice of Herman The Mouse in a very funny cartoon short. Be patient because it may take several seconds for this clip to download before it begins playing on your browser. It's worth the wait!

We're gonna miss you, T.C.!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Squeaky vs The Black Knight ???

Record collecting has taken me through many interesting twists and turns throughout the years. It's cool how you can start out focused on one aspect of a hobby, which leads you to another thing, then another, and on and on.

I started out searching for every record that ever hit Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 charts between 1955 and 1970. As I closed in on that goal, I expanded my search to include every record that made the Billboard Bubbling Under charts as well. I ended up finding a copy of every last one, but it took a long time! In the process, I managed to buy well over two million records.

While cataloging all these records and recording them on the computer, I started to run into songs that didn't show up on these charts, even though I knew I'd heard them very often as a kid. These turned out to be Regional Hits. Now I started searching for the radio station playlists from 1955 to 1970 from the Cleveland area where I grew up and studied those looking for songs that were hit records in Cleveland but not listed on the Billboard charts. I found plenty of them! That led me to collecting and studying the radio station playlists of other cities. I never managed to find them all, and I doubt anyone could in a lifetime.

The fact is, there were probably millions of songs recorded in that short span of 16 years! I know people who are insanely trying to collect them all; but I also know how utterly impossible that would be. There are, after all, records that were made in very limited quantities. Few, if any, of these still exist today. There were vanity pressings made by the parents of young wanna-be rock stars that were probably only distributed to family members and close friends (I have a bunch of these and sometimes they're very good). There are also some other really odd things out there just waiting for record collectors to discover.

This is the story of one such odd record.

The Royal Guardsmen are best known for the 1967 novelty hit, Snoopy vs The Red Baron. This is a song about a dog named Snoopy, who was a comic-strip character created by Charles Shulz. In the comics, Snoopy liked to put on a scarf and hat, sit up on his dog house, and pretend he was a World War I pilot chasing his arch-enemy, The Red Baron of Germany. It's a very cute song that managed to reach number two on the Billboard charts nationwide. It spawned a couple of follow-up records in that same year, The Return Of The Red Baron and Snoopy's Christmas. I love all three of these records, and you'll hear them all on MusicMaster Oldies of course! Later, one more great Snoopy record showed up during the 1968 election season called Snoopy For President.

The Royal Guardsmen were six kids from Ocala, Florida, some of whom were still in high school when they formed the group in 1966. They started out trying to do near-perfect copies of current hits in live appearances. But things took a turn for them when they created this silly song about that "funny looking dog with a big black nose!"

The Royal Guardsmen consisted of Billy Taylor (keyboard), Bill Balogh (bass), Tom Richards (lead guitar), Barry Winslow (vocals and guitar), Chris Nunley (vocals), and John Burdett (drums). The Royal Guardsmen evolved from an earlier group fronted by Bill Balogh called The Posmen, loosely named after Bill's father's job as a postman (without the "t"). John Burdett wanted to meet a girl who lived next door to Bill, so the two of them became friends. John told Bill he could play the drums, and Bill invited him to join his group, even though John had never played drums in his life! As it turns out, every other member of the group, except drummer John, had extensive experience with the drums as members of the high school drum corps! The Posmen did some live gigs during the spring and summer of 1965 and changed members along the way. If you like, you can find the complete story of how the group got started by clicking HERE. The boys were all fans of the British Invasion sound. When they bought some new Vox equipment and noticed the amplifier carried the Royal Guardsman name. That sounded a lot better than The Posmen, so it became the band's new name. John pulled the emblem off the amplifier and stuck it on the face of his bass drum!

By September of 1966, the band was finalized and they headed for the recording studio to cut a demo record. They recorded four tracks at Fuller Studios in Tampa. They met record producer Phil Gernhard at a local gig when he approached them with a song idea. He showed them a yellow legal pad with the lyrics to Snoopy vs The Red Baron on it. It was originally written by Dick Holler as a straight historical ballad about The Red Baron of Germany, similar to Sink The Bismarck by Johnny Horton. The Red Baron was actually the hero of this story, since it was sung from the German's perspective. The Red Baron was a real fighter pilot and flying ace named Manfred von Richtofen, winner of Prussia's highest military order, the Blue Max. You can read all about him by clicking HERE.

Around this same time, Charles Shulz was already doing the Snoopy vs the Red Baron bit in his comic strip, with Snoopy yelling things like "Curse you, Red Baron!" Phil asked Dick Holler about changing his lyrics to a novelty about the comic strip character. The group wasn't sure what they were going to do with those lyrics, musically, but they went to work on it. They tried to follow Phil Gernhard's suggestion to give it just a few chords backed by a military drum riff. The boys didn't really think it was that good, but Phil liked it enough to get them into the recording studio to cut a demo that he could shop around to some record labels.

Chris was taking German while attending the University of Florida, so he ended up doing the opening of the song, which translates into English as: "Attention! We will now sing together to story of the beloved Red Baron and that pig-headed dog Snoopy!"

This is where the story gets a little more interesting. The group figured they would need permission from Charles Shulz to use his Snoopy character in their song. They sent a copy of the record to Charles but never got a response from him. Instead, his lawyers suggested they change the name. By this time, Phil had hooked up with Laurie Records to distribute the song nationally. While trying to sort out the legal issues, they released the song in Canada with the title changed to Squeaky vs The Black Knight.

Shulz and his lawyers eventually cleared their use of Snoopy, probably in exchange for some money, and Laurie released Snoopy vs The Red Baron in September 1966. It was on top of the charts in December, and even reached #8 in the UK by January 1967.

Now most people think that only the name was changed on these pressings, but not the song itself. That's not the case! It took me a very long time to track this record down, but here is what I found on my copy Squeaky vs The Black Knight by The Royal Guardsmen on Laurie 3366X out of Canada. Get ready for a song you probably know very well, but with lyrics you've never heard before!

Of course, you will hear this version, along with many other surprises, when you listen to MusicMaster Oldies!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tomorrow's Oldies

OK, here's the deal. I was sitting in Fuddrucker's last week munching on a burger, surrounded by music memorabilia and listening to oldies. Yeah, I know it's not diet food, but my 15 year old son makes a nasty face when I suggest we have a salad and I can't stand seeing him suffer like that. Afterward, during a couple hours at the gym, I started thinking about all the different shops and restaurants that still play 1950's and 1960's music in the background. One of the radio stations in my area changed format last week from simulcasting polka music to Good Time Great Oldies from the 50's, 60's, and 70's. Just then something hit me like a ton of bricks. It was one of those OMG moments. To help you get the same feeling I had, we need to start with some simple mathematics. (Don't worry, there will not be a quiz later.)

Most of the radio stations and shops that play 60's oldies these days play at least one Beatles song. The Beatles took off in America in January 1964. In almost no time at all, they had ALL FIVE of the top five songs on the national charts!

As I write this, we're a month away from January 2010. 2010 minus 1964 is 46 years, right? Now, take 1964 and subtract 46 years. That takes us back to 1918. You baby-boomers can correct me if I'm wrong, but to the best of my recollection, we did NOT sit around at hamburger joints in 1964 listening to a bunch of songs from 1918! We did NOT have radio stations playing The Best Of The 1900's, 1910's, and 1920's. What the heck is going on here?

I'm starting to wonder if the rock and roll era somehow caused music to begin expanding sideways instead of growing forward. Has popular music fragmented into so many different pieces that there are no more new styles left to create?

I can picture a young Jimi Hendrix sitting in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village watching his idol Bob Dylan shout out his classic folk version of All Along The Watchtower while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Later that night, Jimi will go to work playing killer electric guitar as part of a backing band for an R&B group. Jimi loves Dylan's music, and he loves wild electric guitar, so he "marries" the two and gives birth to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, along with all the imitators who come afterward. Meanwhile, a young Jimmy Page leaves a pop-rock-oriented British Invasion band, does some studio guitar work, and then "marries" early American blues and R&B with hard rock to create Led Zeppelin.

These are examples of how the evolution of popular music created entirely new styles. In much the same way that DNA splits and recombines to create new and unique human beings, popular music styles split apart and then combine with other styles to create a totally new sound. But what kind of combinations are being made today? What new forms of popular music are being created these days?

Last week, someone wanted to know if there were any recent hits that were not done in standard 4/4 time. I can't name one. Can you? For that matter, can you think of any current hit that really does something truly different? Are there any new songs that really push the envelope, plow new ground, or do something truly radical and exciting? (And I don't consider singing through Auto-Tune to be an "advancement" in the music industry!)

At a time when the record industry is pushing for new fees from radio stations who play their music, one has to wonder exactly what they're doing to EARN those fees. What new products are they cultivating?

We continue to discover great music from fifty years ago that was somehow overlooked the first time around. Certain musical styles that were first born fifty years ago still command the power to fuel huge cult followings. Rhythm and Blues tunes from fifty years ago still sound mighty sweet today. But what music is being CREATED today that will have the same kind of impact in 2056 -- some 46 years from today?

You may have noticed that I've started to play some Christmas songs on MusicMaster Oldies. This has become an annual tradition, but unlike some of the radio stations today, I don't suddenly switch to a wall-to-wall Christmas music format somewhere between Halloween and Thanksgiving! Instead, you'll hear Christmas music they way I heard it on the radio when I was growing up. I think this music is much more special when it's blended into the normal mix. Back in the 1950's and 1960's, the Christmas season really got into full swing just a week or so before Santa came sliding down the chimney. None of the stations switched to 100% Christmas music, either, except maybe for a few hours on Christmas morning. It is possible to get too much of a good thing, you know!

By the way, yet another Pirate Radio Station has appeared in the news, this time it's in Canada. Click HERE to read more about it.

A quick note to all the musicians and artists out there: MusicMaster Oldies is under contract to play music with ASCAP, SESAC, and BMI. We pay our royalties for each performance. However, if we should happen to post anything on this blog that you own rights to and want us to remove, please contact me directly. You can e-mail me at Please don't contact Blogger or Google because they might shut down my blog instead of just asking me to remove an offending item. There's no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water!

It irritates me when artists are cheated out of compensation for their work. However, it's not always kids downloading songs that cost them the most. There are horror stories in abundance throughout the 1950's and 1960's, and right into the present, talking about how record companies and unscrupulous record promotors and managers took advantage of a naive client who's only concern was playing rock and roll music. Click HERE to read an interesting story about underpaid royalties.

Finally, I want to thank every one who commented on my last blog post. You make this a LOT more fun with your interaction and feedback. Without your input, writing this blog would be like a tree falling in the woods with nobody around to hear it...

Some corrections were made to my Original Versions post after getting new data from a few well-informed followers. In addition to the corrections I've already made, I've got some more new information to pass along now.

Roy Hall was actually the first person to release There's A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On on Decca 29697 in 1955 (despite the fact that Wikipedia claims it came out in 1954). Roy Hall, who's real name was James Faye Hall, was born in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, on May 7, 1922. He died on March 2, 1984. His version was covered so quickly by blues singer Big Maybelle that it created confusion for years as to which was the original recording. It was more common back then for a Country & Western singer to cover an R&B record than the other way around, which helped create some of the controversy.

Roy Hall claimed to have written the song, even though his name is never actually credited on the label. You will find different variations of composer credits on this song, but the song was written by Dave "Curlee" Williams, a singer-songwriter who was born in Kentucky as the son of Native American (Crow tribe) and African-American parents, with help from Hall, who was a white piano player, songwriter, and band leader. Roy used the alias Sunny David, which is why you'll often see the composers of this song listed as "D Williams & S David." Roy also claimed that he once employed a young piano player by the name of Jerry Lee Lewis back in the early 1950's, so now you know the "rest of the story."

Here's Roy Hall's Original Version of There's A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On:

Memphis Slim wasn't even close to being the first to record Stagger Lee. The song was recorded many years earlier, in 1928, by Mississippi John Hurt as Stack O'Lee Blues on Okeh 8654. Here's that version of this classic rock and roll song:

But that was NOT the Original Version of this song. It may have been the first one recorded with lyrics, but an instrumental version was released a full five years earlier by Fred Waring And The Pennsylvanians on Victor 19189. This was a traditional song that pre-dated recorded music by many years. Here's that 1923 recording of Stack-O' Lee Blues by Fred Waring:

Now you can see why collecting these Original Versions can be a lot of fun. Music historians are still trying to piece together all the available data, and new discoveries of even older versions are being made all the time. To make this process even more complex, a lot of incorrect information is out there on the Internet. Moral of the story is, don't believe everything you read in Wikipedia!

I also learned that Hound Dog was also recorded by several other people in 1953, although none of these came out earlier than Willie Mae Thornton's Original Version. You can also find the song done by Billy Star on Imperial 8186, Tommy Duncan on Intro 6071, Betsy Gay on Intro 6070, Eddie Hazelwood on Intro 6059, Jack Turner on RCA 20-5267, and Cleve Jackson on Herald 6000. Of course, you'll hear ALL of these and more on MusicMaster Oldies!

Let me close this topic, for now, with one more Original Version for your enjoyment. You've all heard Led Zeppelin, of course. After Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans, I thought their version of When The Levee Breaks would make a fitting and prophetic memorial song. But I discovered an even better choice: the Original Version of that song! The first recording dates back to 1929 when it was released on Columbia 14439 by Kansas Joe And Memphis Minnie. The song was "re-worked" by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, which might explain why they left the original composers off the album credits. Here now, as my tribute to the many folks who lost their lives in the rain, wind and flooding in New Orleans, please enjoy the Original Version of When The Levee Breaks: