Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Do the Bartman!: 13 novelty albums recorded by TV characters

Illustration for article titled Do the Bartman!: 13 novelty albums recorded by TV characters

1. Laverne & Shirley Sing (1976)
Before the Internet, it could be tough to drum up promotion, even for a hit show, which mean networks often had to come up with decidedly unorthodox means to hype their product. One of the methods many shows—cult favorites and big hits alike—turned to was the novelty album. These albums were usually recorded by one of the series’ stars as themselves, occasionally hoping to launch a recording career to supplement their acting work, but every so often, an album was recorded in character, as though the characters from the show were unexpectedly offered a record deal. This might have made sense for The Archies or any other TV band that performed songs on its show, but it strained credulity a bit to believe that Laverne and Shirley (of the show of the same name) would suddenly become recording superstars. Yet at the height of that sitcom’s popularity, Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall recorded an excruciatingly off-key album featuring songs that… didn’t have much to do with the show, outside of the idea of Laverne and Shirley singing them.

2. Lenny & Squiggy Present Lenny And The Squigtones (1979)
Three years after Laverne & Shirley Sing, Michael McKean and David L. Lander cut their own record as Laverne and Shirley’s lovable, lowlife neighbors, Lenny and Squiggy. Recorded live at the Roxy, it featured a mix of ’50s parodies (some of which they had already performed on the TV show, such as “Night After Night”) and comic patter. Released by Neil Bogart’s Casablanca label when it was riding high on the proceeds from its disco acts and Kiss, the album has all the superficial earmarks of a quick cash-in job. But it’s also the missing link between the Credibility Gap—the counterculture comedy troupe where McKean and Lander got their start—and McKean’s later, more enduring foray into rock comedy, Spinal Tap. (Christopher Guest, who plays guitar on the album, is listed in the credits under the name of his Spinal Tap character, Nigel Tufnel.)

3. SpongeBob SquarePants, The Best Day Ever (2006)
TV character novelty albums have faded away in recent years, but they haven’t wholly disappeared, particularly in the realm of kids’ TV. SpongeBob SquarePants’ relentlessly cheerful The Best Day Ever is a charming throwback—and that’s not just because Brian Wilson, Tommy Ramone, and members of NRBQ make cameos. The record’s numerous skits refer to a free-form radio station called WH2O—which has its own retro-sounding jingle—commercials (e.g., “SpongeBob & The Hi-Seas in concert, with special guest Plankton—be there and be square!”), and request-line jokesters. In between these thematic conceits are ’60s-flavored tunes sung by the show’s characters. Co-written and produced by Andy Paley, whose résumé includes luminaries such as The Beach Boys and Madonna, this music touches on sun-kissed pop, surf and garage rock, and power-pop. SpongeBob’s nasally singing voice (naturally) dominates the record, although Squidward’s evil-Broadway-villain warbling and Sandy’s vaudevillian twang aren’t too shabby either.

4. Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C. (1965)
Although Jim Nabors’ memorable baritone made him a TV variety-show staple throughout the late ’60s and ’70s, even earning him his own such series from 1969 to 1971, the first time Nabors’ visage graced an album cover, it wasn’t even his own. Gomer Pyle, the naïve bumpkin whose popularity with viewers turned an intended one-off appearance on The Andy Griffith Show into 150 episodes of his own series, may not have been much of a Marine (he never made it beyond private first class), but his self-titled album comes with considerable country street cred. There’s no question that the majority of the proceedings were intended for novelty purposes, as evidenced by track names like “Shazam!” and “Gomer Says Hey!”, but in addition to future Bread frontman David Gates arranging and conducting the album and writing three of its songs, there are also tracks composed by John D. Loudermilk and Roger Miller.

5. Goober Pyle, Goober Sings! (1968)
Wherever Gomer Pyle went, his cousin Goober would inevitably follow, which may explain why George Lindsey—in the guise of Jim Nabors’ TV kin—released his own album a few years later. Goober Sings! was probably also intended to help raise the profile of the character’s new small-screen home: With Andy Griffith heading off to seek his fortune elsewhere on the TV dial, The Andy Griffith Show became Mayberry R.F.D., with Lindsey being one of the cast members who was carried over from the original series. Although arguably as much of a novelty effort as Gomer Pyle U.S.M.C., Goober Sings! sounds less like Mayberry than Bakersfield, with enough twang that it’s no wonder Lindsey ended up working with Buck Owens a few years later on Hee Haw.

6. Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, The Odd Couple Sings (1973)
Though billed as an album by “Jack Klugman and Tony Randall,” The Odd Couple Sings is performed almost entirely in character as Felix and Oscar from the series that made the two men household names. And, actually, as TV character novelty albums go, this one isn’t too bad. For one thing, Randall’s actually got some musical-comedy performance skills that he plays up to the hilt, and for another, there’s just something goofy and fun about hearing these two patter-singing their way through a variety of covers over a symphony orchestra. Their version of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” is a novelty album track for the ages, if only for the moment when Klugman growls “You walked in to the party, like you were walkin’ onto a yacht,” and is followed by Randall’s pitch-perfect, horrified, “What?!” in response.

7. Roosevelt Franklin, The Year Of Roosevelt Franklin (1974)
The residents of Sesame Street have released dozens upon dozens of records, all of which are great and fairly novel, but the one that best captures the intricacies of a fictional character is 1974’s The Year Of Roosevelt Franklin. A magenta Muppet that appeared on Sesame Street’s first seven seasons, Franklin taught kids about family, pride, rhyming, and not drinking poison. Though Franklin was incredibly popular, the Matt Robinson-voiced character was ultimately jettisoned from the show after African American viewers complained that his scatting and rowdy elementary school constituted a negative racial stereotype. Before Franklin disappeared from the show, though, he recorded The Year Of Roosevelt Franklin, which found him (and Robinson) talking about traffic safety, sharing, and how Roosevelt learned to accept “The Skin I’m In.” Franklin only performed a few songs actually on Sesame Street, but The Year Of… is a smart, solid record that further fleshed out a character that never really got his due.

8. Mister Ed, Straight From The Horse’s Mouth (1962)
In 1962, Jay Livingston, who sang the theme song to the talking-horse show Mister Ed, released a single containing the TV theme, backed with a song called “Pretty Little Filly.” Not to be outdone, Mister Ed himself recorded this children’s album that same year. After singing his theme song himself, Mister Ed holds forth on such topics as the nature of different sounds and addresses questions raised by his backup singers, such as, “Why is a blue sky blue?” “I’m very educational, in an odd sort of way!” he boasts, and maybe he is, but he doesn’t sound quite like himself. Maybe Allan “Rocky” Lane, who provided the voice of Mister Ed on the TV show, couldn’t make the gig. Or maybe Mister Ed just had a cold.

9. Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space (1967)
Star Trek was a dud as far as the Nielsen Company was concerned, surviving for three seasons on NBC in spite of weak viewership. But those who tuned in for the voyages of the Starship Enterprise did so passionately, turning the series into a marketing giant. Gene Roddenberry’s characters appeared in the pages of Gold Key comics, were represented by the garish tokens of Ideal’s Star Trek board game, and, beginning in 1967, got pressed into the grooves of records issued by Paramount subsidiary Dot. Building on the popularity of Spock, the coolly rational half-Vulcan, Leonard Nimoy was hired to goose up the loosely Star Trek-related collection of intergalactic exotica that would become Mr. Spock’s Music From Outer Space. But Nimoy wound up taking a more active hand, collaborating with recording-studio fixture Charles Grean on the spoken-word track “Twinkle Twinkle Little Earth” and lending the character’s recorded debut a dedicated panache. Spock’s winking ditties and cautionary tales (“A Visit To A Sad Planet” twists like a short story in a yellowed pulp mag) served as Nimoy’s entry point to the music industry, inadvertently launching a side career that spanned five albums for Dot. The actor became the star attraction following his second LP, The Two Sides Of Leonard Nimoy—but not before he delivered Spock’s definitive musical statement, the campy, half-sung “Highly Illogical.”

10. Gunsmoke’s Festus Sings ’N’ Talks ‘Bout Dodge City ’N’ Stuff (1968)
In the early, pre-grizzled years of his career, Ken Curtis sang with the Sons Of The Pioneers and starred in Columbia B-Westerns as a singing cowboy. In some of his later performances in bigger movies, such as The Searchers (directed by his then father-in-law, John Ford), he continued to strum a guitar and croon cowboy love songs in his own smooth, pleasantly forgettable voice. But when Curtis finally got to record an album, he stayed in character as Festus, the sidekick to Marshal Matt Dillon that he played for 16 years on Gunsmoke, and used the high-pitched, nasal whine he’d created for the character—the voice of someone whose sinuses were clogged with too much prairie dust. As Festus Haggen, he sings about his hometown (“Dodge City”), his relatives (“The Ballad Of Hawg Haggen”), and his favorite simple pleasures (“Corn Bread And Buttermilk”), alongside monologues peppered with corny jokes. (“They was a woman in our town had a set of twin boys named Pete and Repeat…”)

11. Beverly Hillbillies (1965)
Paul Henning’s white-trash-with-money sitcom was the biggest TV comedy hit of the 1960s (and a source of enduring embarrassment to its broadcast home, the “Tiffany network,” CBS), and this album was just one of the ancillary products created to tap into its success. The show’s regular cast members—Buddy Ebsen, Irene Ryan, Max Baer Jr., Donna Douglas, Nancy Kulp, and Raymond Bailey—all participate in specialty numbers inspired by the show’s various catchphrases and running gags (“Vittles,” “Long Talk With That Boy,” “Critters,” “What A Great Doctor Granny Is”), bookended by the show’s theme song, “The Ballad Of Jed Clampett,” performed by “special guests” Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. (Released as a single, it became the only record the legendary bluegrass duo ever recorded that made it to No. 1 on the country charts.) A few years later, Irene Ryan dipped into this well for her own novelty single, “Granny’s Mini-skirt.”

12. The Original Music From Dark Shadows (1969)
In the late ’60s, the gothic soap opera Dark Shadows made an unlikely teen pin-up idol of Jonathan Frid, the Canadian actor in his mid-40s who played Barnabas Collins, the “good” vampire doomed to spent a haunted eternity crushing on his unobtainable lost love, Josette. The inevitable tie-in album features several of the show’s memorable musical themes, intercut with Frid and co-star David Selby, who played the werewolf Quentin, performing songs—“I, Barnabus,” “I’ll Be With You, Always,” “Shadows Of The Night (Quentin’s Theme)”—that express their characters’ unquenchable longings and regrets. Actually, these numbers are composed as song lyrics, and the non-singer Frid maintains his dignity by reciting his songs instead of singing them, turning them into pop-gothic spoken-word poetry. [PDN]

13. The Simpsons Sing The Blues (1990)
If one of the foremost tenets of the TV character novelty album is the element of cashing in on something while it’s hot, then The Simpsons Sing The Blues has to be near the top of the list in that department. Recorded in a fervor between recording sessions for episodes of the show during its first year, The Simpsons Sing The Blues is a rush job through and through, even if there’s something entertaining about the way it captures the months when The Simpsons went from a new TV show to a global phenomenon. The album went platinum, and its single, “Do The Bartman,” hit No. 1 in the United Kingdom. (Fox didn’t release “Bartman” as a single in the U.S., perhaps to boost sales of the LP during the holiday season.) Is The Simpsons Sing The Blues any good? Not really, but it’s an essential way to understand the mania surrounding the series’ success—or the success of any series that arrives out of nowhere and becomes a white-hot sensation unexpectedly.

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