Here Come the Beagles

TheBeagles-TVLP600In 1965, ABC launched The Beatles, a cartoon series based on the most famous musical group in the world. Because no good idea ever goes without being imitated, a series called The Beagles premiered on CBS 50 years ago this weekend, on September 10, 1966. It centered around two singing dogs and their manager, who came up with crazy schemes to make them famous. Although the songs performed in each episode bore a striking resemblance to Beatles tunes, the characters of Stringer and Tubby were not modeled after real Beatles. (Stringer’s speaking voice may remind you a little of Bing Crosby.)

In 1960, New York ad men W. Watts “Buck” Biggers and Chet Stover created the cartoon series King Leonardo and His Short Subjects to sell cereal for General Mills. With its success, they left Dancer Fitzgerald Sample and formed Total TeleVision with Treadwell Covington, another ad man, and Joe Harris, a character designer and storyboard artist. Over the next several years, Total TeleVision created anthology shows featuring several different cartoon elements. Underdog, Tennessee Tuxedo and His Tales, and The Beagles all appeared on network schedules, but each included episodes of The World of Commander McBragg, Klondike Cat, Tooter Turtle, and/or Go-Go Gophers, as well as King Leonardo. They were animated by Gamma Productions (which also did the various Rocky and Bullwinkle shows at the same time), and had a look that was cheap, but distinctive. Like other Total TeleVision shows, The Beagles featured the voice talents of Kenny Delmar, a veteran radio actor who had played Senator Claghorne with Fred Allen in the 40s; Allen Swift, who had been a voice actor and writer on Howdy Doody; and Sandy Becker, another veteran of old-time radio and 1950s TV.

The Beagles ran for two years, one season on CBS and one on ABC, before going off the air in 1968. For a long time, the original masters of the show were believed lost, although Biggers told an interviewer in 2007 that nine episodes (which is all that were made) still existed, but not in complete form. They would have to be reassembled from pieces before they could be reissued. As of 2007, the rights to the show were owned by Lorne Michaels’ company, Broadway Video.

In 1967, the Harmony label, a Columbia subsidiary, released 10 songs on Here Come the Beagles (pictured above). As you might expect, it’s pretty rare. (In 1995, the songs were reissued along with songs by another made-for-TV group, the Banana Splits, but in a thousand-copy limited edition.) The identities of the musicians who performed as the Beagles are long lost. The songs were arranged by Charles Fox, who would go on to score dozens of movies and TV shows. It’s possible that Fox sang on them, although that’s unclear. The four principals in Total TeleVision are credited as songwriters. Biggers died in 2013; his obituary indicates that he wrote the songs and shared the credits with his three partners.

The show’s main theme, “Looking for the Beagles,” has an oddly downcast lyric for such a silly show: “Lookin’ for the Beagles / Not where rich men go / Rich is for the regals / Woe is all the Beagles know.” Many of the Beagles’ songs sound like straight-up garage rock, such as “Humpty Dumpty,” heard in this existing clip from the show. Some add a flute, which seems a little incongruous, as on “I’d Join the Foreign Legion,” which you can hear in the clip here. But the gem among the Beagles’ songs is “Thanks to the Man in the Moon,” on which the anonymous lead singer nails his John Lennon impression. Any resemblance to “This Boy” or “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” is almost certainly intentional. You can hear some of it, and see a toy commercial from 1966 to boot, in this clip.

Whoever they were, the musicians behind the Beagles (thanks to the songwriting talents of Buck Biggers) managed to channel the sound of the British Invasion and the Beatles themselves into a handful of well-crafted pop tunes. And whoever they were, they would likely be surprised to learn that a half-century later, a few people are still listening to them.

(Based on a 2008 post, but mostly new.)

Advice for the Freshman Class

It’s time for another Off-Topic Tuesday post. In 1995 and 1996, I wrote a column for the Daily Iowan, the student newspaper at the University of Iowa, which I attended from 1995 to 1997. I have an electronic version of this but I can’t lay hands on a clipping, so I am not sure whether it actually ran, or if it was just a draft. If it ran, it appeared 20 years ago this month. I’ve edited it a little.

Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of everybody who’s been here for a while, let me welcome you to the University of Iowa. During your orientation, you paid close and careful attention to everything you were told. You may have convinced yourself that you know exactly what to do, where to go, and how to cope. But what you have done so far to prepare for college life is not unlike preparing to ride a bicycle by reading about how to do it. Now, you’re actually getting on the damn thing and trying to keep your balance, and you may find that the instruction manual skipped a few useful items. But that’s why I’m here.

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One Day in Your Life: September 2, 1976

(Pictured: a high school scene, September 1976.)

I have written many, many One Day in Your Life posts about days in 1976 over the years, although not very many new ones as part of The 1976 Project. But here’s one.

September 2, 1976, was a Thursday. It’s Election Day in Barbados. It’s the first day of school in Dayton, Ohio, and the first day of a new desegregation plan for the city’s schools. In Monroe, Wisconsin, the new school year is about one week old. A newly minted junior is taking third-year French, Social Psychology, Contemporary Family Living, Creative Writing, Journalism, and a physical education course. After a yearlong flight, the Viking II spacecraft has reached Mars; tomorrow, it will become the second spacecraft to make a soft landing on the planet, joining Viking I, which landed in July. Even though it is Thursday, President Gerald Ford discusses political strategy for the upcoming presidential campaign with advisers from the House and Senate known as the Wednesday Group. The group includes Senator Richard Schweiker of Pennsylvania, who pledges his support for Ford despite having been named Ronald Reagan’s running mate before the Republican National Convention earlier in the summer. Ford is told that labor leaders dislike Jimmy Carter, and that “the Christ-like evangelism of Carter is not as strong as the president’s quiet faith.” Ford also receives advice on how to look into the camera during the upcoming debates, and he is urged to make a whistle-stop train tour in West Virginia.

In today’s Peanuts strip, Charlie Brown and Linus review the baseball season. Five games are played in the majors; the Los Angeles Dodgers sweep a doubleheader from the Montreal Expos. The first Canada Cup international hockey tournament opens; the Canadian team, loaded with NHL stars, is a heavy favorite. (Two weeks later, they will win it.) The NBA Portland Trail Blazers send LaRue Martin, who had been taken first overall by the Blazers in the 1972 NBA draft, to Seattle in exchange for future considerations. Daytime talk show Dinah Shore’s guests today are Jerry Lewis, Chad Everett, Marvin Hamlisch, Charo, and Julius LaRosa. Tonight, network prime-time TV is mostly reruns, including The Waltons, Hawaii Five-O, and Barnaby Jones on CBS and Welcome Back Kotter, Barney Miller, and The Streets of San Francisco on ABC. NBC airs a nature special about the Galapagos Islands and The Oregon Trail, the pilot for a proposed western series. Later, comedian David Brenner fills in for Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show; one of his guests is singer Robert Goulet. Elvis Presley plays Tampa, Queen plays Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Band plays Boston Music Hall.

At WLS in Chicago, Elton John’s duet with Kiki Dee, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart,” holds on to #1 for a fourth week on the chart dated August 28, 1976. The songs at #2 and #3, “You Should Be Dancing” by the Bee Gees and “Let ‘Em In” by Paul McCartney and Wings, hold their spots for a third week, and the songs at #4 through #6 are there for a second consecutive week: Lou Rawls’ “You’ll Never Find Another Love Like Mine” (which will go on to spend a third week at #4), “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight” by England Dan and John Ford Coley, and “Shake Your Booty” by KC and the Sunshine Band. Also in the Top 10: “Play That Funky Music,” “A Fifth of Beethoven,” Seals and Crofts’ “Get Closer,” and “This Masquerade” by George Benson. Farther down the Top 40, the change of seasons is on, where other indelible hits of summer (“Kiss and Say Goodbye,” “Love Is Alive,” “Afternoon Delight”) mingle with the equally indelible hits of fall (“Lowdown,” “Still the One,” “If You Leave Me Now”).

Buckle up, newly minted high school junior. You are about to take the ride of your life.

The Oddball

The name of Tiny Tim brings up a constellation of images: the long, stringy hair; the ukulele; the falsetto singing voice; the blowing of kisses. Wasn’t he on Laugh-In? Didn’t he get married by Johnny Carson or something? He’s the subject of a new biography, Eternal Troubadour: the Improbable Life of Tiny Tim, by Justin Martell with Alanna Wray McDonald. Between 1968 and 1971, Tiny Tim, real name Herbert Khaury, was one of the most recognizable pop stars in the world.

In December 1967, after gaining notoriety performing live in Greenwich Village, Tiny Tim went into a studio with producer Richard Perry and arranger Artie Butler to record the album God Bless Tiny Tim. It included a number of the old-fashioned songs Tiny revered, several going back to the Pioneer Era of Recording, alongside newer songs, including Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.”

In January 1968, Tiny Tim was introduced to TV producer George Schlatter, about to launch Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In, who booked him for the first episode. Without telling Dick Martin in advance, Dan Rowan brought Tiny on stage and then walked off, leaving an incredulous Martin to watch Tiny perform. A couple of weeks later, Tiny appeared again, only this time he sang “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips With Me,” a song from his album that had been a hit for crooner-guitarist Nick Lucas in 1929.

On April 3, 1968, “Tip-Toe” was released as a single. The next night, Tiny Tim made his first appearance on Tonight (the night of the day Martin Luther King was murdered). A New York Times profile and a second appearance with Carson came before the end of the month. And on April 27, “Tip-Toe Through the Tulips With Me” cracked the Bubbling Under section of the Hot 100. Two weeks later, it entered the Hot 100 at #83, and it steadily rose from there, eventually peaking at #17 for the week of June 29, sharing the Top 20 with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Mony Mony,” and “Mac Arthur Park.” (Also among the nation’s top songs that week was “Here Come the Judge” by Shorty Long, boosted by the popularity of “here come the judge” as a Laugh-In catchphrase.)

God Bless Tiny Tim charted in May and eventually rose to #7 on the album chart. Tiny Tim would appear on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Jackie Gleason Show, and Hollywood Palace with Bing Crosby, an appearance in which he and Bing traded obscure song snippets from old Crosby movies. A brief meeting with George Harrison resulted in Tiny recording a couple of lines that appeared on the Beatles’ 1968 Christmas record.

In June 1969, Tiny met Victoria Budinger, a 17-year-old girl from Haddonfield, New Jersey. Although he was perpetually in love with somebody (and had a habit of giving an engraved trophy to the girl he loved the most each year), he fell especially hard for Vicki, and proposed to her in August. (He was 37 years old at the time.) He appeared on Tonight in September, where he brought Vicki onstage and gave her a ring. The same night, Carson asked Tiny if he wanted to get married on the show. Tiny accepted; Vicki was horrified. But on December 17, 1969, the wedding—and it was an actual wedding, with a minister and attendants amidst a bower decorated with 10,000 tulips—took place during a taping of the show, on which Florence Henderson and Phyllis Diller also appeared. It was estimated that upwards of 40 million people watched that night, the highest-rated Carson show until his retirement episode in 1992.

Tiny’s story continues after that, ending with his death in 1996 at the age of 64. You can read the rest in Eternal Troubadour if you’d like, although the book is simply not very good. It’s tediously detailed and about half again as long as it needs to be, and riddled with typographical errors. (My favorite: one of Tiny’s backup singers would “occasionally bear her breasts onstage.” As would each of us, if we went onstage.) And as I sat down to write this post, I cursed aloud its lack of an index.

Although Martell says his intention is to reveal Tiny Tim as more than an oddball curio, it’s pretty clear that’s all Tiny was. A few years of unlikely success were followed by a quarter-century’s unraveling, as Tiny’s life grew ever more unsavory. What comes through the strongest in Martell’s book is that Tiny Tim was too much of an oddball to suffer any other fate.

When I Hear You on the Car Radio You’re Gonna Be a Sensation

(Pictured: Boston in the studio, circa 1976. Tom Scholz is seated at the right.)

Forty years ago this week (actually August 25, 1976), Boston was released. Jeff Giles told the story of its creation quite nicely over at Ultimate Classic Rock; a hyperventilating appreciation by Tim Sommer at the Observer, which is one of the finest pieces of music writing I’ve ever seen, appeared here. Michele Catalano remembers Boston as part of her “defining moment of the 70s.”

“More Than a Feeling” first appears at ARSA on a survey from WBZ in Boston (where else?) dated August 20, 1976. It picked up playlist adds in great numbers during September, but at WLS in Chicago,”More Than a Feeling” didn’t chart until October 16 (which would have been about the time I first heard it). The song became a Top-10 hit in many places during November and December, although it reached #1 only at WAVZ in New Haven, Connecticut, during the week of November 28.

“More Than a Feeling” took over three months to climb from #86 on the Hot 100 (September 18) to #5 on the chart dated December 25, 1976. The chart was frozen the next week, so the song gets credit for two weeks at #5 before starting on its way down. It would be gone from the Hot 100 entirely after the week of January 22, 1977—but it has yet to fall out of radio station playlists.

Boston hit the Billboard 200 album chart on September 18, and would rise to #3 in a run totaling 132 weeks. In addition to the three singles (“Long Time” and “Peace of Mind” followed “More Than a Feeling”), nearly every track got radio play. If I were setting up a classic-rock radio library today, all three singles plus “Rock & Roll Band,” “Smokin’,” and “Hitch a Ride” would be in the heavy rotation. That leaves only “Something About You” and “Let Me Take You Home Tonight,” neither of which is a slouch. I’d play them, too.

I remember jocks on our college radio station joking that if you segued Boston songs just right, you could make it sound like one big song. And for many years, Boston was one of the main offenders mentioned when people talked about the pernicious, homogenizing influence of corporate rock. You can still find people who hold both of those opinions today, and they’re entitled to them, provided that it’s understood that they’re wrong.

Like other obsessed artists, Tom Scholz’s passionate pursuit of his vision resulted in something utterly original. If he had trouble expanding his sonic palette on succeeding albums, give the man a pass for inventing the damn palette in the first place. And as far as the corporate part, successful inventors need backers. Were it not for Epic Records, Scholz’s unique sound may never have gotten out of his garage. (Epic ran radio ads for the album touting Scholz’s “special effects guitar.” I heard the ads before I’d heard anything beyond “More Than a Feeling.”)

Boston is a remarkable creative achievement. It’s massively heavy—the “More Than a Feeling” riff (which Bruce Springsteen noticed was a lift from “Louie Louie”), the rolling riff on “Peace of Mind,” the lead guitar on “Smokin’,” and the production on “Rock and Roll Band” have got all the rock ‘n’ roll power a teenage headbanger could ask for. But at the same time, there’s a great deal of space and lightness in it, as on “Hitch a Ride,” and even “Smokin'” makes room for a Deep Purple-esque organ solo that transforms the whole atmosphere. The album dips into prog-rock on “Foreplay” and the quiet opening of “Something About You,” and the dialed-back feel of “Hitch a Ride” is a spiritual cousin to Emerson Lake and Palmer’s “Still . . . You Turn Me On.”

This may be a fool’s errand, but here’s my ranking of the tracks on Boston.

1.  “More Than a Feeling”
2.  “Peace of Mind”
3.  “Hitch a Ride”
4.  “Rock and Roll Band”
5.  “Smokin'”
6.  “Foreplay/Long Time” (Were I ranking these two individually, I’d put “Long Time” at #4 and “Foreplay” at #9.)
7.  “Let Me Take You Home Tonight”
8.  “Something About You”

Your mileage may vary, however, and I crave your opinions, along with your recollections of listening to Boston, in the comments.

Who Are You and What Are You Doing?

George Carlin once described the stand-up comedian’s job as thinking up goofy shit, telling people what it is, and then going off to think up some more. I have modified that joke to describe what I do on the radio. I can’t speak to what it’s like to have a regular partner or a show with a cast; thinking up stuff is still the essence of the gig, but it’s a collaborative effort and a conversation. (Neither do I know anything about doing talk radio.) So when it’s just you in a studio, with a microphone and unseen thousands (hundreds? dozens?) out there in the beyond, the weight of the responsibility is great.

What makes you think you’re interesting enough to spend three or four hours each day knitting together a bunch of songs on the radio?

Many people aren’t interesting enough. They may have nice voices (although not necessarily), but they never really say anything that engages you. They’re just there, playing the songs, reading the promos, taking up space. People like this can have long careers, but they aren’t getting into anybody’s Hall of Fame.

At the other end of the spectrum are the people who are endlessly engaging. They’re the chosen few of the chosen few, the Hall of Famers, people who don’t sound like anybody else, the people aspiring jocks aspire to be.

In the middle are the talented craftsmen (men and women). They’re technically skilled (although technical radio skills matter less in a world of digital automation than they did in the days of turntables and tape cartridges); they know their audience well, and they are committed to bringing something to that audience every day that only they can bring—a particular interest, bit, or story, or a unique take on whatever people are talking about on any given day. Craftsmen, while they may not be among the unique talents of the age, sound like real people communicating one-to-one instead of disembodied voices yammering about nothing to nobody in particular.

I learned early on that I wasn’t talented enough to be a Hall of Famer, so being a solid craftsman and real person became my goal.

When I arrived at KDTH in 1979, there was a big sign in the studio at eye level reading “smile.” It was the first piece of professional advice I ever ignored. If your goal is to be a real person on the radio, you can’t do it if you’re always smiling. Not everything you say should be delivered with a smile. I was on the air the day Michael Jackson died, and the day the Boston Marathon was bombed, and I’ve done countless severe weather broadcasts. At those moments, speaking with a smile on my face would have been unconscionable. Some days you don’t just feel like smiling: your kid is sick or your car is in the shop or your boss got in your face just before the show. And that’s OK. If you can’t smile, don’t worry about it. Try not to be grim, though. Strive for geniality: be as pleasant as you can under the circumstances, but don’t fake something you don’t feel, or that isn’t appropriate.

One day, I hadn’t had enough sleep when I came to work. I was not especially willing or ready to do a show that day, but I didn’t have a choice. After about an hour, one of my colleagues came into the studio and said, “You sound crabby today—but you’re funny.” I got away with being less than 100 percent by the fact that on other days I’d been at 100 percent—that I’d established myself as a real person—and on this particular day I was going to be genially sardonic.

Sometimes real people have bad days, and that’s OK.

If you want to be either a craftsman or a Hall of Famer, as distinct from one of those jocks who’s just there, ask yourself this: “What am I doing on the air every day that nobody else can do?” The number of jocks, young and old, who can’t answer that, or who can answer it only in vague terms, is a scandal. Pro tip: “Just being myself” is not the answer. Lots of jocks, young and old, think it is, but it’s only the first and most obvious part of the answer. If you know exactly who you are, and you know the specific things you bring to the show every day, you’ll be way ahead of those who don’t.

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