Tip of the Freberg: The Stan Freberg Collection 1951-1998
Once upon a time, radio and television advertising was no laughing matter. Before Stan Freberg showed up, commercials just weren't funny. They were strait-laced, straightforward litanies of the products' purported benefits. They were also cynical as hell. The advertising industry of the Fifties saw the American consumer as children in a classroom without much in the way of reasoning abilities. So when this curly-headed outsider with glasses way too big for his face popped over from the world of comedy records, it really did shake up an entire industry.
Freberg's approach combined humor with "a little more truth than the client had in mind." This is the guy who had Ann Miller and dozens of showgirls doing a production number on the top of a giant can of soup. He's the man who informed the consumers of this land that prunes have wrinkles and made the fact a selling point. And he's the one who put little plastic handles on canned Chinese food so you could purchase "takeout" at the supermarket.
His ads treated radio listeners and television viewers like intelligent folks with a sense of humor. And the approach changed everything. Almost 50 years later, his influence is still there any time your favorite show is interrupted by "a word from our sponsor."
You can both hear and see many of Stan Freberg's best commercial spots on this terrific set. Over four CDs and one videotape, this package highlights Freberg's commercial work, musical parodies, political satire, "theater of the mind" and general musings on life. There's a pile of previously unreleased goodies from Stan's personal archives alongside a few items that were deemed "too satirical" for release by his timid record company at the time. The extensive liner notes are by respected collector and musicologist Barry Hansen (better known as Dr. Demento) with personal recollections by "the artist" himself.
Our boy Stanley didn't begin his career pitching canned chow mein. He's best remembered for a series of wild musical parodies. His take-offs on the popular tunes of the day sold as well as the original hits. Unlike the work of "Weird" Al Yankovic, his satires were not intended to be affectionate goofing. He went for the jugular. As a big fan of jazz and the big bands, he had little use for the vapid pop music of the time. And he really disliked the early days of rock 'n' roll, giving him plenty of material to work with. To his ears, the records of Elvis Presley consisted of a no-talent singer performing in an echo chamber. So Stan's version of "Heartbreak Hotel" featured a not very bright lead singer struggling to get through the lyrics while drowning in echo from what sounds like the inside of an airplane hangar. On a send-up of "The Great Pretender," we hear the session pianist complaining about being hired to play the same "plink-plink-plink" note over and over. His attempts to slip some bebop riffs into the recording of the doo-wop classic keep interrupting the session.
It wasn't only rock and pop that got Freberg's satiric juices gushing. One of his biggest hits was a Lawrence Welk parody titled "Wun'erful, Wun'erful." The accordion maestro and his band are giving a concert on the Santa Monica pier when his champagne bubbles become too much. The pier breaks off and drifts to sea. Of course, the band keeps playing while afloat. Soon Lawrence's "a-one-uh, a-two-uh" exhortations turn into "a-help-uh." Thankfully, they are never rescued.
Most comedy doesn't exactly stand the test of time. What one generation finds funny, the next finds hopelessly lame. Freberg's humor really holds up. Most of his musical parodies are still funny even if you are unfamiliar with the original work. There are exceptions, of course, but the ratio remains pretty high over the course of these four CDs. There are plenty of authentic belly laughs on this package. In fact, one of the funniest bits in the box is the earliest. His very first release, "John and Marsha," features just two voices (both played by Freberg) saying each other's names repeatedly accompanied by appropriately soap-operatic music. With only two words, he makes his point about the inanity of melodramatic programming and gets a chuckle from you. That's what humor has always done best, make us think while laughing.
Reture to Recordings
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.