Stan Freberg’s Greatest Hits
"John!" "Marsha!" "John…" "Marsha…" "John?" "Um… Marsha…" (-Snif-) "John!" "Marsha?" "John…."
The organ music playing in the background was the stuff of a hundred radio soap operas, but the dialogue consisted solely of two words: "John" and "Marsha." And the recorded single called "John & Marsha" – released in February 1951 – took off, selling a quarter million copies for Capitol Records in its first two weeks. Thus was Stan Freberg’s career as a hit recording artist launched.
It was by no means an overnight success for young Freberg, however. Stan was a native Californian who was born in Los Angeles in 1926 and grew up in Pasadena as the son of a Baptist minister. A child of radio, he was influenced by the weekly radio shows of Jack Benny and Fred Allen, and he understood fully the use of sound effects in radio theater. When he was 18 he auditioned for Warner Bros. Cartoons as a cartoon voice – and three days later was working with master voice Mel Blanc. That was in 1944. In the following years he worked regularly at Warner Bros., becoming a voice in dozens of cartoons. (He never entirely stopped doing this. He was The Beaver in Disney’s Lady and the Tramp, and more recently was Boron in Freakazoid.)
In the late Forties Freberg was contacted by an old friend, Bob Clampett, who wanted to create a kid’s TV show. Working with Clampett, writer Charles Shows and a young actor named Daws Butler, Freberg helped create Time For Beany – later known as Beany and Cecil. Freberg created and performed the puppet Cecil, the Sea-Sick Sea Serpent, for five years, a half-hour a day, five days a week.
A rough demo tape of a routine Freberg had recorded was taken by a friend to Capitol Records, who liked it and had Freberg re-record it in a studio – where he added the music. That was "John & Marsha." (It was released as a 78 rpm disk as Capitol 1356, and as a 45 as F 1356.)
Freberg had scored a hit with what was called a "novelty" record – which is what most comedy and oddball records of those days were called. The real question was whether he could do it again. Was Stan Freberg a "one-hit wonder"? Stan and Capitol put out five singles in 1952 – F 1711: "I’ve Got You Under My Skin" b/w "That’s My Boy," F 1962: "Maggie" b/w "Tele-Vee-Shun’," F 2029: "Try" (a satire on Johnny Ray’s "Cry") b/w "Pass the Udder Udder," F 2125: "Abe Snake for President" (1952 was a presidential election year) b/w "Ba-Ba-Ball and Chain," and F 2279: "The World Is Waiting for the Sunrise" (spoofing the Les Paul & Mary Ford hit) b/w "The Boogie-Woogie Banjo Man from Birmingham." None rose to the kind of sales success enjoyed by "John & Marsha," but they kept Freberg’s comedic talents in the public eye – or ears.
Then in 1953 he released "Little Blue Riding Hood" b/w "St. George and the Dragonet" (F 2596). These two related sides targeted with a lampoonist’s accuracy the Jack Webb TV series, Dragnet, then in its original wave of popularity. Not willing to go only halfway in creating this single record, Freberg talked Webb into loaning him the actual orchestra which did the musical scores for Dragnet every week. This record went straight to the top and stayed there four weeks. A double-threat, both sides were in the top ten, and it sold a million copies in its first three weeks, making it the fastest-rising single in record business history at that time. By no coincidence at all, the voice of officer "Frank Daws" was done by Daws Butler. Freberg and Butler would work together for many years on Freberg’s recording projects.
Wanting to see another hit just like the last one, Capitol pushed Freberg into doing a followup record, "Yulenet (Part 1 and 2)" (F 2671), which was later retitled "Christmas Dragnet." It was released the last day of November, 1953. A week later Capitol followed it with "C’est Si Bon" b/w "A Dear John and Marsha Letter" (F 2677). The latter was a send-up of "A Dear John Letter," a country & western hit for Ferlin Husky. But it was Freberg’s parody of Eartha Kitt’s original "C’est Si Bon" – complete with a dead-on version of her purring, throaty vibrato by Stan – that got him back on track, satirizing the hits of the day.
After that came another spoken comedy single, "Point of Order" b/w "Person to Pearson" (F 2838) in 1954. "Point of Order" applied Freberg’s wit to Senator Joe McCarthy, while its flip side took on Ed Murrow’s Person to Person. Then it was back to lampooning the hits, with "Sh-Boom" b/w "Wide-Screen Mama Blues" (F 2929). In 1955 Freberg did "The Honey-Earthers" b/w "The Lone Psychiatrist" (F 3138) and "The Yellow Rose of Texas" b/w "Rock Around Stephen Foster" (F 3249). "The Yellow Rose of Texas" was a merciless ribbing of Mitch Miller’s sing-along version of the song, while "Sh-Boom" took on mumbling r&b singers: "Okay you guys…stick some old rags in your mouth and take it again from the top. I don’t wanta unnerstand no lyrics now!"
By 1956 Capitol reissued "John & Marsha," backed this time by "Try" (3355), and Freberg had another hit with "The Great Pretender" b/w "The Quest For Bridey Hammerschlaugen" (F 3396). The backing side was based on the media frenzy stirred up by Bridey Murphy, who supposedly remembered past lives, but the A-side did a complete number on the Platters’ original hit. And then Freberg took on rock ‘n’ roll’s biggest icon with "Heartbreak Hotel" b/w "Rock Island Line," giving Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle hit the back of his hand in passing (F 3480).
Would nothing be too sacred for Freberg to satirize? Nope. "Green Chri$tma$ (Part 1 and 2)" (3503) proved his willingness to take on anything – even the commercialization of Christmas. Some detected both bitterness and truth in that record.
In 1957 Freberg set his sights on Harry Belafonte with "Banana Boat" b/w "Tele-Vee-Shun’" (F 3687). This turned out to be yet another of his best sellers. Later that year he turned to Lawrence Welk’s major television show for the inspiration for "Wun’erful, Wun’erful!" (F 3815) a two-parter which was pressed on "Side Uh-One" and "Side Uh-Two," and which gave us that immortal line, "Turn off the bubble machine!" This piece was born on his radio show on CBS, The Stan Freberg Show, which replaced Jack Benny’s radio show – which had by then moved entirely to television. The Welk satire went over so well with his radio audience that Freberg was convinced to make it a record.
By this point Freberg was losing interest in doing singles. He did a few more – "Green Chri$tma$" was re-released in 1958 b/w "The Meaning of Christmas" (F 4097) and a bit earlier he did his take on two songs for The Music Man, "Ya Got Trouble" b/w "Gary, Indiana" (F 3892). In 1960 he released "The Old Payola Roll Blues (Part 1 and 2)" (4329) which was based on the scandal concerning record company payoffs to deejays known as "payola." And that same year "Comments for Our Time (Part 1 and 2)" (4433).
In 1961 Freberg released the only work he ever created for album (earlier albums collected his singles and presented segments from his radio shows), Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America. But with one exception – a 1966 single called "The Flackman and Reagan! (Part 1 and 2)" (5726) – he made no further singles. The era was over. Freberg had moved into television and had his own advertising agency with which he created some of the liveliest and most original commercials seen on American television. Much of his work is now available on CD and is being enjoyed by whole new generations. Despite its age it remains remarkably fresh and pointed more than forty years later.