Stan Freberg’s United States of America
As was detailed in an earlier piece here, Stan Freberg’s comedy records dominated the Fifties, taking on the most popular TV show of the day ("Dragnet"), the politics of the day (the Army-McCarthy hearings), and any number of hits for people as wide-ranging as Elvis Presley ("Heartbreak Hotel"), Eartha Kitt (C’est Si Bon"), and the Platters ("The Great Pretender"). A new record from Stan Freberg was an event, and eagerly sought.
But, after creating the last major network comedy show on radio (for CBS, in 1957), Freberg seemed to lose interest in making records and moved on to making some of the most original and outrageous commercials on television. He did very little recording in the Sixties.
An exception was his 1961 album, Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America (Capitol 1573). The Sixties was the decade in which comedy albums – from Nichols & May, the original Second City comedy troupe, Shelly Berman and Bob Newhart, among others – became hot. If the Fifties had been the decade of comedy singles, the Sixties was the (first) decade of comedy albums.
Actually, Freberg already had three albums out. But two were Best Of singles collections, and the third was his Grammy-winning collection of highlights from the CBS radio show. None had been conceived and recorded specifically as albums.
Capitol was pushing Freberg to do a full album, as an album. Thus it was only natural that Freberg come up with a comedy album based on U.S. history when he began looking for a Big Theme. "Flunking U.S. History at Alhambra High School was a big help," Freberg says. "The reason I flunked was that it was so incredibly boring. It put me right to sleep. Better than Valium. I thought, ‘Why does American history have to be so incredibly boring?’ I kept thinking about all those people, Betsy Ross, Thomas Jefferson…they were real people, not just a bunch of marble statues in a park. So I thought…that’s a great idea for an album."
The next step was to sell the idea to Capitol. "I told Ken Nelson, my A[rtist] & R[epertoire] producer at Capitol, what I wanted to do and ad-libbed the Columbus sketch to him, and he said, ‘That’s a very unusual record. Great! Let’s do it!’ It took us thirteen weeks in the studio."
Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America Vol. 1: The Early Years was originally planned to be only the first of four volumes. It covers the span of time between Columbus’s discovery of the New World and the Revolutionary War, and tosses in a few tidbits, like the Founders’ intention to use the Turkey as our national bird….
Stan says he was pleasantly surprised by the discovery that "hundreds of schoolteachers across America have been using [the album] as a teaching aid." He admits, "I was amazed at the reception. It seems to have survived the passage of time."
In fact, the album had almost spawned a Broadway musical back in the Sixties. Freberg, a man not given to thinking small, had already looked ahead to that, even before he’d finished the album. Then Broadway’s biggest producer of that era, David Merrick, heard the album. He wanted to do it as a show. This spurred Freberg into writing the story and songs up through the First World War. Stan wanted to record it for Capitol – it probably would have been volumes 2 and 3 – but Merrick wouldn’t allow it. He wanted the musical to open first, no doubt so that the subsequent albums could be sold as "original cast recordings" and he could participate in their earnings.
Ultimately the project collapsed. Merrick couldn’t keep his hands off Freberg’s work, to Freberg’s annoyance and frustration. After one delay after another, with Merrick’s meddling equaling in pace his insistent demands, Freberg dropped the entire project, records and all, to concentrate his energies on advertising, eventually winning more than twenty Clio Awards in that field.
That left Vol. 1 an orphan, and so it remained for nearly thirty-five years. Fondly remembered and replayed by far more than just those schoolteachers, it achieved the status of a classic. Stan says he gradually became aware of "The true cult following which this work seemed to have spawned."
In 1989 Capitol finally got around to releasing the album on CD. And they asked Stan if, "By any chance did you record any material…which didn’t make it onto the finished LP because of the 45-minute maximum time restriction?" It turned out he had: two complete sketches ("The Discovery of Electricity" and "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere") and an expanded part of "Betsy Ross And The Flag." Tapes existed of the dialogue and the musical score, but not the sound effects. New sound effects – horses’ hooves, footsteps, thunder, lightning, crickets, windows and doors – were freshly recorded with Freberg supplying many of them himself. Thus the 1989 CD (Capitol CDP 7 92061 2) has several added treats for fans of the classic album – "bonus tracks," if you will. They are seamlessly woven into the tapestry of the album. And the entire album now contains over 56 minutes of recorded material.
However, Stan still had all the material he’d written for the Broadway musical – from the end of the Revolutionary War through the First World War – in his trunk. There it gathered dust for all the years it took for the bitter memories of Merrick to wear off. Freberg briefly thought about recording it and releasing an album for the 1976 Bicentennial, but he was too busy then with advertising.
Then, not long after the Capitol release of the augmented CD of Vol. 1, Richard Foos, the president of Rhino Records, started asking Freberg to record for his company. Finally Stan offered him Vol. 2: The Middle Years. Of the resulting album, Freberg says, "I used some of the material from the David Merrick era, added to it, and updated it." Significantly it covers the same period as the proposed musical in its nearly 69 minutes, ending with the end of "the war to end all wars."
Rhino has issued Vol. 2 both as a single, stand-alone CD, and as a double-CD with Vol.1 in a CD version identical to the 1989 Capitol release. Freberg assembled an impressive cast to make this album. In addition to Jesse White, who was on Vol. 1, there is Tyne Daly, John Goodman, David Ogden Stiers, Sherman Hemsley, and Harry Shearer – among others.
"It won’t be as long between Vols. 2 and 3," Stan assures us. A third volume? The, what? The Later Years? "You heard it here," Freberg says in his liner notes for Vol. 2. "Trust me. In the first place, I’m getting too tired to wait another thirty-five years."