Williams column: When comedy was wholesome

  • Posted: Monday, March 11, 2013 12:41 a.m.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, there seemed to be a wider variety of comedy songs for purchase at the music store and for listening on the radio. There are some good, wholesome comedy songs today (a lot of them on the “John Boy and Billy Big Show”) but unfortunately, there are others in other venues which overstep the bounds of good taste.

I have early memories of the Spike Jones records which my father loved to play. My father was wiry like Spike Jones and, like him, loved cigarettes (also cigars and pipes). To me, my father seemed to bear a certain facial resemblance to that famed leader of the “City Slickers.”


Although I was only two years old when it came out, I remember hearing Andy Griffith’s classic “What it Was, Was Football” in later years of radio replay. It should have been included on Voyager I’s little gold record, and I feel pretty sure that it has garnered some gold of its own.

One of my first favorite comedy albums was purchased by my brother Joe: “Stan Freberg and the Original Cast.” On its cover, Mr. Freberg was posing on a street corner with, of course, his leg in a cast. I can’t watch an old episode of “Lawrence Welk” or hear the mention of his name without also hearing (in my mind) Stan Freberg’s impersonation of Welk’s voice, pleading: “Please Turn Off the Bubble machine!” (and imagining bubbles of sufficient multitude and magnitude to be able to carry Santa Monica’s Aragon Ballroom out to sea).

As a child I never tired of hearing that “composite” record, ”The Flying Saucer.” Looking back, I wonder now if that popular novelty record provided some later inspiration for those East Rowan coaches who constructed their own “version” of Roswell.

One very popular comedic song, of course, had as its theme a purple-hued, winged, cyclopic, unicorned sort of creature with a fondness for people (as food).

Another “monster” song was recorded earlier by Phil Harris, but still received re-play from time to time on the radio back then. It was “The Thing” (not to be confused with James Arness’ first movie role as a plant from outer space). Harris’ “whatever” was in a box that had washed up on the beach, but stayed right there in that box, not causing any “out-of-the-box” mayhem. The only distress caused was the fear in the minds of those to whom he showed the box’s contents (a much earlier, “classical” version would later be discussed in Latin class at East Rowan by Mrs. Puckett, but the mythical “thing” of which she spoke had the power to turn men into stone if they looked upon its face and “snakely” locks).

Then there was the record made by an impressionist and titled, “The First Family.” In this recording, the impressionist poked fun at the Bostonian accent of the then newly elected President John F. Kennedy. Unfortunately, most unfortunately, this record had a shelf-life with an expiration date of Nov. 22, 1963. After that day, it just wasn’t funny anymore.

I can still hear Allan Sherman’s classic, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” in my mind. We laughed at all of his songs, but Southerners of an earlier age would have associated the name “Sherman” with anything but mirth! Bobby “Boris” Pickett recorded the hilarious “The Monster Mash,” and his surname brings to mind a very courageous tragedy of that same war.

If one still has a collection of records from the very late 1950s into the  1960s, the recordings of “Alvin and the Chipmunks” stand out physically as being of different colors than the usual color of records. I remember my cousins Tommy and Terry Williams of North Wilkesboro being in possession of each “Chipmunk” album. I  recall one album being red, one being green, and one even being translucent (There were probably several “Chipmunks” records of the color gold on the wall of an executive’s office somewhere, but those records were most surely opaque). Mack Sennett’s silent films of the Keystone Cops seemed visually sped up, but if they had been “talkies” and so similarly sped, those policemen would have then probably sounded something like Alvin & Co.

One of my most favorite comedy records back then, was mostly instrumental and titled “Music for Non-Thinkers,” performed by “The Guckenheimer Sour Kraut Band,” or if you want to be precise (as most Germans are), “Sauerkraut.” This band’s repertoire was a musical polyglot (kind of like the countries making up the old Austro-Hungarian Empire). The “Guckenheimers” performed German folk songs, drinking songs, Liszt’s “Second Hungarian Rhapsody” (played quite “uniquely”), Thomas’ “Raymond Overture” (also “singularly” performed), etc.

After recently hearing, for the first time, the actual, more sublime version of the “Raymond Overture,” I find that I prefer the version with which I grew up, the ridiculous one. I sometimes remember my father using the phrase “from the ridiculous to the sublime,” possibly in following the Guckenheimers with an album of Horowitz-performed Chopin on the record turntable. The group also performed “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” with words sung by the group’s director, “Herr Doktor Fritz Guckenheimer” in a sort of “pidgin” German. The band’s “coat of arms,” among other things, depicted two dachshunds wearing World-War I German spiked helmets (Pickelhauben) and gazing up longingly at a similarly helmeted eagle perched on a link of bratwurst (a gaze more aptly described as “bratwurst-directed” than “eagle-centered”).

Although the Guckenheimer Sour Kraut Band performed some German Oktoberfest drinking songs, it could be said that their entire repertoire consisted of “drinking music,” as such an effect was produced as to make it sound like a good bit of drinking was going on, either prior to, or during recording. This “Teutonic” group, instead of being in a state of attention (achtung!), was instead, at ease (ruhrt euch!). I recall my father saying that it took accomplished musicians to veer from the printed music just enough to create comedy, without wandering too far to cause chaos.

In reflection, looking back 50 years from the “Brave New World” of the present to a previous one, there just doesn’t seem to be the caliber of recorded “funniness” now as there was then. The golden age of great classical music seems to have been narrowed to within a certain time span of European history, while the golden age of great comedic recordings seems to have just preceded, then run concurrently with the earlier part of a little line of history, by chance, traveled by me.

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