If you had to pick an occupation for Stan Freberg during the 1950s, it’d impossible. He started the decade working on a puppet show and ended it operating his own ad agency. In between , he starred on two radio shows, signed a recording contract with Capitol and ran into executives deathly afraid he’d cut into corporate profits by offending someone.
The British music newspaper Disc profiled Freberg in its issue of January 24, 1959.
He ‘honours’ the stars with his satire
Pop music could, if we were to let it, become a very serious business indeed. We get a daily stream of rock, cha-cha, and every type of rhythm, plus a host of good and not so good ballads; the platters spin, the cash registers tinkle, and we are sometimes apt to lose our sense of perspective and, most of all, our sense of humour.
Of all the artistes who have attempted to put humour on record, none has done it so consistently nor so successfully as Stan Freberg. I say attempted for nothing is more difficult to do that put comedy on wax. To stand up to several playings the humour has to be exceptional.
But Freberg has mastered his medium and, knowing that actual gags will not stand the test, he has turned to satire.
That satire is usually directed at well-known songs and, such is Freberg’s brilliant mind, he is able to find comedy where one would never have believed it possible.
Some of his hits have followed soon after the initial success of the song, and while some disc fans object to the Freberg treatments, the artistes who find themselves satire are usually delighted and flattered.
If the star has become famous enough to be honoured with a Freberg satire, then he can really claim to have achieved public prominence.
I remember the delight of Lonnie Donegan when, just starting to make a big name for himself, Stan Freberg decided to record a delightful version of “Rock Island Line.” There was hardly any doubt at all who Freberg was satirising. Additionally, it gave the “Line” a new lease on life, and made people aware of the Donegan version if, by chance, they didn’t know it.
I know that I for one have become interested in an original disc through a Freberg waxing. When I first heard Freberg’s “Sh-Boom” I hadn’t heard the original disc. Through it I soon made it my business to hear The Crewcuts’ record, and other versions. Freberg, apart from delighting me, had served an additional purpose.
His “John and Marsha” is a case in point. Freberg took a song and, by using only the two names throughout the whole disc, made it into a fantastic seller, and a most unusual recording.
It seems hard to imagine that such a record could cause any sort of a storm, yet many people took exception to it, including the B.B.C., because of the many inflections of voice which Stan Freberg used on those two innocent-sounding names.
Much of Freberg’s success, apart from his tremendous sense of humour, can be attributed to his talent for mimicry. This particular facet is the result of long experience in the entertainment field, and a natural flair for observation.
Such attributes have taken Stan Freberg successfully through many spheres, including that of satirist, writer, actor, lyricist, composer and, more recently, commercial advertiser.
This six-foot, sandy-haired entertainer was brought up in Pasadena. Says Freberg, “I was brought up in Pasadena, suave, aloof, and awesomely elegant. The town, not me! Even now the place cannot get used to the idea.”
For a man full of surprises, it came as no surprise to me that Stan’s father was far removed from the world of entertainment. In fact, he is a retired Baptist minister.
However, a conjurer uncle seems to have intrigued Freberg at an early age. When only 11, Stan was helping his uncle load up his coat with the many objects which conjurers seem to be able to stow there.
This done, Stan would hurry round into the audience and offer himself as a stooge when required!
Like so many in American show business, Uncle Conray suffered badly in his chosen profession and had to take a humble job on the staff at one of the major broadcasting stations.
Young Stan soon followed his uncle. “Not through any particular loyalty,” said Stan, “but because I wanted all the free passes to radio shows that my uncle could get hold of.”
Stan Freberg devoured radio entertainment. He returned for show after show, every aspect of broadcasting intriguing him and exciting his passion for mimicry.
Another thing that Stan enjoyed about uncle’s new position was the freedom it afforded him to rummage through the waste paper baskets! Not for money, but for any discarded radio scripts.
Every find in this direction was taken home, studied and acted out in solitude in the family garage at home. It was through these performances that Stan found he could imitate any voice demanded of him.
Still at school, this talent brought him distinction and so, when he fixed a job for Stan as a petrol station attendant, the obedient son took it.
However, his career in petroleum was to last only three days. The boss caught him filling a petrol tank with a smoking pipe in his mouth and fired him.
Drawing himself up to his full height, and with all the dignity he could muster, Stan said, “That’s all right with me, buster. I happen to be in show business.” Nothing was in sight in this direction, but, so certain was Freberg that he had a future in this sphere, he soon became an entertainer.
With only the press cuttings of his school triumphs, Stan Freberg made the rounds of the agents. Says he, “I saw many receptionists, but very few bosses.”
However, Cliffie Stone saw him and offered him a job on a morning show, “Coffee Time at Harrmony Homestead.” The salary? His fare from Pasadena to Hollywood and home again! To live he had to drive a laundry truck around town in his off-duty time.
The “Coffee Time” show was an early morning interview one, and few people ever arrived to make up the audience. Day after day, Stan would remedy this situation by being all the people who hadn’t turned up!
Cliffie Stone would interview Freberg who, on the spot, would become a mid-western tourist, a housewife, a businessman, or even a child on holiday from school! Behind the interviews an effects disc would put in the necessary atmosphere noises.
Through Stone, Freberg undertook his first solo show on radio, and a nervous 18-year-old was out on his own before he knew where he was.
During the same year, 1944, Stan Freberg went to Warner Brothers studio where his ability to supply voices put him in demand for cartoon films. Not only did Warners use his services this way, but he also supplied a tremendous amount of different voices for Paramount, Columbia and Disney.
His career well under way, the army claimed him in 1945. However, during hiw two years’ service, he was never moved from California. During this time, it was not surprising that he wrote and staged many shows for the boys of Fort McArthur. Additionally he made many contributions to a couple of service newspapers.
His return to show business was rapid, and one of his first shows was as a disc jockey. Stan wrote the show, acted in it, and presented the records.
A further job was in a network radio show for children called “Tell It Again.” Stan got the job by assuring the producer that he could make monkey sounds! He spent all afternoon at the zo to make sure that he could do it.
Later he was responsible for Black Beauty’s whinny, the miaowing of Ulysses’ cat and a host of other strange noises.
Anxious to widen his experience still further, Stan answered an advertisement in a theatrical paper, “Wanted, comedian to travel with small band.”
At the audition Stan did all that he knew. Tap dancing, impressions, and his improvisations. Said bandleader Red Fox, “That’ll do all right. Now what instrument can you play? Out comedian has to help out with the band.”
Stan couldn’t play any instrument, but this didn’t prevent him from asking “What instrument do you need?” Having been told that a guitarist was wanted, Stan replied “You’re in luck, that happens to be the instrument I play best.”
With that he went straight out, bought a guitar and an instruction book, and learned to play sufficiently to get by in the band. “Fortunately,” says Freberg, “the band always played loud, so they hardly knew whether I was playing or not.”
One of the biggest breaks in Freberg’s career came in 1949. He was signed for a long series called “Time For Beany” and, for five days a week, he entertained children with comedian Daws Butler until he resigned five years later in 1954.
Meanwhile, Stan had made his first disc, “John and Marsha,” and through this had acquired an even wider popularity.
From then on, alongside his personal appearances, a succession of Freberg discs hit the market.
They are now too numerous to mention in one feature, but perhaps I can remind you of a few of them. He scored in a big way with two saucy satires, “St. George and the Dragonet” and “Little Blue Riding Hood.”
“C’Est Si Bon” was another gem, somehow reminiscent of the Eartha Kitt recording. “The Yellow Rose Of Texas” was another Freberg classic that rocked us on both sides of the Atlantic, as did his Les Paul and Mary Ford take-off in “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise.” “Heart Break Hotel” was another sparkling satire, this time on—guess who?
So they’ve come at us in a steady stream. Ever welcome, and always extremely clever.
More recently, Capitol have issued two wonderful LPs called “Stan Freberg—The Best of his Shows,” (Vols. 1 and 2). This, like all his previous releases, is a “must.” My colleague Ken Graham extols them on another page.
May many more Stan Freberg records spin their way on both sides of the ocean. For, as I’ve said earlier, we can take our daily entertainment far too seriously.