It is difficult to make comedy records that withstand repeated listening, but Stan Freberg's pastiches of Harry Belafonte ("Banana Boat (Day-O)"), Elvis Presley ("Heartbreak Hotel") and the Platters ("The Great Pretender") are still hilarious nearly 60 years after they were made. The original artists were split over the parodies: Johnnie Ray hated being mocked in "Try", but Lonnie Donegan said of Freberg's "Rock Island Line", "I was extremely flattered... He did a parody of Elvis on the other side, and they were both very funny."
Stan Freberg was born in 1926 in Los Angeles and was raised in nearby Pasadena. His father was a Baptist minister who made extra cash by selling vacuum cleaners. When he was 11, Freberg became a stooge for his uncle Raymond, aka Conrad the Magician, and he was to win several speaking contests. As a teenager, he did vocal impressions on engagements with the bandleader Cliffie Stone.
After two years of Army service, Freberg went to Hollywood and impressed a talent agency with his comic voices. He was employed by several of the major studios and he worked on the TV puppet show Time for Beany (1949-54) and was the voice of a beaver in Lady and the Tramp (1955).
In 1951, Cliffie Stone wanted Freberg for hysterical crying on his record "Wabash Blues" – and Freberg asked Stone to make a record with him in return. It was "John and Marsha" (1951), a send-up of Hollywood love scenes. Freberg played the parts of both lovers on the record – and the single nearly made the US Top 20. The BBC banned the record for suggestiveness, but the Swedes loved it – and it was their biggest-selling record for several weeks. In 1969, John Lennon and Yoko Ono recorded their own more "extreme" (Lennon's word), 20-minute version, "John and Yoko", for their Wedding Album.
A running theme in Freberg's records is a harassed singer trying to cope with one problem after another, first appearing in "I've Got You Under My Skin" (1951), where the backing chorus repeated everything the singer said, no matter how mundane. In a sense, Freberg was following Spike Jones and his City Slickers, but he was more disciplined and knew exactly where the jokes should be.
In 1952 he mocked the excessive emotions of Johnnie Ray in "Try" and then topped the US charts with the million-selling "St George and the Dragonet", in which Freberg played Sgt Joe Friday, rescuing maidens from a dragon. It was a huge seller in Australia, even though the Dragnet TV series, which the record pastiched, was not screened there.
In 1954, with the help of the doo-wop group The Cues, Freberg mocked The Chords' "Sh-Boom" – and his jokes on singing nonsense syllables had a further dimension when he aped Marlon Brando's mumbling in A Streetcar Named Desire. Tony Williams was baffled when Freberg exaggerated his mannerisms by hiccupping his way through "The Great Pretender". In 1987, Paul McCartney told the DJ Mike Read that he had practised miming to this record.
When Freberg appeared on the US series Juke Box Jury, he told the audience that he detested rhythm and blues. The public wondered if this was another of his jokes – but in actuality, he loathed the simplistic nature of the music and favoured jazz.
In 1957 Freberg presented a radio series for CBS, using his stock performers Peter Leeds, Daws Butler and June Foray. One sketch involved a network censor who wanted the lyrics of "Ol' Man River" to be changed to "Elderly Man River". The radio show didn't last, however, as Freberg mocked sponsors and made jokes about H-bombs.
Freberg had a pop at festive commercialisation in "Green Chri$tma$" (1958), a piece as impishly funny as Tom Lehrer's "A Christmas Carol", which followed a year later. Even though he was critical of commercials, he began to make them himself, injecting humour whenever he could. His clients included General Motors and the US Army, but it didn't always work: he made an ad for Pacific Airlines in which even the pilots were afraid of flying.
In 1961 he released the album Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, a mixture of songs and sketches about the nation's history. There was talk of it becoming a Broadway show. He wrote many more sketches and recorded some of them, but the stage show never happened.
In 1968 Freberg made a guest appearance in The Monkees TV series, but by then he had stopped making his pop parodies, although the British Invasion would have been ripe for his satire. He continued making commercials and he wrote his autobiography, It Only Hurts When I Laugh, in 1988. Influenced by Freberg, both Ray Stevens and Weird Al Yankovic satirised the music scene. Occasionally, Freberg surfaced, once considering Elton John's rewrite of "Candle in the Wind" for Princess Diana. He thought Elton John should open a business akin to "Your name in print", where you can have your name in a headline for a few dollars.
The best and most satirical of his records is the two-part single "The Old Payola Roll Blues", unfortunately edited for British release in 1960. It pokes fun at a record company grooming a no-talent kid called Clyde Ankle. When he complains that "High School Oo-Oo" is too short at 30 seconds, the producer replies, "It gets more plays that way." The "Oo-Oo" is prompted by Ankle being prodded with a sharp stick in order to get the high notes. It was as daft as it sounded – but it was also the work of a master satirist.
Stanley Victor Freberg, satirist: born Los Angeles 7 August 1926; married twice (one son, one daughter); died Santa Monica 7 April 2015.Reuse content