Musical Impersonations (on Wax)

Merle Haggard‘s tough-as-nails image, at times, belied his comic gifts, particularly his superb abilities as a mimic, represented here on this clip from The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour TV show, possibly from 1969:

Merle Haggard impersonates Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Buck Owens & Johnny Cash

Enough people have noticed that The Fut‘s one-off 45 “Have You Heard the Word” (1969) so closely resembles The Beatles‘ sound that more than a few folks have speculated out loud that John, Paul, George and/or Ringo had a hand in its creation.  Maurice Gibb of The Bee Gees (it may or may not surprise you) is to blame for an ersatz Beatle novelty tune that is very much along the lines of that same year’s ‘Masked Marauders‘ hoax.  According to Richie Unterberger‘s Unreleased Beatles, the resemblance to Lennon was close enough that Yoko Ono attempted to register the copyright for “Have You Heard the Word” on behalf of Lenono Music:

“Have You Heard the Word”     (Maurice Gibb &) The Fut     1969

Ten years earlier, Chubby Checker‘s first national hit – 1959’s “The Class” – had announced upfront on the 45 label that within the record’s grooves one would find the future ‘Twist’ singer “imitating” Fats Domino, The Coasters, Elvis Presley, and “The Chipmonks:

“The Class”      Chubby Checker      1959

One 45Cat contributor makes this observation —

What’s interesting, in hindsight, is that “The Class” was the B-side even though it’s not only fun as a novelty but has a lot of energy and appeal; it was a bit different than the usual quirky fare in those days. Some time and work must have went into its production, yet the more conventional “Schooldays” was the label’s original choice to plug (in other words, playing it safe).  If Chubby hadn’t had his first hit with this one, you have to wonder if “The Twist” would have even been recorded and, if it had, if anyone would have noticed.  Kal Mann may have been a blatant commercial writer and producer, but when he scored, it was great sonic fun, deserving of more recognition than he’s ever gotten.

Scottish singer Andy Stewart also does a nifty Elvis impression at the 1:55 mark in “Donald Where’s Your Troosers” — released 1960 in the UK (the following year in the US):

“Donald Where’s Your Troosers”      Andy Stewart     1960

Hollywood Party” — the oldest recording of an impersonation, possibly — features Florence (“impersonator”) Desmond covering such notables as Janet Gaynor, Zasu Pitts, Jimmy Durante, Greta Garbo, Tallulah Bankhead & Marlene Dietrich on a disc issued in 1932 by His Master’s Voice.

“A Hollywood Party”     Florence Desmond     1932

Wait a second!  Ann Penn also recorded for His Master’s Voice, who released a two-sided disc three years earlier in Australia — “Out in the New Mown Hay” b/w “Impersonations” from 1929.

“Impersonations”     Ann Penn     1929

Hold it right there:   Edison Bell UK released a disc in 1912 by Mr. Vernon Watson that features impersonations of George Formby (Sr.), Wilkie Bard, and George Robey. 

Stage and screen star, Sammy Davis, Jr., gained fame through his gift for mimicry (and, yes, for his multiple threats as a dancer, musician, singer and actor).  In 1961, Reprise went “all in” with an album, Impersonating (retitled Imitations! Impressions! Impersonations! for the Netherlands market) whose cover would boast of 20 prominent persons impersonated by Davis, including James Cagney, Jimmy Stewart, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Billy Eckstine, and Huckleberry Hound = as on “Sonny Boy:

“Sonny Boy”     Sammy Davis, Jr.     1961

The following year, Davis joined forces with his two A-list pals, Frank and Dean, for a live set at Chicago’s Villa Venice that includes “Impressions By All Three.”


Rich Little was a television fixture in my youth, who also released a few singles over the course of his career, with 1968 single “That’s Life” being the best of the bunch:

“That’s life”     Rich Little     1968

The year before, Little had issued “Canada (A Centennial Song)” — a “seldom-heard parody of Bobby Gimby‘s ‘Centennial Song’ [with] Rich Little imitating Lester B. Pearson and John Diefenbaker,” according to the person who posted this audio clip.  Little would also record 1971’s “The Draft” for Mercury Records and 1982’s “President’s Rap” (which “borrows” from Tom Tom Club’s “Genius of Love“) for Boardwalk Entertainment.

Speaking of impersonations, Ray Stevens once did his level best to emulate the sound of bagpipes on 1969 B-Side “Bagpipes That’s My Bag:

“Bagpipes That’s My Bag”     Ray Stevens      1969

America’s #1 musical family, The Rhodes Kids, issued a live album — recorded at the Las Vegas Hilton in the early 1970s, most likely — that featured a medley of “Impressions:  Donny Osmond‘s “Sweet & Innocent” (Brett Rhodes); Johnny Cash‘s “Folsom Prison” (Ron Rhodes); Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly” (Gary Rhodes) & Tom Jones‘ “She’s a Lady” (Mark Rhodes).

Around this same general time period, impressionist Arthur Blake appears to have pressed his own full-length album for sale at live shows — a disc that features impersonations of Zazu Pitts, Sophie Tucker, Raymond Burr, Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Eleanor Roosevelt, Marilyn Monroe, Hedda Hopper, Mae West, Louella Parsons, Tallulah Bankhead, and Ethel Barrymore, as well as Lionel Barrymore, Noel Coward, Raymond Burr, Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Peter Lorre, Clifton Webb, and Jimmy Stewart.  Summer of 1971 found Blake “performing at the Crown & Anchor in Provincetown, Massachusetts,” according to Discogs.

The Fantastic Baggys — an L.A.-based surf band created by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri — closed their 1964 debut album with a two-part surf celebration/mockfest “Surfin’s Back Again” + “Surf Impersonations:

“Surfin’s Back Again” + “Surf Impersonations”     The Fantastic Baggys     1964

Starday‘s 1963 live Big “D” Jamboree LP (recorded at Ed McLemore’s Sportatorium in Dallas, with Horace Logan as Master of Ceremonies) includes Frankie Miller impersonating Johnny Cash in a send-up of “I Walk the Line:

“I Walk the Line (Pull the Twine)”     Frankie Miller     1963

1963 also saw the release of Starday’s Country & Western Confidential (A Backstage Expose), an entire album of impersonations by Gene Martin — with Flatt & Scruggs, The Bluegrassmen, Wayne Raney, Webb Pierce, Johnny Cash, Cowboy Copas, Tex Ritter, Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe, and Roy Acuff all making an appearance.

Seven years prior, Leon Payne had recorded “Two by Four” — a “love duet” inspired by Kitty Wells’ and Red Foley’s big hit, “One by One” — in which Payne (rather than an “unbilled gal singer” per Cash Box‘s April 7, 1956 review) sang both parts:

“Two By Four”     Leon Payne     1956

Starday Trivia: 1964’s Special 38th Birthday Edition of Grand Ole Opry Country Music Festival LP — a 17-song various artists compilation album sponsored by Kroger and released on Starday — includes a track by The Willis Brothers that appears to be exclusive to this discImpersonations of Country Music Stars

A search of this website reveals a bonus history bit from last August that marveled at Hardrock Gunter‘s very convincing impression of Hank Williams on 1951’s answer song, “My Bucket’s Been Fixed:

“My Bucket’s Been Fixed”     Hardrock Gunter     1951

Which, of course, brings to mind Zero to 180’s prior celebration of Thumbs Carllile‘s pitch-perfect impersonations of the top country jazz guitarists of the day in his delightful musical roll callSpringfield Guitar Social:

“Springfield Guitar Social”     Thumbs Carlisle     1958

Hey, check out Terry Fell‘s “Hillbilly Impersonations” of Hank Williams, Hank Snow, Red Foley, Ernest Tubb, T. Texas Tyler, Roy Acuff, and Lefty Frizzell, among others:

“Hillbilly Impersonations”      Terry Fell     195?

France‘s Jean Valton is renowned for his impersonations of Fernand Raynaud, Jean Richard, Darry Cowl, Eddie Constantine, and Jean Nohain, et al., and this single-sided promotional disc enjoys distinction of being underwritten by the insecticide, Fly-Tox, whose active ingredient was DDT, a chemical compound “discontinued in the United States,” according to the EPA’s website.

Bonus TV Performance

Rich Little as Johnny Cash — “Orange Blossom Special” (1972)

Q:  What other musical impersonations do you think should be included in this piece?

“My Next Impersonation”     Jerry Reed     1969

Recording date:  November 20 1969
RCA Victor Studio – Nashville, TN
Jerry Reed:  Guitar & vocals
Bill Sanford:  Guitar
Pete Wade:  Guitar
Henry Strzelecki:  Bass
William Ackerman or Jimmy Isbell:  Drums
Larry Butler:  Piano
Chet Atkins & Felton Jarvis:  Producers
Strings overdubbed on December 11, 1969

*               *               *

My Next Impersonation
[written by Shel Silverstein]

Now for my first impersonation friends,
I would like to do for you
A simple lovin’ family man
With a simple attitude
See him loved by friends and neighbors,
See the self-respect he gains
See him warm, see him tender…watch him change

Now for my next impersonation,
I’d like to do a restless man
Who now holds wine and night-life
In his inexperienced hands
See him jugglin’ all the pieces,
As he tries to grab ’em all
See him tempted, see him falter…watch him fall

But stick around friends cause the best is yet to come
When ya see my impression of a man who’s a steady cryin, nail chewin’…chain smokin’ bum
Well friends I see you have seen enough…and you’re ready to go
So let me hear one rousin’ cheer as I…close my show
With a portrait of a wasted fool, who let his world slip by
See him crawl, see him crumble…hear him cry

And for my last impersonation…watch him die

“Sam Hill”: Merle Sans Strangers

IMDB, the Internet Movie Database, recognizes these nicknames for Merle Haggard, who – in poetic fashion – left us this week on the exact date of his 79th birthday:

– Mighty Merle
– Okie from Muskogee
– Hag
– Poet of the Common Man

Merle Haggard 45Mighty Merle would enjoy the backing of The Strangers, one of country music’s greatest bands (who once recorded this charming radio ad for Ford Trucks), but the Hag began his recording career as a solo artist.  I am sorry to learn that Merle’s second single did not enjoy the same chart success as his inaugural release “Sing a Sad Song” which was a Top 20 national hit despite being released on Tally, an indie label with minimal distribution.  Perhaps it’s time then to reintroduce this quirky little tune “Sam Hill” to the rest of the world in honor of Merle’s passing:

“Sam Hill”     Merle Haggard     1964

Haggard projects such a serious and soulful presence that casual fans may be surprised to learn of his gift for musical mimicry, as evidenced by this hilarious clip from The Glen Campbell Show in which he not only impersonates but also embodies four other legends of country music — Marty Robbins, Hank Snow, Buck Owens, and Johnny Cash:

Thanks to Deke Dickerson for putting together this moving tribute to Merle on the day his spirit left us:

“If you’re a true believer, then you already know, but for the uninitiated, one of the last true giants of country music has left the building.  Rest in Peace to the great Merle Haggard, who passed away today, on his 79th birthday.  It’s hard to put into words the immense influence and style and legacy of the man who was the best selling country music artist of the 1970’s, who started recording in the early 1960’s and was still recording and touring and incredibly active up until his death.  Suffice to say, Merle Haggard was one of the greatest of all time, a Country Music Hall Of Famer, a Mount Rushmore-like figure who wrote epic songs like ‘Mama Tried’ and ‘Okie From Muskogee’ and ‘White Line Fever’ and ‘Tulare Dust’ and ‘Ramblin’ Fever’ and ‘Fightin’ Side Of Me’ and ‘Workin’ Man Blues’ and ‘If We Make It Through December’ and literally a thousand others.  He sang the living [dung] out of those songs, too, with the conviction that a million wannabes who followed in his footsteps have never been able to emulate.  He picked guitar, he played the fiddle, he made tribute albums to his heroes, and he kept playing and singing and playing and singing.  He worked like a dog, like a man possessed, and inspired more fans and musicians than almost anybody in the history of the country music genre.

I was lucky enough to write two box set books for Bear Family Records on Merle Haggard’s Capitol Recordings from 1968-1976.  I also wrote a box set book on Merle’s ex-wife and longtime harmony singer Bonnie Owens.  It was because of his desire to see a good Bonnie Owens collection that he agreed to let me interview him. I wasn’t promised anything more than a cursory 15 to 30 minute phone interview, but minutes into the first phone call, we started talking about Roswell aliens and Lefty Frizzell and Emmett Miller and Bob Wills and then the floodgates were opened.  I wound up interviewing Merle for a total of ten hours.  He was a fascinating character, and one that gave endless great and usable quotes.  He was not educated, but he was highly intelligent.  I admired his ability to admit that he was wrong, and how he learned from experience.  He explained to me for nearly an hour how ‘dumb as a rock’ he was when he wrote the right-wing anthems ‘Okie from Muskogee’ and ‘Fightin’ Side Of Me:’

Merle: “I was dumb as a rock, you know, I thought that the government told us the truth, and I thought that marijuana made you walk around with your mouth open.  So when you write a song from that limited understanding, and have it become a hit, I was really in a whirlwind of change in America, and in my own way of thinking. ‘Okie from Muskogee’ came off the wall, written in about ten minutes, and it came off the back side of my brain, and my heart.  Because I was disturbed about young America.

“See, I was easing into my thirties, at that time, so I was pretty much out of here as far as the young people were concerned, and they were young kids that I was irritated with, and they were doing things that I thought were un-American.  Well, it wasn’t un-American, they were smarter than me!  Kids are always smarter than the old folks….they see through our bigotry, and our hypocrisy.  And I had a great lesson in life to learn, that they were already aware of.  I believe history has proven them right.  The Vietnam War was a hoax, the reason we went to war was a lie…maybe communism was a threat, but that wasn’t why we were there.

“What went on in the evolution of America and the evolution of Merle Haggard is not what people would have expected.”  (Merle Haggard interview by Deke Dickerson, 2007)

I was really impressed at how much Merle had achieved, in the rigid music business system that preferred to market an artist in terms of saleable product, singles and albums of same sounding pop-based music, one right after the other.  Merle was able to pick projects (and convince Capitol to release them) that had little commercial appeal except for the fact that Merle Haggard would be doing them–a tribute to Jimmie Rodgers; a tribute to Bob Wills (both done at a time when nobody remembered or cared about Rodgers or Wills); a double album of gospel music, recorded on location in rural churches and homeless shelters; live albums recorded in Muskogee, Oklahoma, Philadelphia and New Orleans; instrumental albums by his excellent band, The Strangers….it was overwhelming then, and it still is today, examining it all in retrospect.  How did he achieve SO much in that amount of time?  It boggles the mind.

I’ll always be grateful for the time that Merle gave me, and I know that at any given time, he had a thousand other people vying for his attention.  It was a life that had to be exhausting. He lived it to the fullest and brought the real, honest Merle Haggard to the people every single time.  There was no other Merle Haggard, it was just the way he was, and that’s one of the big reasons why people loved him.  He was absolutely 100% genuine, no [BS], and they just don’t make country music stars like that anymore.

I saw Merle recently at what might have been his last show (can anyone confirm this?), back in February at the Saban Theater in Beverly Hills.  It was an odd audience mix of rich folks, entertainment industry [butt]holes, rednecks, alternative rockers, aging hippies and hipsters.  The minute that Merle hit the stage, despite his frail voice, the entire room was in the palm of his hand.  Grown men kept yelling at the top of their lungs, “WE LOVE YOU MERLE!”  It was, simply, to be in the presence of greatness.  It wasn’t the greatest Merle Haggard performance he ever gave, but he gave all he had, sang his famous songs and walked off stage, as he did, without an encore.  The audience, myself included, felt grateful to be seeing something that we all knew we probably wouldn’t be seeing many more times.  Nobody there knew the end would be coming so damn fast.”

Merle Haggard & the Strangers – Annapolis, MD – April 16, 2012


Bobby & Jeannie Bare Are Going to Vegas — 45 Track Only

One of the country “outlaws” who doesn’t always get the recognition is Shel Silverstein, who not only wrote Johnny Cash’s iconic “Boy Named Sue” [which spawned at least one parody — Joni Credit‘s “A Girl Named Harry” released August 1969] but also many great songs for his close friend’s RCA releases throughout the 1970s, including this great 45 about going “all in”:

Vegas – Bobby & Jeannie Bare

[Pssst:  Click on the triangle above to play “Vegas” by Bobby & Jeannie Bare.]

Vegas” – recorded in September 1976 at Nashville’s RCA Victor Studio and released as a single – was subsequently played on the January 24, 1977 broadcast of The Ralph Emery Radio ShowBobby (and Jeannie) Bare recorded “Vegas” toward the end of his long run with RCA (he signed with Columbia in 1978), and this song appears not to have been reissued until 1997’s 20-song The Essential Bobby Bare compilation, where the song serves, fittingly, as the final track.

Bobby Bare & Shel Silverstein

Shel continued writing for Bobby Bare during his tenure with Columbia, including a typically bent take on the truck driving genre with “World’s Last Truck Drivin’ Man” from 1980’s Drunk and Crazy.

A couple years back Bobby Bare and his son, Bobby Bare, Jr., curated a tribute album to Silverstein — Twistable, Turnable Man — that features Shel’s songs covered by the likes of My Morning Jacket, Frank Black, Andrew Bird, Todd Snider, Lucinda Williams, John Prine, and The Boxmasters featuring Billy Bob Thornton.  Here’s a link to an NPR piece about this special recording project.

Patience is a Virtue

Fun ad for Ford trucks tagged onto the end of “Vegas” with music by Merle Haggard & the Strangers featuring Roy Nichols on lead guitar.

Mosrite doubleneck C. 1959