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.”

Undated EP — AUSTRALIA

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

Hardrock Gunter on (indie) Island

This recording of Hardrock Gunter‘s mesmerizing voice, with its offbeat hiccup-y rhythms bathed in slapback echo, never fails to enchant:

“Boppin’ to Grandfather’s Clock”     Hardrock (“Sidney Jo Lewis”) Gunter     1958

Birmingham, Alabama’s Sidney Louis Gunter, Jr.  would record under two other names:  Buddy Durham (as noted in the previous piece about the Vandergrift Brothers — possibly in error) and Sidney Jo Lewis, which he used in 1958 to record “Boppin’ to Grandfather’s Clock” on Cleveland indie label, Island.  Two years prior, Gunter had already put together the ingredients that would define his signature sound on “Jukebox Help Me Find My Baby,” originally recorded in Wheeling, WV for Cross Country in 1956 before the single got picked up by Sam Phillips‘ and re-released on his vaunted Sun label later that August.

1958 would also see the release of ‘SONGS THEY CENSORED IN THE HILLS‘ LP for SeecoHardrock Gunter LP-x

Note the considerably drier sound – not to mention vastly different singing style – on Gunter’s second of three 45s for Cincinnati’s King RecordsI’ll Give ’em Rhythm” (b/w “I Put My Britches on Just Like Everybody Else”), recorded in Cincinnati August 19, 1955 (interestingly enough, the same day as Herb & Kay‘s delightful “We Did“):

“I’ll Give ’em Rhythm”     Hardrock Gunter     1955

Thanks to UK-charts.com, I am able to transcribe the following information from the Hardrock Gunter “bio disc” (thanks, Randy McNutt!) for the King 45 illustrated in the audio clip above:

“When Hardrock Gunter graduated from high school, he teamed up with Happy Wilson who organized the Golden River Boys.  The original members of this group are still doing radio shows.  After World War II, Gunter again went back into radio when the Golden River Boys were re-organized.  In 1948 Hardrock started managing the unit and acted as personal manager to Happy Wilson until late 1949.”

King would issue another “bio disc” for “Turn the Other Cheek” that gives us the official explanation for Gunter’s stage name:Hardrock Gunter 45-bbHardrock Gunter, professionally speaking, leaped right out of the gate, recording his first few singles for mighty Decca, before moving on to MGM, Sun, King, Cross Country, Emperor (“Whoo!  I Mean Whee!“), Island, Seeco, Cullman, D, El Dorado, Starday (“Hillbilly Twist“), Gee Gee, Brunswick, Rival, Essgee, Longhorn, Morgun, Rollercoaster, Home Brew, and Jar — possibly others.

Hardrock Gunter rocking a doubleneck MOSRITE on 1999 Dutch 45 recorded in LondonHardrock Gunter LP

Matthew Loukes echos the call for Gunter’s “Birmingham Bounce” of 1950 – which preceded Jackie Brenston & Ike Turner’s “Rocket 88” and was the reason for Decca’s interest – as “first rock ‘n’ roll recording” in his 2013 obituary for the Guardian.

Hardrock Gunter + Hank Williams:  Twins Separated at Birth?

Check out this dead on impersonation of Hank Williams via 1951 parody of 1949’s classic “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” on Bullet — “Granddaddy of Nashville indie labels“:

“My Bucket’s Been Fixed”     Hardrock Gunter     1951

People are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for Gunter’s original recordings — including $1500 for “Gonna Dance All Night” on Sun.

“Frankie and Johnny”: Sincerest Form of Flattery

We’ve seen musical artists get into trouble with the public (and/or copyright holder) for releasing an original song that hews a little too closely to a prior piece of music, e.g., “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and allegations that the song overtly mirrors “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye – as well as “Sexy Ways” by Funkadelic – in ways that go beyond being “reminiscent of a sound” (as Thicke and his producers claim) and into actual copyright infringement (as the plaintiffs assert).

You might recall that the Rolling Stones found themselves in the hot seat when certain people began to notice – Keith Richards’ daughter, Angela, preeminent among them – that the chorus to “Anybody Seen My Baby?,” the big single from 1997’s Bridges to Babylon, also closely resembled the refrain to K.D. Lang’s “Constant Craving,” which had very nearly topped the adult contemporary chart five years previously (Lang & Ben Mink, the song’s composers, were given co-writing credit by Jagger & Richards to keep the peace)

How interesting, then, to discover that people curiously not only seemed not to have a problem with Johnny Sea’s letter-perfect rendition of Johnny Cash in his cover of an old pop standard (that turns 110 this year), but that both versions would perform with near-identical success in the country chart — Johnny Cash (#9) vs. Johnny Sea (#13):

Frankie & Johnny - Cash 45Frankie & Johnny - Sea 45

Fascinating to observe that the Columbia 45 says “arr(anged by) Johnny Cash,” whereas Johnny Sea’s version attributes writing credit outright to Cash!  Both versions, by the way, released in 1959.   Wikipedia claims that at least 256 different recordings of “Frankie and Johnny” have been made since the early 20th century (not to mention the song’s use as the centerpiece of Scene V in ee cummings’ 1927 play, Him).

Interesting to note that Johnny Sea had already embraced his family’s original surname (Seay) by the time he recorded harrowing Dylanesque murder ballad, “Behind My Baby’s Bedroom Door” in 1967 for almighty Columbia.

Johnny Seay

“Springfield Guitar Social”: Who’s Who of Guitar Wizardry

If you’re pressed for time but curious to know more about the stringed instrument masters who inspired and laid the groundwork for the the classic rock generation to come, here is a two-and-a-half minute Cliff Notes guide that demonstrates Thumbs Carllile‘s uncanny ability to play in the style of such guitarists as Grady Martin, Jimmy Bryant, Les Paul, George Barnes, Chet Atkins, Hank Garland, Speedy West*Billy Byrd – and himself:

[* Joe Goldmark challenges the veracity of the claim with regard to Speedy West]

This musical roll call of fleet-fingered axe-pickers was recorded in 1958 and released on Starday in 7-inch as well as 12-inch form.

At No Extra Cost

If you’ve never seen Thumbs Carllile play, then you’re really in for a treat.  As it turns out, Stanley Jordan wasn’t the first person to approach playing the guitar like a piano.  Check out this exhilarating version of “Li’l Liza Jane” from Bill Wemberly & His Country Rhythm Boys, featuring the dual guitar wizardry of Thumbs Carllile and Curly Chalker from Red Foley’s “Ozark Jubilee” TV show.