Christopher P. Lehman
December 2, 2019 posted by Christopher Lehman

1960s Theatrical Cartoons Rock & Roll

Kevin S. Sandler’s essay collection Reading the Rabbit argues that one of the flaws of the later theatrical cartoons for Warner Brothers was its inability to remain culturally relevant. As the book put it, “Unfortunately, Warner Bros. animation never learned to rock and roll.” This flaw plagued theatrical animation from all the major studios besides Warner Brothers. However, Hollywood and New York theatrical studios did occasionally attempt to acknowledge that rock was a cultural force and not merely a fad.

Walter Lantz had the longest span of rock references and chronicled how the music adapted during those years–from the bobbysoxers of Real Gone Woody in 1954 through the Elvis Presley imitation of in 1957’s Fodder and Son (clip below) and the Beatles-hair references in Woody and the Beanstalk (1966) and Chiller Dillers (1968) to the hippie of Woody’s Magic Touch (1971).

After a brilliant rock adaptation of children’s literature in Three Little Bops (1957), Warner Brothers reduced to nods to Elvis in two “Bugs” episodes of 1959 Hare-Abian Nights and Apes of Wrath. And then among the studio’s penultimate annual releases was Banty Raids (1963), which made a beatnik a rock singer.

Warner Brothers’ successor studio DePatie-Freleng made references to Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” in Go Go Amigo (1965). The following year mice danced individually instead of as couples in Swing Ding Amigo (1966), Daffy Duck quoted from the Shirelles’ “Mama Said” in A Squeak in the Deep (1966), and the Pink Panther failed to bust up a rock party in his house in Pink-a-Boo (1966). Surprisingly, although the studio lasted until 1980, it did not incorporate rock music in its cartoons after the sixties.

When Warner Bros-Seven Arts Cartoons operated briefly in the late sixties, its Norman Normal (1968) used the actual group Peter, Paul, and Mary for music and voices. That same year the German in Flying Circus (1968) also quoted from “Mama Said.”

Under Chuck Jones’s leadership, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer borrowed Banty Raids’s beatnik-as-rocker motif for the “Tom and Jerry” cartoon Rock ‘n’ Rodent (1968), in which Jerry played jazz.

At Paramount, Ralph Bakshi’s Marvin Digs (1967) used music from the rock group the Life Cycle to tell the story of hippies beautifying their neighborhood with swirling colors.

So theatrical animation studios tried to rock and roll. Whether they did it well is a matter of opinion.


  • Quoting from Leonard Maltin’s Of Mice and Men: “Most of the people making cartoons in the 1960s were twenty- to fifty–year veterans in the business… what’s’ more, the studios did not seek out or attract young people, who might have contributed valuable new ideas.” In other words, there were few animators in the mainstream studios young enough to be into the music scene of the time – Bakshi was one exception – and the old timers had a poor view of it.
    It wasn’t that much different in television. The Flintstones had a lot of rock and roll references (Fred as an Elvis-like singer, the Insects, the Way Outs) but they are mostly mocking. Later H-B shows like The Impossibles and definitely Scooby Doo were more into the current pop scene, but it was mostly half-hearted, like how many TV shows today are with hip-hop.

    • It’s true to say the older staff they kept being employed in these studios didn’t help when it came to being out-of-touch with what the youth were into during that time. There really wasn’t much in place to allow younger ideas to be taken into consideration or given teamwork skills to those much younger at all.

  • Friz Freleng and Warren Foster also got in an Elvis reference in 1957’s “A Waggly Tale”, by giving junior’s dog that name (while the dog himself had Huckleberry Hound’s future voice). Also the song the Banty Raids rooster plays in that cartoon was originally used by Bugs (& Friz) for an episode of “The Bugs Bunny Show” — a sleeping Sam awakens and comes into the theater to destroy Bugs’ guitar, which leads to Bugs’ shift into talking about how this had previously happened to him, and the transition into the start of “Long-Haired Hare”.

    On the Warner’s end, it was interesting to see how they handled popular music from the mid-1930s to the 60s. Friiz & crew really didn’t like the original success of Bing Crosby, as the 30s cartoons were brutal to der Bingle. He got better treatment in the 1940s efforts (Sinatra took the brunt of the barbs in the 40s), and overall the Big Band sounds of the 40s and the jazz music of the 1930s seemed to be the popular music most in the studio’s wheelhouse. You didn’t get the same feeling by the late 1950s — much of the studio’s staff had aged past the rock and roll demo, and the rock music efforts in the cartoons from 1957 onward were either snarky or felt forced.

  • For Warner’s, you can also add Robert McKimson’s DOG TALES with the “I’m nothing but a Hound Dawg” joke. That one was completed in 1957 but released ’58.

  • you forgot the ending of a symposium of popular songs with ludwig von drake.

  • It wasn’t surprising that the same people who created the Alice cartoons and Bosko and Buddy would give us cartoons that stereotyped rock and roll. Of the cartoons mentioned here, only Marvin Digs and Normal Norman contain recognizable rock music. Ralph Bakshi’s cartoon is especially nice. It shows an awareness of 1960’s youth culture. The other cartoons feel like old men complaining about “these kids today”.

    • It was a different between middle aged and the younger adults that worked on those shorts. It was no doubt the guys behind creating Norman Normal or Marvin Digs were of a younger generation rebelling against a system that mostly employed an older generation that wouldn’t “get it”.

  • How about Paramount’s “Shootin’ Stars” and “Miceniks”? Both are from 1960.

  • In one of the Bugs Bunny Show interstitials, Bugs was doing “an imitation of Ricky imitating Frankie doing Elvis” or something to that effect.

  • and, but of course, “The Impossibles!”

  • Uncle Pecos’ “gee-tar” solo in Tom & Jerry’s Pecos Pest (1955) sure sounds like rockabilly to me.

    • Actually, it sounds like Les Paul’s guitar runs from “How High The Moon” [1951] which were a huge influence on rockabilly and rock & roll guitarists.

    • Thanks for your input – At least I was in the general ballpark.Even when I was a youngster watching that cartoon, I thought that number was a bit too “rockin'” for someone that was more-or-less implied to be a “country” performer. P.S. Stay away from Friar’s Club roasts.

  • It was Leon Schlesinger who had it in for Bing Crosby, not Friz. An old-timer who worked at Schlesinger’s in the 1930s told me that whenever Leon spotted anyone doing a caricature of Bing for a picture, he would say “Make his ears bigger!” No idea why Schlesinger didn’t care for Bing but once he sold out to WB, such severe Bing mocking for the most part went away.

    • Well, Leon was already an old man by the 1930s (by that time’s standards at least–he was born in 1884), so he might have ignored jazz music as many of his generation did.

      Anyway, Paramount cartoon studios seemed to be more tolerant of pop music. Max Fleischer (born in 1883) seemingly had no problem with using Rudy Vallee, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and numerous name bands of the era in his cartoons,

  • I like “NORMAN NORMAL”, and just think of what animation could have become if Warner Brothers allowed animators to move in that direction…or hired talent young enough to want to change the animated outlook. When you hear about cult movies like “THE TRIP”, you wonder what animation might have done with that mindset. I suppose that idea might have been a bit too subversive for many, but hey, “THE BEANY AND CECIL SHOW” featured the Wild Man of Wildsville, voiced by none other than Lord Buckley, a hipster whose original audio recordings are very, very hard to find these days. Yet, changing times were indeed felt in some animated commercials, even if they were selling out to advertising. Thanks for posting these treasures.

  • The Warner Bros cartoons “Backwoods Bunny” [1959] and “Dixie Fryer” [1960] feature a chicken hawk named “Elvis,” who is portrayed as a dim-witted hillbilly. While the character isn’t a rock singer, the fact that he’s named “Elvis” indicates what the filmmakers thought of Mr. Presley.

  • This is further proof, if it be needed, that theatrical cartoons were never intended for young audiences.

    • Or even television ones, for that matter (Jay Ward, Hanna Barbera, Beany and Cecil, Linus the Lionhearted)

  • Hanna-Barbera probably made more of an attempt than other studios to bring pop, rock and folk into their projects because as their company grew in the sixties they wanted to become an all-around entertainment organization. When they started their own label in 1965, the children’s records were among the very first of the genre to have the sound of surf pop, upbeat rock and Bealtes style, but it was difficult to keep up with the rapidly changing public tastes.

    Several artists on the HBR “cartoon series” went on to major music careers, like Danny Hutton of Three Dog Night, arranger Al Capps and Ron Hicklin, whose singers were heard in almost every movie and TV show of the seventies.

    HBR was also an adult label with R&B, easy listening, soundtracks and rock. Sadly, it folded in 1967 but they tried to tie it into the TV shows and films. There was going to be an Impossibles album just as the label ended.

  • I love Three Little Bops, but its main musical style is jazz, not rock. The music was composed by jazz trumpeter Shorty Rogers, and Stan Freberg (a jazz fan who disliked rock and roll) performed all the voices. Even the title of the cartoon alludes to jazz, not rock.

    • Freberg’s hatred of rock was well-known; his parody of Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” was more mean-spirited than most Elvis spoofs, with the demands for more reverb.

  • That same year the German in Flying Circus (1968) also quoted from “Mama Said.”

    Not to be a nerd over it, but the phrase “Mama said they’ll be days like this.” predated the Shirelles tune by some years. Bugs used a variation of it in “Big House Bunny” in 1950.

  • While we’re bringing up television episodes, it seems a lot of items have been overlooked by the comments. First, did everyone forget Howard Morris’s classic space age rock ripoff singing “Eep Opp Ork” and :The Solar Swivel” in “A Date With Jet Screamer” for the Jetsons? How about Boris Badenov’s rock-and-roll Balalaika in the “Metal Munching Moon Mice” arc of Rocky and his Friends? Tennessee Tuxedo, Chumley and Baldy formed a rock band of sorts in one episode. Woody Woodpecker joined a quartet of Beatle-wigged ghosts for a guitar serenade in the “Spook-s-Nanny” episode for the Kelloggs’ TV show. Then there were entire series revolving around rock music interstitials. “The Archies”, previously written about extensively on this site, actually broke into the popular charts with their recordings. Besides series mentioned above, Hanna-Barbera also gave us the Catanooga Cats, the Pebbles and Bamm Bamm show, Josie and the Pussycats, Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, and Jabberjaw, all with musical segments. Total Television gave us The Beagles, who also made a break into the actual record biz with one album and a few singles. And the real fab four’s music was heard weekly on King Features’ “Beatles” cartoon series, as was the “Jackson Five” at DePatie Freleng. Yes, some of these were half hearted – but a few actually bordered on legit. Check out some of the posts online of cuts from the Beagles album – in stereo! You’d almost forget they were associated with a cartoon.

    • Adding a postscript to my own comment, there was also “What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing In a Place Like This?” from Hanna-Barbera’s emmy award winning prime-time special “Alice in Wonderland”, originally performed by Sammy Davis Jr., then covered by Scat Man Crothers. It would qualify as a light rocker, in the go-go dance vein, and it too broke into legitimate music circles by record release on HBR. I don’t think anyone who saw the special walked away without carrying this tune around in their head.

    • That’s quite a list (and you might have included Filmation’s “Mission: Magic”, starring Rick Springfield). But Professor Lehman’s post deals specifically with theatrical cartoons — it says so right in the title — and since, as you point out, examples of rock and roll in television cartoons of the late sixties and seventies are far more abundant, this discussion could easily get off-topic. Not that I mind.

      I think TV producers became much more receptive to rock and roll following the success of The Monkees. If a prime-time sitcom about a rock band could sell millions of records and win Emmy awards, it proved that rock and roll was not merely a passing fad to be ridiculed, but a gravy train that everybody wanted to ride.

      Tennessee Tuxedo’s musical ensemble was not a rock band, but an acoustic folk music group; Stanley Livingston introduces them in concert as “Tennessee Tuxedo and his Folk Singers”. Since Baldy wears a blond wig as part of his costume, the group appears to be a take-off on Peter, Paul and Mary. The song they perform is titled “Abracadabra” (not to be confused with the later hit from the Steve Miller Band, or the still later K-pop song by the Brown Eyed Girls). Mr. Whoopee gives a pretty interesting account of how the recording industry works, and his advice to Tennessee — basically to go “indie” — pays off in the long run.

      I don’t think any of us will ever forget Howie Morris’s performance of “Eep Opp Ork Ah-Ah” — although according to Janet Waldo’s DVD commentary, Morris himself couldn’t remember it when she mentioned it to him years later.

      And what about the great Hal Smith’s turn as Rock Roll? “Well, we’ll twitch around the clock tonight in Bedrock! Twitch, twitch! And Rock is gonna roll… and Rock is gonna roll… and Rock is gonna roll… and Rock is gonna roll… and Rock is gonna roll….”

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