With the first complete Silly Symphonies soundtrack vinyl box set on the horizon, let’s see why, 29 years ago, a Disneyland LP called itself “Silly Symphonies” when it wasn’t.
WALT DISNEY’S SILLY SYMPHONIES
8 Stories in Song
Disneyland Records DQ-1333 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / Mono)
Reissued on iTunes (2000)
Released in 1971. Executive Producer: Jimmy Johnson. Producer: Camarata. Running Time: 25 minutes.
Vocalists: Katie Briggs, Jeromy Stuart, Robie Lester.
Songs: “The Bremen Town Musicians”, “Lonely for My Love (Rapunzel’s Song)”, “Willie the Whale”, “Gingerbread Man”, “Little House, Little House”, by Tutti Camarata; “Susie, the Little Blue Coupe” by Buddy Ebsen; “Lambert, the Sheepish Lion” by Eddie Pola, George Wile; “Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet” by Allie Wrubel, Ray Gilbert.
But back in 1971, another album was released just before Leonard Maltin’s The Disney Films helped change the course of Disney historianism. Among the incalculable bits of knowledge the book imparted was evidence that not a single song on this album represents a Walt Disney Silly Symphony cartoon, and some of them have no connection to any Disney animation, though one is based on a story that would be animated by Disney many years later.
The saga of these songs is very convoluted, but it starts with the ugly truth about any entertainment project: budget. By the late ’60s, Disneyland and Buena Vista Records were releasing fewer new titles and repackaging earlier ones (as were all the other major and independent children’s record labels). Disney’s “See…Hear…Read” little LP and read-along book sets were always dependable sellers. They also were produced at a low cost because one side of the record featured a reading of the book with no music or sound effects; side two contained one or two (sometimes three) songs.
To keep the pot boiling, you have to have new or newly repackaged merchandise to keep retailers happy, so in the mid-‘60s, Jimmy Johnson hit upon the idea of releasing children’s stories in this read-along series with little or no connection to Disney films. Tutti Camarata, as the artists and repertoire director, brought in small combos, a few singers and songwriters to create simple tunes, a few of which never turned up on LP albums.
In the early ’70s, Walt Disney Productions put a syndicated half-hour TV series into production in the early ’70s called The Mouse Factory. Each episode focused on one subject with a guest host to introduce costumed Disney Characters and related cartoons (e.g. Annette Funicello’s installment was about penguins, so the cartoon was The Penguin Who Hated the Cold). The Mouse Factory depicted the characters clocking in for work at the studio every day to go about their business creating magic that’s made for you and me.
The shows were shot on film, and bore a passing resemblance to the Oscar-winning short, It’s Tough to Be a Bird and, even more so, Dad, Can I Borrow the Car? These films combined assorted live action segments with snippets of new and existing animation, both were directed by Ward Kimball – and The Mouse Factory was too. Kimball dug into the animation library, building episodes around specific subjects. The series did not receive an extensive release – it was syndicated and not seen in many cities until The Disney Channel started rerunning it in the ’80s.
The records based on The Mouse Factory, however, were everywhere — even if the series was not seen where they were being sold. Among them were three Mouse Factory 7-inch song records starring Mickey, Donald and Goofy and a 12-inch LP, The Mouse Factory Presents Mickey and His Friends, featured previously released material from various Mickey Mouse Club and Disney Character albums, very much like its sister album, Mickey Mouse and His Friends.
What has this got to do with the bogus Silly Symphonies album? It relates to the songs that were made for the read-alongs. Some of these book-and-record sets were based on segments from Disney “package” films of the ’40s: The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met and Johnny Fedora and Alice Blue Bonnet from Make Mine Music (1947); Johnny Appleseed and Pecos Bill from Melody Time (1948).
Others came from Disney “special” shorts with no designated category: Susie, the Little Blue Coupe, Lambert, the Sheepish Lion and The Little House. And then there were a few children’s stories with no direct Disney film connection unless we really stretch for one. Bremen Town Musicians was a Disney Laugh-O-Gram in 1923. Rapunzel became Disney’s Tangled many decades later. “The Gingerbread Man” has a loose association to Cookie Carnival — and it is indeed a Silly Symphony cartoon — but look how far we had to stretch to make that connection!
The other unusual thing about this non-Silly Symphonies album is the style of its music. The arrangements are very much like the pop and folk of the early ’70s, which doesn’t seem unusual now, but was slightly jarring to listeners used to the jaunty, peppy little bands or warm orchestras of most Disney records up to that time. This album features by a Carole King-style piano, a groovy synthesizer (think Electric Company) and the versatile young Katie Briggs and Jeromy Stuart, who also appeared on Disney’s more “kiddie-style” Rubber Duckie and Other Songs from Sesame Street LP.
One exception is “Gingerbread Man”. Sung by a speeded-up Robie Lester with sparse synthesized accompaniment, it’s an earworm that doesn’t play well when edited into one track as it is on this album. It was originally released in 1968 on its own LP and was broken into pieces to fit around Lester’s narration. (It should also be noted that Jeromy Stuart’s version of the Pecos Bill song did not appear on any LP albums.)
The most startling track on the album is Susie, the Little Blue Coupe. It’s without doubt the most hard-driving R&B sound to appear of a Disney record until the late 1980s. Katie Briggs throws everything she has into an Aretha Franklin twist on what is actually a ditty written by Buddy Ebsen. (We did a Spin about Decca’s Susie and Little House records a few months back.)
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Lonely for My Love (Rapunzel’s Song)” – Katie Briggs
Katie Briggs’ range is exemplified by the completely different approach she gives this lovely ballad with music and lyrics by Tutti Camarata. It’s the most “traditionally” arranged song on the album, yet it still has that “madrigal” sound that suggests the early ’70s music of back-to-nature youth.
STORIES FROM THE MOUSE FACTORY
Disneyland Records Storyteller Series ST-3808 (33 1/3 RPM LP / Stereo)
Released in 1972. Executive Producer: Jimmy Johnson. Producer: Camarata. Running Time: 25 minutes.
Voices: Robie Lester (Narrator); Lois Lane (Narrator); Dennis Day (Johnny Appleseed, Old Settler); Katie Briggs, Jeromy Stuart, Robie Lester (Vocalists).
Stories: “Susie, the Little Blue Coupe”, “The Little House”, “Lambert, the Sheepish Lion”, “Johnny Appleseed”.
Songs: “Susie, the Little Blue Coupe” by Buddy Ebsen; “Little House, Little House”, by Tutti Camarata; “Lambert, the Sheepish Lion” by Eddie Pola, George Wile; “The Lord is Good to Me”, “Pioneer Song”, “The Apple Song” by Kim Gannon, Walter Kent.
A few notable things distinguish this album. Even though the cover and record label do not indicate it, two sections are in full stereo: Susie, the Little Blue Coupe and the three Johnny Appleseed songs.
Children’s records waivered between mono and stereo with confusing inconsistency in the ’60s and early ’70s. Lots of recordings were made in stereo but were never released as such. It’s a shame because, in the case of “Susie”, there is no comparison between the mono and stereo range, which offers all the instrumentation clear and distinct.
If you read the above album credits, you might have wondered if one of the narrators really is Superman’s lady friend. This “Lois Lane” was a popular British singer who made appearances on TV, radio and nightclubs. Sometimes BBC Radio 4 Extra runs vintage variety shows in which she performs. She simply liked the name Lois Lane in the Superman comics and made it her stage name. She recorded several Disney read-alongs, but not as much as the all-time record holder, Robie Lester.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“The Lord is Good To Me” – Dennis Day
This is a fresh studio rendition of the tune; it is not from the soundtrack. It’s a shame that the 1963 Disneyland story album of Johnny Appleseed was not released in stereo, as you can hear how pleasant the two channels make this song shine. It is possible that the whole recording was not in stereo as, on the album, “The Apple Song” snaps into mono right directly following this song. It was great that Dennis Day came into the studio again to record this so many years after he did the role in Melody Time.