To those familiar with classic theatrical animation and/or early television cartoons, the music is unmistakable. The jaunty, arm-swinging “going for a stroll” themes. Blaring horns to cue outrageous reactions. Rhythmic, driving arrangements to underscore a progressive gag — a chase, a construction site, or a fleet of ships. And the inevitable interpolation of “It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day,” all coming from that distinctive, reverberant environment where the ceilings were high and the sounds bounced around the walls.
The cartoon music of Winston Sharples (March 1, 1909 – April 3, 1978) registers its signature sound within seconds. While he is not the only composer to create a house sound, few adhered to it as consistently for the same length of time (though he was able to contemporize in the sixties). For those who grew up hearing it in Popeye, Harvey/Famous, King Features, Hal Seegar, and even some Total Television cartoons, it is like audio “comfort food” from bygone days.
Massachusetts-born Sharples started in Vaudeville, playing piano when he was eight. He studied at both Yale and Harvard (take that, Mr. Howell!), and was featured on radio. When he played in Vincent Lopez’s big band, he caught the attention of powerful show business columnist Walter Winchell, whose positive comments could boost a career. In this case, it led to Sharples’ hiring at the Van Beuren Company in New York. Working with composer Gene Rodemich, he scored not only cartoons throughout the thirties, but also live-action sound films including Frank Buck documentaries. They created scores for Chaplin comedies and other silent movies. Steve Stanchfield discussed Sharples’ work in the Van Beuren Rainbow Parade shorts here.
Sharples relocated to Fleischer’s Miami studio, where his orchestrations of Sammy Timberg’s Superman theme eventually became a blueprint for the television and movie versions that followed.
For Sharples, his “It’s a Hap-Hap-Happy Day” from 1939’s Gulliver’s Travels, became a success equivalent of sorts to Sammy Lerner’s “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man,” as one of the most-interpolated Paramount cartoon melodies, especially after the operation was moved back to New York and he became musical director. Our compadre James Parten contributed a Needle Drop Notes post about the music of Famous here.
Sharples adroitly twisted melodies throughout the parade of cartoon shorts, a skill necessary when working with expected themes like Livingston and Evans’ “Casper, the Friendly Ghost” and Popeye’s song, bending and stretching out a song as far as it needed to go without it becoming tedious. In this post, Steve Stanchfield talks about one of his favorite cartoons (and mine too), 1944’s We’re On Our Way to Rio, in which the wondrous melody is arranged and conducted in several combinations and speeds. The song, “Samba Lele,” was written by Paulo Barbosa and was released by RCA Victor on an album called Carnival in Rio on RCA Victor, performed by Carlos Galhardo.
Despite the hundreds of theatrical shorts and TV cartoons with Winston Sharples scores, or cues from the library accumulated from that music, he made few commercial recordings. Most of the well-known cartoon title songs that found their way to records were produced and arranged by the personnel at the labels that made them. Cartoon soundtracks did not proliferate in the days of theatrical shorts (even Disney did not release official soundtracks for every film).
One of the first actual LP soundtracks to feature Sharples music with credits came rather late in his career with 1959’s Felix the Cat album on Cricket (Pickwick) Records. Four cartoons lifted from Joe Oriolo’s Trans-Lux TV cartoon series were selected for the album with narration by Mason Adams. (Find more about this and other Felix records in this Animation Spin.) A year later, Sharples’s music was used for another, shorter Felix record that accompanied a novel idea called a “Movie Wheel” that rotated a series of pictures while the record played. You can see a video of how Movie Wheels looked in this Animation Spin.
By the time these records were made. Sharples had already begun accumulating a music library of Paramount cartoon cues called Scroll Productions in partnership with Hal Seegar, producer of The Milton the Monster Show, which also featured Sharples themes and music.
Surprisingly, the only “hands-on” record album from Winston Sharples turned out to be Golden Records’ The Mighty Hercules. This is not a soundtrack album, but Sharples wrote all the songs with lyrics by his son, Winston Singleton Sharples, Jr. (1932-2021), who is credited on the LP as “Win Singleton.” The Golden Chorus sings the songs with Jim Timmens and his orchestra, so it does not have the “Sharples sound.” More about this album in this Spin.
When the first few albums of Television’s Greatest Hits were available on Tee Vee Toons Records in the eighties, it marked the first time many Sharples soundtrack themes could be heard on vinyl (and later on CD). With the boom in compact discs came the grand CD package called The Harvey Comics Collectible Box Set, premiering additional soundtrack tunes, which we explored in this Spin. Rhino Records’ Toon Tunes series also captured several themes in these pioneering collections.
Winston, Jr. worked with his father as the musical director on The Mighty Hercules and later at their New York post-production facility, Synchrosound. Win taught film production and history at Lehman College and Howard University and co-wrote A Primer for Film-Making (which was one of your author’s college textbooks). He was also an archivist at the AFI in Washington, where he donated his father’s entire theatrical, television and live-action music library (including about 190 Paramount cartoon scores).
More detail about Winston Sharples, Sr.’s career is contained in the Library of Congress account of Sharples’ career can be found on this page.