Paul Frees’ birthday is June 22, but any day is right for celebrating his vocal talents, including those presented in today’s featured record albums.
Walt Disney Presents
PROFESSOR LUDWIG VON DRAKE
Featured in Wonderful World of Color on NBC-TV
Disneyland Records DQ-1222 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / Mono)
Available on iTunes [https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/professor-ludwig-von-drake/id203144219]
Released July 24, 1961. Executive Producer: Jimmy Johnson. Production Supervision: Camarata. Running Time: 30 minutes.
Songs: “I’m Ludwig Von Drake”, “Spectrum Song”, “Green with Envy Blues”, “It Gets You” by Richard M. Sherman, Robert B. Sherman; “Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II; “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo (The Magic Song)” by Al Hoffmann, Mack David, Jerry Livingston.
Spoken Segments: “Von Drake Variations on The Blue Danube”, “Professor Von Drake Discourses on Sound Recording and Takes You on an Adventure Into the Echo Chamber”, “Professor Von Drake Takes You Behind the Scenes at an Actual Recording Session”.
Comedy albums were all the rage in the early 1960’s. Professor Ludwig Von Drake’s 1961 debut on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color was good timing for this comic gem of an album—perhaps the funniest in the Disneyland Records catalog (Sterling Holloway’s The Absent-Minded Professor and Peter Ustinov’s Blackbeard’s Ghost are runners-up).
Walt Disney left the ABC network at that time due to legal issues as well as the fact that the network was not going to embrace color TV. Moving to NBC allowed for the cross promotion of RCA televisions as well as a greater way to showcase the Technicolor images of Disney animation and live action. (I’ve always wondered whether calling the show the “Wonderful World of Color”, with its “Color! Color! Color!” theme song by the Sherman Brothers, were little digs at Walt’s former network besides being selling points of the show).
Ludwig Von Drake was an inspired creation to kick off the ‘60s, with a slight edge and contemporary irreverence. Like his nephew Donald Duck, Von Drake is a bit of a hot mess. He has issues. But unlike Donald, he had Paul Frees’ speaking voice to give him a greater opportunity for the verbal comedy ideal for television—and records.
Side One of the album is themed literally to the “Wonderful World of Color”. When referring to the TV show, Von Drake—in his Clyde Crashcup-like way of stealing credit—says that he produced, starred and directed (“There’s a character in there named ‘Walt Frisbee’, or something like that, that I draw…some kind of a duck or something, I don’t know what it is,” he explains.) The album takes its cue from his first entry on the TV series, “An Adventure in Color”, complete with the Sherman Brothers’ “Spectrum Song”. The songs are framed with comedy continuity before and/or after the song. Side One is a showcase for Frees’ astonishing versatility as a singer and actor, as he layers a pop singing style on top of his Von Drake characterization.
Side Two is about music and recording, with an emphasis on dialogue. It is on this side that Frees cuts loose verbally, bringing to the fore Von Drake’s frailties: ego, temper, pomposity, snobbery, credit-grabbing and lame attempts to mask confusion and ignorance with off-the-cuff explanations. Surely many of the funny lines were improvised. Like Jack Mercer as Popeye, Frees often slips gags into Von Drake’s mutterings. There are no writing credits on the album, making one wonder if Frees himself wrote it, perhaps with an associate from…hmm… Jay Ward’s studio? Frees was working with so many talented people in both animation and live action; it’s a ponderable possibility.
Von Drake’s lessons in music and recording include the Prof leading the very small band as if it was a full orchestra in “The Blue Danube”, played as a waltz, a cha-cha and as rock-and-roll. At one point, he identifies a musician as “Herman”. Though he does not describe Herman, Ludwig did have a beetle sidekick on a few TV shows with that name. He then tours the recording studio and the echo chamber (in a segment that was repurposed on the Disneyland LP, The Mouse Factory Presents Mickey and His Friends).
By the time the album nears its end, Von Drake tells those still listening to this “licorice pizza” that, if they’re wondering why the record was made, “Forget it. It’s here, you bought it, forget it.” He then conducts a session to showcase classic lyrics, which turn out to be those of “Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo” from Cinderella. Making gentle fun of something like a Disney song is one of the things that Von Drake was able to get away with. During the session, he is alternately frustrated and flummoxed by the studio experience, building to a fitting finale of frenzy.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“It Gets You”
When Von Drake mentions traveling the world in association with The Wonderful World of Color, he’s also talking about one of the aspects of the TV series. To celebrate the Carnival in South America and Mardi Gras in New Orleans, he sings a delightful Sherman song that recalls the exuberance of Saludos Amigos and The Three Caballeros.
PAUL FREES AND THE POSTER PEOPLE
MGM Records SE-4735 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP / Stereo)
Released in 1970. Producers: Artie Butler, Charles Stern. Arranger: Artie Butler. Music Engineer: Ami Hadani. Vocals Engineer: John Horton. Recorded at TTG Recording Studios and Alex Hassilev Studios, Hollywood. Album Design and Illustration: Bonnie Brown. Photographer: George Meinzinger. Running Time: 31 minutes.
Songs and Impressions:
“Mama Told Me Not to Come” – W. C. Fields
“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” – Humphrey Bogart
“Let It Be” – Warner Oland (as Charlie Chan)
“The Look of Love” – Boris Karloff
“Sugar, Sugar” – Sidney Greenstreet
“Hey Jude” – Peter Lorre
“By the Time I Get to Phoenix” – Clark Gable
“Games People Play” – Bela Lugosi
“Up, Up and Away” – Ed Wynn
“Everything is Beautiful” – W.C. Fields, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Clark Gable, Bela Lugosi, Ed Wynn
To Paul Frees fans like us, this is pure ear candy. On the one hand, he’s performing groovy pop ditties (mostly in the Rex Harrison/David Tomlinson “talk-sing” style) as towering icons of the movies. But on the other, he’s also voicing W.C. Fritos, So-Hi, Morocco Mole and Captain Peter Peachfuzz.
The comic hook of the album is the incongruity between the singers and the songs. My copy is a DJ edition. Back in the day, these cuts would be just the thing for disc jockeys to lighten the mood, play before the news or engage call-ins. A similar concept arrived over a decade later when Rhino released Rerun Rock, a collection of TV show themes sung by impressionists (e.g. The Addams Family sung by Frank Sinatra).
Charles Stern, who represented Paul Frees at the time, is listed as one of the album’s producers. The other producer and arranger is Artie Butler, who did the musical score for Disney’s The Rescuers in 1977 (a background score somewhat unusual for a Disney feature at the time). Butler credits are numerous and legendary, including “What a Wonderful World” for Louis Armstrong.
GIVE A LITTLE LISTEN
“Everything is Beautiful”
Frees offers up a handful of his impressions, one after another, in this Ray Stevens hit of the “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” variety. W.C. Fields handles the chorus, with verses interpreted by Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Clark Gable, Bela Lugosi and Ed Wynn.