October 22, 2017 posted by James Parten

Sing Me A Cartoon #15: Sailor Man Rhythm

Believe it or not, songs were being written about Popeye even before the cartoons started coming out in 1933.

Reader’s Digest version: Popeye first appeared in Elzie Segar’s “Thimble Theatre” comic strip in early 1929–and pretty much took it over.

By 1931, the comoser Leon Flatow (a journeyman of Tin Pan Alley), and a lyricist named Kepell had a song ready for the publishing firm of Irving Berlin,Inc.

As far as is known, the only recording of the song was cut on May 8 of the year at the studios of the American Record Company (1776 Broadway), and issued here on several of their “dime-store” labels. This side also cam out in the U.K., on the Filmophone record–a transparent celluloid disc, in one of a number of different colors. This issue was billed as “Al Dollar And His Ten Cents”–a name Filmophone used for American recordings on that label.

A few weeks ago, we heard the record’s flip side, “Mickey Mouse (We All Love You So)”. Like that recording, “Popeye The Sailor Man” features Billy Murray (by then, the veritable Methuselah of recording artists). The band her gets a little more to do, and trumpet and saxophone soloists play hot variations on the theme.

Again, we should all know the story by heart. Max Fleischer began the “Popeye” cartoon series in 1933, and almost immediately, the series rivaled the success of Mickey Mouse–so much so that at least one writer trid to put a political spin on the “rivalry” between the Sailor Man and the four-fingered rodent.

Billy Costello did the voice of Popeye for two dozen shorts, then was unceremoniously given his walking-papers.

About the time he left, Costello went over to the American Record Company’s studios, and, accompanied by a small orchestra featuring trombonist (and possible director) Russ Morgan, cut “I’m Popeye The Sailor Man” and “Blow the Man Down”. This record sold acceptably well, and there are several uploads of it on YouTube and other such sites.

Costello would perform and record in England over the next few years, trading off his status as “the original Popeye’.

Of these records, the scarcest is an “Official Popeye Club Record”, cut in London for issue only in South Africa.

Meanwhile, we go back to the story we all should know.

After using Floyd Buckley–the Popeye of the radio seriess going on at the time–for one cartoon (Be Kind To Aminals), Fleischer found somebody in-house who could do Popeye, and do it very well indeed.

When Jack Mercer took over the voice work as Popeye, Max Fleischer lost a good in-betweener who was well on his way to becoming an animator in his own right.

But they gained a good, all-around voice talent, who did a number of voices for Fleischer, Famous, and Paramount Studios cartoons, as well as for cartoons Paramount produced for other people.

He was still hard at it in 1974,when he was the subject of a game of To Tell The Truth. And he was still at it when Hanna-Barbera produced a new batch of Popeye shorts for Saturday morning runs.

Next Week: More Sailor Man Rhythm.


  • Popeye: Oh, Olive Oyl! Olive Oyl!
    Olive: Here I am, Popeye!
    Popeye: Where’s me spinach? Where’s me spinach??
    Olive: My oh my, Popeye, but you’re eating too much spinach!
    Popeye: (laughs heartily) Well, blow me down!
    Olive: Is that right, Popeye? Eat all that spinach to make those big muscles??
    Popeye: Nah, t’ain’t so! I yam what I yam on account of I eats me spinach! (laughs)

  • There was a earlier version of the Popeye theme called “Strike Up the Band Here Comes Popeye the Sailor” that was on introductory Betty Boop cartoon Popeye the Sailor. This tune was based on another popular song “Strike Up The Band Here Comes a Sailor” which came out in 1900, 33 years before Betty Boop Meets Popeye the Sailor.

  • Billy Murray’s ubiquity as a voice/singer in the early Fleischer sound cartoons makes his number here sound like something you might have heard in a Fleischer cartoon as an alternative song for Popeye (just as the studio tried out three different theme songs for Betty Boop before finally settling on “Sweet Betty” as the preferred one in 1935).

    William Costello, post-Fleischer but in Popeye voice, singing “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” remains the oddest juxtaposition of voice to song in terms of hearing one studio’s main character doing another studio’s signature theme.

  • Poley McClintock, anyone?

  • (1) I believe Mercer did double in brass, later, as a story man for Famous.

    (2) What’s interesting is hearing Poley McClintock at the very end of “I Say It’s Spinach (and the Hell With It)” from “Face the Music.” I don’t know (yet) if that’s what Craig D. is alluding to immediately above, but here’s a nice, clean version: (see 2:47 ff). The uploader helpfully put excerpts from a later Fleischer Popeye on that clip.

    • “I say it’s spinach…” is a reference to a famous early cartoon in THE NEW YORKER that features a mother putting a plate of vegetables in front of her daughter and saying, “It’s broccoli, dear,” to which the little girl replies, “I say it’s spinach and I say the hell with it.” In what may be the earliest example of a “meme” (decades before the internet), “I say it’s spinach..” became a common catchphrase for calling BS on someone.

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