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Comedy Music

At His Satiric Majestys Request, a few of our favorite jesters from the golden age of humor make these musical offerings. Gentle humor corrects as it lampoons, moving us to better behavior. While tragedy tries to justify history, comedy is plasmatic, fitting its form to any occasion.


CHARLIE CHAPLIN sang in music halls at age 5 and first published piano scores for his silent movies in 1916. Charlie's blend of humor and sentiment is a vestige of Victorian melodrama. The Fred Karno Company taught Chaplin to use scores as "satirical counterpoint"--sometimes presenting tramps with music more fitting for royalty. This topsy-turvy combination of the sublime with the ridiculous suggests that so-called aristocrats may really be bums or that a pauper can be a prince in disguise. The little tramp's act of kindness to the handicapped in City Lights gains our deepest sympathy.

Charlie had a few violin lessons and taught himself piano. Since he could not read or write music, Chaplin often hummed to transcriptionists. To compose City Lights, "I la-laed and Arthur Johnson wrote it down....It is all simple music, you know, in keeping with my character." David Raksin says that when he worked with Chaplin on Modern Times, "since I was ostensibly the arranger, the musical ideas were his prerogative."

Popular classics provided the basis for many of Chaplin's parodies. "The Peace Patrol" march of 1916 quotes Brahm's Hungarian Symphony No. 5, which Chaplin and Meredith "The Music Man" Willson would eventually choreograph into a shaving scene for The Great Dictator. Wagner is likewise spoofed in the scene where the dictator dances with a globe. In the 1970's, Chaplin reissued his catalog of silent films with new original scores. Arranger Eric James' chatty memoir Making Music with Charlie Chaplin tells how they composed original music to replace the adaptations of opera and pop tunes by Carli Elinor and Arthur Kay. The reissue of Limelight won Chaplin an Oscar for best original dramatic score in 1973.

Several artists have performed Chaplin's music. In 1925, Abe Lyman's California Orchestra cut "Sing a Song" and "With You Dear, in Bombay." "Smile" was a hit for Nat King Cole with new arrangement by Geoffrey Parsons and lyrics by John Turner commissioned by United Artists for the reissue of Modern Times. In 1966, Petula Clark recorded "This Is My Song" from A Countess from Hong Kong. More recently, Carl Davis has conducted Film Music of Charlie Chaplin with tunes from The Kid, The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights and Modern Times. And let's not forget John Barry's soundtrack to the movie Chaplin incorporating melodies from many of Charlie's compositions.

THE MARX BROTHERS demonstrated a very small part of their musical talents in their movies. Minnie Schoenberg turned her sons Gummo, Groucho and Harpo into a musical travesty act in 1909. Brother Leonard, lucky with chicks, played blindfolded with a sheet over the keys and left the screen in 1941 to perform as Chico Marx and His Ravellis. A radio special with mellow Mel Torme playing straight man splits a Big Bands of Hollywood CD with Desi Arnaz. The Ravellis recorded a couple of 78s on the Hit label with Ziggy Lane and Skip Nelson on vocals punctuated by Chico's wisecracks. Female vocalist Elisse Cooper was known as Sugar. The orchestra did a swing version of "Pagliacci," and Chico clowned around with "Beer Barrel Polka" and "Gypsy Love Song" on piano.

Harpo's popular fantasias such as "Guardian Angels" reflect his love of the Romantic impressionism of Debussy and Ravel. Though he loved Gershwin, Harpo had a strange side, too, exploring Scriabin, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Prokofiev while developing a keen interest in electronic music. The Marx Brothers' influence on surrealism was acknowledged in 1936 when Salvador Dali gave Harpo a custom instrument strung with barbed wire wrapped around tuning spoons.

SMILEY BURNETTE played sidekick to singing cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Smiley was Oscar in Mascot's 1935 pioneer SF cliffhanger The Phantom Empire, but was better known at Republic studios as Autry's faithful friend Fred Millhouse, whose croaking songs earned him the nickname "Frog" in horse operas such as 1936's Guns and Guitars and 1937's Rootin' Tootin' Rhythm. Smiley was a regular on Tex Ritter's 1958 Ranch Party TV series and played engineer Charlie Pratt on Petticoat Junction. Burnette wrote over three hundred songs; none taking over an hour to compose. "Ridin' Down The Canyon" from Tumbling Tumbleweeds is included on Rhino's Songs of the West CD. This wrangler played nearly a hundred instruments, half of them haywire contraptions of his own invention. Smiley was a really good guy who donated most of his later earnings to needy children. "Whoa, Nellie!"


JUDY HOLLIDAY had a 172 IQ, but made her reputation as dumb blondes in Adam's Rib and Born Yesterday. "I began my career as a song-and-dance girl at the age of four, when my mother dragged me to a ballet school and threw me in....I've always loved words. I ate up all the books I could get my hands on....I got a kick out of being different, and I was eager to improve myself and everyone around me....I was more interested in writing poetry than passing love notes and in hearing Bach than dancing to Bennie Goodman." Holliday sang show tunes by Cole Porter and Irving Berlin on Trouble Is A Man in 1958. Composer of Bells Are Ringing Jule Styne says that Judy had Chaplinesque pathos, "She could make you cry." That she did with her melancholy interpretation of "The Party's Over."

Judy's feelings of depression as she was dying of cancer are revealed in her heartfelt lyrics for 1963's Holliday with Mulligan. Graduating from Shorty Rogers' and Gene Krupa's groups, Gerry Mulligan played sax on Miles Davis' seminal 1950 album Birth of the Cool and appears in the 1960 movie version of The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac. Mulligan's TV appearance with Billie Holiday highlights the Ladies Sing the Blues video. Gerry also collaborated with Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Lionel Hampton and Thelonius Monk. The baron of the baritone features Holliday's songs "Summer's Over" and "The Lonely Night" on his Play Along collection including sheet music.

EDIE ADAMS trained at Juilliard, yet joined husband Ernie Kovacs to sing with the Nairobi Trio in gorilla suits. "He Don't Wanna Be Kissed" and "Sailor Man" introduced The Charming Miss Edie Adams on RKO in 1954, and Edie continued singing Behind Those Swingin' Doors on Decca. The Ernie Kovaks Record Collection on Varese-Sarabande includes "Mack the Knife" with Bertold Brecht's original German lyrics and Kovaks' offbeat theme "Oriental Blues." After Ernie's death, Edie joined Henry Mancini on MGM's Music To Listen To Records By.

ANN-MARGRET may have grown up in Sweden, but she personified the All-American sex kitten in Bye-Bye Birdie, State Fair and Viva Las Vegas. Marty Paich conducted And Here She Is in 1961, Beauty and the Beard, her 1964 duet with Bourbon Street trumpeter Al Hirt, and 1966's Songs from The Swinger and Other Swingin' Songs. Paich arranged the abstract stylings of Mel Torme on 1958's The Picasso of Big Band Jazz as well as Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Anita O'Day, Sammy Davis, Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughn. The hyphenated Swede's two Nashville visits are of special interest: the 1962 sessions produced by Chet Atkins and her return in 1969 with Lee Hazelwood for The Cowboy and The Lady, recently reissued by Sonic Youth drummer Steve Shelley. All of Ann-Margret's 1961-66 RCA recordings and several previously unreleased tracks are collected on the Bear Family 5-CD box set.


DANNY KAYE and Louis Eilson quit school at 14 and ran away to sing in Florida. Red and Blackie were booked on the Borscht Belt as "toomlers" or all-around creators of tumult. Kaye joined The Three Terpsichoreans in 1933, soon singing in gibberish, txaking scat to the extreme. In 1936, Danny toured with Abe Lyman. Like Chaplin, Kaye has a sympathetic sentimental side to wacky antics in social satires from Thurber's Walter Mitty to Gogol's Inspector General.

Broadway's Lady in the Dark in 1939 featured Weill and Gershwin's "Tchaikovsky," where Kaye rattled off the tongue-twisting names of 50 Russian composers in only 39 jawbreaking seconds. Wife Sylvia Fine wrote his most popular material such as "Stanislavsky" and "Anatole of Paris" collected in The Straw Hat Revue of 1939. Fine and Max Liebman wrote "Melody in 4F," "a jabberwocky of song, dance, illustration and double-talk" for Cole Porter's Let's Face It. The Fine/Liebman anthem "Manic Depressive Pictures Presents: Lobby Number" highlights Up in Arms. Danny plays a sneezing Russian baritone in Wonder Man singing "Ordri Tchornya" and spoofs Russian ballet in "Pavlova" from The Kid from Brooklyn.

In 1945, Kaye found his core audience with "Tubby the Tuba" on CBS radio and "The Woody Woodpecker Song" with the Andrews Sisters. Kaye may be a bit silly and over-the-top for grownups, but his mugging makes kids giggle and the topics are educational. Any child who is exposed to the names of all the composers in "Tchaikovsky" will learn much more than a silly song. Although 1950's "I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts" was his only record to climb the US charts, Kaye made the Top 5 in the UK with two Frank Loesser songs from Hans Christian Anderson and was honored by the king of Denmark. As cornetist Red Nichols in The Five Pennies, Danny secondlined with Louis Armstrong on "The Saints Go Marching In." At symphony musicians' pension fundraisers, Kaye led "Flight of the Bumblebee" with a flyswatter. Danny's dedication to education eventually earned him the right to accept the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of UNICEF. Not bad for a dropout!

PETER SELLERS drummed with orchestras led by Henry Hall, Oscar Rabin and Wally Bishop, "The Great Waldini!" Peter's father taught him music hall ukulele. The 1955 78 "Dipso Calypso"/"Never Never Land" explores Sellers' gift for exotic accents. When Sellers sang with Spike Milligan, The Goon Show received a fan letter praising "the cartoonery of Goonery" from Prince Charles admitting that "The Ying Tong Song" was the only tune His Royal Highness knew by heart. Inspector Clouseau's 1966 follow-up to Mancini's Pink Panther, "After The Fox Trot" celebrates Sellers' best-known impersonation.

Before he met the Beatles, George Martin produced The Best of Sellers (58), Songs for Swingin' Sellers (59) with From Russia With Love's Matt Munro, and 1960's collaboration with Sophia Loren singing "Grandpa's Grave," "Bangles and Mash" and "Zoo Be Zoo Be Zoo." In 1965, Sellers spoofed "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help." Sellers cameoed on Steeleye Span's "New York Girls" in 1975, and Ken Barnes produced Sellers Market in 1979. Sellers shows the range of his musical influences in his portrayals of a concert pianist in The World of Henry Orient, a sidewalk busker in The Optimists of Nine Elms and "The Singing Blue Matador" in The Bobo.

JERRY LEWIS debuted at age 5 with "Brother Can You Spare A Dime?" Vaudevillian parents Danny and Rae Levitch admired Al Jolson. Jerry's 1956 cover of Jolson's "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody" led to a 1959 NBC Ford Startime remake of The Jazz Singer. The hit single also changed Lewis' musical repertory from comic ditties with the annoying nasal whine of "The Noisy Eater" and "The Nagger" to popular standards in a barreltone croon and serious ballads led by Fred Astaire's "By Myself" interpreted as Jerry's theme in The Delicate Delinquent.

The really strange stuff is on Dot's 1965 Yesterday and Other Folk-Rock Hits by The Jerry Lewis Singers with covers of "Blowin' In The Wind" and "Mr. Tambourine Man." Lewis guest-hosted NBC's Hullabaloo to promote his interpretations of Dylan, introducing son Gary Lewis & The Playboys doing "Everybody Loves a Clown" and upstaging Paul Revere & The Raiders. And how about that 1954 Colgate Comedy Hour with The Treniers? Lewis parodies 50's pop in "Rock-a-Bye Baby" and 60's schlock in "I Lost My Heart at the Drive-In Movie." The Patsy is Jerry's mass media McLuhanist version of Pygmalion. As George Bernard Shaw said, "The amateur imitates, the professional steals." Jerry often lip-synched to parody offstage recordings of commercial pop as we see in his Carmen Miranda impersonation in 1953's Scared Stiff.

A good idea for a party would be to mix both the early Capitol Collectors' Series novelties with the later Decca lounge. That way The King of Comedy can spazz out of the smarm. Rae Beth Gordon says that the fragile interface between humor and hysteria is Why The French Love Jerry Lewis. Characters like The Caddy and The Disorderly Orderly crack up under stress experiencing cramping dystrophic muscle contractions and acting like Jerry's Kids.

What's the difference between The Nutty Professor and Mr. Hyde? The prof says, "You may as well like yourself. If you don't think too much of yourself, how do you expect others to?" On the other hand, "He's Buddy Love, infinitely for himself and disliking all other humans. I made him a glaringly destructive force, despicable to the core, as a balance against the loving professor. Creating the role had me in a sweat, especially when I saw images of Buddy Love creeping out from inside me onto the page. A crying horror!"

GEORGE BURNS cut The Pee Wee Quartet into a duet with Gracie Allen. Several Burns & Allen radio programs are available, and Gracie sings "Stiff Upper Lip" from Damsel in Distress on the Crazy for Gershwin CD and "Snug as a Bug in a Rug" on Frank Loesser in Hollywood, 1937-55. George continued the vaudeville tradition with Bennie Fields and His Minstrel Men in 1965.

A Musical Trip with George Burns on Buddha in 1972 walked through "With a Little Help from My Friends," "King of the Road," "The 59th Street Bridge Song," and "Mr. Bojangles." The highly collectable 1974 two record set An Evening with George Burns features The Mike Curb Congregation. Burns' rendition of "Fixing a Hole" is the least dated act on the Bee Gees' Sgt. Peppers remake. I Wish I Was Eighteen Again, George Burns in Nashville, and Young at Heart expressed the 80s on Mercury. Burns' 1992 As Time Goes By CD with Bobby Vinton spun off the single "I Know What It Is To Be Young, But You Don't Know What It Is Like To Be Old." Jan Murray says that when he asked Burns what he thought about the hereafter, George replied, "I don't know what they've got, but I'm bringing my own music."