Wednesday, July 4, 2012

National Celebrations: A Man Can't Be Too Careful What He Signs These Days

Stan Freberg: A Man Can't Be Too Careful What He Signs These Days/Declaration of Independence


Let's mark U.S. Independence Day with a skit and Broadway musical number depicting the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. Except, Stan Freberg's United States of America Volume 1, first released in 1961, never became a Broadway musical.

Comedy records played a different role in the 1950s and 1960s than they do today. Before VCRs and DVRs, comedy albums were the only way consumers could get non-musical entertainment on demand. In the lull between Elvis and the Beatles, comedy records frequently outsold music-filled albums. The Button Down Mind of Bob Newhart was the best-selling LP of 1961, and Vaughn Meader's Kennedy satire, The First Family ruled the charts a year later. These successes prompted record labels to boost their spoken-word comedy output. Comedian Stan Freberg recorded many popular novelty records for Capitol in the 1950s. He convinced the label to commit to a four-volume set "tour de farce" of American history. Freberg took a then-unheard of 13 weeks to record the first album. "Stan Freberg was a great perfectionist," recording engineer Jay Ranellucci told Billboard magazine in 1996. "If you had a pause that was a quarter-second too long, he'd know it."

The record is hilarious -- sharp and snappy dialogue, complemented by show tunes arranged by Billy May, who put together charts for Sinatra's records. Despite its many virtues, United States of America Volume 1 was not quite the success Capitol had hoped for, topping out at 34 on the charts. There were the predictable complaints from parties who didn't take kindly to satires of America's glorious history. But, the additional volumes were mostly scuttled by an ill-fated attempt to bring Freberg's work to the stage. He had a spectacular falling out with Broadway producer David Merrick. Freberg claims Merrick told him to "Take Lincoln out of the Civil War -- he doesn't work." Bad feelings and contractual obligations kept Volume 2 from seeing the light of day until 1996. Given shifting tastes and Freberg's age, it's unlikely the additional sets will be recorded.

In this take on the 4th of July story, the music starts at the 4:07 mark. Freberg plays Benjamin Franklin and is joined by Byron Kane as Thomas Jefferson and Coleen Collins as the apocryphal Sylvia Franklin. My favorite line: "Come on, all we want to do is hold a few truths to be self-evident."

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