The story you are about to read is true. Only the needle should be changed to protect the record. It originally appeared in August 1996 on the now-defunct online service CompuServe WOW service, when Stan Freberg was promoting Rhino's release of hisUnited States of America double-album. The interview was done by phone (despite my references to Freberg's smiling, etc.) and was one of the high points of my life.
Reading this story now, and its sidebar on Freberg's advertising career, it's clear that I wrote it as a quick-and-dirty profile for the uninitiated, something lighter than my usual artist profiles (like my Nilsson piece), which are intended for readers with greater knowledge of my subject. CompuServe WOW was for a mainstream audience, so I had to keep it breezy (though, as you can see from the exceedingly kind and gracious inscription Freberg wrote on a copy of his autobiography that he sent me, he was pleased with the story).
Freberg in fact gave me loads of great quotes that I was unable to use at the time. If you would like to read a transcript of the interview, let me know; I could be swayed to go back and transcribe the tape if enough people write in (e-mail: dawn -at- dawneden.com).
My left-of-center pals should note my cheap shot at Jesse Helms, proof that I wasn't always a raging conservative.
Sadly, Freberg's wife whom he mentions in the story, Donna, died a few years after the interview. He has since married a singer, Hunter, and was last heard to be performing live concerts with her. If you hear of their making their long-promised appearance in the New York Area, please let me know.
With regard to the point in the interview where Freberg went into his Pete Puma voice: I can't tell you what bliss it was to hear that unmistakable voice on the other end of the phone and have it hit home that I was speaking to one of the greats. It was one of the very few points in my life as a writer/interviewer when I thought, "I can die now."
Despite the fact that Stan Freberg is currently riding his biggest wave of popularity in 35 years, it is still true that there are no second acts in American life. That is because Stan Freberg's life is not a play. It is, like his greatest recordings, a pop culture operetta, its themes changing with such dizzying succession that listeners barely have time to catch their breath.
The latest opus from the man who gave the world such timeless twisted classics as "John and Marsha" and the Dragnet spoof "St. George and the Dragonet" is the newly-released album "Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America, Volume Two" (Rhino). As the title suggests, it's the long-overdue sequel to his 1961 LP "Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America," the cult classic which Dr. Demento calls "the greatest history album in comedy, or is it the greatest comedy album in history?"
For those unfamiliar with Freberg's work, he's best described, in his own words, as a "guerrilla satirist." He entered the entertainment business fresh out of high school in 1944. If he'd entered it now, doing the same things he did then, he'd be called a performance artist, and Jesse Helms would be exhorting Congress to cut off his NEA funds.
Stan Freberg began his career at the age of 18, during the golden age of Warner Brothers cartoons, doing voices for several characters, including one of Bugs Bunny's best-remembered foils, Pete Puma. The character has a surprisingly strong following, considering that there was only one Pete Puma cartoon ever made. Freberg says that he realized the extent of Pete's popularity when legendary cartoon director Chuck Jones brought him onstage at the Hollywood Bowl during last summer's cartoon-music "Bugs on Broadway" celebration.
"Chuck introduced me, and there was applause. I said, 'Among other things that I did for Warner Brothers cartoons, I was the voice of Pete Puma.' And the whole audience went crazy.
"Then I said"—and here he does a perfect reproduction of his original Pete Puma voice—'Oh, you'd better give me a lot of lumps.' And I got a standing ovation of 17,000 people cheering."
The reception so impressed Jones that he decided to bring back Pete Puma, after a 44-year hiatus, for a new Warner Brothers cartoon, due out in theaters next year. "It's got a wonderful pun title," Freberg winks. "'Pullet Surprise.'"
While Freberg's never won any Pulitzers (yet), he's earned countless accolades for his contributions to the worlds of comedy, music, and advertising. Last year, he was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame for his contributions to that medium, not the least of which was his 1957 CBS Radio Show. Taking over Jack Benny's slot after Benny went to TV, Freberg was the last network radio comedian, an honor that, he jokes, puts him over with "the bison, the snail darter, and the bald eagle as an endangered species." The Smithsonian Institute recently issued "The Stan Freberg Show," a 4-CD boxed set of his CBS work, which reveals just how ahead of his time he was. In one memorable sketch, some 30 years before the term "political correctness" was coined, he dueled with a network censor who insisted that he change the lyrics of "Ol' Man River" to "Elderly Man River."
Freberg's recording career began on Capitol in 1950 with the still-hilarious hit "John and Marsha" and continued through the mid-Sixties, when his advertising agency, Freberg Ltd., took precedence. His 1953 disc "St. George and the Dragonet" backed with "Little Blue Riding Hood" sold over one million copies in its first three weeks, topping the singles chart for one month and was, at the time,the fastest-selling single in history. Although he professed to hate rock, a view which he's since recanted, he created some of rock's greatest parodies. (Fans of swamp-rockers the Cramps swear that singer Lux Interior learned everything he knows from Freberg's uber-rockabilly take on "Heartbreak Hotel.")
Despite the sales success of his singles, Freberg continues to get the most feedback about "The United States of America, Volume One," his groundbreaking melange of music and comedy covering the nation's history from Columbus through the Revolutionary War. The album, aptly known as the Sergeant Pepper of comedy, has a following which, Freberg notes, crosses generational lines. "The age of Freberg fans has long since ceased to surprise me. 85-year-old women have come up to me in airports and said, 'Say, Mr. Freberg, where's Volume Two?' Kids of all ages do too. In fact, the president of Rhino, Richard Foos, told me that he and many other executives there grew up memorizing Volume One of 'The United States Of America.' The joke is that they were Freberg fans as kids, grew up to start their own record company, and proceeded to see if they could get Freberg back in the studio."
Five years ago, Foos began to lobby Freberg in earnest. The executive's tenacity eventually paid off, and Freberg agreed to record Volume Two. Rhino gave Freberg complete creative control, and didn't even ask to hear the work-in-progress.
"I finally gave them the master, in March, at their large rhino horn-shaped conference table," Freberg says. "It's kind of a weird thing; if you sit down at the tip of the horn, you have to lean in, because it curves. So I sat at the fat end of the rhino horn, and after my wife Donna—she's my producer—and I played the tape for them, they all cheered and applauded.
"Then," Freberg says with a smile, "Richard Foos stood up. He said, 'That's great, Stan. Now where's Volume Three?'"
Hard to believe, but there was a time when advertisers were terrified of humor. The rationale was that, if an audience laughed at a commercial, it wouldn't remember the product.
Then came the man Advertising Age calls "the father of funny advertising": Stan Freberg. (The New York Times has an even better name for him; "the Che Guevara of advertising.") During his 40 years in the field, he has won 21 Clios for his radio and TV ads, as well as 18 International Broadcasting Awards and medals from the Cannes and Venice Film Festivals.
Freberg broke into advertising in 1956 via legendary adman Howard Gossage, whose client was in trouble."Contadina tomato paste was this little Italian line of products in San Jose, California, and they had been invaded by the giant Hunt's company. Gossage was a fan of my records and thought that somehow humor might work. I never had any marketing training or went to Harvard Business School, but I knew I was tremendously irritated, as a consumer, by the way advertisers insulted my intelligence and continued to slug me over the head with a two-by-four. I thought there must be a better way than this to communicate with people.
"I found out that the equivalent of eight tomatoes were in each can of paste, so I gave Gossage a line, 'Who put eight great tomatoes in that little bitty can?'"
Advertising Age picked the Contadina campaign as one of the two top marketing successes of the year. It was the first in a series of memorable Freberg pitches, including ones for Sunsweet pitted prunes ("Today the Pits, Tomorrow the Wrinkles‹Sunsweet Marches On!"), Chun King chow mein, and Jeno's pizza rolls. His agency, Freberg, Ltd., continues to create ads today, most recently for Michelina¹s Lean¹n Tasty line of frozen foods.
Perhaps his most groundbreaking campaign was the one directed not just at consumers, but at retail providers. It was 30 years before MTV's "I want my MTV" campaign urged consumers to push retail. "There was a product called Kaiser Aluminum Foil which didn't have distribution," Freberg recalls. "Young & Rubicam brought me in and I did two campaigns of humorous animated commercials about a poor man named Clark Smathers, a Kaiser Aluminum Foil salesman who couldn't feed and clothe his family because the mean old grocer wouldn't stock Kaiser Aluminum Foil.
"I remember the head of the San Francisco office of Young & Rubicam said to me, 'Look here, Freberg, you didn't go to the Harvard Business School, did you?' I said, 'No, sir, I didn't.' He said, 'Well, if you had, you'd know that advertising cannot force distribution. It's a rule of advertising.' I said, 'Uh, Hal, I'll keep that in mind.'
"When Kaiser hit 11,000 new outlets, Newsweek did a story on it. They eventually went to 43,000. After that, I was never able to get any more figures out of Young & Rubicam because the aluminum curtain dropped and they were afraid to tell me how well it had done.
"I went back to the guy who said, 'Advertising can't force distribution,' and said to him, 'Look, now I've got Kaiser Foil into 43,000 new outlets. I thought you said that advertising can't force distribution. And he actually said to me, 'It can't. Something must have gone wrong.'"