The Disneyland Diva
A Stuff 'n' Laura Production
by Donny Jacobs and Laura Pinto
by Donny Jacobs and Laura Pinto
Who's the fairest Mouseketeer of all? The bitchin'est babe on the beach? The original Candy Girl, years before The Archies minted the name in their million-selling song "Sugar, Sugar?" You don't have to scroll down to the bottom of the page to read the answer: It's Annette Funicello! She neither aspired to become an actress nor a singer (and, according to some critics, she never did), but soon after trading in her mouse ears for high heels, she starred in nine feature films, scored five Top Forty hits, and made history as one of Rock'n'Roll's earliest female stars.
Annette was just four when her family moved from Utica, New York, to southern California, eventually settling in Studio City. During Easter week of 1955, she danced the lead in "Swan Lake" at her ballet school's year-end recital. In the audience was Walt Disney, scouting for talented kids to cast in his forthcoming television show "The Mickey Mouse Club." Mama Funicello's baby girl won the 24th, and final, set of mouse ears. Over the next three years, her supple dancer's body blossomed into womanhood, triggering hormone attacks in pubescent boys all over the country! Millions tuned in every afternoon for the free lessons in feminine anatomy that Annette unwittingly provided.
Her progression to a singing career was, like her popularity, unexpected. Every Mouseketeer sang on the show, but only Annette's rendition of the ballad "How Will I Know My Love?" brought inquiries from viewers about where to buy the record. Miss Ann found herself signed to an artist's contract with Disneyland Records, and starting work on her first album. She did so under the eagle eye of A & R man Salvador "Tutti" Camarata, whose long-as-your-arm list of credits includes work with Billie Holliday, Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby. Though she was initally terrified, Tutti patiently walked her through the process and surrounded her with the best musicians he could find.
A typical date (first at Whitney Studios, and later at Tutti's own Sunset Sound Recorders) would feature Allan Reuss on guitar, Cliff Hils on bass, Bobby Hammack on piano, Hal Blaine on drums and Jackie Kelso handling sax duties. Gloria Woods led a cadre of capable background vocalists. Yet, even studio cats like these couldn't disguise Annette's painfully thin singing voice. By double-tracking her vocals to bring more oomph to the records, Tutti crafted what became known in the music industry as "The Annette Sound." Thirteen albums later, it had become the sound one of surf music's chief exponents, as well as that of the first female Bubblegum Rock singer.
Released in 1959
Annette's self-titled first album on Disneyland Records' Buena Vista subsidiary introduced both artist and label to the long-playing record market. Every track on the LP was released as a single, and nearly every one charted! "Tall Paul," a bouncy, rope-jumping tune, launched the long and fruitful careers of songwriters Bob and Dick Sherman with the Disney organization. "Paul"(not a tribute to Paul Anka, contrary to what's often reported) double-dutched its way up the charts and into the Top Ten. What could be better suited to Annette's sweet demeanor and light, frothy voice than children's music? The term "Bubblegum Rock" barely existed in the late '50s, but no term better fits the material the Sherman Brothers wrote for her. They contributed five songs to Annette, including "It Took Dreams," "My Heart Became Of Age," "Wild Willie," and "Jo-Jo, The Dog-Faced Boy." In subsequent years, the duo would compose songs for many famous Disney movies like Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book, as well as the Disney theme park song, "It's A Small World."
When they infused Rockabilly with Bubblegum sensibility, the Shermans had Annette kicking up her heels in the Talent Rodeo, especially on "Jo-Jo," a wicked satire on the Elvis phenomenon, and "Willie," a rompin', stompin' hootenanny contender. Twenty-first century ears may detect phallic humor in the latter song . . . surely none was intended! Still, hearing the feverish way Miss Ann yelps Wild Willie, I love you so!, one wonders if more than just her heart wasn't coming of age. The Buena Vista Bombshell takes another turn at naughty playfulness with the vintage tune "Ma! He's Makin' Eyes At me." Every cut isn't Bubblegum, though: The melancholy "Lonely Guitar," composed by Mousekepadre Jimmie Dodd for an episode of Disney's "Zorro" TV series, gives La Funicello the chance to truly emote; her wistful yet determined voice does justice to this plaintive ballad. Then she becomes subdued on "Love Me Forever," its beautiful melody borrowed from the Neapolitan "Santa Lucia." Tutti Camarata must've loved this Harold Adamson adaptation, because he later recycled it for her Italiannette album. All in all, Annette is an auspicious, ambitious and bubble-icious debut!
Released in 1960
Pass the spumoni and hide the salami! Dish out the rigatoni and start the music! Signorina Funicello, she's-a bringin' us Songs with an Italian Flavor, the second entrée in her theme platter trio(sandwiched between a Hawaiiannette luau and a Danceannette dessert). The album cover shows a decidedly ethnic-looking Annette, hands raised in an Italian salute . . . no, not that kind!!! She's a-snappin' her fingers, makin' the sound bubblegum makes when stretched taut against the palate. Got the fever for the flavor of Bazooka, Giuseppe? You've come to the right place, then.
Italiannette begins with the swingin' Sherman Brothers-composed title track, which playfully poses the musical question: Italiannette, who's your fella? We wouldn't find out for another four years, but meanwhile, our bella bella gets boosted by Gloria Woods' molto robusto backing chorus. The quartet of Sherman tunes Annette performs on this delightful LP include the softly romantic "Mia Cara, Mi'Amore," the mandolin-sweet "Please, Please, Signore," and the highly danceable "Dream Boy," otherwise known as "Funiculi, Funicula" with English lyrics. Ah, La Funicello . . . bravissimo!
Also derived from traditional Italian melodies are "There's No Tomorrow," anglicized from "O Sole Mio" (Elvis fans, think "It's Now Or Never") and "Lucky, Lucky, Lucky Me," a gay tarantella adapted by none other than television's "Uncle Miltie," Milton Berle. Molto buono! Great stuff, but the modern songs have the edge: Tutti Camarata wrote his lip-smackin' "Mama Mama Rosa (Where's The Spumoni?)" especially for inclusion in this Roman feast. Don't ever listen to it when you're hungry! You'll never get through it without an emergency trip to your Italian grocer. Tutti's arrangement for Al Hoffman and Dick Manning's prayerful love ballad "O Dio Mio" is so luxurious, you want to lounge on it; our Disneyland Diva rises to the occasion with a performance that effectively conveys giddy infatuation. No big surprise that, as a single, it became an international million-seller. Yet, as much as we enjoy Annette's take on the Italian-American anthem "That's Amore," Dean Martin's version still rules! It's heavy on the sweetbreads, but overall, Italiannette provides a most satisfying meal. Mangia! Mangia! Eat until it hurts!
The Story of My Teens
Released in 1962
The Disney organization sometimes used Annette's album releases to celebrate milestones in her life. This one, her first hits collection, was issued in recognition of her 20th birthday. In order to alert fans that she wasn't a little girl anymore(a fact most of her male admirers had already determined), Buena Vista Records pulled out all the stops. The Story of My Teens . . . and The Sixteen Songs That Tell It! came with a lavish gatefold sleeve housing eight pages of color photos and text. Annette penned the liner notes herself, effusively expressing gratitude to songwriters Bob and Dick Sherman, Tutti Camarata, her fans, and of course, her beloved Uncle Walt. It was an instant collector's item!
The selections trace her progression from choral singer (with The Mickey Mouse Club on "Mouseketeer Closing Theme") to showtune interpreter("I Can't Do the Sum", from her most recent Disney movie, Babes In Toyland). In-between comes a sampling of sugar-frosted rockers and wistful heartbreak ballads old and new, most of which have a Sherman Brothers credit attached. "¿Amo, Qué Pasó?," a haunting number with South-of-the-Border ambiance, is Funicello balladry at its best . . . she delivers her most mournful performance since "Lonely Guitar." The choicest uptempo tune is "Strummin' Song," a gum-crackin' ditty that's tailor-made for campfire singalongs. Naturally, her hit singles are revisited: "Taul Paul," with its jittery rhythms and irresistible ping-pong percussion; "O Dio Mio," practically a Barbara Cartland romance novel set to music; "Pineapple Princess," that Hawaiian Punch-flavored tale about a boy who comes floatin' down the bay on a crocodile right into Annette's heart; the aforementioned "Lonely Guitar"; and the fabulous "First Name Initial", a near-hysterical declaration of teenage devotion whose furious tambourine-shaking and frantic horn-honking make it one of the rowdiest Bubblegum hits ever.
Tracks from Italiannette and Annette Sings Anka round out a package that'd be perfect if not for "The Truth About Youth," a topical Sherman brothers song written especially for this album. Heavy-handed social statements from Annette? When you're a Pineapple Princess, that kind of behavior is verboten! If Miss Ann's future recordings were gonna sound like this, the fun was definitely over. But, thankfully, they didn't . . . and it wasn't!
Annette at Bikini Beach
Released in 1964
By late 1962, Annette was ready to shelve her recording career and concentrate on acting. There was every reason to believe she'd cut her final album session . . . that is, until somebody yelled "SURF'S UP!" In 1963, Walt Disney lent his leading lady to American-International pictures for a starring role in Beach Party, a musical comedy pairing her with teen idol Frankie Avalon. The film was a surprise hit, kicking off a series of campy surfside movies. Their success made the Buena Vista Bombshell's name synonymous with surf music, not to mention crazy bouffant hairdos. They also reinforced her sex symbol status: Guys who dug the way a teenage Annette filled out her Mouseketeer sweatshirt salivated at the sight of an adult Disneyland Diva strutting around in provocative fishnet bathing suits!
Tutti Camarata began recording new albums built around songs from these movies, most of which were written by Gary Usher, Roger Christian and The Beach Boys' Brian Wilson. Tunes like "Secret Surfin' Spot," and "Surfer's Holiday" gave Annette a more aggressive image. If you believed the lyrics she sang, Miss Ann spent all her time hot rod racing, riding the waves, and cruising the shore for surfer hunks! Nothing could've been further from the truth, but this brazen hussy persona was enough to jump-start her stalled record sales.
By the time this, Annette's third beach party LP, was released, Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner had replaced Bob and Dick Sherman as her regular songwriting team. She may have earned a place in the firmament of surf music stars, but the Spearmint-coated material Hemric and Styner wrote for her ensured that she need never hit the beach without an adequate supply of Dubble Bubble! Bikini Beach is the chewiest entry in her beach party album series, and a consistent source of compilation material. Hemrick and Styner's "Bikini Beach Party" theme is rollicking good fun, carrying on where its predecessors, "Beach Party" and "Muscle Beach Party" left off; with its vicious groove, "How About That?" presents Miss Ann at her most sexually aggressive; the lighthearted "Secret Weapon" boasts a secret formula guaranteed to set the fringe flying on a go-go dancer's miniskirt; ditto for the live recording of "Happy Feeling," which swipes a riff from The Isley Brothers' "Twist and Shout."
La Funicello pays tribute to Chubby Checker with a snappy version of "Let's Twist Again" and gives Eydie Gormé a run for her money with a sublime cover of "Blame It On The Bossa Nova." Undoubtedly, the album's brightest highlight is the Sherman Brothers-composed theme from the Disney film The Monkey's Uncle. Annette's famous duet with The Beach Boys on this pogo stick of a track made the single version a cult hit the minute it hit the racks. Yet, "Jamaica Ska," her charming cover of an obscure 1964 single by The Ska Kings, is just as essential. This song became the basis of a show-stopping production number when Annette and punk band Fishbone remade it for her 1987 reunion movie with Frankie Avalon, Back To The Beach.
Annette's Pajama Party
Released in 1964
An amorous extra-terrestial, girls in sexy lingerie bouncing on beds, and unlikely guest appearances by Dorothy Lamour and Buster Keaton embellished the convoluted plot of 1964's Pajama Party, arguably the wackiest of the wacky movies Annette made for American-International Pictures. It yielded the only true soundtrack album ever released under her name, worth the purchase price just for the inside-gatefold photos: She cavorts with co-star Tommy Kirk wearing nothing but a negligée and pumps!
Guy Hemrick and Jerry Styner strike again with a batch of tunes that prove their excellent contributions to Bikini Beach were no fluke. The Disneyland Diva's reading of the rockin' title track is so cheerleader contagious, even the most jaded listener is compelled to indulge in the latest craze . . . havin' a party wearin' your PJ's! A litter of puppies couldn't be more frisky than "That Kind Of Day", another of Annette's lively fusions of Bubblegum with surf music; just one minute-forty-four-seconds long, it's the vinyl equivalent of a volleyball in play. On "Among The Young," La Funicello offers a street classy explanation of teen leisure habits circa 1964: We walk the Dog/we do the Twist/we do the Swim/and it goes like this! She blends a deliciously sullen vocal with a groaning, insolent saxophone riff.
A pair of whipped cream ballads was by now customary for Annette albums. The first one featured on Pajama Party, "There Has To Be A Reason" is a typically frothy confection, but the second, "Stuffed Animal," takes the Baroness of Bouffant into uncharted territory. Hemrick and Styner crafted a song for Annette that actually conveys (gulp!) eroticism. And kinky eroticism, at that! Sure, it's possible to interpret the lyrics in a non-prurient way, but what's the average "Jerry Springer" addict liable to think when he hears the Buena Vista Bombshell coo steamy lines like a stuffed animal just loves to be kissed and a stuffed animal never says no? Oh, my! Advocates of mixed marriage (aliens with humans) must've felt empowered when Annette took up their cause on "The Maid and The Martian." This sprightly harpsichord number's inclusion on the soundtrack underscores Miss Ann's ability to sound credible singing the most absurd material. And speaking of absurd, try "Where Did I Go Wrong?," an exercise in high camp set to a '60s go-go beat . . . guest vocalist Dorothy Lamour confronts the generation gap with hilarious results!
Something Borrowed, Something Blue
Released in 1964
Buena Vista Records conceived this album as a celebration of Annette's forthcoming marriage to her agent, Jack Gilardi. However, far from being a collection of love songs, it contains a mishmash of tracks: Previously released material(old), fresh material(new), covers (borrowed) and songs with the word "blue" in the title . . . you get the idea. Why the Disney people settled for wordplay when they could've produced a romantic masterpiece is puzzling, as is their omission of the one song that absolutely should've been included: "Chapel of Love." What this compilation does include is old-timey tunes like "Music! Music! Music!," Teresa Brewer's smash hit from 1950; confident readings of Lloyd Price's "Personality," Bobby Vinton's "Blue On Blue," and The Beatles' "All My Lovin';" plus colorful new Bubblegum tracks like "Crystal Ball" and the Four Seasons-styled "Little Blue Ballroom."
Old standbys Bob and Dick Sherman are represented with "Mr. Piano Man," a lively throwback to Dixieland days; "Canzone D'Amore," a lilting Italian air featuring accordionist Gianni Marzocchi; and the title tune, their personal wedding gift to Annette. The Disneyland Diva recut her very first record for this package; the new version of "How Will I Know My Love" is soft and sexy, her vocal skills having progressed to where she's able to create a sultry mood on wax. Neither the individual selections nor Annette's interpretations can be faulted, but this LP still sounds like it was thrown together as an afterthought. A final studio album (Annette Sings Golden Surfin' Hits) and a few straggling singles completed La Funicello's Buena Vista catalog.
When Miss Ann's wedding day arrived on January 9, 1965, you could hear the sound of thousands of hearts breaking! She filmed her next movie (How To Stuff A Wild Bikini) while pregnant with her first child, Gina. Yes, our little Mousketeer was all grown up. Between 1966 and 1968, the Baroness of Bouffant co-starred in three flop movies, culminating with the unintelligible Monkees film Head. Small wonder nearly 20 years passed before she surfaced on the big screen again! She had two more children, both boys, and the whole Gilardi brood appeared in TV commercials with their mother after she began her decade-long turn as the Skippy Peanut Butter Lady.
The Eighties brought Annette big life changes: She divorced Jack Gilardi and wed horse trainer Glen Holt. Concurrently, her movie career began heating up again. It was during the filming of Back To The Beach that Annette first experienced vision and muscle coordination problems. Neurological examinations confirmed the worst: She had multiple sclerosis. Sadly, her condition quickly deteriorated, and the former ballet dancer is confined to a wheelchair now. Despite her health problems, Annette Funicello remains as beautiful as ever. Her face glows with the same youthful sweetness that won the hearts of millions 49 years ago. Later editions of the Mickey Mouse Club have launched other girl singers to fame, but diva wannabees like Britney and Christina are strictly dime-a-dozen! They'll never have enough class to compare with Annette . . . the one, the only Disneyland Diva. She's still our Candy Girl, and we love her.
Special thanks to Tutti Camarata.