23 February 2006

Annette Funicello, Part Two


Annette Funicello
Return of The Disneyland Diva
by Don Charles Hampton, Mark Meinhart and Bob Leonard
In the beginning, Rock'n'Roll was fun! It was fun to hear, fun to see, fun to dance and sing along to. It wasn't burdened by heavy socio-political baggage, so-called Punk Rock attitude and the pompous posturing of snobby music journalists. Nobody worried much about "manufactured" singers or lack of Rock'n'Roll "credibility." Practically anybody could become a Rock star back then, even a pretty ex-Mouseketeer with a modest voice and negligible musical ability! Sadly, those days are long gone, but the records cut during Rock's Golden Years (roughly 1955 to 1965) still sound as fun as ever. You'd be hard-pressed to find recorded output more fun-filled than that of Annette Funicello. Her connection to the Walt Disney Company meant that her brand of Rock'n'Roll could always be counted on to make you smile. Here's a look at six more highly collectible album releases from the woman we lovingly call the Queen Mother of Bubblegum Rock.

released in 1960
Looking for a great album to play at your next backyard luau? Annette Funicello's best-selling third long-player, Hawaiianette, fits the bill. It's the second entry in her famous theme album series, the first having been Annette Sings Anka. Next up on deck would be the Neapolitan festival known as Italiannette. A few years down the road, several albums with a "beach party" concept would round out Annette's musical theme party. If you want to know where the festivities got their start, though, it was right here on the sun-bleached shores of America's 50th state. Arranger/producer Salvador "Tutti" Camarata crafts a lively musical backdrop for our Disneyland Diva that mixes traditional Hawaiian music with Jazz. As usual, Gloria Woods and her redoubtable Disneyland chorus bring up the rear, doing a fairly competent impersonation of Webley Edwards' "Hawaii Calls" singers.

The tracks on this album are a mix of original material with older songs. Some of these melodies are very old . . . "Now Is The Hour" debuted in 1913, and "Aloha Oe(Farewell To Thee)" was composed in the late 1800s. One of the tunes included, "Holiday In Hawaii," dates back to Annette's "Mickey Mouse Club" days; it was originally performed as an ensemble piece by the Mouseketeers. No less than six of the sides were released as singles. The title track was renamed "Hawaiian Love Talk" and culled for 45 RPM release, but surprisingly, only as a B-side. "Blue Muu Muu," a cute and spirited ditty about how guys always tend to stare at a girl in a pretty dress, was chosen as the A-side. It was maybe a little too cute for radio, though . . . the record only managed to crack Billboard's Bubbling Under the Hot 100 chart. You can see a picture of Annette modeling the muu muu in question on the back of the album cover . . . very nice indeed, but she looks better in a fishnet bikini!

Hawaiianette's original songs may not have qualified as authentic Hawaiian music, but they were close enough to satisfy the casual listener. Even more important, they were radio-friendly. The biggest hit from this LP was the delightful Hawaiian beat ballad "Pineapple Princess." Powered by frantic ukuleles, it rode a wave of popularity straight up to number 11 on the charts. "Luau Cha-Cha-Cha," the B-side, could only have increased the single's popularity with its effervescent Latin groove and playful tut-ti-ca-ma-ra-ti-ay, cha-cha-chá! chant. This number was destined to become an Annette fan favorite. "Date Night In Hawaii" completes the trio of thematic songs Bob and Dick Sherman composed for the album. Imposing surburban dating rituals on a tropical theme proved to be a clever idea; as Miss Ann and her island beau invite you to double-date with them and go surf riding along the Hawaiian shore, the musical tableau is very atmospheric and visual.

There are several traditional Hawaiian songs included, such as "The Hukilau Song" (featuring some of the goofiest background voices you've ever heard) and "My Little Grass Shack," released as A and B sides of the same single. The numbers with pronounced Jazz flavor contrast sharply with the traditional sounds, but not in a bad way. The swingin' arrangements showcased in "Song Of The Islands" and the aformentioned "Shack" provide a nice change-of-pace. Then it's back to Hawaiian music for a great remake of "Blue Hawaii," the 1937 tropical standard recently revived by Elvis Presley for his hit movie of the same title.

The haunting "Now Is The Hour," long associated with the Hawaiian islands, actually hails from New Zealand. First popularized by British singer Gracie Fields during the Second World War, it's this album's equivalent of "Lonely Guitar" on Annette's first long-player . . . a melancholy love ballad wrapped in a beautiful melody. The Baroness of Bouffant loved to sing this kind of tune, and here she gives it a studied yet winsome reading. Truth be told, Annette's vocals were always a little on the flat side; her voice sounds good here, though, especially when weighed against her singing on the "Mickey Mouse Club." Practice may not make perfect, but it does make better! In the final analysis, her untrained voice is fun to listen to, and the Hawaiian setting couldn't be more perfect for her. The collection ends appropriately with "Aloha Oe," and this beloved Hawaiian farewell song provides the perfect ending to one of Annette's greatest albums.

If you want just the right music to go with your summer pig roast, you can't beat Hawaiiannette's up tempo tunes, and the ballads make it the perfect record to take with you for those relaxing hours on a vacation cruise. As for visuals, what could be better than La Funicello sporting a grass skirt and cocoanut bra? Admit it . . . there's nobody you'd more you'd want to see dressed like that than Annette! Mainlander kanes and wahinis with discriminating tastes have known for years how essential this album is(they made it a Top Forty platter in October of 1960), but rest assured that it's hardly the only LP by the Disneyland Diva you need in your collection. To underscore that point, let's give a spin to one of those aforementioned beach-themed platters . . .

Dance Annette
released in 1961
On second thought, let’s not head down to the beach just yet. Stow your baggies in the back seat of your woody for the moment, and slip on your dance belt instead! Dance Annette was Buena Vista Records’ attempt to cash in on the dance craze mania that was sweeping America during the early ‘60s. With "American Bandstand" at the height of its popularity, there were new dances galore: The Watusi, the Pony, the Mashed Potatoes, the Madison, the Monkey, Walkin’ the Dog and the myriad varieties of the Twist, just to name a few. Annette’s dance music collection ignores all of them!

Far from reflecting the tastes of the current generation, its twelve selections are instead a throwback to the dancing styles of their parents . . . and grandparents! The only cut that’s in any way contemporary is "The Hucklebuck," and only because Chubby Checker had recently revived it. Even the new material written by Bob and Dick Sherman sounds dated. Obviously, producer Tutti Camarata wasn’t keyed into what was going on in youth culture circa 1961. There was almost nothing on Dance Annette that appealed to teenagers, and its release was met with unanimous indifference from them. Maybe that’s why copies of the LP are so hard to find today.

The theme song the Sherman brothers wrote for Dance Annette is the perfect dance floor teaser, provided your preferred dance step is the Jitterbug! It’s an uptempo sizzler whose lyrics cleverly incorporate other song titles found in the track lineup; Tutti brings his veteran jazzman's chops fully to bear on it. The rhythm section swings, and swings hard. Stepping lively in her bobby sox and saddle shoes, Miss Ann brings a deliciously sassy attitude to this number. When we hear her yell come along and dance with me! we're more than ready to oblige. Too often, though, the music just isn't up to par. While its cuteness quotient is high, Annette’s remake of Kay Starr’s 1955 chart-topper "Rock‘n’Roll Waltz" is one of those cuts that doesn’t make the grade. Tutti's attempt at giving the waltz an R & B flavor is clumsy at best, and the tempo is positively lethargic.

Ditto for the redux of "Two To Tango"(introduced by Pearl Bailey in 1952), although the habanera rhythm and castanet percussion do render it a tad more danceable than "Rock‘n’Roll Waltz." Latin rhythms provide some of Dance Annette’s better moments. The Disneyland Diva springs to life with a hot merengue beat behind her, and her vivacity lights fire under a better-than-average remake of "I Could Have Danced All Night”" This ballroom favorite hails from the Broadway musical My Fair Lady, and it's worth noting that the hit movie starring Audrey Hepburn hadn’t yet been filmed when Annette's version was recorded. Walt Disney Studios shot a Dance Annette promotional film in which La Funicello demonstrated all the dances from the album; what a treat it would’ve been to see her shapely hips swaying to this track, but the film was never released.

Anybody who thinks Annette’s best stab at Cuban dance music was "Luau Cha-Cha-Chá" should hear the way she rides the montunos of "Rock-A-Cha." She leads a band of denim-clad señoritas and caballeros on a merry romp that begins in the cabarets of South America and ends at your neighborhood malt shop. One of the longest musical pieces she ever recorded at over three minutes, the song is as funny as it is danceable; thank composers Bob and Dick Sherman for that. Annette promises you’ll be a Latin Lover/as soon as you discover the Rock-A-Cha. More important, you’ll avoid being labeled a Square-O! This is such an outstanding rhythm number, it almost doesn't matter when the conga player loses his way near the end of the instrumental break.

"¿Cómo Esta Usted?" is the Sherman brothers’ whimsical take on the old "Mexican Hat Dance." Annette excelled with any kind of Spanish-language material, and her swingin’ version of "La Raspa" (the song’s original Mexican title) reportedly won her some radio airplay south of the border. "Rock-A-Charleston" is second best of the Sherman songs written for Dance Annette, sporting a bouncy and infectious tempo that’s ideal for Annette’s perky vocal style. Shake a hip to the Flapper Flip, she urges, and it's hard not to! It’s also not hard to imagine Miss Ann as a 1920s flapper . . . but how could she ever have managed to fit her Jiffy Pop hair under those tiny cloche hats?

Another track that successfully rocks the house is Tutti’s percolating arrangement of the aforementioned "Hucklebuck." While it does borrow something from Chubby Checker’s hit remake, its main inspiration is the swingin’ sounds of hot 1940s dance bands like those of Count Basie, Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. If you’ve never been converted to Big Band Swing music, this number might turn you into a true believer! The Baroness of Bouffant’s incomparable cheerleader mania steps up the energy level just as high as it will go.

The mere mention of "The Hokey Pokey" calls up candy-colored memories of dancing in kindergarten to scratchy records that your teacher played on a portable record machine. No self-respecting teenager in 1962 would’ve been caught dead dancing it! Put your whole self in/Put your whole self out/Put your whole self in/And you shake it all about? Embarrassing. "Hokey Pokey" is so not the kind of step you’d ever want to do at your next high school mixer! You’ve gotta admit, though, it was a natural for Annette Funicello to include on a dance music collection. Her cheerful reading of this supremely silly song radiates sunshine, and Tutti's big band charts generate some heat, too. A bit of brisk handclapping is all Annette's waxing would need to be definitive.

A year after he scored with "The Hucklebuck," Chubby Checker remade "Ballin' The Jack." He couldn't pass off this vintage 1913 tune as Rock'n'Roll, and Miss Ann can't, either. Her version isn't great, but at least it does swing. "The Glide," a bogus 1940s dance step invented by the Shermans, doesn't swing. Nor does it sway, shuffle or sizzle. Except for a series of drum rolls midway through, it just basically lays there while you wait in vain for it to become danceable. This is the worst selection on the album, a complete waste of time for Annette and Tutti to have bothered with. Instead, they should’ve cut another great novelty number like . . . "Rock-A-Polka!"

Ever been infected with polka fever? The Disneyland Diva is ready and willing to do the honors for you. Pumping away at her accordion, she draws you out on the dance floor with nothing more than sheer enthusiasm: We really raise a rumpus on the campus all right/When we dance the Rock-A-Polka Saturday night! "Rock-A-Polka" is the ideal song to play right after getting yourself good and smashed on a keg of beer. This bitchin' little ditty with a relentless oom-pah beat would’ve enlivened many a college frat party had it ever caught on with Greek organizations. The tune certainly caught on with Annette’s fans, some of whom sought out copies of Dance Annette just for this one cut! Without a doubt, it's one of the best things ever to come from the pens of Bob and Dick Sherman.

Packaged in a stunning sky blue sleeve that features a beautiful action shot of La Funicello, Dance Annette obviously has its strong points. Collectors have known that for quite some time. However, people who bought the LP in 1961 must've wondered if Annette's music still had anything to offer contemporary record buyers; she seemed to be stuck in the past. With the British Invasion on the musical horizon, surf music coming on strong, and Rock'n'Roll Girl Groups storming the charts, recycled Swing Era sounds just weren't gonna cut it anymore! The Disneyland Diva desperately needed to reinvent herself. Within the next year, Buena Vista executives would find out whether or not their flagship artist was still viable in the marketplace.

Annette's Beach Party
released in 1963
This was the album that jump-started Annette's dormant recording career in a big way. The popularity of her Beach Party movie with Frankie Avalon propelled this Buena Vista long-player to #39 on the Billboard album charts. Had Disneyland Records requested certification from the Recording Industry Association of America(hard to believe, but many labels didn't in the '60s), it probably would've garnered a Gold Record award. With the exception of four previously-released tracks, the entire LP was recorded at Sunset Sound Recorders, the Burbank, California studio that Tutti Camarata owned and operated. Although Tutti had been recording her on multi-tracks since at least 1960, this was the first Annette Funicello album to be released in stereo. Annette's Beach Party represented an all-new sound for the Disneyland Diva in more ways than one.

The stale odor of 1940s pop was all but gone. Her new material was fused with a fresh and vibrant Surf music sensibility. Small wonder, since Gary Usher and Roger Christian provided most of the tunes heard in Beach Party. For contractual reasons, American-International Pictures couldn't release a legitimate soundtrack LP, so Annette cut her own pseudo-soundtrack featuring mostly new recordings of songs from the film. (Frankie Avalon did the same thing.) Some of the selections were actually sung by other people on screen, but that didn't stop Tutti Camarata from laying her vocals over near-identical tracks. There wasn't enough material to fill an entire album, so Side One of Annette's Beach Party more or less features movie music, while Side Two more or less doesn't. Both sides are good, but the "movie" side is the one people paid the most attention to.

Kicking off fast with a frantic mix of tumbling drum rolls and chattering guitar licks, Usher and Christian's "Beach Party" is the centerpiece of the set. In the film, Miss Ann performed it as a duet with Frankie, but her solo version is so exciting, you hardly miss him. A Rap singer couldn't have handled the song’s mile-a-minute tempo any better. She also does herself proud on "Swingin' And Surfin'" and "Secret Surfin' Spot," pontificating about gremmies and ho-dads as if surfer lingo was her native tongue. Her finest performance is reserved for Bob Marcucci and Russ Faith's "Don't Stop Now!" This number gave Frankie Avalon a star turn in the film, but The Baroness of Bouffant takes it to a higher level. Seizing the song by the scruff of the neck in a most unladylike manner, she sinks her teeth deep into the libido-drenched lyric: Oh, baby, when you dance you so wild/You make me feel like a motherless child!/Keep-a-doin' what you're doin, don't stop now. So long, mouse ears, hello, No-Tell Motel! Her Rock'n'Roll instincts are right on target, leaving no doubt whatsoever that she and the surfin' sound are a match made in Heaven.

Establishing a tradition that would extend through all of her American-International films, Annette got a couple of musical solos in Beach Party which she used to showcase a pair of lush ballads. Most of these Guy Hemric/Jerry Styner-penned ditties were less memorable than her up tempo material, but "Promise Me Anything" was the exception to the rule. La Funicello meets the bossa nova, that bewitching new rhythm from Brazil, and the results are absolutely delectable. She employs two different contralto voices (one high and one low) in call-and-response fashion, and Tutti Camarata inserts them over, under and inside the Brazilian beat. Listening to the record, you can't help but sway your hips just like that sexy Girl from Ipanema. Irresistible!

"Treat Him Nicely" is a much more conventional Rock ballad, but Tutti's gossamer string arrangement fluttering down on Annette's natural, relaxed vocal makes it glisten like a bath bubble. This lost love plea definitely qualified as soap opera, and Buena Vista executives evidently thought teenage girls would buy it. They pressed "Treat Him Nicely" onto the A-side of a single, but what chance did it have of getting national airplay once deejays discovered "Promise Me Anything" on the flipside? It's a good thing they did, too, because that terrific track became her last charting single in October of 1963. However, a #123 placing on Billboard's Bubbling Under chart was far less than this wonderful waxing deserved.

Side Two opens with a cover of The Rivieras' Top Ten smash "California Sun," and it's a rowdy little bugger! Feet stomping all over the place, a sullen bass, a phalanx of tipsy-sounding guitars and saxophones, and hand clappers who couldn't keep time if their lives depended on it. And there's something resembling a cha-cha beat underneath it all. It shouldn't work, but it does; Annette out front imitating Lily Tomlin's Stone Soul Cheerleader is the reason why! What a fabulous sound, and what a great music video this number would have made! If Buena Vista had decided to pull a second single off of Annette's Beach Party, "California Sun" would've been the strongest candidate.

The next track is a spoken-word recording that's surrounded in mystery. Since none of Annette's regular songwriters composed it (credits go to session musicians Ray Crawford and Ronnie Zito) it's probably a cover, but an original version has yet to surface. "Battle Of San Onofre" is the story of surfers and skin divers who put aside their traditional enmity to save a drowning man's life; Miss Ann performs it as a dramatic reading with emotion so earnest, she makes the story compelling. La Funicello definitely had reason to be proud of the acting chops she developed as a Walt Disney contract player.

At this point, the scene shifts from California in 1963 to Hawaii three years earlier! Most likely, the album's budget ran out, so in order to fill up the rest of Side Two, Tutti Camarata dusted off a quartet of old Hawaiiannette tracks and mixed them to stereo. Well, there must've been a little bit of money left, because he had Annette overdub some new vocal parts to make "Pineapple Princess," and "Luau Cha-Cha-Chá" (retitled "Surfin' Luau") fit the beach party theme. There's nothing Tutti could do with "Date Night In Hawaii" and "Song Of The Islands," though . . . they sound hopelessly retro. He couldn’t have found music less conducive to Watusi-dancing if he’d tried. Just a few bars of these moldy oldies would be enough to send all the kanes and wahinis running for their surfboards!

Hawaiian retreads notwithstanding, Annette's Beach Party is an excellent album that deserved the positive reception it got from the public, Because of this music, and the kooky B-movie that spawned it, we remember Annette Funicello as something more than a sweet Mouseketeer with big, shapely bulges underneath her top. Instead, we remember her as a sexy-but-virginal Rock'n'Roll beach bunny with humongous hair and even bigger, even shaplier bulges underneath her top! Somehow, it always ends up being about the ta-ta's!

Muscle Beach Party
released in 1964
Muscle Beach Party (again, not a soundtrack recording but a studio album including songs taken from the movie) boasts the most famous of all Annette Funicello album sleeves. Decked out in a floral print, one-piece bathing suit, her hair flipped dangerously to the side, the Disneyland Diva flashes a Pepsodent smile as she perches regally on the massive shoulders of two Speedo-clad bodybuilders. Eat your heart out, Frankie! In keeping with this machismo-laden cover photo, the music found in Annette's first studio album of 1964 features her most aggressive vocals ever. The Surf and Hot Rod numbers she tackles here allow Miss Ann the opportunity to play the bold and brazen "bad girl" she never really got to play on screen. While not exactly a feminist statement, Muscle Beach Party is groundbreaking for the unladylike attitudes unintentionally conveyed by its songs(particularly those co-written by Gary Usher, Roger Christian and Brian Wilson). This is as close to being a "Femi-Nazi" as Annette ever got!

In the American-International film, "Muscle Beach Party" is performed by Dick Dale and His Del-Tones, so obviously the lyrics were intended for a man. To his eternal credit, Tutti Camarata decided not to change them when he recorded Annette's version. To hear her sing with unrestrained gusto about flexing muscles "for kicks," hustling "the chicks" and popping vitamin pills is a delightfully subversive experience! One must say, though, that the wan cooing of Gloria Woods and the Disneyland chorus does have the unfortunate effect of blunting the edge.

"Muscle Beach Party" came out as a Buena Vista single with "I Dream About Frankie" on the flipside. With a goose-stepping rhythm almost (but not quite) suitable for dancing The Jerk, "Frankie" wasn't featured in Muscle Beach Party, but it may well have been written for the movie. The tune would've fit easily into any one of Miss Ann's co-starring vehicles with Frankie Avalon, because American-International staff songwriters Hemric and Styner wrote it in tribute to their on-screen relationship. For better or worse, Frankie and Annette's fans immediately accepted the sentiments it expressed as gospel truth(after every date/he makes me feel so great/I toss and turn all night)! Never mind that La Funicello has repeatedly made clear their friendship was never as libidinous as these lyrics suggest . . . but who needs facts when mythology is more interesting?

"Muscle Bustle" was performed in the movie by Donna Loren and Dick Dale; Loren also recorded a solo version for Challenge Records. The lyrics of this song call to mind a hilarious bodybuilding competition set to music, with rhythmically-challenged muscle hunks clumsily jostling, bumping and stumbling into each other! With narcissistic steps like "flexin' up your biceps," "stickin' out your chest," and "strikin' up a pose," this bogus dance craze carries an unmistakable homoerotic sensibility. It's got the same inherent appeal to Gay men that Madonna's million-selling "Vogue" would have thirty years later.

"Surfer's Holiday," an on-screen duet between Frankie and Annette, is turned into a Funicello solo vehicle here. The drum track sounds suspiciously like rubber mallets beating on a tin bucket(stranger things were attempted in the early days of Rock'n'Roll), but that takes nothing away from its combination Surf/Hot Rod groove. Miss Ann handles the dipping, sliding voice modulations this number requires like a pro. Her strongest vocal perfomance on this LP is arguably "A Girl Needs A Boy." Certainly, we've never heard Annette sing so tenderly before. Fans over the years have proclaimed this one of the finest ballads she ever waxed; outside of her vocal, though, there's nothing really distinguished about it. "A Girl Needs A Boy" is merely a string-swathed slice of orchestra Pop of the type all White girl vocalists were expected to sing in the late '50s and early '60s. In the immediate post-Beatles era, this song couldn't help but sound dated. It surely stuck out like a sore thumb in a film like Muscle Beach Party, which was otherwise filled with Dick Dale's sizzling guitar riffs, Stevie Wonder's soulful harmonica playing, and Candy Johnson's maniacal go-go dance routines.

"Merlin Jones" was inspired not by Muscle Beach Party, but by the Walt Disney comedy flick The Misadventures of Merlin Jones. It co-starred Annette with Tommy Kirk, a veteran from her days in the Mickey Mouse Club. Miss Ann's Valley Girl vocal is ideally suited to this jokey Bob and Dick Sherman tune, adorned with cartoonish fuzz guitar. The Wellingtons, fresh from a recent guest gig on Disneyland Records' State and College Songs album(which Annette narrated), contribute some peppy vocal counterpoint that fairly reeks of Brillcream and Old Spice cologne. Can you say "squaresville?"

Let's split that suburban scene and meet La Funicello on the silver sands of "Waikiki," a hipper, harder-rocking example of the kind of material she cut for her Hawaiiannette LP; but where those earlier songs encouraged teenage girls to demurely linger within your date's arms under the shade of Hawaiian palm trees, "Waikiki" offers young women a tourist lure with much more explicit sex appeal. You'll get a golden tan, Annette promises, and hastens to add: You'll get a muscle man! Who knew that the little girl who sang "Tall Paul" would grow up to be a Gold's Gym groupie?

In addition to songs associated with movies, this collection features a quartet of Hot Rod tunes penned by noted West Coast songwriter Gary Usher. He also arranged these four sides, and brought along surf music's most famous girl group, The Honeys, to sing background vocals. These songs rank among the most authentic Rock'n'Roll Annette ever recorded, and three of them deserve to rank with the all-time greats of Hot Rod Rock. First among these is the fabulous "Draggin' USA." Just try to keep from doing the Watusi when this number's on your turntable! The rhythm guitarists make their axes rev and roar like cherry little Corvette motors. Meanwhile, Annette and The Honeys huddle down in the pit, hyperventilating in praise of the drag racin' dude who's won their hearts. He's got the fastest time! He's first off the line! He's got greasy hands and dirty fingernails! What more could any girl want?

Also great are "Custom City" and "Shut Down Again," both of which hold forth with gyrating, go-go dancer-friendly drum patterns, gritty saxophone riffs and lots of those aforementioned driving guitars. Hot rodding brings out a cocky side of Annette that we've never heard before; challenged to a drag duel, she "trash talks" her (male) rival to the point of distraction: Your car's okay, it's just your drivin'! she taunts. Buddy, gonna have to shut you down again. Miss Ann sure ain't jivin' when she bears down on these catchy hell-on-wheels numbers!

Unfortunately, "Rebel Rider" sounds lethargic in comparison to these gems, and lyrically, it derives too much from The Crystals' 1962 chart-topper "He's A Rebel." Still, Gary Usher successfully updates the old good-girl-loves-bad-boy theme by branding it with a Nascar logo. Somehow, Buena Vista Records thought it was good enough for single release, but even with "Custom City" on the topside, "Rebel Rider" was a poor choice. Failing to pitch "Draggin' USA" to AM radio was one of the label's biggest mistakes. La Funicello's venture here into drag racing territory anticipated by two years Fireball 500 and Thunder Alley, the hot rod movies she would later star in for American-International Pictures . . . and of which, the lesser said, the better.

After a night filled with the din of roaring engines and the stench of exhaust fumes, Annette invites you to breakfast, tempting your taste buds with . . ."The Scrambled Egghead!" No, it's not Emeril Lagasse's latest culinary triumph, it's a spoken-word piece Miss Ann performs with Tommy Kirk. Although it sounds like dialogue pulled directly from a movie soundtrack, it wasn't; released on 45 along with "Merlin Jones," this extended exercise in campy comedy served no purpose other than promotion. With Tutti conducting a jazzy instrumental waltz in the background, one is tempted to call "Egghead" lounge music; but Tommy's mad scientist posturing and Annette's remarks about needing an instant stand-up hairdo tend to bring on guffaws, and that's something that would never happen while listening to a Burt Bacharach record. A delightfully twisted way to close an above-average album.

By the way, one of the hulking bodybuilders who hoisted the Baroness of Bouffant skyward during her Muscle Beach Party album photo shoot was named Peter Lupus. He went on to become famous as one of the original castmembers of "Mission Impossible." That classic '60s television drama inspired a series of blockbuster movies three decades later. Your mission now . . . if you choose to accept it . . . is to play "Six Degrees of Separation" between Mickey Mouse and Tom Cruise!

Annette Sings Golden Surfin' Hits
released in 1965
The Disneyland Diva consolidates her status as Queen of the Beach with her final album of (mostly) new material. But for a handful of songs, this LP could've been titled Annette Sings Brian Wilson;seven of its twelve selections were written by the legendary writer/producer. However unlikely the concept may have seemed to some people, Golden Surfin' Hits is unquestionably one of Annette's best albums. She puts her distinctive stamp on a picnic basket full of sand-blasted Surf standards, and displays a confidence that belies her relative inexperience as a singer. No matter whether the song was originally cut by The Beach Boys or Jan and Dean, it invariably fits her as snugly as one of her famous one-piece bathing suits. Without exception, La Funicello kicks ass on every cut, and any shortcomings you hear are not her fault.

"Surfin'," the first hit for The Beach Boys, is one of the best tracks on the LP. Always a great little surf rocker, it loses none of its power in Annette's hands. Her vocals are strong nearly all the way through; they do drop out in a couple of places, but that's probably due to a flaw in the mix. Miss Ann's version of Jan and Dean's "Surf City" features lyrics that were revised to be "gender-correct." As much fun as it would've been to hear her sing this song from the male point of view, the change does no major damage to her rendition. What does do damage is the weak background vocals. This is yet another instance where Gloria Woods should've instructed the Disneyland Chorus to put a little more enthusiasm into their singing!

Another gender switch occurs when Annette takes on The Beach Boys' most famous love song, "Surfer Girl." This time, the lyric change is more understandable. Given that she was on the verge of marrying Jack Gilardi, she might have raised a conservative eyebrow or two singing lines like do you love me, do you, surfer girl? Oh, the fantasies that come to mind! Some of La Funicello's fans believe she was always at her best with ballads, and "Surfer Boy" certainly seems to justify that argument. She imbues the song with as much soul as an Italian girl from Utica, New York could possibly muster. As great as her solo performance is, it would've been even greater with the Wilson Brothers' harmonies backing her up. "Surfin' Safari" brings out Annette's surly side, as she stretches her contralto to duplicate Mike Love's hipster chanting on the original record. Hearing a girl do this type of song is incredibly cool, but when the girl in question is our Baroness of Bouffant, the coolness factor jumps by at least ten degrees!

For some reason, two of the tracks on Golden Surfin' Hits are Tutti Camarata instrumentals. Maybe they were included to increase the album's surf music credibility; still, when one buys an Annette LP, one expects Annette vocals on all tracks! Consumers in 1965 were probably just as disappointed as today's listeners by these unnecessary diversions. That said, Tutti does a nice job applying the Walt Disney touch to Joe Saraceno's "Surfer's Stomp" and "Balboa Blue," both originally recorded by The Marketts. (Saraceno himself may have been on hand to help with the arrangements.)

A few numbers that have nothing to do with surfing appear on the album. "Boy To Love" was the flipside of the Disneyland Diva's latest single, and is coveted by collectors for its subtle Wall of Sound production style. Written especially for her by Michael Zachary Gordon, this tune may be the closest she ever came to waxing a classic Girl Group platter. It could easily have been a Ronettes or Chiffons single.

While it's debatable how Brian Wilson would've felt if The Chiffons had cut "Surfin' USA," he surely must've loved Annette's version. It takes off like a rocket and never loses steam! Miss Ann is totally in command of this Surf music anthem; her enthusiastic reading actually gives The Beach Boys' hit rendition a run for its money. With its cheeky bust your buns refrain, Jan and Dean's "Sidewalk Surfin'" is the naughtiest number Annette waxed until she recorded her Country Album two decades later. (In 1965, publicly referring to someone's tookus as "buns" was fairly naughty.) She sounds so happy and carefree as she sings it, images of her zooming along on a skateboard can't help but spring to mind. Just watch that next curve, honey . . . we don't want to see your lovely buns get busted!

"Ride The Wild Surf" concludes the Surf music portion of this set. Tutti Camarata gives this movie theme song a big orchestral treatment, dramatic enough to be worthy of the actual soundtrack recording. Annette gives it her all, too, singing out with great flair and passion. It's a bet she won't ever be nominated to the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame, but powerful tracks like this one make a case that she at least deserves consideration. As strong as her Surf music covers are, the Disneyland Diva's recycled duet with The Beach Boys, "The Monkey's Uncle," was undoubtedly everyone's favorite track on Golden Surfin' Hits. It had already appeared on Annette at Bikini Beach, but since this new collection practically owed its existence to Brian Wilson and his brothers, the record's inclusion here makes perfect sense. Bob and Dick Sherman wrote such a boss little novelty rocker for Miss Ann to sing with the Wilsons, Buena Vista Records probably could've included it on all of her albums without raising much complaint from her fans.

The album closer (although it doesn't actually close the album) is one of La Funicello's strongest singles, the rambunctious "No One Could Be Prouder." Annette slips into her cheerleader's uniform to lead this raucous tribute to teenage love, and before very long, she's got that silver baton twirling faster than a chopper blade! It's an injustice that the single never charted, and a shame this Joe Saraceno song isn't better known. It's got built-in appeal to the Christopher Street crowd; lyrics like He's my guy, no one could be prouder/And if you can't hear me, I'll yell a little louder certainly lend themselves to the kinds of anthems heard at Gay Pride parades! What do you bet that at least one homosexual teenager sneaked off somewhere private with his portable record-player so he could yelp along to "No One Could Be Prouder" at the top of his lungs?!! True, more than one teenage girl probably did the same thing . . . but with less need for privacy!

Golden Surfin' Hits had a little something for boys and girls of every persuasion. There was Bubblegum Rock, Surf music, balladry and Girl Group sounds all wrapped up in one delightful package. Even though it didn't sell in large quantities, this may well have been the most commercial Annette Funicello album of all.

The Annette Funicello Country Album
released in 1984
In the fall of 1981, the first new Annette recording in fifteen years hit the market. Much to the delight of fans of her beach party movies and records, "Together We Can Make A Make A Merry Christmas" was a duet with Frankie Avalon, her longtime friend and American-International Pictures co-star. Although it failed to make the national charts, the single was very well-received. Ultimately, Pacific Arts Records marketed it as both a regular 7-inch edit and an extended 12-inch Disco mix. However, a hoped-for Christmas album by Frankie and Annette didn't materialize.

Two years later, though, rumors circulated that the Disneyland Diva was recording again. Annette confirmed the rumors, announcing that she had just waxed an album in Nashville that celebrated her lifelong love of Country music. Late in 1983, a new single appeared on Coy Fowler's Bakersfield, California-based Starview label. A spoken-word recording with instrumental backing, "Promised Land" told the story of Annette's journey as a child to Hollywood and her subsequent discovery by Walt Disney.

Early the following year, the eagerly anticipated album was released. First available as a limited-edition collector's item only, The Annette Funicello Country Album was first sold via mailoder through Annette's fan club, various music collector's publications and a toll-free number advertised on cable TV. Later, Starview Records gave it a general release. Unfortunately, the small, independent label couldn't secure a good distribution deal. Today, copies of the LP are extremely hard to find and sell for $100 or more at auction.

Tutti Camarata was still active, though no longer working for Disney Studios; he was the logical choice to produce Annette's new record. However(and some might say, unfortunately), his services were not engaged. While Annette certainly wasn't hostile to the idea of working with Tutti again, much had changed in her life by this time. She was now the mother of three teenagers. She'd gotten divorced, and in the interim had begun making her own decisions for the first time in her life. She found that she wasn't afraid of responsibility . . . in fact, she liked it!

The former beach bunny was now a businesswoman, selling collectible teddy bears and marketing her own frozen food line. Being in charge suited her just fine. So after making the decision to cut a new album, she formed a production company with her husband-to-be, Glen Holt, and undertook to produce the sessions herself. Glanco Productions (a combination of the names Glen + Ann) hired guitarist Phil Baugh to co-produce, and it was he who ended up receiving the lion's share of label credit.

When she traveled to Nashville's Hot Licks Studios to cut the twelve tracks that would make up her Country Album, Annette had not recorded an LP in nearly twenty years. Her chops were extremely rusty, and fans were shocked to hear her weak, half-spoken/half-sung and frequently off-key vocal tracks. A return to Tutti Camarata's circa 1959 "Annette Sound," with generous helpings of multi-tracking and reverb would have improved the way she sounded.

For this project, though, La Funicello deliberately chose to go "naked." She wanted to sound intimate and honest. Rough, unpolished vocals are certainly nothing new in Country music; besides, it wasn't as if she were trying to compete with Reba McIntire! She assumed her fans knew what to expect. To draw attention away from her voice deficiencies, she had some of Nashville's best on hand to help her out, including pianist Hargus "Pig" Robbins, rhythm guitarist Pete Wade, steel guitarist Buddy Emmons, and ace fiddler Buddy Spicher. One thing did remain the same from the old days: the mix of songs. Just as had been the case with her Buena Vista LPs, Annette's Country Album placed hits popularized by other singers side by side with new material written especially for her.

"It'll Be Me" had been a Top Forty Country single the previous year for Tom Jones. "The Race Is On" fell two notches shy of topping the 1964 Country charts in a rendition by George Jones. "Paper Roses," introduced by Anita Bryant in 1960, had given Marie Osmond her first Country chart-topper back in '73. "Sweet, Sweet Smile" had facilitated The Carpenters only invasion of Country radio airwaves in 1978. None of Annette's versions of these songs hold a candle to the originals; on some of them, she sounds tired and uninspired. Only on "Sweet, Sweet Smile" are we treated to a flash of the bubbly ex-Mouseketeer of old.

Yet, voice shortcomings aside, three of her remakes are definitely worth hearing. Red Simpson's "Lucky Old Colorado" requires Annette to play the role of a lonely woman pining over lost love. She rises to the task, laying down a hushed, melancholy vocal that's totally convincing. Her treatment of Freddy Fender's 1975 smash "Before The Next Teardrop Falls" is both tender and sexy. The weariness in her voice actually works to the song's advantage, making her sound worldly and sophisticated. She faithfully (and competently) reproduces Fender's switch to Spanish lyrics in midsong.

Then, the Disneyland Diva redeems herself with an excellent version of "Orange Blossom Special," a bluegrass tune recorded by many Country artists, but most often associated with Flatt and Scruggs. Actually, she only sings a couple of verses, but after a false ending, she comes back "on mike" and makes like a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader: I wanna hear this Orange Blossom Special really roll! Let's go! With Buddy Spicher fiddlin' out in front, and harmonica player Terry McMillan hangin' off the caboose, Annette's band kicks this classic train song into overdrive. You'd swear you're hearing a real locomotive engine steaming down the rails! This is unabashed, down-home Country music . . . Grand Ole Opry-calibre pickin' at breakneck speed. As it scoots along, you can almost see the Carolina Cloggers quicksteppin' to the beat in your mind's eye. This one cut is so much fun to hear, it justifies the existence of the whole album.

What also justifies this project is the mature sexuality Annette displays on her new songs. During her '60s heyday, her tacit on-screen warning to Frankie Avalon was always "not without a wedding ring, you don't!" The Baroness of Bouffant's reputation as a virgin was even more high-profile than her hair! Yet in her 1989 autobiography, A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes, she'd reveal that (gasp!) she actually enjoyed having sex!

Anybody who owned this album was already privy to that shocking bit of information. Just listen to a number like "Old Good Times," where she croons lustily about layin' back on the bed/kissin' your lips and spinnin' my head. Oh, my! Get a load of the lyrics to "Fires Of Love," where Annette finds herself engulfed in an inferno of desire, mouse ears and all. Every time you touch me, the flames rise, she announces, and sounds pretty damn excited about the situation. And how could she be a prude when, with bated breath, she declares that "(What You Need Is) A Real Woman's Love?"

Dig this sinful scenario: A sultry Miss Ann drops her robe and stands revealed in skimpy Frederick's of Hollywood attire! Then she beckons you closer. As you peruse her physical charms, she assures you that we can fly like the eagles fly, and promises that when she's finished with you, sweetcakes, you won't even know if it's night or day! Think of the hundreds of pubescent boys who fantasized about Annette in the '60s and dreamed that she'd whisper those very words in their ears! No doubt about it . . . America's most famous abstinence advocate was a virgin no more. By 1984, Annette Joanne Funicello had definitely embraced the pleasures of the flesh! Musically, it's as if she were saying, "Now that the ring is on my finger, I can let my hair down and get my freeek on whenever I feel like it . . . so how do you like me now, Uncle Walt?"

Annette may have used this album to introduce her public to the sensual woman she'd become, but she wasn't so far removed from her Mouseketeer past that she couldn't also remind them of the innocent girl she once was. "Promised Land," co-written by Annette and Glen Holt, isn't as much a song as it's a preview of her forthcoming autobiography. With a Gospel chorus backing her up, she spins a nostalgic tale guaranteed to leave her fans misty-eyed: From Sin City in the East (that's Utica, New York, y'all) to the City of the Angels (Hollywood, natch)/Daddy brought us to the Promised Land. Annette performs her narrative with so much sincerity, it doesn't matter that the sentiment is maudlin and corny; in fact, if it weren't corny, it probably wouldn't work as well on record.

Also autobiographical is "Inbetween And Out Of Love," a ballad which candidly recounts the Disneyland Diva's struggle to cope with life as a divorcée. In another nod to the old days, this number was co-written by Guy Hemric, one of Miss Ann's primary sources of original Surf music. Featuring a better-than-average vocal effort, "Inbetween" was immediately tagged as a candidate for 45 RPM release; it wound up gracing the flipside of the "Promised Land" single.

Thus, a new prize was added to the already highly collectible Annette Funicello discography. During the late 1980s, there was still talk of a Frankie and Annette Christmas LP, but of course, it wasn't destined to happen. Some people just couldn't accept the possibility that their Candy Girl would never wax another LP. Hearing The Annette Funicello Country Album in retrospect, though, there's a certain finality about it that seems painfully obvious now.

Special thanks to John Laine.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love it! Magnificent all the way. From Annette's biggest all-time fan.