22 September 2010

Annette Funicello (Part Three)

Annette Prom

The Disneyland Diva
A Musical Reunion with America's Girl Next Door
An AndruCharlz Production
Reviewed by AndruCharlz
Additional Production and Remix by Donny Jacobs

Years ago, near the end of a 1975 "American Bandstand" reunion show, the guests (all "Bandstand" and Caravan of Stars tour veterans) took turns "roasting" and insulting the show's longtime host, Dick Clark . . . all except one! Even when goaded by her onscreen boyfriend Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello sweetly refused to join in on the ragging.

That in itself shows why Annette was and is so unique, and, to today's generation, so improbable. Throughout her roughly 40-year career as a celebrity, she was nice! And Miss Ann stayed nice, no matter what temptations came her way. Sure, she knew that millions of boys were tuning in "The Mickey Mouse Club" only because "Annette's startin' to get big knockers," as a gang member in the 1978 movie Grease joyfully proclaimed. Everybody on the Disney backlot knew it, but she just smiled and stayed on the high road. She kept to that path even when it might've helped her career to veer off of it.

Part of it was her loyalty to Walt Disney, the beloved "Uncle Walt" who discovered her at a dance recital in 1955. However, most of it was her determination to model wholesome behavior, no matter what kind of snarky or suggestive shenanigans were going on around her. The teen exploitation movies she starred in between 1963 and 1967 seethed with surfside sexuality, but nobody ever wondered about her character's virginity! When she had to play a drunken scene in the awful hot rod flick Thunder Alley, it wasn't remotely believeable; it was obvious that she didn't even know how to act drunk. When Connie Stevens and Frankie Avalon were going potty mouth in the PG-rated reunion movie Back To The Beach, even when a male co-star flashed his thong bikini'd butt cheeks in her face, Annette's onscreen demeanor was never less than 100% ladylike. She always came out smelling like a rose.

Annette Reunion

Speaking of Annette and reunions, let's now discuss Annette: A Musical Reunion with America's Girl Next Door. First released in 1993, this 2-CD set is the best-yet compendium of the Disneyland Diva's music career, and Walt Disney Records' ultimate aural tribute to Uncle Walt's favorite niece. Because it's a Disney project, it focuses almost entirely on her work for that company: her Disneyland and Buena Vista singles, and her musical performances from Disney movies and TV shows. The track listing just barely acknowledges her songs from beach party movies. (Actually, those songs are controlled by Disney as well; producer Salvador "Tutti" Camarata frequently had Annette re-cut production numbers from the soundtracks of her American-International films.)

When a singing career was first proposed for Annette, she wasn't sure she had the ability to even carry a tune. Fortunately, she had a boyfriend at the time named Paul Anka, a dynamic singer and performer who ended up being to her what Frank Sinatra had been to Sammy Davis, Jr: The best vocal coach around! Anka rehearsed her and built up her confidence, and during 1959-60 at least, the results spoke for themselves: Five Top 40 hits, including two Top Tens! First came "Tall Paul" (#7), followed by "First Name Initial" (#20), "O Dio Mio" (#10), Anka's "Train of Love" (#36), and "Pineapple Princess" (#11). Miss Ann has also credited Tutti Camarata for being especially patient and encouraging with her in the studio. He kept the mood light and fun. Tongue-in-cheek Pop songs, more often than not penned by Bob and Dick Sherman, and a zany background chorus led by Gloria Woods helped make her recording sessions enjoyable, too.

Annette Smile

Disc One of A Musical Reunion, my favorite of the two discs, covers the years 1959-61. It includes the aforementioned Top 40 hits, as well as lower-charting singles and worthy tunes from movie and TV soundtracks. This disc gives you a candid picture of teenage Pop during that time, far more accurate than you usually get from anthologies of big hits. Kicking off with the frantic "Tall Paul", it treats you to six more historic tracks from Annette, the actress's 1959 debut album. Why historic? This was "Bubblegum Rock," nearly a decade before that term was invented! Even more significant is the fact that Annette Funicello, a teenage girl, pioneered the sound. Ironically, we remember Bubblegum Rock today as a genre that was almost completely male-dominated.

Surprisingly, considering how little confidence she had in her vocal abilities, the best tracks on Disc One are the ballads. Annette's girlish winsomeness is a perfect fit for "O Dio Mio," the equally Italian "Mia Cara, Mi'Amore" and the Jimmie Dodd composition "Lonely Guitar", which was featured several times on the Disney TV series "Zorro". Her reading of "My Heart Became of Age" is just adequate, but when she sings "Please, Please, Signore" and the Spanish-language "¿Amo Qué Paso?" she brings believable passion and melancholy to the lyrics.

The disc's uptempo selections are a mixed bag. Among the highlights are "Wild Willie," the wickedly satirical "Jo-Jo the Dog-Faced Boy," and the Paul Anka-penned "It's Really Love, Dear" (which, minus the words, later morphed into the theme song of "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson"). There are even two tarantellas based on Italian folk melodies: "Dream Boy" and "Lucky, Lucky, Lucky Me." (I've heard Connie Francis's version of the latter tune, and hearing Miss Ann's rendition made me wonder what would've resulted if "big-sister" Connie and "kid-sister" Annette had ever gotten together on a single! Unfortunately, we'll never know.) These waxings, tinged with boppin' Rockabilly rhythms and tasty Neapolitan orchestrations, showcase the Disneyland Diva at her best.

Unfortunately, the disc's low points are the fake Hawaiian songs. Many Annette fans would disagree, but they absolutely made me cringe! They come dangerously close to kitsch. "Hawaiiannette," "Luau Cha-Cha-Chá," "Strummin' Song" (heard here in demo form) and even "Pineapple Princess" are much too cute for their own good. The material only improves when Annette dares to do an authentic Hawaiian tune, "Song of the Islands"; with Big Band accompaniment; she swings it, as if it were "Mack the Knife" and she were Bobby Darin (she imitates him right down to the staccato "Ho! Ho!" shouts). At least this number bears a faint resemblance to Rock 'n' Roll! The rest don't even come close.

True, the album that featured most of these tracks, Hawaiiannette, was a best-seller in 1960, but it hasn't aged well. If you enjoy records so campy they make your eyes roll, that collection certainly fits the bill; however, Annette was capable of more substantial music-making. Fortunately, she got the chance to rock out more convincingly in the second phase of her recording career.

Annette Apple

Disc Two covers that second phase, the years 1961-65. As noted before, it barely acknowledges the Avalon/Funicello beach movies; there's one track each from the soundtracks of Beach Party (the title song), Bikini Beach (the song "Bikini Beach Party"), Pajama Party ("Stuffed Animal" . . . so that's where you got the name, huh, Don?) (editor's note: Yup!) and Muscle Beach Party ("Surfer's Holiday"). What little surf music there is was well-chosen, though; these Bubblegum fusion efforts sound great. Annette's aggressive readings of uptempo surf and hot rod sides made a provocative contrast with her good girl image.

Again, though, the high points are her ballads. The lovely stereo remake of "How Will I Know My Love" (her first single), the sublime tango argentino "Canzone d'Amore" (performed with accordionist Gianni Mazzochi), and the demo version of "Just A Toy" (from Walt Disney's production of Babes In Toyland) prove that what Paul Anka told her was true: she did know how to sing! Not only that, she could sell a song.

On "The Monkey's Uncle", her silly but fabulous collaboration with The Beach Boys, La Funicello is the center of attention; try they do, but the Wilson brothers' famous harmonies can't upstage her. Miss Ann also holds her own with The Wellingtons, a more traditional harmony group (and singers of the delightful "Gilligan's Island" TV theme); they support her on "Merlin Jones, The Scrambled Egghead", a madcap single from a madcap 1963 movie. "The Parent Trap", a tune recorded to promote the hit 1961 Hayley Mills film vehicle, finds her sharing the vocalist's booth with Babes In Toyland co-star Tommy Sands and acquitting herself like a Broadway musical veteran.

Baroness of Bouffant

The Baroness of Bouffant also does a good job revamping familiar chart hits. Her version of "Music! Music! Music!" is far less saccharine than the 1950 Teresa Brewer original; the Bubblegum gloss she applies to Chubby Checker's 1961 smash "Let's Twist Again" does the tune good; and her quite adorable take on The Ska Kings' 1964 regional hit "Jamaica Ska" was novel enough to become an instant cult favorite. In 1987, Annette would reprise this proto-Reggae dance number for the soundtrack of Back To The Beach. Especially notable is her confident reading of "Blame It On the Bossa Nova" which, believe it or not, puts Eydie Gormé's performance to shame. That's mostly because Annette didn't deliberately sing it off-key, like Eydie did! Tutti Camarata deserves credit, too, though, for toning down the cacophonous Bob Mersey arrangement that clobbered the eardrums of Ms. Gormé's fans.

The finest uptempo track on Disc Two is "Walkin' And Talkin'", a vintage Bubblegum rocker that hails from a 1962 concept album called Teen Street; Miss Ann's performance really sparkles in a new, pristine stereo remix. This disc does have its share of clinkers, though: "The Rock and Roll Waltz", "The Flapper Flip," "The Rock-A-Cha" and . . . "Rock-A-Polka" ??? Yipe! These dated-sounding tracks from the 1962 Dance Annette collection try too hard to capitalize on dance crazes, or worse, create them out of whole cloth. "I Can't Do The Sum", for which La Funicello portrays a housewife trying in vain to balance her budget, is a competent reading of the Victor Herbert showtune, but taken out of its Babes In Toyland context, the song fails to impress. Obviously, the box set compilers included it to show how our favorite Mouseketeer was capable of handling "serious" music; but had they passed it over, few fans would've missed its absence. A couple more surf 'n' sand rave-ups would've substituted nicely in its place!

Annette's final single for Buena Vista Records in 1965 was another showtune called "Nowhere To But Up". It was the title song of a Broadway musical that had flopped a few years earlier; one of the composers, Stanley Ralph Ross, would go on to write scripts for the "Batman" and "Wonder Woman" TV series. This Phil Spector-ish beat ballad got a first-time stereo mix that was almost good enough to end the disc on . . . almost, but not quite. Instead, the disc and the box set close with a performance by Head Mouseketeer Jimmie Dodd: His 1956 single "Annette", written for and performed in a "Mickey Mouse Club" serial of the same title. This new version features overdubbed spoken tributes by Paul Anka, Shelley Fabares, Frankie Avalon, Tommy Sands and, at the very end, Mickey Mouse!

Anyone listening to them now might think these tributes were just a sweet gesture on the part of Annette's show business colleagues. Actually, they were expressions of love and concern for a woman who, everyone close to her knew, was fast succumbing to the ravages of multiple sclerosis. "Walkin' And Talkin'" is a painful song to hear today, because the Disneyland Diva has now completely lost the ability to walk and talk. The lady who deserves to be called Queen Mother of Bubblegum Rock (and who belongs in the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame) has gone into permanent seclusion; cared for 'round the clock by her devoted husband, Glen Holt, she's just a shadow of the vivacious actress, singer and Skippy Peanut Butter pitchwoman she once was.

That her friends cared enough to record what will ultimately be an audio kiss goodbye reinforces what I said at the beginning: Throughout her time in the public eye, Annette Funicello never stopped being the nicest of nice girls, even when not-so-nice people were satirizing and criticizing her for it. She earned the affection we all feel for her. Although her current circumstances are sad, she's still one of the best-loved Pop culture icons of the 1950's and '60s. Even though it's not a perfect compilation, Annette: A Musical Reunion contains many tuneful reasons why she deserves to be.

Annette Autograph

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