He moved a giant mountain of whipped cream into Lake Michigan and had the Air Force drop a 10-ton maraschino cherry in the middle of it.
He turned "Heartbreak Hotel" into a massive echo torture chamber that eventually swallowed Elvis.
And he developed the first 6 1/2 -minute commercial, a mini-musical with three original songs and not a mention of the product until five minutes into the spot.
Stan Freberg has done a lot over the past 48 years, employing his passion for imaginative audio, popular culture dissection and truth-in-advertising send-ups. The essence of the satirist and adman anarchist prevails across "Tip of the Freberg," the boxed set of four CDs and video just released by Rhino Records with creative packaging featuring a slide-out top that reveals an actual X-ray of the Freberg skull (to document his, ahem, inner genius).
With Freberg's relatively low profile in recent years, there are audiences who may not realize the impact he had on recorded comedy and creative advertising. This is the place to discover Freberg's satiric hold on popular culture, particularly in the '50s and '60s when his singles and albums were consistently on the charts.
The amazing thing to note about Freberg's command was his attention to detail. In order to accurately zing a target, well-captured mimicry requires a well-defined palette. And Stan didn't hesitate in gathering the resources necessary to pull off the definitive send-up of a subject.
The Freberg formula was rooted in thinking big: huge production values complete with orchestra, chorus, stock company of intuitive comedic talent, and wide arsenal of multilayered sound patterns.
The unfailing Freberg ear for music -- dogged capturing of the foibles of a targeted genre through astute composing and arranging -- is ever-present.
Finally, there is the Freberg voice as centerpiece of most of the audio tracks: that smart-aleck, know-it-all, Poindexterish blend of dry, sarcastic wit, prodding and prodded by the tight ensemble of Daws Butler -- whose voice was to the Hanna-Barbera stable of cartoon characters what Mel Blanc's was to Warner Brothers' -- and June Foray, queen of Jay Ward's zany cartoon kingdom, along with character actors Peter Leeds and Buffalo's Jesse White.
The first two discs gather the classic record spoofs, beginning with the "John and Marsha" routine that young Stan developed when he was a member of Red Fox and his Musical Hounds, a "poor man's Spike Jones Orchestra," as he described the '40s act. It was a soap opera takeoff with Freberg providing two voices, simply emoting the names John and Marsha repeatedly. It proved to be his first hit on Capitol Records, where he proceeded to build a successful career on the charts targeting the hit parade.
Freberg took Spike Jones' "musical depreciation" to a more elaborate degree. No hiccuping to "Cocktails for Two" or other funny mouth sounds. All the targeted records had authentic musical detail in the production, with Frebergian twists woven throughout.
Johnnie Ray's 1952 hit "Cry" was reduced to a blubbering "Try." Les Paul's overdubbed patchwork hits with Mary Ford got lost to banjos in a dense jungle of multitracking. Lawrence Welk drifts out to sea as a result of an overworked bubble machine. The singers on "Sh-Boom" had rags stuffed in their mouths to emulate the mumbled vocals of '50s' R & B groups. And a sensitive bongo player keeps pushing away the "Day-O"-yelling Belafonte clone until he's outside the recording studio on "Banana Boat."
Arranger-conductor Billy May, who has done blaring charts for everyone from Frank Sinatra to Anita O'Day, neatly captures the blend of sly lyrical twists and familiar musical backgrounds.
But there are some May exceptions. When "St. George and the Dragonet" brought Sgt. Joe Friday and his monotone manner to the Middle Ages on a dragon-slaying case, Jack Webb lent Walter Schumann and his orchestra to Freberg for the "Dragnet" takeoff. After it reached No. 1 on the pop chart, the "Dum-de-dum-dum" composer was also involved in two sequels -- "Little Blue Riding Hood" ("red" was out in the McCarthy era) and "Christmas Dragnet" -- all heard here with the real musical stings from "Dragnet."
Two previously unreleased bits pop up on Disc 1, both suppressed at the time by the popularity and clout of Ed Sullivan and Arthur Godfrey. "That's Right, Arthur" is a particularly savage attack on the cold redhead infamous for firing his singer Julius LaRosa on the air. Freberg's "howaya, howaya" obliviousness as Godfrey, along with announcer Tony Marvin's yes-man loyalty, is a retro hoot.
The last four cuts on Disc 2 are from Freberg's 15-week radio series in 1958, the last big-time network radio comedy show. The centerpiece here is "Incident at Los Voraces," the 21-minute sketch that filled up most of Show No. 1. It tells of two fiercely competing hotels in Las Vegas that try to top each other in attractions, from flying in a piece of the Gaza Strip complete with soldiers in battle to the ultimate one-night-only smash -- the hydrogen bomb.
Just before show time, CBS censors considered the sketch too risky, so the bomb was changed to an earthquake and the Gaza Strip was stripped. Here, you get the full uncensored version.
Disc 3 spotlights Freberg's musical theater talents with excerpts from both volumes of his "Stan Freberg Presents the United States of America." While some of this is vaudeville-type banter framed in an off-kilter historical perspective, much of it is a delightful musical array, with Freberg's gift for snappy lyrics and creative rhyme approaching the verve of a Frank Loesser. The musical argument between White as King Ferdinand and Freberg as Columbus on the flat vs. round world issue is a harmonic riot.
Even Volume 2, released in 1996, retains the wacky charm of the first. Freberg is funny as songwriter Stephen Foster facing a creative block as familiar Foster lyrical references zooming past his head in conversation go unnoticed. Tyne Daly's Barbara Fritchie as a reluctant target for the enemy is a scream.
Though just recently released, the material likely was written in the early '60s when producer David Merrick was interested in staging Freberg's hysterical pageant on Broadway. Though the venture was aborted, two more volumes worth of U.S. history had supposedly been written but never recorded.
This is noted because later Freberg is not prime Freberg, as Disc 4 reveals. Age can be a blunting instrument for a satirist. Freberg's 60-second syndicated radio commentaries over the past few years sound flat. The excerpts from his 1992 NPR/BBC radio show are strained, especially in the sci-fi byplay with author Ray Bradbury in a tired tweak of "The Twilight Zone." Nepotism tarnishes Freberg's reputation for astute voice casting in the sketches that feature his daughter, who sounds as if she's reading her material, particularly in a forced bit as "Pop Faithcorn, trendsetter." And his son's music video work on Freberg's latest tune, "The Conspiraski Theory" (linking Monica Lewinsky, Ted Kaczynski and Tara Lipinski in some sort of rhyming conspiracy) is on the level of a local cable-access production.
However, Disc 4 and the video do shine a needed light on Freberg's commercial trailblazing.
This may be the first boxed set to feature commercials, but these productions are worth repeated play:
The jingle that emphasizes the fact that 95 percent of the country is unaware of Chun King chow mein.
The Sunsweet Marches On campaign that introduced pitted prunes with the progressive thought, "Today the pits . . . tomorrow the wrinkles."
Playing jazz on rubber bands for a responsive General Motors radio spot.
The Busby Berkeley-style production number with tap dancer Ann Miller and chorus on top of a giant Heinz Great American Soups can.
The Lone Ranger and Tonto (Clayton Moore and Jay Silverheels) showing up at a cocktail party to the tune of the "William Tell Overture" with Jeno's Pizza Rolls.
The spots for the Radio Advertising Bureau on the medium's power to stretch the imagination (Lake Michigan as giant sundae bowl) and Sarah Vaughn breezing through the Freberg lyrics to "Who Listens to Radio?" backed by a Quincy Jones-led band.
Radio or TV, the Freberg power to give commercials a truth-and-dare quality remains unsurpassed.
Perhaps his most persuasive, albeit unsuccessful, pitch was a campaign urging support for a legislative bill to end the Vietnam War in 1971. The two spots here for the McGovern-Hatfield Amendment are powerful. In one, a hard-sell computer salesman tries to sell the Vietnamatic 3 tabulator to the Pentagon for more efficient casualty counting. ("You got your single-leg amputee count, double, three-out-of-four-limb combo, left ears for April, and, you wanna count noses, you got a much more accurate profile.")
Freberg's hard-hitting spots were meant to "resensitize" an apathetic public to the Vietnam debacle. Alas, the bill lost by three votes, missing the opportunity to bring the troops home two years sooner.
Whether to make pointed statements for a cause, to deflate some realm of pop culture, or to rise above the moneychangers in the marketing temple, Freberg has hit the bull's-eye more often than not. This boxed set of 126 examples is a testament of his high percentage.
Tip of the Freberg
A four-disc set documenting the life and lunacy of advertising's great satirist, in Top 40 records and commercials that are pop culture classics.
Rhino Records, currently available.