Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Neat, Sweet, Groovy Songs: The Remarkable Story of Josie and the Pussycats

To the casual viewer of baby boom-era cartoons, Josie and the Pussycats was just one more Scooby-Doo facsimile to emerge from the Hanna-Barbera factory.

But despite a fleeting 16-episode run the series was actually a trailblazer on multiple fronts, and has maintained a high degree of name recognition more than 40 years after its debut, certainly more so than similar H-B series like Jabber Jaw or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kids

Prominent female vocal groups date back to the 1950s, but girls that sang and played their own instruments? That was unprecedented in 1970 when the series debuted. Before the Go-Gos, the Bangles or the Runaways there was the Pussycats, feminist pop-rock pioneers.

Also rarely seen in 1970 – a cartoon series with an African-American character. Valerie banged the tambourines in Josie’s power trio, and was never depicted as a stereotype. In fact, she was the smartest member of the gang.

As any comic book fan knows, Josie and her Pussycats predate the Hanna-Barbera series by nearly a decade. They were created by Dan DeCarlo, one of the most talented artists of comics’ Golden Age. Though artists were not always credited by publishers back then, fans of Archie books always knew DeCarlo’ s pencils on sight, because no one ever drew a more enticing Betty and Veronica.

Josie first appeared in Archie’s Pals & Gals #23, published in 1962. DeCarlo modeled her on his wife Josette, who sported the same red bouffant hairstyle with blue hair bow. Josie was spun off into her own series the following year, joined by Melody and many of the other characters featured in the animated series.

For the first few years they were just another group of Riverdale teenagers. But then Dan and Josette DeCarlo went on a cruise to the West Indies, and one night there was a costume party. Dan dressed like a big game hunter, and Josette dressed like a cat with a leopard skin top, feline ears and a tail. Inspiration struck, and DeCarlo added a new element to the comic, renamed Josie and the Pussycats.

When it was adapted for television, the result was more Hanna-Barbera than Archie. Alan was a buffer version of Fred from Scooby-Doo. Alexander, voiced by Casey Kasem, was just as cowardly as Shaggy but with slightly better fashion sense. The stories likewise were right out of the “meddlin’ kids” playbook with a chase scene climax set to music, a custom that began in the second season of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?

The difference was that in Josie the songs were much more than bland bubblegum filler. Since this would be a series about a rock band, the studio opted to take the musical component seriously. 

Janet Waldo (Josie), Jackie Joseph (Melody) and Barbara Pariot (Valerie) supplied the Pussycats’ voices for the series. But for the songs professional singers were recruited, starting with Patrice Holloway, a talented R&B vocalist and the sister of Motown star Brenda Holloway. As a teenager, Patrice co-wrote the Blood, Sweat & Tears hit “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy.” As a Pussycat, she sang lead on many of the group’s best songs, including “Every Beat of My Heart.” 

The other singing Pussycats were voiced by Cathy Dougher, a classically-trained vocalist, and Cherie Moor, who later joined another sexy trio under her married name of Cheryl Ladd.

The original plan was to include a live-action performance with Holloway, Dougher and Moor at the end of each series episode. How that might have changed the popularity or legacy of the show is anyone’s guess. However, they did appear on the cover of the group’s one and only album, released in 1970 and now going for big bucks on eBay.

Personally I think it’s a pretty terrific record (the songs have also been released on a Rhino CD, but that too is now out of print and pretty expensive). There’s a nice mix of the original songs featured on the show, with first-rate covers of The Carpenters’ “Close to You,” Bread’s “It Don’t Matter to Me,” Bobby Sherman’s “La La La” and the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”

My favorite Josie and The Pussycats song is “Inside, Outside, Upside Down,” a sunburst of glistening pop which I first owned on a 45 record, after sending in box tops from Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes. Loved it then, love it now.

Following the original series, Hanna-Barbera created Josie and the Pussycats in Outer Space, a passable but pale imitation of its predecessor. By then the music was no longer a priority, and it showed. The animated characters made one other appearance, in an episode of The New Scooby-Doo Movies.

But that still wasn’t the end of the Pussycats tail…er, tale. In 1995, Juliana Hatfield and Belly lead singer Tanya Donelly covered the Josie theme on the CD Saturday Morning. “I can’t say that Josie and the Pussycats is the reason I picked up a guitar,” Donelly said, “but I think the show contributed some Saturday morning positive reinforcement to a generation of potential female musicians.”

And in 2001, a film version was released starring Rachael Leigh Cook as Josie, Rosario Dawson as Valerie and Tara Reid as Melody. It flopped, but give it a chance if you missed it. It’s actually a pretty smart satire on the commercialization of music, and songs like “3 Small Words” are worthy editions to the Pussycats legacy.

Josie and the Pussycats make me happy. And that’s what comfort TV is supposed to do. Rock on, cats.

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