Friday, August 22, 2014

When TV Stars Sing, Part One

I know what you’re thinking. This is going to be a succession of cheap shots at actors who try to parlay their television stardom into a singing career, regardless of actual singing ability. If that’s the only reason you’re here…you won’t be disappointed.

But there’s more to the story than ridiculing people more popular and successful than us, even when they deserve it. The records in question were not all disastrous – it’s just that the disastrous ones are more fun to talk about. Some are quite good. Some, in fact, are excellent.

Let’s bypass the two most obvious selections – The Monkees and The Partridge Family, as both shows revolved around professional musical groups, and a certain level of proficiency was required to sell that premise. In both cases that level was not just met but greatly exceeded. The Brady Bunch, however, is still fair game.

Even with a two-part entry I won’t be able to cover them all, so I tried to single out the ones that were the most interesting, or the most infamous. 

Let’s start at the very beginning, which as we learned in The Sound of Music, is a very good place to start.

Ricky Nelson
Not only was Ricky Nelson the first TV star to embark upon a successful music career, he remains the standard by which all similar crossover attempts are measured. He was also television’s first teen idol, establishing the template for everyone from Johnny Crawford to Davy Jones to Zac Efron. 

The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet debuted in 1952, with the Nelson family – Ozzie, Harriet and sons David and Ricky – all playing themselves. Rick formed a band in a 1956 episode, and in 1957 he performed a cover of Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” on the show. The original was still in the top 40, but that didn’t stop Ricky’s version from reaching #4 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Viewers watched Nelson’s performances on TV and then bought his albums, and those who heard him sing on the radio would then tune into the series. That’s the kind of cross-promotional win-win that makes studios, networks, agents and managers salivate.

Ricky Nelson had 35 top-40 hits between 1957 and 1972, including such pop classics as “Hello Mary Lou,” “Travelin’ Man,” “It’s Late” and “Poor Little Fool.” He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. 

If you find it hard to believe that the cast of Bonanza recorded an album, you would be right – they actually recorded two albums. Both Ponderosa Party Time and Christmas on the Ponderosa featured Lorne Greene, Dan Blocker, Pernell Roberts and Michael Landon attempting four-part harmony and missing by a mile. But there’s a good-natured spirit to their attempts that comes through, so at least you know they had fun trying. 

The Donna Reed Show
Sometimes ego propels actors into the music business, but sometimes they are just following orders.

Tony Owen, the producer of The Donna Reed Show (and Donna’s husband) attempted to replicate Ricky Nelson’s crossover success by having series stars Shelley Fabares and Paul Petersen record songs that would be incorporated into upcoming episodes. Both rejected the idea, professing their lack of musical ability with refreshing candor.

But Owen was adamant, so in 1962 Fabares recorded the teenage love anthem “Johnny Angel.” Darlene Love sang backup and Glen Campbell played guitar. The song was #1 for two weeks and stayed in the top 5 for two months. She put out new music for the next three years, but nothing else clicked. 

Petersen also made the charts, first with “She Can’t Find Her Keys” and then with the top 10 hit “My Dad,” which no classic TV fan can remember without getting a little misty.

The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis
On “Songs by Dwayne Hickman” (1960), the Dobie Gillis star “presents his outlook on life for the first time in song,” according to the liner notes. The trouble is that Hickman sounded eerily like Perry Como, which is probably not the cutting edge sound that Capitol Records wanted from TV’s quintessential teenager. Compare his rendition of “Don’t Send a Rabbit” to Como’s “Round and Round” and you’ll be amazed at the similarities. 

Dr. Kildare/ Ben Casey
The stars of the top two medical shows of the 1960s both attempted music careers, but only Richard Chamberlain (Kildare) has any measurable success. He hit the top 10 with a cover of his show’s theme song in 1962, and returned to the top 40 with his interpretations of Elvis’s “Love Me Tender” and The Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do is Dream.”

Hey, this is easy, thought Ben Casey star Vince Edwards. But his first album debuted in 1962 and died on the table. 

Car 54, Where Are You?
Joe E. Ross, who played Officer Gunther Toody opposite Fred Gwynne’s Officer Francis Muldoon, recorded Love Songs From a Cop in 1963. “His singing is not about to give Frank Sinatra concern,” read the liner notes in the understatement of the millennium. But series fans will smile when he incorporates Toody’s trademark “Woo! Woo!” exclamation in his cover of “Ma, She’s Makin’ Eyes at Me.”

The Rifleman
Johnny Crawford, who played the son of homesteader Lucas McCain (Chuck Connors) in The Rifleman, parlayed his teen idol fame into a  brief moment of pop stardom.  As is usually the case with these crossovers, his first release was the most successful – the single “Cindy’s Birthday” reached #8 in 1962. The hits and misses all sound more or less the same – syrupy arrangements meant to hide Crawford’s quivery, high-pitched warblings. His rending of Richie Valens’ “Donna” is particularly painful. Despite the fact that he only had four top-40 hits, he somehow managed to put out two Greatest Hits albums. 

The Beverly Hillbillies
The 1965 Beverly Hillbillies album is an odd mix of music and comedy that features all of the series’ stars, including Raymond Bailey (Mr. Drysdale) and Nancy Kulp (Miss Hathaway) who duet on a little ditty called “Love of Money.” Donna Douglas (Elly Mae) sings about her “critters,” and Irene Ryan (Granny) croons the tender “Vittles.” Saving grace – the show’s theme, performed by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.

The Patty Duke Show
Patty Duke’s self-titled 1965 album, the first of six (!), produced two chart singles, “Say Something Funny” and the top-10 “Don’t Just Stand There.” What I like about her performances is that, unlike other neophyte singers who adopt a “just follow the melody and try to stay on pitch” approach, Patty barrels into the lyrics like it’s karaoke night at a Brooklyn Heights bar, and she’s on her third Long Island Iced Tea. 

The Flying Nun
“Sally Field is many things, including a typical American girl and a marvelous young actress, but she never, in her wildest dreams, thought that she would become a singer.” So begin the liner notes of Sally Field – Star of The Flying Nun. And Sally was right – she never did become a singer. Music supervisor Lester Sill ( a one-time Monkees producer) does his best to make the tracks palatable, usually by boosting Field’s vocals with a Grand Canyon’s worth of echo, and then burying her in a blanket of backup singers. 

The Andy Griffith Show
Remember Golden Throats from Rhino Records? They were collections of hilariously bad recordings by celebrity singers, and one of them included Andy Griffith’s frightening take on “House of the Rising Sun.” That performance suggests it would be wise to steer clear of Themes and Laughs from The Andy Griffith Show (1961). 

Surprisingly, though, the record makes for very pleasant, nostalgic listening, particularly Griffith’s finger-snapping cover of the show’s theme song, “The Fishin’ Hole.” Still sadly unreleased – Francis Bavier’s pioneering gangsta rap masterpiece, “Fight the Power Aunt Bea.” 

Next Week: The Brady Bunch, Hogan’s Heroes, Star Trek, The Odd Couple, Laverne & Shirley and more!


  1. Neither Rick Springfield nor Jack Wagner are fair game, right? No offense, Mr. Hofstede, but you failed to mention members of the "77 Sunset Strip" cast. Edd Byrnes, Roger Smith, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. all released records during the show's run. However, only Mr. Byrnes found some commercial success as a recording artist.

  2. Even with a second installment I know I won't get to all of them. But maybe there will be a part 3 somewhere down the road.