Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Hey You Guys! It’s the 20 Best Songs From The Electric Company


As I’ve been reading since the age of four, I don’t need to watch The Electric Company for the lessons it imparts. But I own both of the Shout! Factory “Best of” DVD sets, as well as several more episodes taped off the Noggin network, and revisit all of them often. 



The show brings me back to my childhood, but beyond that nostalgic quality it also boasts a remarkably versatile and talented cast, sketches that are still funny and wonderful original music. As with its PBS predecessor, Sesame Street, The Electric Company had access to truly gifted composers, such as Joe Raposo, Tom Lehrer, Gary William Friedman and Clark Gesner.  The songs may have been specifically written to illustrate the sound of whatever letter combination or grammar lesson was being taught, but it’s remarkable how they accomplished this with such cleverness, catchiness and humor.

Let’s make like the show’s disc jockey Mel Mounds, with a top 20 countdown of the groovy sounds from this Emmy-winning classic. Unfortunately I couldn't find clips of all of them - which I'm going to blame on J. Arthur Crank. I just wish this was a top 21 list so I could include “Pete’s Pickle.”

20. The Corner
The Short Circus was The Electric Company house band, so you’ll see them more than once in this ranking – but not as often as you might think. A lot of their songs (“Boom,” “Stop,” “Jelly Belly”) were ok as filler but not anything that would catch your ear on the radio. “The Corner” is one of the exceptions, with its lilting “la la” earworm and a lyric about the everyday fun experiences of being a kid.  



19. The Barley Farmers’ Bar
This country duet featuring Skip Hinnant and Judy Graubart appeared in a Hee Haw style skit about a farmer whose “mind is far from farmin’ when he’s arm-in-arm with Carmen.” Even in the less PC ‘70s a reference to a bar on a children’s show was iffy, so Skip adds the quick aside, “Milk bar, that is.”

18. That’s All
This was the last song in the last segment of the last episode of the series. The entire cast (except Rita Moreno) perform together, with some soft shoe dance interludes, and then take a final curtain call as one closing lesson is taught about the word “all.”

We're glad you came to call
We really had a ball
The show is done
We hate to run
We're sorry, but that's all

17. The ‘Ly’ Song
You really need the animated visuals to fully appreciate this Tom Lehrer tune about how to change adjectives into adverbs.  Why couldn’t this lesson be taught in school in a way that was this clever and entertaining? 



16. Nitty Gritty
Hattie Winston channels her inner Chaka Kahn for this R&B rhyming song. It should be penalized for support from the least interesting incarnation of the Short Circus, but Hattie’s soulful lead vocal makes it impossible to leave this one off the list. 



15. The Sign Song
Clark Gesner’s best-remembered EC contributions were several singalong songs that accompanied a montage of signs from around New York City. People who haven’t heard this in 30 years may instantly recall the words when they see it again. 



14. Whimper and Whine
In addition to teaching the “wh” sound, this song performed by June Angela and Stephen Gustafson also warns kids not to be spoiled brats, or they might wind up without any friends. 



13. Randy
Yes, it’s three adult men singing a love song to a teenage girl. Get your mind out of the gutter and just enjoy Skip Hinnant’s smooth baritone on this ‘50s inspired ballad. No clip available, sadly, but it's on the first "Best of" DVD set.

12. Shoo Shoo Sunshine
Even the Children’s Television Workshop gets the blues. Morgan Freeman sings this downbeat saga of a guy at the train station, preparing to leave town after his girl left him. “Don’t show me no more light – till I find my baby, who’s drifted out of sight.”



11. Kelly and Buddy
One of the show’s recurring bits was the throwback musical performances on a vaudeville-style stage. “Kelly and Buddy” was the best duet between Stephen Gustafson and the Annette Funicello of the Short Circus, Bayn Johnson. Their voices always blended well. 



10. I Was Young Once Too
How many shows aimed at children just learning to read would introduce a wistful song (by Joe Raposo) about an old man reflecting on his long-lost youth? That little crack in Jim Boyd’s voice on the last line can reduce a grown man to tears. 



9. “Hard, Hard, Hard”
Given the Gold records in her future, it’s surprising that Irene Cara received so few lead vocals in her Short Circus days. This song offers an early glimpse into the belter that would top the hot 100 with the title tracks from Fame and Flashdance



8. Grease
Not the Frankie Valli song from the film, of course, but one of the energetic 1960s-doo-wop rockers performed by “Phyllis and the Pharaohs,” a.k.a Rita Moreno, backed by Morgan Freeman, Skip Hinnant, Jim Boyd and Luis Avalos. This one just edges out “Phantom of Love.” 



7. Snore, Sniff and Sneeze
Even if Tom Lehrer didn’t perform this tune, about a wolf who likes to “do things that begin with ‘sn,’” you’d know he wrote it from the sardonic wordplay of the lyrics: “Whenever I have a few moments to spend, I can snoop on a neighbor, or snitch on a friend.”



6. My Name is Kathy
This is the EC song that sounds most like the time it was written. The Short Circus skip the orange and yellow costumes and fake instrument playing to sit in a circle and trade verses about who they are and what they like to do. It has a laid-back, folk hippie vibe, like the music in Free to Be…You and Me. The Barbara Eden cameo at the end adds a perfect grace note to a lovely song.

5. N Apostrophe T
Jim Boyd and Lee Chamberlin play kids as they duet on this Tom Lehrer ode to contractions. Imagine trying to write a two-minute song incorporating “isn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t, didn’t, can’t, won’t, haven’t” and several others into the words. You "couldn’t" do it better than this. 



4. Punctuation
“They are the little marks that use their influence…to help a sentence make more sense.” I can’t think of a cooler way to learn about periods, commas, question marks and exclamation points than this song, performed with Latin flair by Rita Moreno and in calypso style by Lee Chamberlin.

3. Lick a Lolly
This jet-propelled song with the tongue-twister lyric sounds like a lost track from Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound glory days. I’d love to know how many takes they needed to get through it. The vocalists seem out of breath at the end and I don’t blame them. 



2. The Menu Song
There’s a lot of Tom Lehrer on this list, and that’s because he’s a genius. This is my favorite of his Electric Company contributions, for the escalating insanity of the menu selections, and for the performances by Morgan Freeman and Rita Moreno. Let's watch two Oscar winners at work.



1. The Sweet, Sweet Sway
The Short Circus started our top 20 and they take the top spot as well. From the way the song is presented you suspect the show knew they had something special in this Joe Raposo gem: Mel Mounds does a live intro of the group, who emerge from behind an elegant blue curtain. Other EC cast members are also there to watch the performance and try the dance. The lead vocal is by Denise Nickerson of Dark Shadows and Willy Wonka fame. If they had put “The Sweet, Sweet Sway” out as a single, it might have outsold Sesame Street’s “Rubber Duckie.” 



5 comments:

  1. I used to watch this show. I already knew rita Moreno was an Oscar winn before the show debut. who knew that Irene cara, and morgan freeman would win Oscars as well. johnny regan.somerville, nj

    ReplyDelete
  2. A song that should be in an honorable mention category would be "Today Is My Favorite Day" where Kelly (Bayn Johnson) sings about that that day was her birthday.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You know - you're absolutely right. That clip isn't in the Shout sets or any of the Noggin episodes I managed to tape. I wish I had recalled it sooner.

      Delete
    2. My favorite Tom Lehrer song, which certainly deserved an honorable mention, is "Silent E":
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_gHPaVxkdPA

      Delete
    3. "Today is my Favorite Day" and "Freeze", both sung by Kelly. Rock and Roll!

      Delete