Originally posted February 13, 2009
American fascination with the Kennedy family is an on-going thing, as demonstrated by the recent kerfuffle about Caroline Kennedy and the seat in the U.S. Senate held most recently by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and occupied in the 1960s by Caroline’s uncle, Robert F. Kennedy.
That fascination may have started with Joseph Kennedy, the patriarch of the Kennedy clan, long before World War II. I don’t know. But I do know from my own memory that it burst into full bloom in 1960 with the election of John F. Kennedy as U.S. president. And that fascination meant media saturation, such as it was at the time: The Kennedys were the focal point of almost everything.
These days, the scrutiny given both public figures and private figures who happen to fall into the spotlight is more intense than ever. For some, the spotlight endures. For others, the light moves on, and the individuals so lighted can then move away from the public’s center of attention, most of them – I would guess – happy to do so.
But it seems that the Kennedys, having sought the nation’s attention long ago, have – as a family – never left that bright light. And, in the early years, some of the more frivolous things resulting from that bright light were a few records.
During John Kennedy’s last year as president, one of the best-selling records in the country was The First Family, a comedy record by Vaughn Meader, whose talents included the ability to do an uncanny impersonation of the president. The LP was released during the first week of December 1962, went to No. 1 in its second week, stayed atop the album chart for twelve weeks and won the Grammy for the Album of the Year. A second album went to No. 4.
Meader wasn’t the only comedian to spoof John Kennedy. In my small collection of 45s, I have a record by Joel Langram titled “I Really Wanted To Be A ‘Singar’” (Rori 714) that gives JFK and his family an affectionate nudge in the ribs.
But the jokes were no longer funny, of course, after John Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963.
(I’ve never bothered to find out if it’s true, but I’ve heard for years that caustic comedian Lenny Bruce opened his show on the evening of John Kennedy’s death with the words, “Poor Vaughn Meader!”)
After JFK’s death, the Kennedy fascination settled on his widow and his two brothers, and that eventually resulted in the artifact that spurred these thoughts. In 1967, Senator Robert Kennedy became the object of “Wild Thing,” a record that featured comedian Bill Minkin impersonating the senator. With nods to Kennedy’s brother, fellow Senator Edward Kennedy, and to his family, the single – credited to “Senator Bobby” – chronicles a the recording of a record aimed at making the senator more interesting to young people.
The record, of course, is a cover of the Troggs’ “Wild Thing,” which was a No. 1 hit in 1966. Senator Bobby’s version of “Wild Thing” peaked at No. 20 in early February of 1967 and was still at that spot a week later, forty-two years ago this week. The record was actually pretty funny at the time, and then – after RFK was assassinated in a little more than a year – not funny at all for quite some time. Those of us of a certain age, I would guess, hear it these days with a sad smile.
A Six-Pack From The Charts
(Billboard Hot 100, February 11, 1967)
“Wild Thing” by Senator Bobby, Parkway 127 (No. 20)
“Are You Lonely For Me” by Freddie Scott, Shout 207 (No. 45)
“The Dis-Adadvantages of You” by the Brass Ring featuring Phil Bodner, Dunhill 4065 (No. 64)
“California Nights” by Lesley Gore, Mercury 72649 (No. 71)
“Sit Down, I Think I Love You” by the Mojo Men, Reprise 0539 (No. 80)
“Feel So Bad” by Little Milton, Checker 1162 (No. 91)
There may have been other records spoofing the Kennedys. Those mentioned are just the three in my collection. Additionally, I know that other, similar, records were issued poking fun at other presidents and their families.
“Are You Lonely For Me” was one of two records by Freddie Scott to make the Top 40 chart: In 1963, “Hey Girl” went to No. 10. “Are You Lonely For Me” reached No. 39 at the end of February. Scott’s muscular performance of a very good song did, however, top the R&B chart for four weeks.
There are plenty of examples of an advertising jingle or song being turned into a hit: One example that comes to mind in an instant is “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing (In Perfect Harmony),” a 1972 hit for the Hillside Singers and the New Seekers. That song began life in a television commercial for Coca-Cola. “The Dis-Advantages of You” started its life as the backing music for a series of commercials advertising a new and longer cigarette. The commercial showed such disadvantages as getting one’s cigarette caught in an elevator door and so on. The music proved so popular that “The Dis-Advantages of You” was released as a single and on an album of similar music. The single went to No. 36 and was the second Top 40 hit for the Brass Ring, which was basically a group of studio musicians pulled together by saxophonist Phil Bodnar. (The first hit was “The Phoenix Love Theme [Senza Fine]” from the film, The Flight of the Phoenix. That single went to No. 32 in 1966.)
“California Nights” was the last hit for Lesley Gore, whose Top 40 run started in 1963 with “It’s My Party” going to No. 1. “California Nights,” which to me sounds very much like the folk-pop/pop-rock of the Mamas & the Papas from the same time, went to No. 16, the eleventh and last Top 40 hit for Gore.
“Sit Down, I Think I Love You,” a cover of the Stephen Stills song recorded by the Buffalo Springfield, was the only Top 40 hit for the Mojo Men, a San Francisco group. The record went to No. 36 and came to some prominence again in 1972 when Elektra Records legend Jac Holzman and music historian Lenny Kay chose the single as one of twenty-seven tracks on Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From the First Psychedelic Era 1965-1968, a collection that’s been the model for many anthologies in the ensuing thirty-seven years.
Little Milton, a Mississippi native who recorded for Chess, Stax and several other labels during the course of a long career, made the Top 40 only once: In 1965, with “We’re Gonna Make It,” a record that went to No. 25 on the pop chart but topped the R&B chart for three weeks. “Feel So Bad” never went higher than No. 91, but it’s a heckuva record.