Saturday, April 13, 2024

Peel Back and See – The Genius of The Banana Splits

The Banana Splits were born, predictably, in 1967, perhaps the most important year in the 60s for music, with game-changing releases by The Doors, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Beatles, Small Faces, The Monkees and thousands of others. Neon colours, a logo you could copy onto your pencil case, psychedelia and catchy melodies were rife, and animation giants, Hannah-Barbera, wanted in on the action. In fact, Hannah-Barbera had already successfully plundered existing pop culture with great haste and success: Jackie Gleason’s sitcom, ‘The Honeymooners’ became ‘The Flintstones’ and barely escaped a lawsuit, such was its similarity;  ‘Top Cat’ took Phil Silver’s act to the dustbins; ‘The Jetsons’ spun out yet more mileage from ‘The Honeymooners’ and threw in the obsession for exploring space for good measure, and that’s before you consider in Abbott and Costello and voice artists doing impersonations of everyone from Bob Lahr to Jerry Lewis. They’d also got immediately catchy theme tunes down to a fine art.

Make no mistake, The Banana Splits was carefully choreographed. Again taking its cue from current media faves (this time ‘Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In’), the only real change from its initial conception was a name change from ‘The Banana Bunch’.  Hannah and Barbera employed Sid and Marty Krofft to bring to life a Bubblegum Rock band and their chaotic variety show. A brief aside on Bubblegum Rock – the genre can provoke alarmingly violent reactions from connoisseurs who are strict on what can earn such a badge of distinction. The key years are 1967-1972, and stylistically songs are faux-naive 2-and-a-bit-minute bops which have none of the attitude of Rock but usually at least as much sex. Producers Jerry Kasenetz and Jeffry Katz created a production line of acts never intended to survive the ages, only to produce earworms of extraordinary girth. It appealed to kids and teens but also to adults with a healthy appreciation of irony, something which The Banana Splits tapped straight into.

The Kroffts were Canadian brothers who had found a niche for puppetry which appealed to both adults and children. Though performing regularly in their homeland, they had only featured in America on the debut of Dean Martin’s show before Hannah and Barbera came calling. Their style was already outlandishly large and colourful, so the resulting characters did little to break the mould. Assumed by many to be an anthropomorphic version of The Monkees (Mickey Dolenz and Michael Nesmith, at least), the four band members are:

Fleegle

A lisping beagle with his tongue permanently hanging out. Band leader/guitar. Delivers his bon mots from a podium and keeps order via a gavel. Fleegle was performed on-screen by Jeff Winkless (1968). Winkless was one of three brothers playing the band members and appeared in many films and TV shows, though more often as a voice artist. He can be spotted in ‘Soylent Green’ (1973); ‘The Nest’ (1989) and ‘Saturday the 14th Strikes Back’ (1988), whilst his voice can be heard in a wide range of dubbed anime films, including ‘Wicked City’ (1987),  ‘Vampire Hunter D’ and the ‘Crying Freeman’ series.  Fleegle’s voice was supplied by Paul Winchell, an American ventriloquist who transferred his skills off-screen (you can see how this might be an easier gig). Winchell also voiced, among dozens of others, Tigger from ‘Winnie the Pooh’, Dick Dastardly, and Clyde from the Ant Hill Mob.

Bingo – A nasal-voiced, accident-prone, perma-grinning, bright orange ape wearing white sunglasses and a yellow vest. Drums. Despite the Ringo-sounding name, he has a passing resemblance to Mickey Dolenz of The Monkees. Performed on-screen by Terence H. Winkless, who can proudly boast of many achievements since: he co-wrote the screenplay to Joe Dante’s ‘The Howling’ (1980); directed ‘The Nest’ (1989), and every episode of  ‘Mighty Morphin Power Rangers’ from 1993-19995.  Bingo was voiced by Daws Butler, an impressionist who overcame his shyness by voicing characters off-camera. Butler was a giant in the field, and aside from his big-hitting characters –  Yogi Bear; Huckleberry Hound; Snagglepuss – also brought to life such icons as Hair Bear (of Bunch fame); The Funky Phantom, and Peter Perfect, Red Max, Rock Slag, Rufus Ruffcut, and Sgt. Blast from ‘The Wacky Races’.

Drooper – A lanky, Southern-accented red-nosed lion wearing orange sunglasses. Six-stringed bassist. The hippy of the group, he was generally attempting to get out of doing any work. Performed on-screen by Dan Owen (the third Winkless brother, now transitioned and named Anne Withrow) who has since worked as a technician on films such as ‘Hard Target’ (1993) and ‘True Lies’ (1994), though spent most of their career working at the U.S Geological Survey. Drooper was voiced by Allan Melvin,  best known as Sam the butcher in ‘The Brady Bunch’, but also lending his vocal skills to lesser characters in ‘Scooby Doo’, ‘Fangface’ and ‘Captain Caveman’, amongst many others.

Snorky – A shaggy-haired elephant wearing pink sunglasses who communicates through a series of honks. Keyboards – regularly the scapegoat for anything that goes wrong. Performed on-screen by James Dove and Robert Towers (not at the same time!). Dove was replaced, allegedly due to a clash with the Winkless brothers, with Towers using a honking elephant as a springboard to a career as both an on-screen and voice actor. Offscreen he’s appeared in ‘Pole Position’ and ‘The Real Ghostbusters’ (as Walter Peck), whereas he can be seen in all his glory in such diverse productions as Karg, one of Skeletor’s minions in ‘Masters of the Universe (1987); ‘Angel’; ‘Frasier’; and one of the incarnations of Benjamin in 2008’s ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’.

However, the genius of The Banana Splits wasn’t, with all due respect, the gags and physical gestures. The music can legitimately be classed as Bubblegum, but it’s crafted with such a deft touch that it demands closer inspection. Here, we will finally try to reveal the talent behind some of the great songs from any television show.

“The Tra La La Song (One Banana, Two Banana)”

It would be reasonable to say, if you know only one of The Banana Splits’ songs, it’s this one. For contractual reasons, the song was written by the show’s music directors, Mark Barkan and Ritchie Adams. In reality, it was composed by none other than…yet another Winkless! This time it was the brothers’ father, N.B.Winkless Jr, a top advertising copywriter with only rudimentary musical training. It was he, with his connection to one of the show’s sponsors, Kellogg’s, that helped his sons take three of the starring roles, but the most memorable he kept for himself. To augment his one-finger piano playing and lyrics, the theme was honed to perfection by Hoyt Curtin, a legendary composer for cartoons (‘Top Cat’; ‘The Flintstones’; ‘Hong Kong Phooey’; ‘Battle of the Planets’; ‘Godzilla’ – the list is endless) and Hannah-Barbera’s first musical director.

The session musicians on the track remain unknown, sadly, though it is believed the vocals are by the aforementioned Barkan and Adams. The producer on this and all the other tracks was David Mook, the composer and lyricist best known for the lyrics to ‘Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?”

Originally released in 1968 by Decca Records on the album titled ‘We’re the Banana Splits’, the single release peaked at 96 on the Billboard Hot 100 on February 8th, 1969. In the UK, it achieved a remarkable top ten placing, though the number 7 single was by The Dickies, not day-glo animals. IN 1995, Liz Phair and Material Issue combined to record a cover of the track which appeared on the highly-recommended compilation, ‘Saturday Morning: Cartoons’ Greatest Hits’. This is particularly notable as it features a verse which only otherwise appeared on the 7″ single release.

“We’re the Banana Splits”

Understandably pencil-marked at the show’s theme tune, it was ultimately relegated due to not being as catchy as ‘The Tra La La Song’. The song was written by Adams and Tony Powers (real name Howard Stanley Puris) who started his career writing soul tracks in the Brill Building, before losing his mojo for commercial music in the 1970s and issuing a self-pressed album of his own, ‘Home-Made (My Real Name Is Harvey Stanley Puris)’, a strange psych-folk protest LP.

He later re-embraced the mainstream by working on music videos and writing tracks which would ultimately be recorded by, of all bands, Kiss – ‘Odyssey’ and ‘The Oath’. He also stretched his acting legs in the TV shows, ‘The Equalizer’ and the ‘King of Queens’ and minor roles in major features – ‘Goodfellas’ (1990) and ‘Catch Me If You Can’ (2002). Adams and Barkan once more provided the song’s vocals.

“I’m Gonna Find a Cave”

One of the Banana Splits’ greatest tracks, this screaming garage rocker was written in 1965 by Jimmy Radcliffe and Buddy Scott. Known as “The Soul of The Brill Building Sound”, Radcliffe was both a seasoned songwriter and singer, starting his career as a jingle-writer and producer, the first African -American to do so. Working on approximately 200 radio and TV commercials in an 8-year period beginning in 1965, he was a popular choice, not only for his musical proficiency but also his ability to work at tremendous speed and deliver a particularly soulful vocal. He also wrote many tracks for other recording artists, Tom Jones and Ray Charles among them. Radcliffe was the first to sing the song, ‘Pretty Flamingo’ and was a much-desired session vocalist but is known amongst Northern Soul fans as the singer of ‘Long After Tonight is All Over’, one of the “3 before 8” songs which closed proceedings at Wigan Casino Allnighters. Sadly, he did not live long enough to see himself become a hero to hundreds of talc-covered soul fans in Northern England, dying aged only 36 from kidney problems. Buddy Scott (not to be confused with the blues guitarist) was Radcliffe’s writing partner on the majority of their output and continues to write and compose in the Florida area.

Backed by unnamed session musicians, it was not Radcliffe who Sang ‘I’m Gonna Find a Cave’ but Ricky Lancelotti, usually performing as Rick Lancelot, a New Jersey native who had released several singles in the early 60s on RCA to no avail. Hoping to break into cartoon voice-overs, his involved in television only progressed as far as two shows – resident studio singer on ‘Shindig!’, the music variety show, and The Banana Splits, where he contributed to songs which benefitted from his powerful, jagged, gruff soul vocals.  He is best known as one of the vocalists used by Frank Zappa, appearing on the albums ‘Over-Nite Sensation’, ‘The Lost Episodes’ and ‘Läther’. He is feted by Zappa fanatics as being the voice of Zomby Woof in the track of the same name. Sadly, Lancelot’s life-long battles with drink and drugs made Zappa, at best, suspicious of him and the relationship broke down completely when Lancelot said he was unable to join Zappa’s band on tour. Lancelot died in 1980 after a car crash under the influence of drugs.

The track had a significant life both before and after its time in the Banana spotlight. It was first recorded by soul singer, Charlie Starr in 1966, before a strangely laid-back, echoey surf version by Billie Lee Riley the same year. Before the year was out there was a Mod version (by Miki Dallon) a Freakbeat version (by The Sorrows) and an R&B take by Jimmy Powell and the Dimensions, though a cover by Uruguayan Psych-Beat band, Los Bulldogs, was probably the pick of the pack. The song found a new audience a mere 20 years later when a cover by Tacoma garage band, Girl Trouble was included on the seminal ‘Sub Pop 200’ compilation. In 2011, a campaign to make ‘Gonna Find A Cave’ the international “Man Cave” anthem was started by Jimmy Radcliffe’s son, though the success of this is debatable.

“This Spot”

Written by Don Lauren and Jay Fishman. Little is recorded about Lauren’s career, with his few songwriting credits almost exclusively released to an unresponsive public in Sweden. He can, however, lay claim to writing ‘Candy’, a catchy psych-pop song recorded by New Generation, a short-lived Swedish band featuring one of Joan Collins’ future husbands Peter Holm. Fishman had a slightly longer career in music, owner of short-lived publishers and labels in the late 50s and early 60s. His writing credits include Billy Meshel‘s jaunty ‘The Love Song Of A. Wilbur Meshel’; the creepy psych of The Scene’s ‘Scenes (From Another World’), and ‘Raise the Level of Your Conscious Mind’, a gently proggy single released by the band If on Island Records.

“Doin’ the Banana Split”

Famously, an early writing credit by future Sultan of Sex, Barry White. White had been a recording artist as early as 1960, though his debut solo record wasn’t released until 1966. ‘Doin’ the Banana Split’ features White’s name on the album release of the Banana Splits, ‘We’re the Banana Splits’. The vocals, very obviously, aren’t White’s, but those of Rick Lancelot.

“Wait Til Tomorrow”

A Barkan/Adams creation, sung by Barkan.

“You’re the Lovin’ End”

Written by Al Kooper and Irwin Levine. Levine was still honing his skills in advance of his most famous song, ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree’, a worldwide smash in 1973. Kooper was (and is) one of America’s most respected session musicians, playing the organ on Bob Dylan‘s, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’; piano and French horn on Rolling Stones’, ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ (and across their ‘Let it Bleed’ album); piano on The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s ‘Electric Ladyland’ album;  organ on The Who’s ‘The Who Sell Out’, as well as countless appearances on records by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bo Diddley, Green on Red and Roy Orbison. Alongside records under his own name, he was also a founder member of the band, Blood, Sweat and Tears. Lancelot, again, provides the song’s vocals.

“Toy Piano Melody” (instrumental)

Written by Roy Alfred, a conveyer belt writer of songs and music from the early 1940s, through to the 60s and beyond. He had a penchant for novelty lyrics, though this didn’t put off performers of his songs, including Nat King Cole, Chubby Checker and Ray Charles.

“In New Orleans”

Written by Splits’ musical director, Aaron Schroeder, alongside Bob Ronga and Billy Barberis – ‘Lipstick on Your Collar’ composer, George Goehring has also been mentioned as a co-composer. Ronga had proved his guitar and bass skills in the Brill Building and later worked alongside Schroeder in his publishing company. He worked in England for a time, joining the Fairport Convention splinter group, Plainsong before returning to America and living out his remaining days as a session musician. Barberis worked from the early 60s, writing many tracks but never quite managing to snare a real hit. His best-known track is perhaps, ‘I’m Lost Without You’, recorded by Billy Fury in 1964. Vocals are, most likely, from Barkan.

“Two-Ton Tessie”

Another curveball, with this track being written by Gene Pitney (alongside Aaron Schroeder). Pitney’s rise to global fame was kick-started by signing to Schroeder’s Musicor label in 1961. ‘Two-Ton Tessie’ was an early product of this relationship and was first recorded by Johnny Rebb in 1961, followed by Bobby Pendrick in 1962. By the time it had appeared on television being performed by The Banana Splits, Pitney was already a superstar, with a string of worldwide hits and an Academy Award nomination for the track, ‘Town Without Pity’.

“Long Live Love”

Written by Aaron Schroeder, Bobby Ronga and George Goehring. No doubt that Goehring was involved this time.

“Don’t Go Away – Go-Go Girl”

A Scott/Radcliffe composition which featured on the album release but never featured on the TV show.

“Pretty Painted Carousel”

Written by Aaron Schroeder, Billy Barberis and Bobby Ronga, this was the B-side to the ‘Long Live Love’ single release.

“I Enjoy Being a Boy (In Love With You)”

Written by Bubblegum legend, Joey Levine. Levine had mastered the double-entendre and sly glance approach to songwriting, scoring huge hits with ‘Yummy, Yummy, Yummy’ by Ohio Express; ‘Run, Run, Run’ by The Third Rail and ‘Quick Joey Small’ by Kasenetz-Katz Singing Orchestral Circus. He produced further records for 1910 Fruitgum Company and many others before branching out into a hugely successful career in writing jingles for adverts. Levine also sang the track, his voice being immediately recognisable. The song’s immediately catchy melody lent itself to future use – of particular note is They Might Be Giants‘ embracing of the track, injecting it with both a slightly dancey beat and their own out-of-kilter delivery. Also successful is The Queers’ 1998 cover version released on Lookout! Records.

“It’s a Good Day for a Parade”

Joey Levine both sang and composed the track.

“Soul”

Written by Carl Spencer and Jimmy Radcliffe. The touch of Spencer appeared on tracks by artists including Johnny Nash, Gene Pitney and Gene Chandler.

A limited edition 7″ yellow vinyl compilation of bands saluting the genius of The Banana Splits was released on Skull Duggery Records in 1996 and features The Mr T Experience, The Young Fresh Fellows, Boris the Sprinkler and The Vindictives.

Daz Lawrence 

You can enjoy The Banana Splits visually at your convenience on DVD. What times we live in!

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