Saturday, October 31, 2020

A ghost story for Halloween: "Bringing Mary Home" (1965)

 


The Country Gentlemen were a long-running and enduringly popular bluegrass group from the Washington DC area, but they made only one appearance on the Billboard country chart throughout their existence, and it was with a Halloween ghost story. The song was "Bringing Mary Home" on the independent Rebel Records label, and it debuted on the Billboard chart the day before Halloween in 1965.

The single didn't crack the country Top 40 but came close, peaking at #43. On the Cash Box country chart, the single didn't register at all. (In 1967, the Country Gentlemen's single "Baby Blue"—which didn't chart in Billboard—became a minor Cash Box entry, so in Cash Box, "Baby Blue" was the group's only hit. "Baby Blue" was actually a version of Bob Dylan's song "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue.")

"Bringing Mary Home" was written by John Duffy (of the Country Gentlemen), Joe Kingston, and Chaw Mank and told the story of a driver's encounter with a girl who turns out to be a ghost. The narrative is similar to Dickey Lee's "Laurie (Strange Things Happen)," which had been a Top 20 pop hit earlier in 1965. In that song, a boy meets a girl at a dance and falls in love with her, but when he follows her home and knocks on her door, her father tells the boy that Laurie died a year ago. 

"Bringing Mary Home" describes an encounter with a mysterious girl that comes to a similar conclusion, but the encounter occurs on the thirteenth anniversary of the girl's death, and the driver is the thirteenth person to bring Mary home. 


Here are the lyrics: 

I was driving down a lonely road on a dark and stormy night
When a little girl by the roadside showed up in my headlights
I stopped and she got in back and in a shaky tone
She said my name is Mary, please won't you take me home
She must have been so frightened all alone there in the night
There was something strange about her cause her face was deathly white
She sat so pale and quiet in the back seat all alone
I never will forget that night I took Mary home
I pulled into the driveway where she told me to go
Got out to help her from the car and opened up the door
But I just could not believe my eyes 'cause the back seat was bare
I looked all around the car but Mary wasn't there
A light shone from the porch, someone opened up the door
I asked about the little girl that I was looking for
Then the lady gently smiled and brushed a tear away
She said it sure was nice of you to go out of your way
But thirteen years ago today in a wreck just down the road
Our darling Mary lost her life and we miss her so
Oh, thank you for your trouble and the kindness you have shown
You're the thirteenth one who's been here bringing Mary home

The Country Gentlemen's record was covered by a few artists who issued competing single versions, but none was a chart hit. Covers included versions by Frankie Miller, Red Sovine, and Mac Wiseman. (Re-recordings of Wiseman's version are on YouTube.)


A number of artists recorded the song for albums around the same time, including Bill Clifton, Billy Edd Wheeler, the Willis Brothers, Don Reno, and Smiley Bates

Although the song was only a modest hit, it became a popular choice of repertoire for folk and country artists around the world in the following years. 

Later recordings of the song include a 1968 Canadian version by Dick Nolan, a 1970 version by Charlie Moore & the Dixie Partners, a 1970 Australian version by Bob Clark and a 1970 Irish version by Brendan Hutchinson, a 1971 Canadian version by Myrna Lorrie, a 1971 UK version by Penny Nolan, a 1975 version by Paul King & the Ohio River Boys, a 1976 UK version by Gerry Aiden, and a 1978 UK version by Brian Golbey and the Johns Family

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz's surprising contributions to music, 1977-1999



Earl Butz served as the Secretary of Agriculture for President Richard Nixon and President Gerald Ford, but if you hear his name today, it's probably in reference to an unsavory joke he made in 1976 that cost him his job. This joke, oddly enough, reverberated through the music scene for years afterward and culminated in Butz himself becoming a recording artist!

The story of Butz and his joke had weird connections to the music industry from the beginning. If you haven't heard the story before, this is it: 

After the 1976 Republican National Convention, Butz was on a return flight with Pat Boone, Sonny Bono, and John Dean, the latter of whom had been Nixon's White House Counsel, and after testifying in the Watergate hearings, became an author and political commentator.

In their conversation, Boone wondered aloud why Republicans, the party of Abraham Lincoln, were unable to attract more black voters, and Butz, who was notorious for his crude and racist humor, let loose with the reply that led to his resignation from political office. Repeating the punchline of an old joke, Butz said, "I'll tell you what the coloreds want. It's three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit."

Dean reported on the interaction afterward, and amid the ensuing outcry, Butz was forced to resign. Don't feel too bad for poor ol' Butz, though, because despite the controversy, he returned to his home state of Indiana and became dean emeritus of agriculture at Purdue University, began hosting a daily syndicated radio show about agriculture that aired on about 70 stations, served on the board of ConAgra as well as that of an insurance company and a real estate company, and became a popular speaker to civic groups and at banquets.

But back to Butz's joke. Exactly how old was this joke, and where did it come from? 

I'm not sure, but it was referenced in a 1972 article in Rolling Stone about The Rolling Stones in which novelist Terry Southern, who worked on the screenplay of the 1964 Stanley Kubrick film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is quoted. 

In the article, Southern says that when he first met actor Slim Pickens in 1963 during the shooting of the film, Southern asked Pickens if he was settled in, since this was Pickens' first trip to England, and Pickens replied, "What you know me. Gimme loose fittin’ shoes, a taght pussy, and a warm place to shit and I’m fahn…." In Pickens' telling, the joke was directed at himself and lacked the racial dimension of Butz's version. 

When Butz repeated this joke in 1976, it received a lot of coverage in the media. Robin Williams referenced it in his 1977 roast of Richard Pryor. It soon became a reference point in a couple different songs too.

One was a 1977 song by G.T. Walls that was released as a single in the Netherlands. It's from an album called Rhythm & Booze that includes songs and singing by Dutch music journalist and novelist Jip Golsteijn. Although the song was almost certainly inspired by the Butz controversy, given the timing, the song is in the spirit of Pickens' version of the joke, not Butz's. It's a wry commentary on modern existence in which the narrator concludes that a more enlightened life would consist of the titular "tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit."


More famously, Butz's punchline became the inspiration for the title song—not to mention the title itself—of the 1978 film Loose Shoes, later retitled Coming Attractions.

The song, sung by David Downing and filmed in sepia tone in the style of a 1930s Cab Calloway film, didn't just recycle the punchline for comedic effect—it explicitly commented on Butz and his racism. In the song, Downing ironically sings about how he'd trade all his accomplishments and his place in society for the creature comforts that Butz listed. "I'm not usually invited to a Republican bash," Downing concludes, "unless they have tight pussy, loose shoes, and a warm place to shit."

It's a brilliant dramatic reenactment of the joke that hilariously inventories obnoxious stereotypes of African-Americans. And as a musical adaptation of a joke, it beat Mr. Show's "The Joke: The Musical" to the punch by almost 20 years.



Loose Shoes was a film like Amazon Women on the Moon, Kentucky Fried Movie, The Groove Tube, and Tunnel Vision that presented a series of sketches, fake commercials, fake television-show trailers, and such. It featured appearances by past and future comedy icons such as Buddy Hackett and Bill Murray and a few musical figures like Van Dyke Parks and Jaye P. Morgan. The title song was even released as a single as "The Love Theme Loose Shoes."



But possibly the craziest part of this whole controversy was that Butz himself released a record in 1978. After returning to Indiana in disgrace following the "loose shoes" debacle, Butz recorded a single called "Farmers Are the Roots of America... Make No Mistake About It!" for a tiny label in Alexandria, Indiana, the home of Bill Gaither and his gospel family. 



The record was the brainchild of John Govro, who ran Pinebrook Studio in Alexandria, and Clarence Phairas, who had a company called Reality of Indiana, Inc. The duo composed both sides of the single, and Govro sang the B-side. Butz's side featured musical backing over which Butz delivered a recitation about "improving farming income, expanding farm export markets and minimizing federal encroachment into farming," according to an August 12, 1978, article in the Anderson Herald Bulletin that was headlined, "Earl Butz sets his caustic comments to music."

The record was released on August 17 at the Indiana State Fair, where it sold for $4. Govro said it would be sold through state fairs in addition to receiving national distribution, and he expected robust sales. "...[I]t could be any figure," he said. "We're open for millions. Why not?" He also said that they might record an entire album if the single became a big seller. Fans of dreary political recitations by crotchety old men will be disappointed to learn that this album never came to pass.



That was it for Butz and his joke for a while, but he lived to see at least one more musical reference to his most notorious contribution to public life: In 1999, Alex Chilton, the former lead singer of The Box Tops and Big Star, titled an album Loose Shoes and Tight Pussy. 

It is unknown whether or not Butz ever saw this album, but he could have, because he lived until 2008. In the years between his recording debut in 1978 and his death, Butz pled guilty to tax evasion and received yet more negative publicity in the 2007 documentary King Corn, which highlighted his role in increasing the amount of high-fructose corn syrup in American diets.




Saturday, August 29, 2020

Johnny Folkston's short recording career (1960)



Johnny Folkston released three-and-a-half records in 1960 and then seemed to disappear. None of his records had any chart success, but one of his songs, "April Fool," has a small following today, even though it wasn't very favorably reviewed upon its release. I'm a fan of this record, so today's Music Weird will cobble together whatever information I can find.

Johnny Folkston was the stage name of Olin Davis, Jr., and he was the first signing of Davco Records of Hilliard, Florida, in 1960. As for the origin of his show name, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the town of Folkston, Georgia, is only a 15-minute drive from Hilliard.

Folkston might have come to Davco's attention because of his debut recording for Jacksonville, Florida, label Magnum Records, "If I Had Never Met You." I haven't heard this record, and it doesn't appear to have gotten any press, but I'm assuming that it was released in early 1960 before Folkston started recording for Davco, because his releases for Davco continued through the end of that year.

An article in the Aug. 15, 1960, issue of Billboard about the founding of Davco identified the label's owners as Frank Walker, son Hampton J. Walker, nephew Wendell Walker, and Folkston himself, who was said to have a stake in the label.

The label's first release was Folkston's "Dance Little Leaves," a song Folkston co-wrote with Mae Boren Axton, the mother of Hoyt Axton and the composer of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel." "Dance Little Leaves" is the only composition for which Folkston has a writing credit in the BMI song publishing database. (He's not listed in the ASCAP or SESAC databases at all.)





The song's publisher was Dellwood Music, Mae Axton's music publishing company, which she named after Dellwood Avenue in Jacksonville, Florida, where she lived. Jacksonville is about 40 minutes from Hilliard. 

The song was recorded in Nashville at Bradley Studio with the Anita Kerr Singers and seasoned Nashville session players such as Floyd Cramer, Hank Garland, Kelso Harston, Junior Husky, and Buddy Harmon, who were billed as The Skyrockets. Producing were Teddy and Doyle Wilburn, AKA the Wilburn Brothers.

Cash Box, July 30, 1960
An ad for the record in Cash Box spelled Folkston's first name as "Jonny" and identified Jim Atkins, sales manager of Jacksonville's WAPE, as Folkston's personal manager.

The B-side was "You Said I'd Never Love Again." Cash Box gave the two sides B+ and B ratings, respectively, describing "Dance Little Leaves" as a "[c]harming ditty" and a "cheerful romantic ditty which deserves airtime." "You Said I'd Never Love Again" was described as a "country-sounding ballad."

Billboard listed "You'd Said I'd Never Love Again" as the top side, giving it a two-star review and criticizing Folkston's singing as being "in a rather flat style." Billboard also gave "Dance Little Leaves" a two-star rating and blandly described the tune as a "mild ditty done at a faster tempo."

Folkston's early labelmates on the Davco label were Merlene Garner and Jimmy Strickland, and all three were featured alongside each other in trade ads. Garner was a teenage protege of Mae Axton. Axton managed her and toured with her for a while and also co-wrote her first release for Davco, "You're It." Axton was also a co-writer of Strickland's first Davco release, "A Little Too Late," as well as a number of other songs throughout Davco's existence.

Folkston's second Davco record, "The Freezing Twist," was a dance tune that invited dancers to alternately twist and freeze, two dances that were introduced in 1958 with Hank Ballard & the Midnighters' "The Twist" and Tony & Joe's "The Freeze." Again, the song didn't make much of a splash, and in 1961 the Palais Royals would do Folkston one better by combining the twist, the freeze, and the boogie into "Twistin' Freeze Boogie." Here's an excerpt of Folkston's "The Freezing Twist":



Cash Box described "The Freezing Twist" as "teen-dance steps ... employed to good rock advantage," and praised the instrumentalists as a "pro sock combo." 

However, the other side, "April Fool," received only a C+ rating and was described as a "lost-love opus ... relayed with teen-fervor...." 

Billboard was less complimentary, giving "April Fool" a one-star review and writing that Folkston sang it in "so-so fashion." Billboard liked "The Freezing Twist," though, giving it three stars and praising it as "worth spins."

Despite the poor reviews, "April Fool" has been Folkston's most enduring tune, relatively speaking. It is the only one of his recordings to be anthologized, having been included on the German CD compilation Teen-Age Dreams Vol. 25. It is as of this writing one of only two Folkston songs on YouTube (not including my excerpt of "The Freezing Twist"), and has been uploaded twice. ("Dance Little Leaves" is the other one.) 

In my opinion, "April Fool" is a minor masterpiece of orchestrated pop-folk. Folkston's vocal on this record is appealingly nasal, and the string arrangement, vocal chorus, and minor-key melody are lovely. The song was written by Sid Kessel and Jimmy Rule, the latter of whom had enjoyed some earlier songwriting success with Kitty Wells' "Paying for That Back Street Affair," an answer song to Webb Pierce's "Back Street Affair" that became a Top 10 country hit in 1953. Kessel, coincidentally, also co-wrote a Top 10 country hit in 1953: Faron Young's "I Can't Wait (For the Sun to Go Down)." 





"April Fool" and "The Freezing Twist" bombed, though. I know of no station where either side of this record received significant airplay. 

It stands to reason that Folkston would've gotten some airplay in Jacksonville, but I haven't been able to find any radio surveys that list his recordings. His Davco labelmate Merlene Garner had two singles chart on Jacksonville, Florida, stations; "You're It" and "My Search Has Ended" both registered on WPDQ's weekly survey in late 1960. The other initial Davco signing, Jimmy Strickland, fared about the same as Folkston but went on to record for much longer, cutting singles into the early 1970s for other independent labels and even one single for Dot Records in 1966.

For Christmas 1960, Davco released a split single with two Christmas songs by different artists, one of whom was Folkston. The A side, "A Child's Christmas," was another Mae Axton composition sung by Folkston. The B-side, "Little White Deer," was recorded by an artist named Mike Flynn. Davco would continue to release records for a few more years, but Folkston had no further releases. 

In early 1961, Folkston performed for two nights in Fayetteville, Arkansas, at the Rockwood Supper Club. A newspaper advertisement ran for two days in the Fayetteville Northwest Arkansas Times and identified Folkston as an artist on Impecca Records, a label I can find no information about. The Rockwood Supper Club was a locally famous rockabilly club that booked performers such as Carl Perkins, Wanda Jackson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, Ronnie Hawkins, Scotty McKay, and Sid King & the Five Strings

That appears to be the end of Folkston's recording career, but Davco soldiered on, releasing singles until at least 1964. In August 1961, Cash Box reported that Davco had moved from Hilliard to a new office on 716 Bugbee in Jacksonville. The staff had changed somewhat; Hampton J. Walker was still the label's head, but Folkston was no longer in the mix.







Johnny Folkston discography

If I Had Never Met You / I Saw You Out Last Night – Magnum MAG-41860, 1960

Dance Little Leaves / You Said I'd Never Love Again – Davco DR-7479, 1960

The Freezing Twist / April Fool – Davco DR-101, 1960

A Child's Christmas / Little White Deer (recorded by Mike Flynn) – Davco 45-102, 1960

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Joe Dowell's brief stint with Monument Records (1966)





Joe Dowell's brief stint with Monument Records in 1966 was his last hurrah as a major recording artist. He had scored a handful of hits for Smash Records in the early '60s, including the #1 hit "Wooden Heart," but the label unceremoniously dropped him in 1963 and he wasn't immediately picked up by another label.

He didn't give up, though. In 1964 he released a folk album, Joe Dowell Sings Folk Songs, that was financed by the owner of a furniture store. The album wasn't widely available, but it was something, and it marked his transition from teen idol to folk singer, the latter of which was how he billed himself for years thereafter. He also started a half-hour radio show, Joe Dowell Sings, that aired on stations such as WTHI-AM in Terre Haute, Indiana, and KASI-AM in Ames, Iowa.

When country star Jim Reeves died in a plane crash that same year, Dowell arranged a meeting with RCA-Victor A&R executive Neely Plumb. Despite Joe's reputation as a teen idol, he had developed a smooth pop balladeer vocal style and a liking for folk music, and he wanted to record a tribute album to Reeves.

To Joe's horror and surprise, Plumb was outraged by the suggestion and accused Dowell of trying to capitalize on Reeves' death. When Joe told me this story 40 years later, he was still obviously wounded by Plumb's reaction and dismayed that his intentions had been so profoundly misunderstood. Joe felt sincerely moved to memorialize Reeves, but the timing, to Plumb, must have seemed opportunistic, considering that Dowell was without a label at that time.

Dowell's idea wasn't an original one, though. Many Jim Reeves tribute records were released within two years of Reeves' death, including ones by Del Martin (1964), Del Reeves, Faron Young, Kitty Wells, Joe Reagan, Bobby Bond, The Blue Boys (Reeves' band), and Dean Manuel.

Tribute singles appeared too, including Larry Cunningham's "Tribute to Jim Reeves" in 1964. In the decades that followed, artists continued to record tributes to Reeves, including Ronnie Milsap in 1981 and Charley Pride in 1991.

After Joe released his private-label folk album, two years would pass before he would make another commercial recording. In 1966 he finally got a new recording contract with Monument Records, Fred Foster's Nashville label (it was actually located in the Nashville suburb of Hendersonville) that released a variety of music but was strongly identified with country.

For the first time in his career, Dowell, who was a songwriter as well as a singer, was given the opportunity to release one of his own songs as a single A side. In the early '60s when he recorded for Smash, he was sometimes allowed to put his own songs on the B sides of singles, but until the Monument deal, his own recording of an original song had never received the promotional backing of a major record label.

The top side of his Monument single was "If I Could Find Out What Is Wrong," a song of peace that referenced the Vietnam War. Cash Box gave the single a favorable review:


Joe Dowell could stir lots of interest with this message filled tune that searches for the key to today's problems. This emotion provoking outing should get play via a variety of outlets.

If the song had a shortcoming, it was that it wasn't really a "message filled tune." It was a message song in search of a message. The lyrics stated that if "I could find out what was wrong, then I'd put it in my song," but it never identified what was wrong.



In that respect, "If I Could Find Out What Was Wrong" was similar to his 1973 novelty "Those Darn Inflation Blues"; Dowell was determined to stay in the middle of the road and avoid offending or upsetting anyone, so his topical songs were not very pointed except in their conviction to avoid taking a position. Still, Dowell's attempt to connect with protest folk and message-oriented music showed his willingness to stretch and keep up with the times.

The B side, "Indian Summer Days," was not only the better song of the two but also one of the best songs Dowell ever wrote. It's a light acoustic pop tune that Cash Box described as "pretty" and "touching." Looking back at Joe's compositions throughout his career, songs like this and "Just Love Me" and "Two Hearts" and "Jesus in the Midst of My Day" were his forte and rose to the top of the list of his finest works.



Unfortunately for Joe, "If I Could Find Out What Is Wrong" flopped and didn't get any airplay that I know of, but he continued to perform in the region around his home in Bloomington, Illinois. In March of 1966, he performed at an American Field Service event in Creston, Iowa. In June of that year he performed at the Amana Corporation's 47th anniversary celebration in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where some copies of Dowell's new Monument single were given out as prizes. In September he performed at the Great River Days festival in Muscatine, Iowa. At Christmastime he performed at a Teen Challenge program in South Bend, Indiana.

Also in 1966, Dowell was active in pitching his services as a singer of jingles and PSAs and recorded some songs for the National Wildlife Federation. His most unusual effort in this area was penning a campaign tune for Kansas gubernatorial candidate Robert Docking ("Our great future's door he's unlocking, vote for Docking, friend, and we'll walk through"). Docking won the election and served as governor of Kansas from 1967-1975. I haven't heard this song, but a campaign song is included among Docking's papers at the University of Kansas's Kenneth Spencer Research Library, and that might very well be an acetate or sheet music of Dowell's composition.

Dowell's performance schedule tapered off after 1966, but he continued to perform for years, although most of his appearances began to consist of company and church events and oddball things like a 1968 performance for the Findlay Rotary Club in Findlay, Ohio. One of his higher-profile gigs after 1966 was an appearance as the star attraction at a 1967 talent show in Colorado Springs that was hosted by radio and TV announcer George Fenneman.



Wednesday, July 29, 2020

10 songs about medication




A lot of songs are about illicit drugs, but far fewer are about medication. When popular music approaches the subject of medication, it usually expresses skepticism for medicine's efficacy or celebrates the recreational use and abuse of medication. 

Some brand-name drugs in particular seem to inspire songwriters. Prozac is the subject of songs by MXPX, Vanilla Ice, Five Foot Thick, and others. Valium is mentioned in numerous songs. The generic drug name morphine was adopted as the name of a band

Along similar lines as these songs about medication, Music Weird previously compiled songs from the early '50s about Hadacol, a notorious snake-oil remedy. Most of those songs are humorous ones that joke about the recreational use of Hadacol, which had a high alcohol content.

Without further ado, here are 10+ pill poppin', syrup sippin' songs about medication.


1. Ray Stevens – "Jeremiah Peabody's Polyunsaturated Quick-Dissolving Fast-Acting Pleasant-Tasting Green and Purple Pills"

This was Ray Stevens' first hit, reaching the Top 40 in 1961. It holds the record for having the second-longest song title ever to appear on the Billboard chart. (Really, I consider it to have the longest title, because the record for the longest title is held by the "Stars on 45" medley, which isn't the same kind of title—it's just a long list of songs.)





2. Rolling Stones – "Mother's Little Helper"

A song about a wife and mother who uses Valium to get through the day. 



3. Loretta Lynn – "The Pill"

A song about birth-control pills. 

 

4. D12 – "Purple Pills"

This song contains a list of various narcotics and medications, including Valium. A heavily censored "clean" version titled "Purple Hills" was also released. 


5. Lil Wyte – "Oxy Cotton"

This song is like The Pill Book set to music. Lots of name-brand pharmaceuticals are mentioned in this song about the recreational abuse of prescription and illicit drugs.





 
6. New York Dolls – "Pills"

In which a rock and roll nurse administers pills and injections that only make things worse. 


 
7. The Moles – "Tendrils and Paracetamol"

Paracetamol is the name for acetaminophen outside the US and Japan.




8. Lil' Wayne – "Pill Poppin' Animal"

Discusses pill popping and cough-syrup sipping in general but doesn't name any brands. 

 

9. Pink – "Just Like a Pill" (2001)

Mentions morphine and compares an ex-lover to bad medication.  

 

10. Soulja Boy's "Too Juiced Up," Future's "Dirty Sprite," and Three 6 Mafia's "Sippin' on Some Syrup" 

Three songs about "dirty Sprite" (also known as lean or purple drank), which is a cocktail of Sprite, hydrocodone and/or cough syrup with codeine, and sometimes Xanax (aprazolam). Those kids that break into your house and steal nothing but prescription medications are probably wanting to make this.



Sunday, June 28, 2020

Songs that were made into movies




Today's Music Weird is for anyone who ever heard a hit song and thought, "Man, that would make a great movie!"

Most hit songs that have been adapted into movies are narrative songs, but even narrative songs—many of which are only 3-4 minutes in length—contain too little story to fill a 90-minute film. In adapting a song to the silver screen, screenwriters usually elaborate on the story quite a bit.

In fleshing out the song, some movie adaptations drastically change and embellish the story. This makes sense from a dramatic standpoint, since watching a movie that mirrored a song's story without adding any details or surprises would be pretty dull. But the changes can also completely alter the character of the story, which can be unsatisfying for viewers whose expectations have been set by their familiarity with a beloved hit song. 

We often hear people say that a movie isn't as good as the book. If you were to watch all these movies, I think you'd agree that some of them aren't as good as the song.


Purple People Eater (1988)

When he wasn't acting in Western movies like High Noon, Sheb Wooley pursued a singing and songwriting career that occasionally yielded major hits. His biggest was "The Purple People Eater," a space-themed novelty that incorporated sped-up voices like those heard on The Chipmunks' records and David Seville's hit "Witch Doctor." Like "Witch Doctor," "The Purple People Eater" was a #1 hit on the pop chart in 1958.

Thirty years later, "The Purple People Eater" was adapted into the movie Purple People Eater, starring Ned Beatty and Shelley Winters and a lot of other surprising performers, including Sheb Wooley himself.  

The movie is pretty true to the song. In the song, the good-natured Purple People Eater (who eats only purple purple) comes to Earth to start a rock 'n' roll band. In the movie, the alien appears after a child plays the original Sheb Wooley record and then forms a band with the child. The added storyline is that they become successful and help save a retirement village.

The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia (1981)

"The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" was the biggest hit for actress and vocalist Vicki Lawrence, best known for her performances on The Carol Burnett Show and the spinoff sitcom Mama's Family

Written by songwriter Bobby Russell, who was married to Lawrence at the time, "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" tells an elaborate tale of a man who sets out to get revenge on the man who has been sleeping with his wife, finds the man already dead, and then is convicted of a murder he didn't commit. And that isn't even the whole story. Russell was ambivalent about the song, but Lawrence loved it, recorded it, and enjoyed a million-selling #1 hit.

If ever a song were ripe for a film adaptation, this was it. Kristy McNichol, Dennis Quaid, and Mark Hamill were cast in the lead roles, but the screenplay—despite being "based on" Russell's song—retained none of the original story elements apart from the general themes of jealousy, revenge, and murder. For the soundtrack, Tanya Tucker recorded a new version of the song that reflected the movie's plot. It was a song based on a movie based on a song.


Big Bad John (1990)

Like Purple People Eater, the movie Big Bad John appeared three decades after the hit that inspired it and starred Ned Beatty as well as the hit's original recording artist, in this case Jimmy Dean. By 1990, Dean was more strongly associated with the sausage that bore his name than with music, considering that he hadn't had a major country hit since the mid 1970s.

But "Big Bad John" had been a whopper of a hit. Topping the country, pop, and easy listening charts in 1961, the song also went to #2 on the UK pop chart. It inspired possibly more sequels and parodies than any other hit, as previously addressed on the Music Weird

In the film, Big John works and—spoiler alert—dies in the mine, just like in the song, but the rest of the story is grafted on. Dean's original version of the title song isn't even used in the movie, probably for licensing reasons. A new recording with the Charlie Daniels Band is included instead.


Ode to Billy Joe (1976)

Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billie Joe" (1967) was a #1 hit that generated a lot of discussion, because it contained several mysteries that the song doesn't resolve. Why did Billie Joe jump off the Tallahatchie bridge? What was the song's narrator doing with him on the bridge before he jumped, and what did they throw into the river? Listeners had to wait almost a decade to find out.

Max Baer Jr.—Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies—directed the film, which changes the spelling of Billie Joe's name and answers the questions that the song leaves hanging. The narrator (named Bobbie Lee Hartley in the movie) was with Billy Joe because they had a would-be romantic interlude in which he revealed he was gay; the item thrown from the bridge was the narrator's ragdoll, a symbol of her childhood; and Billy Joe committed suicide because he couldn't come to terms with his sexuality or didn't want to face the harsh realities of being gay in 1950s Mississippi.


The Gambler (1980)
Kenny Rogers' 1978 #1 hit "The Gambler" inspired not just one but five movies, all of which were made for TV. The first, The Gambler, aired in 1980 and was based on a story "suggested by a song by" Don Schlitz, the composer of "The Gambler." Kenny Rogers himself played the lead as Brady Hawkes, the gambler, as he would continue to do for all five movies, the last one of which was made in 1994. In the song, Rogers was the voice of the young narrator who receives the last words of wisdom from a dying old gambler, but in the movies, Rogers plays the gambler and does not die.

The song's story is pretty thin, so for the TV movie, the plot was fleshed out considerably, with the old gambler befriending and mentoring a young gambler. The two of them set off on a quest together and have various side quests along the way.



Harper Valley P.T.A. (1978)

Jeannie C. Riley's #1 hit "Harper Valley P.T.A." (1968), written by Tom T. Hall, told a humorous story about the hypocrisy of self-appointed moral authorities. It resonated with listeners in such a big way that it became the basis of a movie, a television series, and even an adult film (Vista Valley P.T.A.). In the 1978 movie, Barbara Eden plays Stella Johnson, the sexy target of community scorn. The soundtrack of the film features the original hit as well as a couple songs sung by Eden, who reprised her role as Stella in the subsequent television series.



Yellow Submarine (1968)
The Beatles' 1966 hit "Yellow Submarine" inspired this animated 1968 film. Although it featured several songs by the Beatles as well as the Beatles themselves in the final scene, the animated version of the band was voiced by actors.

The song tells the story of a group of friends who sail to a "sea of green" on the sun and live in happiness underwater in a yellow submarine. The movie depicts the Beatles as the friends who live in an underwater paradise and have a yellow submarine, but many other characters and plot elements are introduced, such as the band's conflict with the Blue Meanies, blue beings who hate music.


Take This Job and Shove It (1981)

Johnny Paycheck's #1 country hit "Take This Job and Shove It," written by David Allan Coe, became a rallying cry for disgruntled workers everywhere in 1977. It also inspired the 1981 film of the same name, in which both Paycheck and Coe appeared. If not for their presence in the film, I would consider this to be a movie that is simply titled after a song rather than based on one. But even with Paycheck and Coe in the picture, the connection between the song and screenplay is tenuous.

The song is written from the standpoint of a factory worker who no longer sees the point in working a job he hates after his woman leaves. Despite the rousing chorus, he doesn't actually quit his job—he only daydreams about what the bosses' reactions will be when he finally gets the nerve to quit. It's not much of a basis for a movie, and Coe doesn't receive a "based on" or "inspired by" credit for the film, which is a comedy about friends at a brewery who experience conflict when one becomes a manager. The song appears during a scene of domestic turmoil, which is the only part of the film that could be said to be based on the song.

I saw this movie at Muncie, Indiana's Ski-Hi Drive-In in 1981 as part of a double feature with The Last Chase


The Legend of Tom Dooley (1959)

The folk song "Tom Dooley" is based on the real-life murder of a woman named Laura Foster by a man named Tom Dula, a Confederate soldier who was convicted and hanged for the crime, although some question remained about his guilt. The Kingston Trio's revival of the song became a #1 hit in 1958, so a movie was rushed into production to bring the tragic story to the silver screen. That movie, The Legend of Tom Dooley, starred Michael Landon as Tom Dooley and Jo Morrow as Laura.

The song "Tom Dooley" offers only a skeleton of a story that presents a love triangle, a murder, and a man (Dooley) awaiting his execution. It doesn't come close to communicating the details of the actual murder on which it is based, and this vagueness allowed the film to stray even farther from the facts of the case and show Dooley as a purely sympathetic character and Laura's death as an accident. Reinforcing the film's direct connection to the song, the Kingston Trio's hit recording is featured in the film.

Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer (2000)

Elmo & Patsy's 1979 Christmas novelty "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" had to be sanitized for its adaptation into an animated family film, which Elmo narrates. In the original song, a drunken grandma is killed after being run over by Santa and his reindeer, a major plot point that was omitted from the cartoon. Although grandma does in fact get run over by a reindeer in the movie (twice!), she survives, and the rest of the story concerns conflict over a family store as well as a prize fruitcake recipe, amnesia, and the true meaning of Christmas.




Coward of the County (1981)

After Kenny RogersThe Gambler proved successful and won a couple Emmy awards, another one of Rogers' #1 hits, "Coward of the County" from 1979, was turned into yet another TV movie. This time the movie closely mirrored the song's story, in which Tommy, the mild-mannered "coward of the county," gets revenge on the men who raped his woman in a scenario that reminded me of the 1971 film Straw Dogs

In the song, Rogers is the narrator who tells Tommy's story, and similarly, in the movie he plays Tommy's uncle rather than the coward himself but gets top billing anyway.