Saturday, November 2, 2019

Carol Channing's inexplicable country music phase

In my mind, the only person less likely to attempt a country music career than Carol Channing was Phyllis Diller, who wasn't really a singer but nevertheless recorded an album of songs that included an oddly compelling rendition of the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction."

Channing, on the other hand, was not only a singer but a gold-selling, Grammy award-winning one. She was most identified with the songs "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" and "Hello Dolly," both of which occupy the same position on the country-music spectrum as the music of Liberace.

Nevertheless, Billboard reported in early 1972 that Nashville's Mega Records had signed Carol Channing and that she would "seek to incorporate the Nashville sound" into her recordings for the label. The article also said that Channing would use some of this new countrified material in her one-woman show.

Buck Owens had recorded a successful album in Las Vegas a few years earlier (The Buck Owens Show: Big in Vegas), so maybe the diamond-encrusted audience for Vegas and Broadway glitz and glamour was hungry for a hint of ersatz barnyard flavor.

Mega's roster was a mixture of contemporary country artists (Sammi Smith, Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan) and veteran performers like Benny Goodman and Fred Waring, and Channing fit in more with the latter category than the former.

Despite some initial publicity, Mega's interest in developing Channing as a country warbler was short-lived, because only one single resulted: A remake of Mickey Newbury's "How I Love Them Old Songs," which had been a Top 20 country hit for honky-tonker Carl Smith just two years earlier.

Channing's country record received positive reviews but didn't chart, so Mega dropped her. 
C&W (1977)

Plantation Records saw some potential in Channing's rustic transformation, because a few years later, Channing was back in a Nashville studio, recording duets with old-timers of 1950s and 1960s country music for the label that had scored a #1 hit on both the pop and country charts with Jeannie C. Riley's "Harper Valley PTA."

Channing's first Plantation release was the 1977 platter C&W, an entire album of duets with honky-tonk superstar Webb Pierce, whose highly distinctive voice blended with Channing's highly distinctive voice like oil and water. 

In a clever touch, the album cover reversed Channing and Pierce's images by showing her in western wear and him in a tux, and the title could stand for both "Carol and Webb" and "country and western."

Plantation released a single from the album, "Got You On My Mind," which didn't chart.

Original Country Cast (1978)
Plantation must have been pleased with its first experiment with Channing, because in 1978, the label released another album, which paired Channing with a whole raft of country artists. That album, Carol Channing and Her Country Friends: Original Country Cast, featured Channing and guests—Jimmy C. Newman, Hank Locklin, Rita Remington, Rufus Thibodeaux, and Gordon Terry—on a mixed bag of old and new songs that included a remake of Channing's signature tune "Hello Dolly," a remake of Locklin's hit "We're Gonna Go Fishin'," and a group vocal performance of "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."

The album is identified as a cast recording, but it appears to only mimic a stage show; the recordings are all studio recordings, and I haven't seen any evidence that the group took this "show" on the road. Still, it's a fairly lavish production for Plantation, who gave it some extra flair by pressing the album on green vinyl.

One of Channing's duets with Jimmy C. Newman, "Louisiana Cajun Rock Band," was released as a single, and although it's a step up in listenability from her single with Webb Pierce, it still didn't chart.

To promote the album, Channing appeared on Marty Robbins' television show Spotlight and sang a couple numbers with him. 

That appearance bookended Channing's 1970s stint as a sort-of country artist. Her foray into country music must not have amounted to much in her own assessment of her career, because she doesn't even mention it in her 2002 memoir Just Lucky I Guess.

Even though Channing was an old-timer herself when she recorded these duets with veteran country artists in the 1970s, she still had over 40 years of life left in her. When she died earlier this year (2019), she was a couple weeks shy of her 98th birthday!