Sing. Sing a song. Sing out loud. Sing out strong.
Wait. On second thought, don't sing at all. For pity's sake, just go away.Leonard Nimoy probably should have gone away. William Shatner definitely should have gone away. Sebastian Cabot, Buddy Ebsen, Joe Pesci and, heaven help us, Watergate's Sen. Sam Ervin and "Tic Tac Dough's" Wink Martindale really should have gone away, too.
But they didn't. Instead, they decided to augment their sometimes soaring, sometimes flagging careers by recording what in some realms might be considered music.
"Golden Throats," an occasional series of compact discs from the folks at Rhino Records, where chestnuts are their business, resurrects these stars' questionable decisions like so many rotting graveyard corpses. In four agonizing CDs, "Golden Throats" compiles the most outlandish examples of celebrities' tuneful dilettantery and offers them up in hunks hefty enough to choke on.
"They never imagined we'd be digging this stuff up," says Gary Peterson, a Rhino producer who came up with the "Golden Throats" concept a decade ago with his then-partner, Pat Sierchio.
"Can you imagine being in the recording studio, seeing this going on?" says Sierchio.
It hurts to listen to Shatner, with his staccato voice, emoting the late, lamented John Lennon's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" or belting out a "Mr. Tambourine Man" that suggests he ran out of laxatives the night before. It hurts to hear the voice of Andy Griffith - the voice that comforted Opie and gently upbraided Barney Fife - drawling through the folk-tune-cum-rock-ballad "House of the Rising Sun."
It hurts to hear Nimoy, in full Ronald Reagan twang, nasaling out a decidedly un-Spockian "I Walk the Line." It hurts even to contemplate Ebsen singing "Your Cheatin' Heart." And Martindale doing a John Wayne-ish "Peace in the Valley"? We'll put an "X" in the middle square to block, Pilgrim.
What were these guys thinking? And what's with poet Rod McKuen's frenetic version of "Mule Train"? Isn't there a federal statute that bars anyone but Boxcar Willie from doing that?
"With some of them, you really have people who thought they were doing something profound. Shatner is one of those. Others did it because the producer told them to," says Barry Hansen, the rock folklorist better known as novelty-record advocate Dr. Demento.
The vocal train wrecks get more reality-defying - like a playlist from Radio Free Hades:
- Jack Palance huffing "The Green, Green Grass of Home."
- Mae West wheezing through "Day Tripper."
- Phyllis Diller sassing out "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" with a few one-liners thrown in between verses.
"Clearly somebody said, `Oh, Phyllis, you should do some rock 'n' roll,"' Dr. Demento says.
Ervin, the just-folks North Carolina lawmaker whose Senate Watergate Committee helped bring Nixon down, was sent into the studio by Columbia Records to capitalize on his "profile as a feed-store philosopher." What emerged was "Senator Sam at Home," an unholy amalgam of harmonica music, monologues about patriotism and, yes, his spoken cover of Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water":
"When yo' weary.
"When teahs are in yo' eyes.
"I will dry 'dem awl."
Granted, some selections aren't awful. The erstwhile Cassius Clay does a palatable "Stand by Me." Telly Savalas' rendition of "I Walk the Line" isn't utterly unlistenable (if you forget it's Kojak singing).
Not that these anomalies debuted as chart-toppers. When Shatner's 1968 album, "The Transformed Man," emerged ignobly from Decca's studios, it wasn't exactly greeted kindly. One critic said it "displays a blissful exuberance . . . unfathomable to the befuddled listener." Lamented another: Shatner "sounds in dire need of padded restraints."
There's a reason. "It was a pretty cheap thing to do - lease a couple tunes and bring the guy in," says Paul Mawhinney, operator of Record-Rama Sound Archives in Pittsburgh, a staggeringly comprehensive store and music library.
So why are these things popular now? They're funny, yes, but they're also vaguely subversive - toward both music and performer.
"It's sort of a rebellious act," says Marvin Pippert, who teaches a course on popular culture and rock 'n' roll at Roanoke College in Virginia. "It tears down celebrity."
Peterson and Sierchio began with a poor-taste contest in 1987, when Rhino was but a 10-employee operation. They'd try to outdo each other.
"We went to garage sales, and we kept finding more and more of these records. They were 25, 50 cents," says Sierchio, now an independent producer.
"They were just trying to expand their celebrity," Peterson says. "I'm sure they were dead serious. For the most part, the appeal is in the unintentional humor."
Adds Sierchio, "Our big sorrow here is that Shatner stopped at one album. He should have taken the cue from Nimoy and done three or four."Comment on this story
Understandably, it has required some careful explaining on Rhino's part to secure artists' permission. Merv Griffin and Theodore Bikel were pleased to be part of the irony; on the other hand, Peterson says, "I don't think Wink Martindale really understood the whole thing."
In these days of boomer nostalgia, ironic Gen-X retrocool and "Nick at Nite" predominance, the series sells well - "enough to keep on doing them," Peterson says. The latest: this year's "Golden Throats 4: Celebrities Butcher the Beatles."
And who can tell which of today's wheat will be tomorrow's inadvertent chaff? Will it be a David Hasselhoff? A John Tesh? Or something even more obscure lurking just beneath taste's surface, as yet undiscovered by the maestros of musical miscasting?
"This is something that's not done as much today. Modern celebrities may be a little more savvy," Dr. Demento says. But he's certain of one thing: "In 2010, some of this stuff that's being made now will sound funny to somebody."