“We weren’t a friggin’ band! We were a TV show about a band.”
- Monkee Davy Jones in a 2006 Pop Culture Addict Interview
Ricky Nelson started it all. When a girl friend of the teenage co-star of The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet swooned over rock n’ roll sensation Elvis Presley, the green eyed monster bit Ricky and he believed that he could do whatever Elvis did. Bringing his problem to his father, former bandleader Ozzie Nelson, Ricky told his Dad that he wanted to perform a rock number on their show. Ozzie was delighted and by years end Ricky made his musical debut with a cover of Fat Domino’s “I’m Walkin’.” The song was a hit, and soon Ricky Nelson was not only a TV star, but a hit recording artist, performing cover songs and new material at the end of each and every episode of Ozzie and Harriet. Thus, long before MTV was even an idea, a new standard plot device was created and TV would be changed forever – the morphing of rock n’ roll and television. However, Ozzie and Harriet was a unique program. It was an odd predecessor of the reality show in which whatever was actually going on in the Nelson household at the time would be scripted into a half an hour show so TV audiences could get a peek into the Nelson household. Thus, in order for the combination of rock n’ roll and TV to continue producers had to hope that their cast members could find the musician that lived deep into their soul as they created their own fictional rock bands as part of the show. Thus was created the “made for TV band.” To this day the introduction of musical groups created by our favorite TV characters has been a constant reoccurring phenomenon since the golden age of television. Often the groups only stay around for one episode. In other cases the fictional rock band is the premise of the whole show. Some of these groups have even broken outside of the boundaries of TV fantasy and have made hit records, sold albums and even toured world wide. Other groups have been forgotten quicker then they appeared. However, the musical episodes of our favorite TV programs have stayed with us, be it for better or for worse, and have become some of the most endearing and memorable moments of the pop culture journey, while chronicling the course of popular musical trends and movements.
Join us as we outline the journey of the fictional TV music groups as we look at the best, the worst, the most memorable, the most unique and the darn right bizarre that TV has had to offer as
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT PRESENTS
TV TUNES: MADE FOR TV BANDS THAT ROCKED OUR TELEVISION SETS
PART ONE: 1951 TO 1979
Now outlining the history of the made for TV band is a far larger task then one might think. Literally hundreds of TV programs have done this at one time or another. Thus, in order to reduce the number of bands that I’d use in this article I decided to stay in a number of different parameters. First, all the bands had to be fictional or made for TV. Artists who just took their existing musical career and played themselves, even if in made up situations, such as Ricky Nelson or DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince would be exempt. However, the Monkees will be included because although the Monkees played themselves, they were brought together to create a made for TV band. Next, either a regular cast member, or a reoccurring cast member of a TV program had to be a member of the band. As a result many great bands became exempt, such as The Red Coats from The Dick Van Dyke Show and Scum of the Earth from WKRP in Cincinnati. Third, the group must perform in front of an audience. Plenty of TV programs have musical numbers, but it was important that the groups actually perform in front of an audience instead of just doing a musical number for the sake of the TV audience. Fourthly I chose to stick to episodic television, which means I won’t be including sketch comedy. This made great groups like Sid Caeser’s The Haircuts, Saturday Night Live’s legendary Blues Brothers and SCTV’s Five Neat Guys exempt from the project. I have also not included any animated bands in this article. I’ll chronicle their stories in a future article. Finally I just wanted to write about made for TV groups that had a story to tell. Ready to hear their stories? Well grab your back stage pass and let’s get ready to rock out with some of televisions greatest icons.
The Ricky Ricardo Orchestra (I Love Lucy) Long before Ricky Nelson strummed a guitar on Ozzie and Harriet, and before rock and roll even existed, Desi Arnaz was drumming funky beats. Is it any surprise that I Love Lucy would be the show to originally introduce the concept of the reoccurring fictional musical group? I mean I Love Lucy was the true innovator of the sit-com. It was the first to use the three camera set-up, was the first sit-com to be taped instead of performed live, and it introduced standard sit-com plots that are being used to this day. It was also the first sit-com to use a musician as a character, and his band as a regular plot device. Of course, the character was Lucy’s Cuban bandleader husband Ricky Ricardo, played by Lucille Ball’s real life husband, and real life Cuban band leader, Desi Arnaz. Yeah, there may have been a bit of typecasting going on there.
However, despite popular belief, The Ricky Ricardo Orchestra was not the Desi Arnaz Orchestra. In fact, as a result of I Love Lucy the Desi Arnaz Orchestra actually broke up!
Desi Arnaz had formed his band in 1935, a year after he arrived in America from his native Cuba. In 1939 The Desi Arnaz Orchestra had it’s big break when they were cast as part of a Broadway production called Too Many Girls, and a year later, when the play was turned into the film, the band was brought to Hollywood to reprise their role, and fate turned one of the most important cards in pop culture history. It was on the set of Too Many Girls that Desi Arnaz met Lucille Ball. The pair was married in 1940, and they continued their separate careers paths. However, just as all show business couple’s who spend time apart, Desi and Lucy’s marriage began to feel strain while Desi toured with the band. You see, Desi had a weakness for liquor and women, and Lucy knew this. So, when Lucy’s popular radio show My Favorite Husband was to be brought to television Lucy lobbied for her favorite husband to be cast opposite of her where she could keep an eye on him. It took a lot of time to convince the CBS executives that it was a good idea, but the premise of the show was retooled and instead of being about a banker and his wife, the show was turned into a situation comedy about a struggling Cuban bandleader and his wife who longed to be in show business despite the fact that she had no talent. Sure, it sounds like a bit of a dumb idea for a sit-com but audiences everywhere fell in love with I Love Lucy, and the series is still one of the most popular sit-coms in television history to this day.
Soon there wasn’t a man, woman or child who didn’t know of The Ricky Ricardo Orchestra and their brand of Cuban music. Ricky and his orchestra played numbers like “Cuban Pete,” “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” and, of course their signature song, “Babalu,” at the Tropicana Night Club. “But why can’t I be in the show Ricky?” became a popular catch phrase on the program as Lucy begged Ricky to be allowed to perform alongside him. However, despite Ricky’s protests, Lucy would eventually scheme her way into the numbers and television magic would happen. So you’d think now that Desi Arnaz had an outlet to showcase his music and his real life orchestra that they’d be on top of the world. Well in reality just the opposite happened. As a result of Desi’s commitment to I Love Lucy, where he eventually became writer, producer and director of the series, the Desi Arnaz Orchestra stopped touring and eventually fell apart. As a result the Ricky Ricardo Orchestra was made up of actors and studio musicians, for the exceptions of Pepin Betancourt and Alberto Calderon, who were members of Desi’s orchestra and stayed with him in Hollywood. By the time that I Love Lucy finished in 1957 Desi had abandoned the music business altogether to produce television full time. Sadly, today Desi Arnaz’s music career has gone virtually forgotten and ignored while his role as Ricky Ricardo has turned him into an icon. Thankfully reruns of I Love Lucy will play for eternity so that we’ll always see a glimpse of Desi Arnaz’s musical brilliance.
The Ladybugs/The Bradley Sisters (Petticoat Junction) Music was always a big part of Petticoat Junction. The sound of Smiley Bernadette plunking away on his banjo while Uncle Joe played a harmonica wasn’t uncommon. However, in 1964 Bealtemania hit the Shady Rest Hotel. When Uncle Joe gets wind of the success of the Beatles, he decides to transform his three nieces, Billie Jo, Bobbi Jo and Bettie Jo, along with Sheriff Ragsdale’s daughter Sally, into a long haired pop band modeled after the Fab Four called The Ladybugs. As a result, the Shady Rest suddenly became overrun by screaming frat boys, who in a comedic attempt at role reversal, fainted, did back flips and hollered hysterically for the girls. Unfortunately series producer Paul Henning obviously had little appreciation nor understanding for the Beatles and as a result the Bradley Sister’s impersonation of the Beatles and their fans was actually more insulting then funny. The girls mugged and made garish faces as they did a limp version of “I Saw Her Standing There” while their audience behaved like retards.
Yet CBS believed in the power of their parody and in a shocking example of fiction mirroring reality, on March 22nd 1964 Petticoat Junction actresses Linda Kaye Henning, Pat Woodell, Jeannine Riley and Sheila James (who was most famous playing Zelda Gilroy on Dobie Gillis) were welcomed by Ed Sullivan on his show to perform as the Ladybugs on the same stage that the Beatles made their American debut (the other performers that night were Bobby Vinton, Van Johnston and The Brooke Sisters). Thankfully the Ladybugs would go into retirement as quickly as they were introduced and as music performances continued on Petticoat Junction the quality would grow as well.
After a major cast shakeup Jeannine Ridley was replaced by Meredith MacRae as Billie Jo Bradley. MacRae had a superior singing voice and quickly it was written into the series that Billie Jo had the desire to enter show business as a singer. Many episodes surrounded her attempts at a singing career either alone, or as a musical duo with handsome crop duster Mike Elliott, played by Mike Minor. Eventually the other two sisters would get into the act as Linda Henning and Lori Saunders (replacing Pat Woodell as Bobbi Jo) joined Meredith and they became a trio who often sang on the show, although it seemed the only song that they seemed to know was “Up, Up and Away” by The Fifth Dimension, which, although performed well by the girls, was sung once too often. Anyhow, while it may have started with a garish beginning, the musical legacy of Petticoat Junction is still remembered fondly by fans of the series.
The Honeybees/The Gnats (Gilligan’s Island) The Shady Rest Hotel wasn’t the only place on television that would feel the influence of Beatlemania. Although they may have been far away from civilization, Gilligan’s Island would also get washed away in the hysteria. When a Beatles inspired rock group called the Mosquitoes, consisting of Bingo, Bongo, Bango and Irving (incidentally played by real life folk group The Wellingtons, who are most famous for singing the Gilligan’s Island theme song), come to the Island in order to “get away” from the mass hysteria caused by their fame, they discover the seven stranded castaways and promise them that they’ll help them get off the island. However, to the SS Minnow’s ship wrecked crew and passengers horror, they find out that the Mosquitoes have no plans on leaving the island soon. So, the Skipper hatches a plan to harass the Mosquitoes just as badly as they would be harassed on the mainland in hopes that they will reconsider staying on the island any longer. However, the plan fails, which leads the Mosquitoes to relocate on the other side of the island where they announce that as a result of the harassment they plan on staying even longer. Thus a new plan is formed. This time it is schemed that they should develop their own rock band that the Mosquitoes can “discover” and take back to civilization.
The men form a group called The Gnats, but as a result of being both tone deaf and terrible the Mostiqutoes just shrug the band off. Thus it’s the girls turn. In possibly one of the most famous musical television sequences of the 1960s this side of the Beatles on Sullivan, Mary Anne, Ginger and Mrs. Howell become the Honeybees and sing a sweet pop ditty called “You Need Us.” Using a combination of sex, melody and a few clever lyrics, the Honeybees are a hit with the Mosquitoes. Unfortunately, they are a bit too good and the next morning they find that the Mosquitoes have left the island lea ving only a note telling the girls that they are a so good that they could possibly replace them on the charts, so that they went back on their promise and left them all behind. Gilligan finds a silver cloud to the lining though. The Mosquitoes have been considerate enough to leave signed copies of their LPs. What bastards! The Honeybees, The Gnats and The Mosquitoes would never be seen or heard from again, but this episode would remain one of the most popular Gilligan’s Island episodes ever, and would be remembered by everyone who ever saw it.
Gidget and the Gories (Gidget) Long before there was Sharon Osbourne, Mazzy Starr, Wendy O. Williams or even Nico or Jinx Dawson, Sally Fields was the first woman of goth rock. What’s that? Cute little Sally Field the godmother of goth rock? I must be putting you on…right? Well you better believe it bucko. If you don’t believe me you need not look any further then a 1966 episode of Gidget where she and her best friend LaRue join in on a jam session with surf boys Doug and Paul. Paul and Doug decide to start a band, but wont let Larue in unless Gidget fronts it. Unfortunately Gidget can’t play any musical instruments but the boys just say “Girls as cute as you don’t have to do anything” and shoves her a tambourine. Man, you gotta dig pre-woman’s lib America. Anyway, the group appears at a beach dance the next day and is a huge success.
Riding off of the afterglow of their debut, Gidget sees an announcement on TV for an upcoming “battle of the bands” type contest and enters her new group. Adding a drummer named Ringo Feinberg, the group decide to get rid of their clean cut image and, obviously inspired by the Doors, decide to visit the darker side of rock n’ roll. Before you know it Gidget is all decked out in black with heavy dark mascara and white face, resembling a sexy version of the Misfits insignia. Calling themselves The Gories, the group gets to work to really turn on and tune out before their television debut. However, as happens in most sit-coms, problems arise. First, Gidget’s father finds out that the TV producer who has hired them actually did so because of their “fresh faced no gimmick” image, and due to the fact that she totally sucks, the guys still want to throw Larue out of the group and expect Gidget to tell her. Doesn’t band politics totally suck? Anyhow, Gidget tells the Gories that if Larue goes she goes. The big twist? Gidget’s ultimatum doesn’t work and both her and Larue find themselves kicked to the curb and the guys, now just calling themselves The Gories, still go on the show and despite their new goth look manage to win and go on to success. Gidget and the Gories was truly an odd footnote in pop culture history as the first goth band and even being a predecessor to Coven, Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper. Yet the Gories story would get even stranger. In an episode of Sally Field’s next series The Flying Nun during an episode where Field’s character Sister Bertrille shows home movies from her life before being a nun, the home movies includes a shot of Sally Field in her Gories makeup and Bertrille states that she too was in a rock band called the Gories. Obviously an inside joke, one can also wonder if Gidget and The Flying Nun was in the same universe, and ironically the Gories replaced Gidget with Sister Bertrille because, well, they sort of looked the same. Eerie….
The Monkees (The Monkees) The Monkees, undoubtedly, are the most successful and most famous fake TV band of all time, managing to break through the third wall of fiction and creating a controversial and confusing grey area questioning if they were a real band or not. Inspired by the Beatles hit film A Hard Days Night, the premise of The Monkees was thought up by up and coming TV producers Bob Rafelson and Bert Schneider who sold the premise in 1965. A trade ad appearing in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter for “Folk and Rock Musicians-Singers for acting roles in new TV series” brought over four hundred applicants for the part, including future music stars Steven Stills and Paul Williams, as well as future psycho killer Charles Manson. However, as we all know today, the final pick for the Monkees was folk musician Peter Tork, country/folk songwriter Mike Nesmith, former child star Mickey Dolenz and Tony nominated Broadway actor Davy Jones. Record producer Don Kirshner, who went on to produce some of the most famous pop acts of the era, was brought in to oversee the musical side of the project, and he in turn brought in song writers such as Boyce and Hart, Neil Diamond and Carol King to start penning songs for the new fab four.
Now it was no secret that the Monkees didn’t play their instruments on their first recordings, but they did sing their own songs, and their first LP was released in August 1965, a month prior to the premier of the actual TV series. As a result, before the Monkees even made their screen debut they received their first #1 Billboard record with Boyce and Hart’s “Last Train to Clarksville.” This early success pretty much guaranteed them a successful premier and The Monkees was an instant hit. Combining music with zany comedy and endearing characters, the program was like nothing seen on TV before. However, continuing to challenge the boundaries of reality and fiction, the Monkees were not playing fictional characters. The Monkees were literally playing themselves. Davy, Mike, Mickey and Peter quickly became as popular as the Beatles with more top ten hits weekly on the music charts. Yet, trouble was brewing behind the scenes.
As word got out that they didn’t play their own music, a retaliation by serious music fans against the band began to form. This made Mike Nesmith very uncomfortable, especially since his own songs were appearing on the albums as early as the first LP. Eventually he rallied the rest of the Monkees together who demanded that they have more creative control on the music and to allow them to play on their own albums. Don Kirshner refused to let go of his position and wanted them to record bubble gum material, including Sugar Sugar, which would eventually become a hit for The Archies. A meeting was arranged between the producers, Kirshner and the Monkees between the first and second seasons of the show which resulted in Mike Nesmith putting his fist through a door and Don Kirshner being fired. Now the Monkees were thrown into the position of choosing their own material, and Mickey Dolenz actually went and learnt the drums. This resulted in the band not only going on tour, but with the help of a few studio musicians, playing their own material on their third album, Headquarters. However, despite the continuing popularity of the group, the continuation of hit records on the charts and the fact that the series won two Emmy awards in 1966, the series would fold after it’s second season. Yet, while most TV bands would fold up and fade away after cancellation the Monkees stayed together, in one form or another, until 1971.
Furthermore the Monkees would return in 1986 when a second wave of Monkeemania hit North America. After MTV ran a Monkee marathon, interest in the group was brought to a new generation and the Monkees reformed, sans Mike Nesmith who had gone on to other things, and were once again recording new material and going on tour. So the question remains – were the Monkees a real band or a show about a band? Well while the band was brought together by TV producers and the Monkees were not in charge of their earliest recordings, the Monkees worked harder then the average manufactured boys band today, and stayed together longer then the TV show. Furthermore, they had over a dozen top ten hits, and songs such as “I’m a Believer” and “Daydream Believer” have become pop standards. So it’s like The Monkees were a fictional band who became a real band. But be they a real band or not, the band paid their dues, and deserve their place in not only TV history, but music history as well.
The Banana Splits (The Banana Splits Adventure Hour) So imagine this. A Laugh In rip off for kids featuring a group of furries that play rock and roll music and introduce cartoons. Sound like a good idea? Unlikely, but the historic pairing of Hanna Barbara and the Krofft Brothers made it a reality and while the show may not be that memorable, The Banana Splits unleashed possibly one of the most beloved Saturday Morning theme songs of all. Joe Barbara and Bill Hanna approached the Krofft Brothers, who were making a name for themselves as puppeteers, in 1968 to create the costumes, characters and sets which would be used as wrap around sequences for a new hour long anthology program featuring a combination of cartoon reruns from the HB archive and some new live action serials. Using the Monkees as inspiration, the whacked out brothers came up with four musical animals – Fleegle the Beagle (the groups leader), Bingo the Gorilla, Snorty the Elephant and Drooper the Lion. Each Saturday the Banana Splits met at their colorful club house for band practice, which would be an opportunity for a musical number, and tackle issues with its rivalry with rival group The Sour Grapes Bunch, who never actually appeared on screen but were sent messages via under aged go go dancers in purple mini dresses.
Not surprisingly, an album of the Banana Splits music was released in 1969, and although most of the songs remained unmemorable (for the exception of the highly memorable theme, “The Tra-La-La- Song”) an interesting group of notable musical legends contributed original material to the album including Al Kooper, Barry White and Gene Pitney! However, while the Banana Splits was never a fantastic production, two important moments in pop culture history came out of the show. The first was that as a result of their involvement in creating the show, the Krofft Brothers gained the attention of NBC which opened the door for them to produce H.R. Pufnstuf a year later, launching them into stardom where they would dominate the 1970’s by creating some of the most unique and fondly remembered children’s programs of the decade and changing the face of pop culture forever! Also, the roots of the furrie fetish probably started here. Some kids obviously preferred Snorky over Davy Jones. Adding to the odd history of the Banana Splits is that The Cartoon Network have revived them and the band is now being featured once again with new songs and videos. Well, unlike real rock stars, furries never die.