Oops! They Did It Again, Boomers!

Well, the marketers have done it again: co-opted a boomer-era song for their own devices. In this case it’s the 1966 hit, L’il Red Riding Hood, made popular by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. The song has been re-recorded with a sultry female voice as the backdrop to a Volvo car commercial.

Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs hailed from Dallas, Texas. The band was headed by front man Domingo “Sam” Zamudio. In the early 1960s the band gained notoriety by wearing robes and turbans onstage, and traveling in a 1952 Packard hearse. “Sam” is said to have acquired inspiration for his campy costuming watching Yul Brynner’s pharaoh character in the 1956 film, The Ten Commandments.

Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs in a publicity shot from an ad in Billboard magazine, 1965.

After a couple of years of playing gigs and selling records they had paid to press themselves, the band was signed by the Pen label in Memphis, Tennessee. It was there they recorded Wooly Bully, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts in June of 1965. Eleven months after the release of Wooly Bully, a band shake-up saw Sam hiring an entire new set of Pharaohs. This new band was the one that recorded L’il Red Riding Hood. The song peaked at No. 2 in August of 1966, and remained on the charts for 14 weeks.

For several centuries the folk tale of Red Riding Hood has been considered a metaphor for a young girl’s sexual awakening. The song, as sung by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, furthers this train of thought, though sung from the perspective of the big bad wolf. In this case, the “wolf” was a term used to describe a man whose intentions were on the lecherous side, in pursuit of a young girl (Red Riding Hood). He begins the song with a wolf howl and sings about being attracted by the girl’s “big eyes” and “full lips.” He mentions his deceitful ways to charm the young lady, saying he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, in an effort to make her “see things my [his] way before we get to grandma’s place.”

The Big Bopper recorded Little Red Riding Hood in 1958, but his song was both musically and lyrically different from the one recorded by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs, which was written by Ronald Blackwell.

Mister Boomer recalls hearing the song on his transistor radio in 1966. Shortly thereafter, Brother Boomer purchased the 45 RPM, as he did most of the music in the household. Mister B thought it was an OK song that was worth a snicker or two for its covert handling of a topic that piqued a young teen’s growing curiosity of the opposite sex, but all in all, a fun novelty classified along the lines of hits by Ray Stevens. The song was enthusiastically enjoyed by Mister B’s younger sister and mother, though. That 45 RPM now resides in Mister Boomer’s personal collection.

So what does all that have to do with a car commercial in the 21st Century? Those clever marketers have re-recorded the song (at least parts of it) with a female voice singing the part of the wolf. Amanda Seyfried recorded the song in 2011, but she is not the singer in the commercial; that would be Oregonean singer/songwriter Laura Gibson. The implication of transposing the gender of the narrator is that the car is the prize and the female is the one in relentless pursuit. One might presume that the female is playing the surrogate of Every TV Viewer. Confounding definition, the commercial is filled with contradictions. As a wolf snarls in front of a red car, each frame is tinged with shades of red, the universal color of desire and passion. Yet it finishes focused on a young girl wearing a red hooded garment sitting in the back seat of the red car, being chauffeured by her father, and howling like a wolf! The song, the references to the Red Riding Hood story and Sam the Sham’s 1966 hit would make the soundtrack instantly identifiable to a boomer, yet oddly enough, the commercial seems aimed at a different demographic altogether. In fact, it looks to be aimed at the children of boomers. In the end, do we see a commercial targeting a younger-than-us generation that, according to the marketers, can now afford this sporty automobile, but as parents can still summon the desire for such a prize?

What do you think, boomers? Does the commercial flash you to back to Sam the Sham, or have you reaching for your checkbook to buy a car?

Dick Clark Made Boomer History

A huge chapter in the annals of boomer history came to a close this past week with the passing of Dick Clark. Is there a boomer alive in the United States today who does not know Dick Clark, and does not have a memory of watching his TV shows?

As TV broadcasts became regularly scheduled after the War, the need for content was ever-expanding as the sales of TVs grew, along with the population, into the 1950s. By the mid-’50s, the first wave of the boomer generation were reaching their teens, and presented an irresistible target demographic for marketers of everything from breakfast cereals to toys, clothing to colognes. TV networks were scrambling for shows that teens would watch, and so it was that a local show was pitched to the ABC network in hopes of gaining a national audience.

Dick Clark had taken over as host of the Philadelphia-based Bob Horn’s Bandstand in 1956, after the host was arrested for drunk driving and allegations of being involved with a prostitution ring. Like big band swing bandstand venues of the previous decade, Bandstand played music for young people to dance to, but now included rock ‘n roll, a new genre that many in the country were campaigning against as “the devil’s music.” The show’s name was changed to American Bandstand, and soon after, Mr. Clark proposed that it be broadcast to a national audience. ABC picked up the program, and it premiered across the nation on August 5, 1957.

Mr. Clark tinkered with the formula he inherited, keeping the live group of kids to dance to the music, but adding a more formal dress code of skirts or dresses for the female dancers, and jackets and ties for the males. He also added appearances by guest artists who would lip-synch their hits in the live broadcast, and introduced interviews with rising stars like Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Perhaps the most-known feature Dick Clark added to Bandstand was “Rate-a-Record,” which allowed teens to rate a record — newly released 45s — on a scale of 35 to 98. We have Dick Clark’s “Rate-a-Record” to thank for the phrase, “It has a nice beat and you can dance to it.”

In an age when segregation still remained the practice across the country, Mr. Clark welcomed African-American artists on Bandstand, which broke the tradition of the show’s earlier incarnation. Nonetheless, it was Dick Clark’s ambition that rock ‘n roll be made more socially acceptable (through his dress code and clean dancing requirements), so he — and especially his broadcast network — didn’t want to anger any part of the population that could bear pressure on the show. Consequently, contrary to TV legend, in the early days of American Bandstand there were no black teens dancing on the program. Mr. Clark changed that policy when the show moved to Los Angeles in 1964, when both black and white kids were welcome to dance in the studio (though not with each other).

The show aired five days a week, in the after-school time slot of 4:00 to 5:00 p.m. Mister Boomer recalls coming home from school and his brother would switch on the family’s Sylvania TV to watch Bandstand. Mr. B was a pre-teen, so would have preferred cartoons to the music show. Some boomers remember the show on Monday nights, while others recall Saturday afternoons. All are correct memories at some point of the show’s history. The show ran live five days a week in its earlier days; at first it was 90 minutes long, then 60 and finally ran in a half-hour format. In 1963, the weekly shows were all recorded at the same time on Saturdays for broadcast.

Mr. Clark was a consummate TV production professional, going on to produce many shows in the following decades, from the $10,000 Pyramid game show to a series of blooper shows (co-hosted with Ed McMahon), to the more recent So You Think You Can Dance. But if there is a boomer who doesn’t remember Dick Clark for American Bandstand, he is remembered for Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. Every boomer will tell you that New Year’s Eve TV shows were a lot like Henry Ford’s famous line about the color of his Model T: it came in any color you wanted, as long as that was black. The only “color” New Year’s Eve TV came in was in the form of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians. He had a lock on the nation’s TV sets for years, so boomers welcomed a change from the stodgy “old people’s” New Year’s Eve programming when Dick Clark’s show debuted in 1972. Dick Clark showed rock ‘n roll acts of the day, which were infinitely closer to what boomers wanted to see and hear than people playing accordions and clarinets.

Mister B recalls that first New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in 1972. He had been invited to a house party — only the second of his waning teen years for New Year’s Eve. Music would be played, refreshments would be served, and yes, there would be girls. Plus, the host had his own TV in his basement with which to tune in the program for the countdown. To make a long story short, the “party” didn’t quite happen as advertised. Mister B and two of his other friends showed up. Refreshments were there, but no girls, or anyone else. Instead, four guys shared a pizza and watched New Year’s Rockin’ Eve in the basement while the host’s parents tuned in Guy Lombardo in the living room.

If you are a part of the baby boomer generation, no matter what year you were born, Dick Clark has played a part in your memories. For that reason, we have to say, Dick, “so long for now.”