Review: Omnivore’s Legends of Music and Comedy, Buck Owens and Ernie Kovacs
In the pantheon of American comedy legends, you’d likely find Ernie Kovacs, the gifted, gone-too-soon (1919-1962) personality who carved out a niche in the early days of American television. Joining Ernie in that esteemed company might well also be Buck Owens (1929-2006), the influential guitarist and songwriter who made a second career out of joking, a-pickin’ and a-grinnin’ on the cornpone television variety show Hee Haw. However different these two gentlemen are, however, Omnivore Recordings has celebrated both of them in high style with two recent releases, Buck Owens’ Live at the White House (…And in Space) and Ernie Kovacs’ Percy Dovetonsils…Thpeaks!
Though Buck could be quite a character in the environs of Kornfield Kounty, even the genial host might have been at a loss had Percy Dovetonsils been guesting on Hee Haw! One of Ernie Kovacs’ most beloved creations, the lisping poet Mr. Dovetonsils could most often be found reciting his unusual odes in thick glasses with glued-on eyeballs, and a stylish, zebra-patterned smoking jacket. What place is there in 2012 for such a, um, genteel and tasteful soul? Omnivore makes a case for the longevity of Percy with his first and only LP release, the long-lost Speaks, I mean, Thpeaks (OVCD-27). The album was recorded in 1961 but has remained unreleased till now, when it could be launched upon a discerning public.
Percy sets the scene for his vinyl (not to mention CD and digital) debut: “I’m sitting here beside my Italian harpischord…” He describes the instrument in detail, and makes it clear that he’s sipping a martini. But that’s not all. ”Behind me is a marble bust…well, perhaps not a bust, but it wasn’t a complete success, either!” Kovacs’ sincere delivery makes even the hoariest joke worthy of a smile. You’ll find more about Percy and Buck after the jump!
A renaissance man, Kovacs was a comedian, actor, author, clown, surrealist, and pioneer of the television camera, and even served as host of what’s widely acknowledged as television’s first “morning show,” broadcast out of Philadelphia over NBC. But here, he’s distilled his humor (often reliant on visuals) into the audio realm. Percy’s poetry is appropriately loopy. “Ode to Stanley’s Pussycat” is a story in miniature, an ode to a kitty with a proclivity for a nip of alcohol. “Happy Birthday to a Bookworm” chronicles the delightful escapades of a bookworm with a taste for the classics as well as the profane (“How unhappy I was that night to discover/You’d had Lady Chatterley…and some of her lover!”). Another standout, “Lament from a Germ’s Eye Viewpoint,” ribs Kovacs’ television contemporaries Milton Berle and Ralph Edwards, though most of the humor is timeless, not topical. As befitting his creator, Percy had no fear of skewering sacred cows. The rich have always been a delectable target for comedians, hence “The Night Before Christmas on New York’s Fashionable East Side” tells of an unusual, cashmere and Abercrombie and Fitch-clad Santa Claus! The shorter odes (many run less than one minute) amount to tasty bon mots from the irrepressible poet.
Kovacs family archivist Ben Model has supplied a new piano underscore, as it’s believed Kovacs intended for such a treatment. It’s even more appropriate given Kovacs’ love of music and its possibilities for humor: from a gorilla version of Swan Lake to his frequent usage of pieces ranging from classical to “Mack the Knife” for sketches. Best of all, the sound of the LP is in remarkably pristine quality. The compact disc preserves, of course, Percy’s gracious invitation to listeners to flip the record over, politely inquiring, “That wathn’t so bad, wath it?”
Six lengthier sketches round out the album, all taken from incredibly rare broadcasts of Kovacs Unlimited (CBS, 1952-1954) preserved in the archives of Kovacs’ widow, Edie Adams. The sound quality is nowhere near as strong on these tracks, but their historical significance warrants their inclusion, and they’re eminently listenable. There are occasionally some visual laughs that we can’t see, however. This bonus section includes a couple of Odes, “Ode from a Worm’s Eye View” and “Ode to a Hangman’s Noose,” and it’s interesting to note that Percy’s lisp isn’t quite as pronounced on some of these television vignettes! Beloved actress Adams gets a poem of her own, too, lamenting her absence from the program due to illness. The lovingly-designed booklet includes hand-written notes for the album, a typewritten script and an amusing sheet with biographical details for Mr. Dovetonsils (“Percy Llewellyn Dovetonsils was born on a mauve chaise longue [sic] in an East Side co-op of fashionable Manhattan, a stoned doorman’s whistle from Saks Fifth Avenue.”).
Of course, Percy Dovetonsils was just one of Kovacs’ memorable on-screen creations such as the mute Eugene, the German DJ Wolfgang von Sauerbraten, horror host Auntie Gruesome, and Hungarian cooking show host Miklos Molnar, just to name a few. It might be important to remember that Kovacs mined stereotypes without malice at a time before “political correctness,” and cleverly turned them on their sides. So while Percy Dovetonsils Thpeaks might not be for everybody, there’s plenty of good humor and keen wit to go around.
Near the end of the LP, Percy intones, “You must practice modicum…Percy always says, ‘everything in modicum’.” In reality, Kovacs’ epitaph in Forest Lawn reads “Nothing in moderation – we all loved him.” Listeners and viewers today can be grateful that Kovacs left so much behind – nothing in moderation, indeed – in his all-too-short lifetime.
In what is arguably his most famous song, Buck Owens implored, “All you have to do is act naturally!” Owens proved that adage over and over again with his down-home brand of country music and entertainment. His “Bakersfield Sound,” an answer to the lushly-produced “Nashville Sound,” was readymade for honky-tonks. Owens’ 1972 Capitol LP Live at the White House (OVCD-19) has been expanded by Omnivore in an edition including a second set recorded especially for the astronauts aboard 1972’s Apollo 16 mission and not heard on Earth since!
The White House set was performed on September 9, 1968 by Owens and his Buckaroos for Owens’ fellow Texan, President Lyndon B. Johnson. (Though associated with Bakersfield, CA, Owens was actually a Texas boy at birth!) It’s fast and furious, with one song briskly segueing into the next. Buck functions as singer, guitarist and showman, and the recording preserves his dry, goofy humor, frequently directed at his bandmates. And those Buckaroos – Don Rich on lead guitar, Jerry Brightman on steel guitar, Doyle Curtsinger (Holly) on bass, Jerry Wiggins on drums and Jim Shaw on keyboards – are a tight, strong unit. They’re in fine fettle, boisterously backing Buck as they rip through Buck originals like “Together Again,” “Happy Times Are Here Again” and “Crying Time.” Owens dedicates Terry Fell’s “Truck Drivin’ Man” to “all the truck drivers here tonight!” in one particularly humorous moment.
Owens even cedes the spotlight to his pals for a number of tracks. Doyle Holly breaks up a few times (the result of nerves, perhaps?) on “Streets of Laredo,” and Don Rich offers a rapid-fire fiddle on “Orange Blossom Special.” Owens’ son Buddy Alan (Owens) also played with the band. Here, he takes on John Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind” just a month before the song would become indelibly associated with Glen Campbell when his single hit big. Alan’s second showcase from the White House, “When I Turn Twenty-One,” was written to order for the singer by his stepfather, Merle Haggard. (For the record, Alan was 20 when he performed it at the White House!) The entire set is punctuated by frequent bursts of applause and laughter.
The original album kicked off with a spoken introduction from Owens as well as a studio recording of the twangy, jaunty “You Ain’t Gonna Have Ol’ Buck to Kick Around No More.” Both, of course, are included here. Amazingly, none of the material on White House is repeated on the nine-song Apollo 16 program which is presented following the White House sequence. Even notwithstanding the repertoire, it’s a very different set with a much more “showbiz” revue approach. The three-piece Bakersfield Brass joins The Buckaroos (Rich, Curtsinger, Shaw, Wiggins and Ronnie Jackson) and Buddy Alan, as well as gal singer Susan Raye. The Brass enlivens “Sam’s Place” (where “there’s always a party”) and a featured spot with Harlan Howard’s “Sally Was a Good Old Girl.” The sing-along “Roll in My Baby’s Arms” might inspire a hoedown right in front of your stereo, what with Ronnie Jackson’s potent banjo and Don Rich’s impressive fiddle. Buddy Alan is even more confident this time out, on J.P. Richardson’s “White Lightning,” and Susan Raye is teased by Buck as she attempts to sing the light-hearted “I’ve Got a Happy Heart”: “I think if someone shot me/I wouldn’t even die!” She and Buck team up for “Milwaukee, Here I Come.” Of course, Owens’ comedic banter is present, too, and he and the group directly address the Apollo team.
The infectious performances and impeccable musicianship have kept Buck Owens’ music alive, revealing the good-time country to be far more than just a hokey relic of a bygone era. Reissue producer Patrick Milligan (also responsible, with Cheryl Pawelski, for the return of Percy Dovetonsils) contributes a detailed essay with choice material provided by Buck’s son Buddy and Apollo 16 astronaut Charlie Duke. Gavin Lurssen and Reuben Cohen’s have commendably remastered, and the sound is terrific on both the White House and Apollo 16 sets.