Sunday, March 29, 2009

BOB ARBOGAST dies 50 Years after "CHAOS"

Born on April Fool's Day 1927, and just missing his 82nd birthday, half-shot novelty wonder Bob Arbogast died on March 21st.

Half-shot novelty wonder? Well, he wasn't a one-shot novelty wonder, because his lone achievement "Chaos" was co-authored by the late Stanley Ralph Ross. It wasn't much of a wonder at all, since it failed to make the Top 40, but it's still a favorite among fans of ill novelty singles.

Back in 1959, Arbogast & Ross tossed their noisy double-sided parody of radio station disc jockeys into a market saturated with variations on "break ins," the style popularized by Buchanan & Goodman in 1956 (and continued on and on by Dickie Goodman until his suicide).

Your download is both sides of "Chaos," the doings at K-OS Radio. Disc jockey "Speedy Clip" offers a variety of commercials interrupted by singing station identifications, and a series of droning deep-voiced parody versions of Ritchie Valens' "Donna."

Legend has it that "Chaos" failed to hit the charts because it was banned from the radio after it had sold over 10,000 copies "because radio stations suddenly realized it was a parody of radio stations." More likely, it disappeared because by definition, a "novelty" track isn't going to stay novel for very long. It may also have gotten limited airplay if station managers felt they would be offending fans of the recently mangled Ritchie Valens, whose wistful ballad "Donna" was still on the charts.

Some of the gags were pretty zany at the time. At one point "Speedy Clip" shouts, ""I see by the old clock on the wall there's a dead fly!" Later, the station's girl singers warble, "Just to prove it's real, here's the K-OS approval seal!" You guessed it: instant sound effect of a seal barking. To quote a B-side from fellow Liberty novelty act David Seville, "That's almost good." Especially at the time.

Fans who haunt comedy bins of moribund record stores might want to pick up the album "At Carnegie Hall," which Arbogast co-created with another partner, Dick Whittinghill, or perhaps the "My Son the Copycat" album that Arbogast co-wrote (with Stan Ross doing the fake Allan Sherman vocals). Mainly Bob Arbogast's credits involve bouncing around a variety of Los Angeles radio stations, writing comedy for various performers, and doing a lot of zany voiceovers for commercials and some cartoon shows (including 'Roger Ramjet' and 'Hot Wheels.')

Bob's wikipedia entry was obviously written by a relative or a fan of his, and bears some comical warnings from Wikipedia: "This article does not cite any references or sources" and "This article contains weasel words, vague phrasing that often accompanies biased or unverifiable information." Among the yet to be verified information is that "Chaos" was banned anywhere, or that Bob was kicked off radio stations for being an iconoclast. Likewise, the note that Bob "originated" the concept of "The Question Man" in 1951, and is acknowledged for it in Steve Allen's book "The Question Man" is not accurate.

"The Question Man" bit was used in various ways by a lot of comics of the day, including Ernie Kovacs (and was turned into "Karnak" by Johnny Carson). Apparently when Steve began doing it on his show, Arbogast submitted material...and some kind of grouse about having originated the idea. What Steve actually says in "The Question Man," a book compiling some of the gags used on his show, is that "a funny man by the name of Bob Arbogast not only contributed a number of jokes but also provided us with the somewhat unnerving information that he had thought of the Question Man idea itself several years before we did." That's not exactly an admission of guilt. The idea of using a question as the punchline to a joke probably goes back to Shakespeare's day. As most of you know, Steve was an extremely nice guy who never fought about "credit" and "attribution."

The name "Arbogast" was momentarily popular circa 1959-1960, at least in a mentally ill way. It was the name of Martin Balsam's character in "Psycho," as well as the name on a crazy comedy team's novelty single. Exactly 50 years after it was first alarming people on the airwaves, here's "Chaos" back at you, as a salute to the weird duo that made it, Bob Arbogast and Stan Ross.
CHAOS by Arbogast and Ross


Tom said...

It's too late to ask him but I wonder if George Carlin got his idea for "Wonderful WINO" from this cut. It even has the "scoreboard joke" in it and the rapid talk at the beginning of this record sounds a lot like the "Willie West" bit from WINO.

Anonymous said...

Yes. Or so he was told.

Anonymous said...

The trouble with sites such as this one -- and Wikipedia, since you brought it up -- is that a person can post anything he or she wants to post, facts or accuracy be damned, and fall back on the excuse that it's only their opinion anyway.

That being said, something he wanted to get done was to correct the errors the Wikipedia entry. He didn't get around to it.

He did more professionally than what you're recognizing here, which is testament to his preference for the money over the fame. Within his own world he was as recognized as he wanted to be. There are people who could tell you that, if you knew who to ask.

His take on The Question Man/ Carnac thing is this: The first time he did it was in Kansas City around 1951.

What I remember him telling me was that the first answer was "Daisy Mae." Li'l Abner being popular at the time, the question was, "Will Daisy?" The gag suffers when read as opposed to being heard. He was doing radio, which takes a certain amount of effort on the part of the listener. And it suffers from the effects of time. Who the hell remembers Li'l Abner?

The thing is, Bob used the gag when he was writing Tom Poston's TV comedy show in the fifties. Then Poston went to work for Steve Allen, the gag turned up on Steve's show and there you have it. Just for the sake of accuracy.

BeoBill said...

What is missing in this description of what killed the sales of Chaos (KOS) Radio recordings is that as this record spoof of radio stations appeared for such a short time in 1959 there happened subsequently that an upstanding and popular D.J. blew the lid off the practice of illegal activity by "Record Pushers" who were paying D.J.s in "under table payoffs" to plug records regardless of their talent merit and some were quite dubious. This issue was clearly exemplified in the Radio KOS spoof recording where the same melody played over time and again with slight changes in lyrics each time has a different love song name IE "Oh Linda, Oh, Blanch, Etc. and eventually Oh, my Goodness... ". The unveiling of the payoff activity very quickly caused huge and immediate D.J. terminations. I personally was in the Greater Detroit area at the time and within one week there was "CHAOS" in the number of firings going on with radio stations across the dial. Even some TV personalities lost their positions. Broadcast management was in dread fear that the FCC would pull their broadcast licenses for having these illegal practices going on under their jurisdiction and were announcing disclaimers to their involvement in the activity. Naturally no station would even touch the record "CHAOS" let alone air play after that. The affair quickly acquired the title "Payola" for which it has carried historically. After this issue made the news all over the country new rulings came down wherein all music stations would have to read disclaimers on air! Quote: The following records were supplied to the station by such & such record distributors at no charge to station .....etc. This went on for the next year or two and eventually died a slow death. To Arbogast & Ross this event was the death knell for their record as quickly as it was for Vaughn Meader and his best selling "First Family" recordings after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Ill Folks said...

Interesting point about Payola (wasn't it Stan Freberg who sang about Payola to the tune of "Old Piano Roll Blues?)

I think the use of various versions of "Oh Donna" was probably more a comment on how all pop music sounded the same (to these guys).

But the timing is definitely right. The song and the first eruption of the scandal happened roughly around the same time. The Freberg novelty probably arrived a few months after "Chaos" disappeared off the charts.