Wednesday, April 09, 2014

John Lennon, the Top 40 and (R.I.P.) EDDIE LAWRENCE


The headline hints of two fairly obscure facts about Eddie Lawrence; he had a Top 40 single "The Old Philosopher," and he voiced the radio commercial for "Pussy Cats," the Harry Nilsson album produced by John Lennon. The radio spot had Eddie in his familiar persona as the wheedling and then bombastic pitchman:

“Hiya, Pussycat,. You say you opened up a bicycle wash and the first six customers drowned? And they picked you up in the wax museum for trying to score with Marie Antoinette? Is that what’s got you down, Pussycat? Well, RISE UP! Get yourself Harry Nilsson’s new album, ‘Pussy Cats,’ produced by John Lennon…."

I interviewed Eddie, and visited him informally several more times. He was a kindly, gentle man. But…as with most comedians, he wasn't exactly fond of the human race; he was a realist. His most famous character, "The Old Philosopher," is a cartoonish but cynical satire of life's miseries and the blind optimism in dealing with it all. Had he chosen to use an evangelist's voice…a Bishop Sheen or Norman Vincent Peale…Eddie could've been classed as another Lenny Bruce. But he would've also been banned from the airwaves! Instead, his Jeckyl and Hyde comedy had him morph from wan sad sack to a manic "motivational speaker" shouting insane pep talks ending with a platitude: "never give up…the ship!"

Born Lawrence Eisler, his first love was painting, and that was the name he used on his canvases, which showed the influence of his esteemed teacher, Fernand Leger. I remember a party at his studio that was a very strange mix of art-types and show biz bananas including veteran comic actors Jack Weston and Lou Jacobi. The walls were covered with his paintings, and as great as the guests were...those images kept me veering away from the celebs and studying the oils.

Wisely realizing that a painting career might have the "starving artist" affect, Eddie worked in vaudeville and on radio. He had a subtle, cerebral style, but also enjoyed offbeat and off-the-wall comedy…and recalled with fondness his days as part of the comedy team "Lawrence and Marley," who were compared to Bob and Ray. John Marley went on to a straight film career, often in menacing, gangster roles. You remember him in "The Godfather," sharing a bed with a horse's head.

It was in 1956 that Eddie's novelty recording "The Old Philosopher" hit the Top 40. It was such a hit, there was even a cover version by Peter Marshall, straight man in the comedy team of Noonan and Marshall. (OK, you know him better as "master of the Hollywood Squares.") Eddie recorded dozens of "Philosopher" routines, but his albums also included other types of audio sketches, using many voices, which were sort of audio versions of Mad Magazine or "Firesign Theater" before there was such a thing.

Eddie "The Old Philosopher" turned up on Steve Allen's show, Carson's "Tonight Show," and many other programs. The gimmick of a sad-sack with a Jolson-esque quaver, and sad strains of "Beautiful Dreamer" playing…seguing into insane march music and violently enthusiastic hyperbole…seemed to fascinate Madison Avenue types. Eddie had a very lucrative career using his Philosopher persona to sell all kinds of products, from huckstering folks into visiting the Claridge Hotel/Casino to promoting the Des Moines Rug Cleaning company. While all this was going on, the Renaissance Philosopher was also painting, writing, and acting on stage. His best known Broadway acting was in "Bells are Ringing." In 1965, he left local New York TV station WPIX (where he was hosting Three Stooges shorts) to write the lyrics for a Broadway show called "Kelly." The show was not, obviously, a hit, but one song from it, "I'll Never Go There Anymore," was covered by a lot of singers. Stephen Sondheim considered it so good, it was on his list of songs he wished he'd written.

The last time I saw Eddie, which was about two year ago, he was looking good (more like 73 than 93, and he even did one of his "Old Philosopher" bits for the gathered guests. He was of course in the company of his radiant wife, who has a wonderful Greer Garson-type British accent that you could listen to all day. Below, the original "The Old Philosopher." I'll save Peter Marshall's version for another day. Or month. As Eddie once told me, its origin was when he and another actor began griping about bad breaks…how everything went wrong…and both ended up laughing. It's the little things in life that can drive you to the brink…the broken shoelace, the cut while shaving…little exasperations that sap your will to live. Add to that, bizarre Eddie-twists of hip imagery and edgy oddness. All you can do when confronted by hum drum or utterly insane problems is fight back with equal insanity, like a raging cry of "never give up….THAT SHIP!"

Also, you'll be downloading a cut from "The Jazzy Old Philosopher" a CD he made in the late 80's. The cut is "Stay Away," and it's a list of "People to Avoid." It's an example of hipster misanthropy, with some lines wacko and others just angry, some of it you might find resembling Ken Nordine or George Carlin. It wobbles along (with a bass line behind it) listing irksome idiots. Avoid "anyone who'd powder his sideburns to get a senior citizen discount…anyone who'd order a fox sandwich…anyone who'd frame a Christmas card from a bank…guys from the midwest who say "Who's by you?" There were two "Stay Away" sequels on the CD, and there could've been a dozen more…but he had to include plenty of jazz variations on "The Old Philosopher." And other bizarre items.

It's not too difficult to find much in life that's dismal, or to find that one's fellow man is one irritating bastard…the trick, which Eddie knew, was how to make it funny. Eddie Lawrence (March 2, 1919-March 25, 2014).


THE OLD PHILOSOPHER A List of People... to STAY AWAY from

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