Sunday, February 01, 2009

A College Course in How to Do a Parody

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

SONG: Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs
ARTIST: Homer & Jethro
SONGWRITERS: Slim Willet / Henry Haynes / Kenneth Burns
ALBUM: At the Country Club
YEAR/LABEL: 1960, RCA Victor

How do you like that? Twenty eight years I've been working with an idiot!

Aw, that's all right. You'll get used to it. I did.

There are novelty acts and there are parody singers. Then there's Homer and Jethro. They were not the first act to do a parody (Oscar Sullivan told me that distinction went to Lonzo and Oscar, although I have yet to find independent confirmation of that), but they perfected the art. In fact, they set the bar so high that no one since has come close to matching them for musicianship and witty, intelligent parodies. Anyone can re-write the lyrics to a song, but Homer and Jethro went far beyond that. Richard Bowden of Pinkard & Bowden (the only act who has come close to understanding Homer & Jethro) pointed out in an interview that what set Homer and Jethro apart was the fact that they managed to do two seemingly contradictory things simultaneously: they used a good deal of the original song they were lampooning, and they created a song with comedy that stood on its own without the listener having to know the original song getting raked over the coals.

Nowhere is that more obvious that in Homer and Jethro's skewering of "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes." The original song, written by Slim Willet, enjoyed massive success in both country (Skeets McDonald and Ray Price) and pop (Perry Como) and spawned an answer song (Goldie Hill's "I Let the Stars Get in My Eyes"). But, as they said, no song was complete until Homer and Jethro did a parody of it -- then it was finished. What they did to this song stands head and shoulders above any comedy record of its time -- or any time.

While the studio version of "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyeballs" contains some great moments (such as Jethro, at the beginning of his mandolin break, asking Homer, "How do you like that strain, Homer?" and Homer's dry reply, "Boy, that sounds more like a compound fracture to me!"), it is the version from 1960's brilliant live album At the Country Club that shows the true genius of the song. The verses are reversed from the studio version (with the "don't let the stars get in your eyes if you've got water on the brain" opening the song instead of being the second verse), which compounds the hilarity of the song by saving the best lines for last. The introduction is Jethro stating the song they are about to do is "a little thing called 'The Shades of Night Were Falling Fast, But I Got a Pretty Good Look Anyway." They then launched into the parody. When they reached the bridge of "too many fights, too many scars, too many knots upon my head," Homer began counting softly, "One, two, three, five...", a joke brought over from the studio version where counting runs throughout the song (leading to a shout of "Bingo!" at the conclusion of the song).

After Jethro's mandolin break the duo delivered two of the greatest lines they ever wrote. The second verse begins, "Her teeth were like the stars above because they come out every night." After dealing with her wig they conclude the verse with, "I cocked an eye at her, she cocked an eye at me, and we just sat there cockeyed as could be." It was funny then, and it's funny now.

The partnership between Homer and Jethro began in a radio station in Knoxville when they were teenagers and lasted for nearly 40 years until Homer suffered a fatal heart attack while preparing for a show in 1971. Jethro continued a prolific career until he lost his battle with prostate cancer 20 years ago this week.

Homer and Jethro were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, a long overdue honor. They were -- and remain -- the standard bearers for comedy duos in any genre of music.


The entire At the Country Club album -- not only their parodies but their comedic interaction are on display in this classic album that is one of the funniest albums ever created. Their smoking version of "C-Jam Blues" in the middle of side one also shows off their musicianship.
The entire Homer & Jethro At the Convention album -- more live joy and hilarity, highlighted by "San Antonio Rose #2" with another of their greatest lines ever ("then that cotton-pickin' chicken plucker came across") and featuring an absolutely mesmerizing display of Homer's singing ability -- deliberately singing in a different key than the band was playing during the last verse of "Sink the Bismarck." If you think that's easy to do, try it sometime.
"Human Cannonball"
(available on Country Their Way) -- a parody of Roy Acuff's "Wabash Cannonball" with plenty of puns ("we'll make a big shot out of you," "you'll go over with a bang") but noteworthy for the harmonies that prove they could sing very well.

"You Belong to Me #2" (available on America's Song Butchers) -- a lovely ballad turned upside down with marvelous results, including the great conclusion of "now I've got a wife and 13 kids, they belong to me -- me and Jethro."
"Tico Tico" (from Playing It Straight) -- an old organ instrumental becomes a shining moment for the musician prowess of Homer and Jethro.
(from Zany Songs of the 30s) -- a song that was a lighthearted number given more comedy by overdubbed commentary (such as Homer asking, after saying "S.O.S.," "That spells 'sos,' don't it?"). Best part: "If you ever lose your teeth and you're out to dine, borrow mine," with Jethro adding a gleeful, "All right" to the conclusion of the line.

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