Saturday, February 1, 2014

Mason Williams -- "Classical Gas" (1968)

Until today, every 2 or 3 lines has begun with two or three (or more) lines of lyrics from a song.  But not today -- and not again until March.

You heard right, boys and girls: no more lyrics until next month.  My blog, my rules.  

In this February's "29 Posts in 28 Days," I'm featuring instrumentals  No words for a whole month -- just music.  (Except for Super Bowl Sunday, of course, when I'll feature a song by this year's halftime performer).

There are a lot of fabulous instrumental recordings out there, and it wasn't easy to narrow the field to just 28.  Once I did, I then had to decide which one to start with.

The single
In 1968, BMI (a performing rights organization that collects broadcast royalties on behalf of composers and recording artists) gave Mason Williams a special award for "Classical Gas," which has been played on the radio more than six million times -- an all-time record.  I figured I could do a lot worse than start off a "29 Posts in 28 Days" devoted to instrumentals with the most-played instrumental record ever.

There were a lot of comedy-variety shows on television when I was a kid -- The Dinah Shore Chevy Hour, The Red Skelton Hour, The Andy Williams Show, The Carol Burnett Show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Flip Wilson Show, and many others.  But one that stood out from all the rest was The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which ran for three seasons (1967 through 1969) on CBS.

Tommy and Dick Smothers' act mixed folk music with comedy -- pretty lame comedy, to tell the truth.  Their TV show initially looked like just about any other comedy-variety show of that era, but quickly morphed into a controversial and cutting-edge show that kept CBS and its affiliates on the edge of their seats each week.

Tommy and Dick Smothers
Mason Williams may have been as responsible as anyone for what The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour became.  Before becoming the show's Emmy-winning head writer, Williams had been a stand-up comedian.  He was best known for his Them Poems album, which featured poems such as "Them Banjo Pickers,' "Them Toad Suckers," and "Them Moose Goosers":

How about them Moose goosers
Ain't they recluse?
Up in them boondocks
Goosin' them moose
Goosin' them huge moose
Goosin' them tiny,
Goosin them meadow moose
In they heiny!
Look at them Moose goosers
Ain't they dumb?
Some use an umbrella
Some use they thumb

Williams hired an unknown comedy writer named Steve Martin, initially paying him out of his pocket.  He also created the "Pat Paulsen for President" campaign.

Mason Williams was an artist as well as a comedy writer.  His most famous art work is "Bus," a life-sized reproduction of a 1960s-vintage Greyhound bus printed in an edition of 200, each of which was folded up and packed inside a box.

Click here to read more about "Bus."  

Williams was also a musician and composer, and he wrote the theme song for the Smothers Brothers' show.  But his most famous composition is "Classical Gas," which was a #2 hit in 1968.  (The Doors' "Hello, I Love You" kept it out of the top spot.)  It later won three Grammys.  

After "Classical Gas" was released, Williams had an experimental filmmaker create a video montage of thousands of paintings that was titled 3000 Years of Art.  

Mason Williams performed "Classical Gas" many times on many different guitars.  But one of those guitars was perhaps the most unusual guitar ever played.  Here's the story of that guitar, which I've taken from Williams' online biography.  (You can click here to read the entire publication.)

[P]laying guitar, or almost any instrument on television, for that matter, wasn’t very interesting visually. . . . I decided that by changing the look of the guitar itself, I could make shots more interesting.
I came up with all kinds of ideas.  One I remember was a hammerhead shark design (there were others) but a guitar you could see though seemed to be the best idea because the hot studio lighting would give it a Steuben glass aura.
Billy Cheatwood was staying with me in LA at the time, so I asked him if he’d help me build a plexiglass guitar as a visual element to use on television.  I told him what I wanted was in essence, a real, playable guitar.  I hooked Billy up with the head prop designer for ABC , who was a true craftsman, and using a real classical guitar pattern, they made the glass guitar.  The fretting science on the neck (real frets) was accurate.  You could actually play pieces on it. 

However, since the plexiglass was 1/4” thick, it didn’t have any volume to speak of -- it was somewhat like the sound you get on an electric guitar that’s not plugged in. It was quite a bit heavier than a wooden guitar. I used it on a TV special called Just Friends that involved my friends from The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour: Tom & Dick, Pat Paulsen, John Hartford, Jennifer Warren and Bob Einstein. I used it to finger-sync my hit version of "Classical Gas." 
When I left Hollywood a couple of years later, I gave most of my stuff away to family and friends. John Hartford loved the idea of that guitar, so I gave it to him. He later told me that he had it hanging on the wall of his house in Nashville and once in a while it would get explored by some of the Nashville pickers.
I got it back from John to use for a Smother Brothers show in 1974. . . . I first suggested that we fill the guitar with honeybees, letting them make a honeycombed hive you could see into, but NBC didn’t like the idea of bees flying around the studio . . . what if they didn’t like the song and stung people in the audience? 
So I filled the guitar with water and put a couple of goldfish in it.  The camera had fun exploring the goldfish in a guitar bowl and a lot of people must have seen this spot, because to this day, people bring it up in conversation.  In 1987 I got it back from John again to use for the cover of my Classical Gas album with Mannheim Steamroller.  John Hartford died in 2001 and I don’t know who has it now.
Here's Williams performing "Classical Gas" on Ed Sullivan's show:

Click below if you'd like to order "Classical Gas" from Amazon:

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