Jack Mercer made his final vinyl appearance in four fine Peter Pan original stories and Robin Williams made his feature film debut in Popeye’s year of big, splashy showbiz glitz.
POPEYE THE SAILOR MAN BOOK & RECORDING
Jack Mercer and Cast
Peter Pan Book and Record Set BR-523 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP or Cassette / Stereo / 22 minutes)
POPEYE: 4 FUN-FILLED STORIES
Jack Mercer and Cast
Peter Pan Records 1113 (12” 33 1/3 RPM LP or Cassette / Stereo / 47 minutes)
Released in 1980. Executive Producer: Donald Kasen. Producer: Arthur Korb. Running Time: 47 minutes.
Stories: “Popeye in the Movies,” “ Spinach on the Spanish Main,” “Gold Fever” (#1113 only), “Who’s Afraid of a U.F.O.” (#1113 only).
The steamrolling impending release of Paramount and Disney’s 20 million dollar big-screen musical version of Popeye gave the sailor man and his pals what amounted to his last multi-media and merchandise blitz. As is the delightful fallout of a remake or reboot, no matter how the new enterprise nets out, fans of the original can look forward to as many iterations of their favorite character to reappear in its original form—if possible—in reissued materials and even some new products in the classic vein.
The latter describes these two Peter Pan Records releases totally four stories. All four were released on a single LP, just two of them were packaged with a comic-style book and LP. These apparently mark the last Jack Mercer performance on children’s records. AA Records (formerly Golden) reissued the excellent 1960 Popeye the Sailorman and His Friends LP on its lower budget Merry label (which we covered here on Spin) with Mercer and Mae Questel shortly after the release of the movie Unable to use the copyrighted cartoon images, the cover was illustrated with a generic tugboat (as was the case with the Popeye safety songs EP).
Peter Pan released both of their previous Popeye albums (one from the early ‘70s with Mercer, another from the early ‘60s with Harry F. Welch—subject of this Spin). The 1980 stories, produced by the prolific Arthur Korb, sound very much like Peter Pan’s Power Records super hero and science fiction series (which were being produced at the same time) with the versatile stock company playing multiple roles. Mercer likely was working with the cast on the East coast, as he was a resident of suburban New York, making occasional visits to Hollywood to work on the Hanna-Barbera Popeye cartoons being produced for CBS.
It can’t be an accident that the signature story on both new album releases is “Popeye in the Movies,” since that was indeed what the sailor man was doing in 1980. The record’s story finds Popeye and Olive (another uncredited actor) touring a Hollywood movie studio where four movies are being filmed at once. Popeye finds the action so realistic, he can’t help saving anyone who appears to need him-ruining take after take. The other story on the book and record set is “Spinach on the Spanish Main,” a rivalry story pitting Popeye against Bluto in the Caribbean in search of treasure.
The remaining two stories—not included with the book—are another Popeye and Bluto face off called “Gold Fever” that brings Wimpy into the search for riches; and the inventive “Who’s Afraid of a U.F.O.” in which a simple picnic becomes an invasion from space involving several different planets and interplanetary cousins of Popeye’s from another world. Take that, ancestry.com!
Music from the Motion Picture
Varese Sarabande Compact Disc #302 067 430 8 (2 Discs / Stereo / September 29, 2017)
Original LP Released on Boardwalk Records SW-36880 (1980)
Album Producer: Harry Nilsson. Arranger/Conductor: Van Dyke Parks. Underscore: Thomas Pierson. Recording Engineers: Doug Dillard, Ray Cooper, Harry Nilsson, Van Dyke Parks, Klaus Voormann, Phil Dunne, Bob Gravenor, Randy Honaker, Rick Riccio, Mike Hatcher. Music Contractor: Carl Fortina. Music Consultant: Lennie Niehaus. Executive Producers for Varese Sarabande Records: Cary E. Mansfield, Jerry McCauley, Chas Ferry, Byron Davis. Executive in Charge of Music for Paramount Pictures: Randy Speedlove. Soundtrack Album Coordinator: Michael Murphy. Project Consultant: Lukas Kendall. Liner Notes: Jerry McCulley. Mastering: Chas Ferry, Daren Chadwick, Richard Karst. Transfers: John Davis. Art Direction: Bill Pitzonka. Package Design; Rachel Gutek. Lyric Reprints & Drawings Courtesy of The Harry Nilsson Estate. Recorded in Malta and Burbank. Running Time: 122 minutes.
Performers: Robin Williams (Popeye); Shelley Duvall (Olive Oyl); Ray Walston (Poopdeck Pappy); Big John Wallace (Bluto/Singing Voice); Paul Dooley (Wimpy); Robert Fortier (Bill Barnacle); Allen F. Nichols (Roughhouse); The Toughs, Barbershop and The Steinettes, Harry Nilsson.
Songs: “Sweethaven,” Blow Me Down,” “He’s Large,” “I’m Mean,” “Sailin’,” “I Yam What I Yam,” “He Needs Me,” “Swee’ Pea’s Lullaby,” “It’s Not Easy Being Me,” “Kids” by Harry Nilsson; “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man” by Sammy Lerner.
Deleted Songs: “Everything is Food,” “Din’ We” by Harry Nilsson.
Instrumentals: “Rough House Fight,” “March Through Town,” “The Grand Finale,” “Skeleton Cave,” “Now Listen Kid,” “To The Rescue,” “Mr. Eye Is Trapped,” “Back Into Action,” “Saved,” “Still At It,” “The Treasure,” “What? More Fighting,” “Pap’s Boy,” “Olive & The Octopus,” “What’s Up Pop,” ”Popeye Triumphant” by Thomas Pierson; “End Title Medley” by Harry Nilsson, Thomas Pierson.
Demos: “Sweethaven,” “I’m Mean,” “Swee’ Pea’s Lullaby,” “Blow Me Down,” “Everything Is Food,” “He Needs Me,” “Everybody’s Got To Eat,” “Sail With Me,” “I Yam What I Yam,” “It’s Not Easy Being Me,” “Kids,” “I’m Popeye The Sailor Man,” “I’m Mean,” “He Needs Me,” “Everybody’s Got To Eat,” “Din We,” “Sailin’,” “I’d Rather Be Me” by Harry Nilsson.
According to the fascinating, highly detailed album notes by reissue co-executive producer Jerry McCulley, the perception of failure often leveled at 1980’s musical version of Popeye is wrong. Actually, it was highly profitable at the box office and outshone The Shining, Caddyshack, Friday the 13th, Urban Cowboy, Raging Bull and The Elephant Man. What it didn’t do was satisfy the astronomical—and arguably unrealistic—projections established for it.
Consider the logic. They wanted Annie, but Columbia got the rights (and it didn’t work out very well for them). They wanted a full-fledged family musical based on a beloved cartoon character. They hired Jules Feiffer, who based the screenplay on the Segar comics, not the cartoons—and so fiercely defended his position, the original star, Dustin Hoffman, walked off the project.
It was an attempt to make something mainstream in an era of deconstructive entertainment. Producer Robert Evans and director Robert Altman (neither exactly Arthur Freed themselves) hired the brilliant—but unconventional—Harry Nilsson, whose had ideally scored the animated Yellow Submarine-like The Point, but has also musicalized the baffling Skidoo. His score for Popeye is quite wonderful and plays marvelously on recordings. On screen however, the undulating pace of several tunes can run counter to advancing the proceedings. One thing is for sure, hearing the composer sing his demos makes it powerfully clear how ideally the songs are suited for his own unique style of performance.
The casting was remarkable. The movie actually pleased many critics and is often dismissed by many who never saw it. Whatever disappointment is might have wrought can be interpreted from Leonard Maltin’s negative review, in which he said that watching Max Fleischer cartoons would be better. Therein lies the dilemma. Generations each have their own Popeye in their heads and it’s a tough job to fulfill all of them. One wonders how it would work on stage, though.
The album is definitely worth having, for fans of Robin Williams—if only for the tender, heartfelt way he sings to Swee’ Pea; Harry Nilsson; Van Dyke Parks; and Popeye himself. The music is lovingly restored, with the lavish background music that was not included on the vinyl album and loads of demos featured Nilsson and members of the cast. It’s over two hours long and relatively inexpensive—but I have a feeling that won’t be for very long.