Two movie clowns who sang about “The Blue Ridge Mountains Of Virginia”!
Just after Thanksgiving, Todd Everett forwarded me a link from Steve Hoffman’s online Music Forum in which someone asked how “Trail Of The Lonesome Pine” by the classic movie comedy duo Laurel & Hardy became a major UK hit back in 1975. Since that single was the most successful record I was ever responsible for releasing, I thought you might enjoy my version of how it came about.
In the 1970’s, BBC Television regularly broadcast and endlessly re-broadcast both the shorts and the features that Laurel & Hardy made for Hal Roach. I had been label manager at United Artists Records in London since 1968 and had long been a fan of the boys; George Garabedian’s US label Mark 56 had issued some Laurel & Hardy LP’s containing soundtrack extracts but nothing had been issued in the UK and I felt that there was a market for a single soundtrack album which would highlight not just their dialog but also some of the songs that provided memorable moments in their movies. With the help of the BBC’s Alan Howden, I contacted the late Irving Feld who, through his Overseas Programming company in San Francisco, was the European representative of the Hal Roach film catalog; we did a licensing deal for the soundtracks and Irving gave me free rein to use whichever clips I wanted. The BBC made audio dubs for us of the films in their possession and I spent a joyous few months in early 1975 choosing and editing at Abbey Road Studios what eventually became the LP called “The Golden Age Of Hollywood Comedy”.
I made sure that some of my favorite Laurel & Hardy songs were included such as “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” from “Swiss Miss” (1938), “In The Good Old Summertime” from “Below Zero” (1930) and the early ragtime tune “At The Ball, That’s All” sung by The Avalon Boys (joyously delivering such lyrics as “Take your partner and you hold her, lightly enfold her a little bolder”!) and to which Stan & Ollie performed their famous dance on a street corner. The other song I chose for this album was “The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine” from “Way Out West” (1937) – the one which begins with a member of The Avalon Boys singing & playing guitar in a barroom scene; Oliver Hardy then joins in while Stan listens approvingly to his mellifluous tenor voice before joining in but not with his own vocal chords but lip-synching to the deep tenor voice of actor Chill Wills!
The more I listened to the track, the more I became convinced that we should give it a shot as a single. I pitched the idea to UA’s marketing manager Denis Knowles and he agreed; we felt that at least it would pick up some play on children’s radio request programmes. Our chief promotion guy back then was Ronnie Bell, an ex-Royal Navy gentleman who always sported a bowtie and a rather obvious toupée…he knew his way around the BBC and I anxiously waited to hear which Radio 2 programmes had shown interest in my Laurel & Hardy 45. Huffing and puffing, Ronnie came into my office one afternoon and said “Well old boy, I’ve got some really good news for you”. The good news was in fact that influential dee-jay John Peel had fallen in love with the record – he had a nightly programme during the week on Radio 1 and had decided to play “Lonesome Pine” on his Monday, Wednesday & Friday show and then on the Tuesday and Thursday evenings, he played “Honolulu Baby”, the B side!
From then onwards, the floodgates opened and it suddenly seemed that everyone in Britain was talking about and playing “The Trail Of The Lonesome Pine”: an olde-tyme song that had been written by Ballard MacDonald and Harry Carroll back in the early 1900’s and which is also widely referred to as “The Blue Ridge Mountains Of Virginia”, part of the lyric’s opening line. The relevant film clip was shown on BBC Television’s “Top Of The Pops” and the record’s momentum grew and grew; amazingly, by Christmas week, Laurel & Hardy were #2 on the British singles chart just behind “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen which was oddly appropriate since a year or so before making “Way Out West”, Stan & Ollie had made another Hal Roach feature film called “The Bohemian Girl”!
The fact that “Lonesome Pine” ended up selling over a quarter of a million records proved that it caught the imagination not only of older buyers who’d grown up with the Laurel & Hardy pictures but also with a younger generation of fans.
One of the wonderful things about British radio is that novelty records can still get airplay on influential radio stations. A soft-shoe shuffle anyone?!
Movie Quote of the week:
“When women go wrong, men go right after them”
spoken by Mae West as saloon singer and Bowery nightclub owner Lady Lou in “She Done Him Wrong” (Paramount: 1933)