Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A Song A Day: Butch Baker, "Batman at the Go-Go"

JUNE 13, 2017



RELEASED 1966 ON 7” 45

Adam West’s recent passing led me to think about the impact of Batman on the music scene when the ABC-TV program became popular in early 1966.

Within weeks of the show’s January 12 premiere, a spate of songs hit the market celebrating, poking fun at, or just plain cashing in on the popular DC Comics character and the hip, pop-art television depiction of the Batman & Robin stories. This seems to have been a continuation of the 1965 James Bond/secret agent craze, which had already produced plenty of hits (and misses) on the record charts.

Neal Hefti composed Batman’s catchy theme, and he and the Marketts reached the hit parade with competing versions. Plenty of other acts—from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra to the Kinks—recorded the theme. Both Adam West and Burt Ward (who played Robin on the series) issued loopy, self-referential solo 45s; Ward’s was written and produced by Frank Zappa!

Even two of the program’s guest villains, Frank Gorshin and Burgess Meredith, were captured in songs referencing their characters.

Of course, novelty specialist Dickie Goodman produced a break-in, “Batman and His Grandmother,” which also referenced the hit songs of spring 1966. A Chicago ensemble cut “The Battman Polka.” A group of Los Angeles session musicians, including Leon Russell, put out “Batman and Robin” under the name The Spotlights.

Well-known hit-makers cashed in too. R&B songstress Lavern Baker updated her classic “Jim Dandy to the Rescue” to the somewhat desperate “Batman to the Rescue,” while the Brothers Four, an otherwise undistinguished folk-pop combo, cut a somewhat amusing novelty entitled “Ratman and Bobbin in the Clipper Caper.” California surf/car duo Jan and Dean were on the scene very quickly, creating an entire album of Caped Crusader-styled novelties. Jumpin’ Gene Simmons, of “Haunted House” fame, did his own thing called “The Batman.”

The February 5, 1966 issue of Record World magazine reviewed six new Batman-inspired 45s that week alone; there were many, many more, and they came fast and furious in several genres: rock, R&B, novelty, country, orchestral. It took only a few weeks from Batman’s premiere on ABC for the Neil Hefti and Marketts versions of its theme to dent the national charts!

Which brings us, sort of, to 12-year-old Butch Baker. In February 1966, Chicago’s St. Lawrence label—distributed by the much larger Chess label, with great 45s by Mamie Galore and the Vontastics to its credit—issued a stomping R&B single by young Baker entitled “Batman at the Go-Go.”

Adam West’s Batman character had performed a dance called the “Batusi” in the show’s first episode on January 12, immediately injecting some mod frisson to the already campy character; the idea of a caped superhero dancing to popular discotheque music clearly blew some peoples’ minds.

Penned by veteran Chicago R&B session men/songwriters Monk Higgins and Burgess Gardner, “Batman at the Go-Go” was appropriately lighthearted, referencing current dance trends such as the Philly and the Slide and the Jerk and something called the Boston Monkey (?!). The musicians had serious chops, and Baker was pretty darn good for a 12-year-old. “Robin at the Go-Go” was the flip side.

Unfortunately nobody at St. Lawrence bothered to contact National Periodicals, Inc., which owned the copyright to the caped character and his name. Almost immediately after “Batman at the Go-Go’s” release, some sharp pencil noticed that this R&B novelty was getting radio play in Chicago, and St. Lawrence was hit with an injunction. In fact, National Periodicals put many unauthorized Batman records off the market entirely.

But the folks at St. Lawrence were undaunted. The label immediately cut and issued a new track called “The Fat Man,” which simply replaced every mention of “Batman” with “fat man” (and, comically, “Batmobile” with “fatmobile”). The local soul charts referred to the record as “Fat Man at the Go-Go,” but either way the song’s airplay and success were limited only to the African American community of Chicago.

Little is known about Butch Baker’s future activities, and the Batman craze on records died out by the end of spring 1966, to replaced by other media-driven pop trends over the summer and the fall such as the “psychedelic” music hoo-hah, John Lennon’s “more popular than Jesus” remark, and the arrival of The Monkees. But it sounds like it was fun while it lasted.

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