Notebook Cover

  Big John & The Buzzards

By Marv Goldberg

Based on an interview with Thurl Ravenscroft


© 2004, 2009 by Marv Goldberg


Quick. What do R&B and Kellog's Frosted Flakes have in common? Not much, actually, but how would you like to hear Tony The Tiger sing R&B. Well, if you own either of the Buzzards records on Columbia, that's just what you'll hear.

However, there really was no group called "Big John & The Buzzards." They were actually the Mellomen, an outgrowth of Jack Benny's Sportsmen.

Thurl Ravenscroft The Sportsmen began around 1938: Bill Days (top tenor), Max Smith (second tenor), Johnny Rarig (baritone), and Thurl Ravenscroft (bass). They were together until 1942, when Thurl was drafted. He stayed in the military for five years, and then found that, since his spot in the Sportsmen had long been filled, he couldn't get his old job back.

He was really upset about it, but there was nothing he could do. Nothing, that is, except start his own group. Thus, the Mellomen were born. Max Smith decided to leave the Sportsmen to go with the new aggregation, and the others were top tenor Bob Hamlin and baritone Bill Lee.

The Mellomen had no trouble finding work and did the Cavalcade of American Music radio show with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy. They had a few releases in the early 50s on Capitol and M-G-M. They recorded, on their own and as a backup group, as the Mellomen (sometimes seen as the "Mello-Men"), the Bobolinks, the Heartbeats, the Ravenscroft Quartet, and the Lee Brothers.

Another name they used was the "Crackerjacks," when they made two records for Kapp. The first of these, "Kiss Crazy Baby"/"Paper Valentine" came out around September 1954; the second, "Be Good, Be Good, Be Good"/"Whispering Wind" was probably from January 1955.

On August 24, 1954, a kind of music history was made when the Mellomen recorded some R&B tunes for Columbia, including covers of Shirley Gunter's "Oop Shoop" and the Clovers' "Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash." Paul Weston had them pick out the songs, but A&R man Mitch Miller (a staunch foe of R&B) tried his best to kill the whole project.

In spite of that, "Oop Shoop" and "Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash" were released on Columbia's Okeh subsidiary in September. They were issued as by "Big John & The Buzzards," which probably expressed the way Miller felt about the music.

The songs were reviewed the week of November 6, 1954 (with "Oop" getting a "good" and "Cash" ranked "fair"). Other reviews that week went to Marvin & Johnny's "Sugar," the Royals' "Someday We'll Meet Again," the Cues' "Scoochie Scoochie," the Gentlemen's "Something To Remember You By," the Charmers' "I Was Wrong," and the Singing Wanderers' "The Wrong Party Again."

Mean Woman label, courtesy of Nikki Gustafson "Mean Woman"/"Hey, Little Girl" followed on Columbia in October 1954. They were reviewed on November 20 (both "fair"), along with the Clovers' "I Confess," the Drifters' "White Christmas," the 5 Pearls' "Real Humdinger," Lavern Baker's "Tweedle Dee," the Regals' "May The Good Lord Bless And Keep You," the Chestnuts' "Don't Go," the Hollywood Flames' "Fare Thee Well," and the Valentines' "Tonight Kathleen."

Note that the "Buzzards" that backed up Jake Porter on "Wine, Women And Gold" in early 1955 were actually the Robins.

Listen To The Quartets Neither of these records did anything in particular, and 1955 found "Thurl Ravenscroft & the Sky Boys" recording "Mad, Baby, Mad"/"Never Doubt My Love" for Fabor Robison's Fabor label. In 1956, there was "I Ain't Afraid"/"Oh You Sweet One" on Bally (which only has Thurl's name on the label, although the rest of the group is there). The "Crackerjacks" tunes, which they'd recorded for Kapp in 1954, appeared on a 1956 Kapp album (which they shared with the Lancers) called Listen To The Quartets.

In 1955, Bob Hamlin left the Mellomen, to be replaced by Bob Stevens. This was an interesting choice, since Stevens had been the original replacement for Max Smith in the Sportsmen.

The Mellomen - with Walt Disney The Mellomen - Late 50s No hits. Total obscurity? Well, not exactly. The Mellomen had another gig; with a guy named Walt Disney. They voiced the singing mice in 1950s "Cinderella" (the tape was recorded at a very slow speed to get the falsetto sounds when played back) and were the playing cards in 1951's "Alice In Wonderland." They backed up Kirk Douglas, singing "Whale Of A Tale," in 1954's "20,000 Leagues Under The Sea," and were the dog pound voices in 1955's "Lady And The Tramp." They were all in 1958's "Paul Bunyan," with Thurl himself lending his voice to the title character. They were also in the chorus of "Peter Pan" and "Sleeping Beauty," as well as the short cartoon "Toot, Whistle, Plunk, And Boom." Then there was the TV work. Who do you think was singing the theme songs to "The Mickey Mouse Club," "Davy Crockett," and "Zorro"?

Through all of this, the Mellomen were the main voices in the Norman Luboff Choir, appearing on all of the Luboff albums.

I'm not sure when the ad campaign started, but Thurl Ravenscroft ended up as the basso voice of Tony The Tiger, advertising Kellog's Frosted Flakes. (Tony was certainly more fun than that dull Esso tiger.)

The Mellomen The Mellomen That's not enough for you? Ok. It's the Christmas season; time for all you Grinches to gather. Guess who's singing "You're A Mean One, Mr. Grinch" in the perennial "How The Grinch Stole Christmas" cartoon? None other than Big John himself.

In 1961, Bob Stevens died. His place was taken by Bill Cole. Max Smith left the Mellomen in 1966, to be replaced by Gene Merlino.

The Mellomen with Elvis The Mellomen did a lot of studio backup work in their career, including recordings behind Rosemary Clooney ("This Old House" [that's Thurl doing "Ain't-a gonna need this house no longer"], "Mambo Italiano," "White Christmas," "Count Your Blessings," "Where Will The Dimple Be," and "Hey There") Bing Crosby (some albums in the 50s), Frankie Laine ("Sixteen Tons"), Jo Stafford (on her Songs Of Faith album, as the Ravenscroft Quartet, and on Columbia, as the Lee Brothers), Doris Day ("Bewitched, Bothered, And Bewildered" and "It's A Great Feeling"), Mario Lanza, Peggy Lee, and Eartha Kitt. In 1963, they got to back up another one of those obscure artists: Elvis Presley. They're the group behind him in the movie "It Happened At The World's Fair," singing songs such as "One Broken Heart For Sale." These were all recorded for M-G-M and subsequently sold to RCA Victor. They were also his backup group in "Paradise Hawaiian Style."

Note that, although the Mellomen were on the soundtrack of many movies, they rarely appeared in any of them; extras were used to lip sync the tracks.

The Mellomen lasted into the early 70s, when they just got too old to continue. An "obscure" group with an amazing legacy. Their R&B work wasn't intended to be serious, but what great voices they had. Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of "Big John" and "Tony The Tiger" (for over 50 years) passed away on May 22, 2005, at the age of 91.


Representative (and quite incomplete) discography courtesy of Ferdie Gonzalez. Thanks to Nikki Gustafson for the label scan.



MELLO-MEN

M-G-M
K11607 My Love, The Blues, And Me/I'd Give A Million Yesterdays - 10/53

CAPTIOL
F32069 'Twas The Night Before Christmas/Pt. 2 - 54


CRACKERJACKS

KAPP
106 Kiss Crazy Baby/Paper Valentine - ca. 9/54
109 Be Good, Be Good, Be Good/Whispering Wind - ca. 1/55
1045 Listen To The Quartets - above four songs on a 1956 LP shared with the Lancers


BIG JOHN & BUZZARDS

OKEH
4-7045 Oop Shoop/Your Cash Ain't Nothin' But Trash - 9/54

COLUMBIA
4-40345 Hey, Little Girl/Mean Woman - 10/54


THURL RAVENSCROFT & SKY BOYS

FABOR
4005 Mad, Baby, Mad/Never Doubt My Love - 4/55


THURL RAVENSCROFT
(WITH THE MELLOMEN)

BALLY
1008 I Ain't Afraid/Oh You Sweet One - 56


ELVIS PRESLEY & MELLOMEN

RCA VICTOR (All purchased from M-G-M Pictures)
47-8134 One Broken Heart For Sale/They Remind Me Too Much Of You - 1/63
        (re-released as RCA VICTOR 447-0640 in 9/64)
447-0681 How Would You Like To Be/[If Every Day Was Like Christmas] - 11/71
        (Mellomen not on flip)



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