Blood on the Saddle: The Big Al Story

Big Al

There are certain moments that will live forever in the history of popular music—the Beatles’ appearance on Ed Sullivan, Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison, and Freddy Mercury at Live Aid spring to mind. The moment the spotlight first struck Big Al on the stage of the Country Bear Jamboree also belongs on that list. 

Ok. Obviously, I’m being a bit silly. Big Al’s debut was a much bigger deal than all of that other nonsense. It marked the appearance of a singular talent who continues to entertain and delight countless fans over half a century after he burst upon the scene.

Critics may scoff that he only sings one song and that his guitar is grossly out of tune during the performance, but true connoisseurs of music recognize that this is part of his greatness, and only lends to his charm. 

Adding to his intrigue, his signature song, “Blood on the Saddle,” comes complete with a bit of mystery. Traditionally, the song is credited to Everett Cheatham, but there’s at least a little room for doubt on that front. 

Woodward Maurice “Tex” Ritter

American country music singer, songwriter and actor Tex Ritter (1905 – 1974), 1940s. (Photo by Frank Driggs Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Before we venture into the murky waters of authorship, let’s get some fundamentals out of the way. 

Big Al gave his first performance as part of The Country Bear Jamboree on October 1, 1971, the opening day of Walt Disney World. His voice was provided by Country Hall of Fame member Tex Ritter (who is the father of actor John Ritter, who made his film debut in Disney’s The Barefoot Executive, and grandfather of Jason Ritter, who supplied the voice of Dipper Pines in Disney’s Gravity Falls). 

Born in Panola County, Texas in 1905, Ritter grew up immersed in western music. His love and knowledge of the genre grew under the tutelage of such luminaries as J. Frank Dobie, Oscar J. Fox, and John Lomax when he attended the University of Texas.

By the late 1920s, he had relocated to New York, where he began performing on Broadway, even appearing in productions like Green Grow the Lilacs (a show which would inspire the Rogers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma!).

According to the Country Music Hall of Fame, “By mid-decade, the enormous success of Gene Autry’s westerns led other film studios to look for their own singing cowboys. One of the first producers to recognize Ritter’s potential was Edward Finney, who signed him and released his first starring film, Song of the Gringo, in 1936. Ritter was well suited to the role of singing cowboy. He looked and acted the part and was singing the type of songs he loved best.”

In 1942, Ritter became one of the first artists to sign with the newly formed Capitol Records, a move that would lead to the most successful portion of his career. He recorded a string of hits, including, “I’m Wastin’ My Tears on You,” “You Two-Timed Me One Time to Often,” and “You Will Have to Pay,” all of which reached number one on the country charts. Other songs, like “Rye Whiskey,” “Jealous Heart,” “There’s a New Moon Over My Shoulder,” “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?” “I Dreamed of a Hillbilly Heaven,” and “When You Leave, Don’t Slam the Door,” were also highly successful.

In 1960, he released the album Blood on the Saddle, which featured the song that would become synonymous with Big Al, as well as country & western classics such as “Bury Me Not on the Lone Prairie,” “Boll Weevil,” and “Streets of Laredo.” 

Five years later, he relocated to Nashville, where he began performing with the Grand Ole Opry and on WSM Radio. An unsuccessful bid for the United States Senate followed in 1970. Fortunately for Ritter, he would soon be immortalized as the greatest singing bear in history (sorry Teddi Barra). 

Everett Cheetham

Everett Cheetham

Curiously, Green Grow the Lilacs would introduce another character in the Big Al saga. Everett Cheatham, born in 1902 in Wyoming, also played a role in the show. His IMDB biography notes, “Everett Cheetham’s genuine cowboy background included years of entertaining the guests at Dude Ranches, leading trail rides, and competing in rodeos in Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho with his long-time friend, Hank Worden. He is best remembered for composing “Blood on the Saddle” and “The Lavender Cowboy”, and for his appearance with Tex Ritter in Lynn Rigg’s folk musical “Green Grow the Lilacs”…Cheetham and his friend Worden were contestants in the annual Madison Square Garden rodeo, and answered a casting call for cowboy singers, musician and yodelers and both were cast in the play, with Cheetham singing “The Strawberry Roan” and “Red River Valley.” After the play closed, Cheetham worked in New York radio with Ritter, then gave up show business to return to Wyoming.”

The entrance of Cheetham into the story is where things become murky. Most accounts credit him as the author of “Blood on the Saddle,” but it may not be as clear cut as all that. As noted on the webpage Mudcat, “Blood on the Saddle may have been written by Everett Cheetham, of Taos, New Mexico, sometime in the 1920s, as he told interviewer Jerry Herndon in 1974….However…Arizona cowpuncher and radio singin’ cowboy Romy Lowdermilk told Katie Lee in 1969 that *he* was the author and had traded the song to Cheetham around 1929 for one of Cheetham’s called “Jose Cuervo’s Daughter” (Lowdermilk called that song “a good one”.) Lowdermilk recalled that he and cartoonist J. W. Williams had cooked up the first stanza, apparently without music, which Williams later used in one of his cartoons. Lowdermilk made the song “longer and goryer [sic].”

And that’s not the end of the confusion, as, “…someone else told Katie Lee that he’d heard a cowboy named Oklahoma Pete singin’ it in Alberta in 1905….” Of course, this type of confusion is nothing new to the world of folk and cowboy music, which often functions in the same manner as an oral storytelling tradition, with songs being passed from musician to musician, growing organically, and changing over the years. 

As for the song’s inspiration, it seems to have come from a real-life event. At least, if one assumes Cheetham as the actual author. According to an article in the Journal of American Folklore, Cheetham, “wrote the song about a rodeo rider who was injured at the Wickenburg, Arizona, rodeo. [Ritter] maintains that the song was meant to be a serious one about a genuinely tragic event, but, when Everett Cheetham sang it at the dude ranches where he worked, the people laughed. Thus it became a comedy song…”

The lyrics, for those folks who may want a full taste of the hilarity are:

There was blood on the saddle and blood all around

And a great big puddle of blood on the ground

A cowboy lay in it all covered with gore

And he never will ride any broncos no more

Oh, pity the cowboy, all bloody and red

For the bronco fell on him and bashed in his head

There was blood on the saddle and blood all around

And a great big puddle of blood on the ground

Now that’s comedy! 

Regardless of the song’s true authorship, we can all agree that NO ONE has performed it with the same panache as Big Al. The greatest performer of our (or any) time. 

The Bad Boys from Boston: Aerosmith and the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster

Rock n Roller Coaster

Back in high school, I started a band. Because it was the 90s. And that’s what you did if you weren’t popular or particularly good at sports. Our group formed around a love of bands like Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Aerosmith. We were convinced that we were the chosen heroes to carry the Great Torch of Rock and Roll for our generation. The only problem? We kinda sucked. 

Our biggest performance took place at a high school talent show. We played Aerosmith’s classic “Dream On” from their eponymous 1973 album. There’s a moment at the climax of the song when Steven Tyler’s vocals rocket into the stratosphere, hitting a G#5 that could shatter glass. It would have made sense for our singer to just take it down a bit, but we decided to go hell-bent for leather and he attempted to hit the note. The result was akin to what you’d hear if got a monkey jacked up on amphetamines and then fed it a ghost pepper. 

Of course, odds are you did not come to this page to learn about my failed ambition to become a titan of Rock. You’re here to learn about Disney music. Fear not, gentle reader, because this meandering introduction was all for the purpose of a greater cause: discussing the Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster Starring Aerosmith in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. 

The attraction opened in July 1999, with a grand opening ceremony attended by the members of Aerosmith and thousands of screaming fans. Speaking of the experience of working with Disney, lead singer Steven Tyler said, “When you’ve toured the world as much as we have, it’s a real thrill to find a new audience. Coming up with a soundtrack for this Disney ride really brought the kid out in all of us and has given us the opportunity to play audio gymnastics with our music.”

With all of that in mind, here’s a little info on Aerosmith and the music of Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster.

You can’t always get what you want…

Let’s just get this out of the way quickly. 

No. Aerosmith was not Disney’s first choice for Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. They weren’t even the second choice.

The Rolling Stones were initially pursued, but the British rockers wanted $10 million to be a part of the ride. As a replacement, Disney approached KISS, but they wanted even more money than Jagger and the rest of the Stones. Curiously, Disney’s next choice was U2. With no disrespect to U2, it’s hard to imagine their music providing the high-intensity soundtrack for a roller coaster that propels Guests from zero to just under 60 mph in 2.8 seconds. 

Fortunately for Disney and theme park visitors around the world, the Bad Boys from Boston were more than happy to be a part of the project. And they didn’t request an arm and a leg to do so. 

The Boys in the Band

Aerosmith

Lovers of classic rock are no doubt familiar with Aerosmith’s illustrious line-up. A younger generation became better acquainted with the group’s frontman, Steven Tyler, during the two seasons he spent as a judge on American Idol. And the casual fan may even be able to rattle off the name Joe Perry, lead guitarist for Aerosmith. But it takes every member to create a well-oiled rock and roll machine, so let’s take a brief moment to meet the band.

 On vocals, we have the Demon of Screamin’ himself: Steven Tyler.

Melting faces with his flaming hot, lead guitar solos, ladies and gentleman: Joe Perry.

Providing the hard, pulsing backbone of the band, we’ve got rhythm guitarist Brad Whitford.

Bringing the funk and moving rumps all over the globe, give it up for bassist Tom Hamilton.

And last, but certainly not least, giving Aerosmith its heartbeat, the hard-hitting, ear-splitting Joey Kramer on drums.

How did the band form?

Aerosmith

In 1964, Steven Tyler formed a band called the Strangeuers. Since we can all agree that it isn’t the best name, you’ll be happy to know that it was changed to Chain Reaction. Joe Perry and Tom Hamilton had their own group, known as Joe Perry’s Jam Band. 

After Perry and Hamilton moved to Boston, they added Joey Kramer to their group. Hamilton was already familiar with Tyler, as both grew up in Yonkers, and had always wanted to perform with him. 

In October of 1970, the two bands performed at the same gig, and Tyler suggested they join forces, under one condition. He was the drummer for Chain Reaction. And he would only perform with them provided that they allowed him to be the lead singer of the group. 

Their new alliance formed, and the group moved into a house together and started writing music. Around this time, they also added Ray Tabano on rhythm guitar. If you’re asking, “Who the heck is Ray Tabano?” That is because he was replaced by Brad Whitford in 1971. Thus was America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band formed. 

What the heck is an Aerosmith?

Steven Tyler and Joe Perry

According to drummer Joey Kramer, the inspiration for the album came while listening to a Harry Nilsson record called Aerial Ballet

“We started kicking around this work ‘aerial,’ and ‘aerial’ eventually came into ‘aero’ – I don’t know how that happened,” Kramer said. “And it was like Aeromind, Aerostar, Aero-this, Aero-that; and somebody said ’smith’ – Aerosmith? Wow! And from then on it was all over my high school psychology books and my math books. The question was always, ‘What’s Aerosmith?’ And I would tell people, ‘When I leave high school I’m going to go have a rock ’n’ roll band, and that’s what it’s going to be called. And we’re going to be big and famous, and that’s the scoop.’ And they were all like, ‘Oh, that’s very nice, Joey.”

The Songs

The music you hear on the roller coaster (blasted through over 900 speakers, with each Guest surrounded by five: four around the head and one subwoofer beneath the seat) features some of Aerosmith’s greatest hits. But the songs you hear depend on which car you board. There are a total of five cars, each with a unique license plate:

  • 1QKLIMO: “Nine Lives”
  • UGOBABE: “Love in an Elevator” and “Walk This Way”
  • BUHBYE: “Young Lust”, “F.I.N.E.*” and “Love in an Elevator”
  • H8TRFFC: “Back in the Saddle” and “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)”
  • 2FAST4U: “Sweet Emotion” (live, as featured in A Little South of Sanity)

Here’s a quick look at each song.

Nine Lives – the opening song and title track from the 1997 album Nine Lives

Love In an Elevator – from the 1989 album Pump, Aerosmith tweaked the lyrics in the song to “Love in a roller coaster…” According to Tyler, the inspiration for the song came from a real-life experience. As related on the Society of Rock page, “while on an elevator, he was making out with a woman when the doors opened. He added, ‘It felt like a lifetime waiting for those doors to close.’

Walk This Way – perhaps the definitive Aerosmith song, with one of the most recognizable riffs of all time, Walk This Way was the second single from their classic 1975 album Toys in the Attic. It would achieve a sort of second life in 1986 when pioneering hip hop group Run DMC covered it on the album Raising Hell.

Young Lust – the opening track on 1989’s Pump

F.I.N.E. * – second track on Pump, the title is a non-Disney friendly acronym. The song itself is the result of a jam session between Tyler and Perry. According to Tyler, “I sat down at the drums and hit this rhythm that came out of [Perry’s] guitar lick. One inspired the other.”

Back in the Saddle – the opening track on the 1976 album Rocks, an apt title because the song (and the album) absolutely rocks. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Both James Hetfield of Metallica and Slash of Guns n’ Roses have cited the song as a favorite.

Dude (Looks Like a Lady) – the lead single from 1987’s Permanent Vacation, the song was inspired by an incident in which Steven Tyler mistook Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neal for a woman. 

Sweet Emotion – Ok. You may recall that just a few sentences ago I referred to Walk This Way as the definitive Aerosmith song. That’s open for debate, because of the existence of Sweet Emotion. The third single from Toys in the Attic, the song has an incredible riff and has been rated no. 408 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Love Disney Music? You Need to Hear These 5 Albums

Mickey Mouse The Band

(Note: This article originally appeared on http://www.celebrationspress.com)

Music has always been fundamental to the Disney experience. Just try to picture Aladdin without “A Whole New World” or Dumbo without “Baby Mine”. The Haunted Mansion without “Grim Grinning Ghosts” is unthinkable. The idea of “it’s a small world” without its accompanying melody borders on blasphemy. From the movies to the theme parks, song has played a central part in bringing the magic to life.

With that in mind, here are five albums that we think every Disney fan needs to hear.   

Music From the Park

Disney’s Music from the Park

Released in 1996, this album is a fun romp through some of Disney’s most popular tunes. All of the pieces are reinterpreted by the artists, which include The Pointer Sisters, The Rembrandts, Olivia Newton-John, and Linda Ronstadt, among others.

The Barenaked Ladies’ rendition of Grim Grinning Ghosts is one of the true standouts, and for the comedic value, it’s very hard to top Tim Curry’s performance of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett.” Not only does he perform the piece, but he provides a sort of running commentary on the lyrics as the song progresses. To describe it as epic would be underselling its greatness. 

For a bit of nostalgia, make sure to check out Brian McKnight’s performance of “Remember the Magic” which was released for Walt Disney World’s 25th anniversary. The theme song will send you straight back to the days of the birthday cake castle, and the brilliant “Remember the Magic Parade”. As the parks continue to celebrate the “Most Magical Celebration on Earth”, the song is like a time machine to another great moment in Walt Disney World history. 

Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films

Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films

Disney songs are almost like the music of Christmas at this point. They are so ubiquitous that they are well known around the world and it seems every musical artist has, at one time or another, tried their hand at performing their favorites. 

Nowhere is that more apparent than in the eclectic performances found on “Stay Awake”. Produced by Hal Willner and released in 1988, it’s the sort of album that seems absurd on paper. The musicians included come from a vast array of genres. Michael Stipe of R.E.M performs, as does Tom Waits, the Roches, Bonnie Raitt, Yma Sumac, Sun Ra, Sinead O’Conner, Ringo Starr, Herb Alpert, Natalie Merchant, and Aaron Neville, to name just a few.   

The diversity is no surprise given the album’s producer. Willner’s career included work as a music producer for Saturday Night Live, as well as for artists like Lou Reed, Lucinda Williams, Marianne Faithful, and even William S. Burroughs.

He was also famous for producing tribute albums and concerts for such diverse musicians as Tim Buckley, Nino Rota, Charles Mingus, Leonard Cohen, and Randy Newman.

While it’s hard to pick a favorite from the album, Tom Waits’s growling interpretation of “Heigh-Ho (The Marching Song)” is particularly memorable. “Medley Five (Technicolor Pachyderms)” is also not to be missed. The track begins with jazz luminary Sun Ra and the Arkestra performing “Pink Elephants” before transitioning into a zydeco-esque arrangement by Van Dyke Parks of “Zip-a-Dee-Do-Dah” performed by Harry Nilsson.

Muppets: The Green Album

Muppets: The Green Album

In 1968, the Beatles released their iconic “White Album.” Just over a quarter of a century later, Weezer issued the “Blue Album.” A mere nine years after that, came Jay-Z’s “The Black Album.” It only makes sense that the next stop on this musical tour of the rainbow would come from the Muppets.

Walt Disney Records dropped the record on August 31, 2011. A week prior, every song was debuted on NPR’s First Listen program. It features a wide array of musicians from the alternative, punk, and indie scenes, re-working classic Muppets songs. 

Weezer and Paramore’s Hayley Williams sing “Rainbow Connection”. The Fray performs a toe-tapping version of “Mahna-Mahna”. My Morning Jacket dip outside the Muppets catalog, but remain within the world of Henson, with their take on “Our World” from Emmett Otter’s Jug-Band Christmas. Emo darlings Alkaline Trio even give us a rocking version of “Moving Right Along”.

There’s so much good stuff, that I’m reluctant to name any single piece as the “best”. That said, I’m particularly fond of Sondre Lerche’s infectious bit of pop heaven found in his take on “Mr. Bassman”.

Nightmare Revisited

Nightmare Revisited

Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is a true classic in every sense of the word. Ground-breaking animation, compelling characters, an entertaining storyline, and of course, some of the greatest music ever written for a Disney film thanks to the brilliant compositions of Danny Elfman, and fantastic performances by folks like Ken Page and Catherine O’Hara.

“Nightmare Revisited” was released in honor of the movie’s 15th anniversary and was produced by David Agnew. Given the macabre humor of the film, and the goth leanings of many of its biggest fans, it should be no surprise that it features some pretty distortion-heavy, crunchy performers. The track “This Is Halloween” is performed by shock rocker Marilyn Manson, while “Kidnap the Sandy Claus” is handled by the nu-metal band Korn. The driving flamenco-tinged guitars of Rodrigo y Gabriela provide a unique take on “Oogie Boogie’s Song”, while the psychedelic pop of Polyphonic Spree gives us a new take on the “Town Meeting Song”.  

The punk rock adaptation of “Making Christmas” by Rise Against seems so fitting that it’s almost hard to hear the song any other way once you’ve given it a listen, and the Plain White T’s are responsible for a stripped-down performance of “Poor Jack” that captures the pathos of the number. 

Everybody Wants to Be a Cat

Everybody Wants to Be a Cat, Disney Jazz, Vol. 1

We’ve talked before about the link between Disney and Jazz. It makes sense. Jazz music is all about taking risks and exploring new possibilities, which was at the core of Walt Disney’s philosophy.  Over the years, jazz greats like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Etta Jones, and others have recorded their own versions of Disney hits.

“Everybody Wants to Be a Cat,” which was released in 2010, keeps this love affair alive with glorious performances that demonstrate the versatility of the genre, and its ability to take well-known Disney standards and transform them into something new. Performers include Roy Hargrove, Esperanza Spaulding, Dianne Reeves, Alfredo Rodriguez, and The Bad Plus (a trio that has given the world jazz versions of songs by groups like the Pixies, Nirvana, Aphex Twin, and Ornette Coleman).

Top to bottom, the album is a joy. It’s easy to picture yourself in a dark, smoky nightclub while listening to Spaulding’s recording of “Chim Chim Cher-ee”, and Nikki Yanofsky’s swinging version of “It’s a Small World” sounds as though it should be played under the bright lights of Vegas, with an Ella Fitzgerald worthy scat. 

All that said, it’s particularly exciting to hear the legendary Dave Brubeck on “Someday My Prince Will Come” and alongside Roberta Gambarina on “Alice in Wonderland”. Brubeck would pass away a little over two years after the album’s release (and a day before his 92 birthday), and it’s wonderful to find that he had lost none of his mastery over the piano, with playing that is equal parts delicate and energetic.

A Pirate’s Life for Me: Composing a Disney Classic

Pirates of the Caribbean

Ah, to live the life of a pirate. Swashing buckles. Burying perfectly spendable treasure in the sand. Singing sea shanties. Losing teeth due to a bad case of scurvy. Living to the ripe old age of 40. What’s not to love?

The world of piracy has been romanticized and written about in fiction since the 18th century when Daniel Defoe published “Robinson Crusoe” and “The Life, Adventures, and Piracies of the Famous Captain Singleton” in 1719 and 1720 respectively. Since then, countless books, movies and more have been devoted to the subject of buccaneering. From Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic “Treasure Island” to Tim Powers’s “On Stranger Tides” the subject seems to be an endless source of inspiration, capturing the imagination of readers and writers around the world. While the reality of pirates may be far removed from their popular portrayal, they persist as a symbol of adventure and freedom. 

In the world of Disney parks, the classic attraction Pirates of the Caribbean has been entertaining Guests since March of 1967. Fifty-five years later, the attraction can be found in five parks worldwide (Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Tokyo Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Shanghai Disneyland), and inspired one of the most successful film franchises of all time. 

It’s a wonder of Imagineering, one that remains the gold standard in themed entertainment for over half a century since its debut. Between the stunning audio-animatronics, the deeply atmospheric set pieces, and perfect balance of humor and thrills, it is a masterpiece in every sense of the word. Of course, even with all of that, it’s hard to imagine that it would have had the enduring impact it has if not for its music. 

The song Yo Ho (A Pirate’s Life for Me) with music by George Bruns and lyrics by X. Atencio, is one of the most beloved numbers in the Disney canon. It’s a fact made all the more remarkable knowing that the lyricist had no previous experience in songwriting.

The Lyricist

X Atencio

Born in 1919, Xavier Atencio, known to his friends as X, joined Disney in 1938. An artist, he’d believed that working for the company was little more than a pipe dream until instructors encouraged him to submit his portfolio for review.

As he related to D23, “After I graduated high school in Colorado, I came out to California to go to school at the Chouinard Art Institute. At the end of a semester, a couple instructors told some of us to get our portfolios together and they would take them to the Studios to get critiques on our work. I had developed a character, Poncho, a Colorado Cowboy, and I had done a storyboard, but that was about it. And I thought, “I’ll never get a job over there.” So I went to Disney to see if I could get a summer job to make some money to go back to Art School. When I got there, George Drake, the fellow who recruited all us people, said, “Sit down here for a minute, I’ll be right with you.” And with that, three other guys from my classes came in and I thought, “There goes my job. I’ll never get a job now.” And George says, “We went through your portfolios and we like what you’ve done.” Would you be interested in coming to work for us?”

Upon acceptance, he was said to have run through his aunt’s house jubilantly shouting, “I got a job at Disney! I got a job at Disney!” 

He worked as an in-betweener on Pinnochio, and received his first screen credit for the Academy Award-winning short, “Toot, Whistle, Plunk, and Boom.” He was an assistant animator on “Fantasia” and also helped with sequences and titles for films like “Mary Poppins,” “Babes in Toyland,” and “The Parent Trap.”


In 1965, he joined WED Enterprises (now Imagineering) and helped create the Primeval World diorama, before working on Pirates of the Caribbean. According to Jason Surrel, in his book Pirates of the Caribbean: From the Magic Kingdom to the Movies, “Walt was concerned about how Guests would react to some of the pirates’ more lecherous behavior. It was X who convinced him that a rousing sea shanty might be a good way to soften up these hardened criminals. X also felt that a song would help create a strong sense of continuity for the show.”

Describing his writing process, X said, “I just came up with some dialogue that the pirates might have said and set it to music. Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of rum–that was a big part of the inspiration, that classic phrase.”

Despite coming up with the general concept, Atencio never believed that he would be selected to write the entire song, assuming that Walt would ask the Sherman Brothers to do the honors. He performed a bit of his idea for Walt, who promptly declared that he loved the song and wanted George Bruns to write the music. 

The Composer

George Bruns

From 1953 until 1976, George Bruns brought the brilliance of his craft to the world of Disney music, working on films like “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier,” “Johnny Tremain,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “The Absent-Minded Professor,” “The Jungle Book,” “The Aristocats” and more. During his career with the company, his compositions earned four Academy Award nominations and three Grammy Award nominations.

Born in 1914, Bruns began playing piano at the age of six, before learning the tuba and trombone. Over the course of his life, he would become proficient in 15 instruments. He studied music composition with Oregon pianist Dent Morey. 

He briefly attended school at Oregon State Agricultural College where he joined the ROTC and performed in the band, before dropping out to play music full time. Before joining Disney, he performed with a number of groups including the Jim Dericks Orchestra, Harry Owens’ Hawaiian Band, the Rose City Stompers, and the Castle Jazz Band. 

While working on the score for Sleeping Beauty, he was asked to fill a small gap of time in the Disneyland series about Davy Crockett. Working with lyricist Tom Blackburn, he composed “The Ballad of Davy Crockett,” which became a massive success.

Speaking of his work on Pirates of the Caribbean, Bruns said, “When I did ‘Yo Ho,’ we couldn’t have a beginning or an end because you didn’t know where you were going to come into the song in the ride. Each verse had to make some kind of sense, no matter when you heard it.”

As Jason Surrell notes, “…the music cues are in perfect length and synchronization to avoid an aural overload inside the attraction.”

With Atencio’s lyrics and Bruns’s music, the song was then recorded by the Mellomen, a ground consisting of Bill Cole, Bill Lee, Max Smith, and Thurl Ravenscroft (who also performed as one of the singing busts in the Haunted Mansion’s “Grim Grinning Ghosts”).

A Work of Genius

That the genius of Atencio and Bruns (who both have been named Disney Legends) should be so perfectly married, especially when Atencio had no previous experience as a songwriter, seems like the sort of fairytale story that might be told in a Disney film. It was a perfect aligning of stars.

Of Bruns, legendary animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston said, “George Bruns worked equally well in either medium, writing ‘Davy Crockett’ for the live TV show at the same time he was adapting Tchaikovsky’s ballet score for Sleeping Beauty to our animated version of the classic fairy tale. George was big and easy-going, but he worked very hard and produced a seemingly endless string of fresh melodies and haunting scores.”

For his part, Atencio credits Walt Disney with encouraging him to explore a talent he never even knew he possessed, stating, “I didn’t even know I could write music, but somehow Walt did. He tapped my hidden talents.”

Looking back, Atencio expressed delight with the song’s success, stating “…it’s nice to know it’s become so well known. I was down in Laguna Beach one time several years ago and there were some kids in a little dinghy out there on the water singing, ‘Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me.’ That made me feel good.”

Celebrating Pat Carroll: The Voice of Ursula, the Sea Witch

Pat Carroll and Ursula

On Sunday, the world got the news that the legendary Pat Carroll passed away. The Emmy-winning actress from Shreveport, Louisiana was 95 years old. She leaves behind a body of work that includes film, television, stage, and even voice-over work for video games and cartoons. But for Disney fans around the world, she will always be remembered as the voice of the sea witch Ursula in 1989’s animated masterpiece The Little Mermaid. 

Pat Carroll

The role, and the chance to work with Disney, were the culmination of a long burning desire. In a behind-the-scenes interview, she stated, “I had wanted all my life to work in a Disney film, and when I was called by the agent to say ‘Would you like to audition for a Disney film? I said ‘Oh my lord, that’s an answer to prayer! Of course, I would.’”  

Her performance of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken’s “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is, without question, one of the most iconic moments in Disney film history, cementing Ursula’s status as one of the greatest of all animated villains. As brilliant as the music and lyrics are, it’s Carroll’s throaty performance that truly brings it to life. She manages to make the song simultaneously alluring and threatening, blending humor and menace in equal parts as she attempts to seduce Ariel into signing away her voice (and the rights to her life). 

Looking at the performance today, it seems inevitable that she should be cast in the part. It’s impossible to imagine any other voice in the film. That’s why it’s so surprising to learn that she was not the first name sought. Several actresses were considered prior to Carroll, including Joan Collins, Bea Arthur, and Broadway legend Elaine Stritch. While all three would no doubt have brought their own élan to the role, it’s hard to believe that any could have matched what she ultimately delivered. 

She once described the character (whose appearance and demeanor were patterned on actor, singer, and drag queen Divine) as, “an ex-Shakespearean actress who now sold cars.”   

Ursula the Sea Witch

“She’s a mean old thing! I think people are fascinated by mean characters,” she said. “There’s a fatal kind of distraction about the horrible mean characters of the world because we don’t meet too many of them in real life. So when we have a chance, theatrically, to see one and this one, she’s a biggie, it’s kind of fascinating for us.”

In a Behind the Voices feature, she described the joy she took in giving the evil enchantress her voice.

“Ursula is fun!” she said. “I don’t know why it is, but for actors to play a good person is very difficult. To play someone mean is heaven. I have not been cast as villains too often, but I think I’m a wonderful villain. So, for me, it was a kick in the britches!”

The joy in the role didn’t abate over the years. In a 2013 video on the official Disney Parks YouTube page, Carroll expressed her continuing love of the character as she experienced it in the Magic Kingdom attraction ‘Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid’ for the first time. 

“I love to see her in her enormity because she tickles me. Ursula tickles me,” she said. “She’s bigger than life and she loves it. And I get a big kick out of doing it.” 

Before the video ended, she burst out in that wickedly entertaining voice (complete with trademark laugh), booming, “It’s terrific darling! I’ll come here again. Believe me.”

In numerous interviews, she seemed keen to downplay her own brilliance when it came to the performance. Speaking to D23, she said, “It is such fun to do a character like this because what’s on the paper is just suited for actors to come along and go ‘blah, blah, blah’ because it works. Because it’s written right and it’s on the paper. Your job is half done, and that’s a true something. Actors take a lot more credit than they deserve.”

She was just as modest when it comes to her showstopping performance of”‘Poor Unfortunate Souls”. In the same D23 interview, she talked about how much she loved singing the song, though she does not consider herself a singer.

“Oh, I love singing,” she said. “I’ve sung since I was a little girl of five on a bar in El Paso, Texas. I always loved it, but I am not a singer, either trained or by ambition. I always bow to singers because I am not one.”

She credits many of the nuances in her musical performance to lyricist Howard Ashman. While waiting in a music rehearsal, she asked Ashman to perform the piece for her. 

“He put on the cloak immediately,” Carroll said. “He was brilliant and I watched every body move of his. I watched everything. I watched his face. I watched his hands. I ate him up. I stole ‘innit?’ from Howard. I stole two or three other ad-libs that he put in, and I said, ‘Howard is it okay if I steal those?’ And he said, ‘I was hoping you would!’” 

Pat Carroll Recording

All of which belies the stunning artistry and skill that she brought to the role, a truly once-in-a-lifetime performance that continues to delight and entertain audiences decades after the film’s release. It’s this audience appreciation, particularly from younger viewers, that Carroll was most taken with.

“I am always delighted as an actress when a character that I have admired, and I love Ursula. I think she’s a marvelous character,” Carroll said. “When a character that you have loved and tried to bring to life, comes to life and is received. And is received by children particularly. If I can win over kids with a character I’ve done my job, because kids are the hardest audience in the world.”

As a grateful fan, who was seven years old when the movie was released, I can without question say that she captured the imagination of children. She was funny and terrifying, a character that commanded your attention every moment she was on screen, and occupied your thoughts when she wasn’t. 

Taking to Instagram, her daughter Tara Karsian asked fans to, “honor her by having a raucous laugh at absolutely anything today (and every day forward) because, besides her brilliant talent and love, she leaves my sister Kerry and I with the greatest gift of all, imbuing us with humor and the ability to laugh…even in the saddest of times.”

Here’s to you, Carol. And here’s to Ursula. 

Thank you.