The Best Disney Villain Songs Pt. 1

Dr. Facilier

The spooky season is upon us (though for some of us it lasts all year), and it’s time to immerse ourselves in all things creepy and macabre. Luckily, Disney abounds with haunting melodies and spine-tingling jingles from the silver screen to the Magic Kingdom.

To kick off our exploration of the October Country, we’re taking a look at some of the best Disney villain songs. As with any list of this nature, the selections are a bit arbitrary (in that it ultimately comes down to my own personal taste), but I’ve tried to use at least some logical criteria. In my selections, I chose songs performed by the villain, rather than those about a villain (such as the songs Cruella de Vil, and Gaston). I’ve also tried to choose songs that have shown enduring popularity and longevity, meaning that somewhat more obscure songs like We Won’t Be Happy ‘Til We Get It from Babes in Toyland or Mad Madam Mim from The Sword in the Stone didn’t quite make the cut (though Mim’s inclusion in this year’s Oogie Boogie Bash at Disneyland California Adventure may make me rethink this stance).  

So, without further ado…let’s dive into the best Disney villain songs of all time.

Friends on the Other Side – The Princess and the Frog

We start things off in the Crescent City and the song Friends on the Other Side from The Princess and the Frog. The song is sung by Dr. Facilier and voiced by the inimitable Keith David.

Written by Randy Newman, one film critic described the number as, “a playfully sinister chorus, funeral brass and stop-and-start melodies that play the character like some twisted version of “Sportin’ Life” in Porgy and Bess.” It’s a fun comparison, and curious listeners should compare it to the song It Ain’t Necessarily So, written by George Gershwin and inspired by performers like Cab Calloway. 

Listening to the song feels a bit like exploring a dark, New Orleans alley (which I mean in the best way possible). The authentic feel of the Big Easy owes much to the years that composer Randy Newman spent in the city, which he came to love dearly. As he explained to NPR, “I was born in Los Angeles, but I went to New Orleans when I was, like, a week old. My mother is from there, her family is still there. I lived with her a few years when I was a baby, and I’d go back in the summers.”

The number has drawn some comparisons to The Little Mermaid’s showstopper Poor Unfortunate Souls, and the similarities are likely not coincidental as both films were directed by the team of John Musker and Ron Clements.

Hellfire – The Hunchback of Notre Dame

In the long history of Disney villains, there is perhaps none so viscerally frightening as Judge Claude Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. This is, perhaps, because he is one of Disney’s most distinctly believable and human villains. While most are cartoonish or creatures from outlandish fantasy, Frollo feels all too real.

The character is a tribute to Victor Hugo’s particular genius. He had a knack for creating villains convinced of their own righteousness, as evidenced not just by Frollo, but by Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. 

Composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Stephen Schwartz (who is best known for work on Broadway hits like Pippin, Godspell, and Wicked), and brought to life by Tony Jay, the song Hellfire is shocking by Disney standards. It deals with subjects like lust, longing, and guilt, coupled with the fear of damnation. 

Adding to the ambiance, the number begins with a chorus of voices singing the Confiteor, a Catholic penitential prayer described as, “a general confession of sins; it is used in the Roman Rite at the beginning of Mass and on various other occasions as a preparation for the reception of some grace.”

Oogie Boogie’s Song – The Nightmare Before Christmas

In Friends on the Other Side, we made brief mention of the legendary singer and band leader Cab Calloway, best known for songs like Minnie the Moocher and Saint James Infirmary. In the 1930s, Calloway appeared in three Betty Boop cartoons (Minnie-the-Moocher, Snow-White, and The Old Man of the Mountain). The films, like many Max Fleischer cartoons, have a surreal, Heironymous Bosch quality to them, enhanced by Calloway’s musical performance.

Tim Burton, the author of The Nightmare Before Christmas, states that the character of Oogie Boogie was inspired by Calloway’s Betty Boop performances. The influence is most obvious in composer and lyricist Danny Elfman’s Oogie Boogie’s Song, which is performed by Broadway legend Ken Page (who originated the role of Ken in Ain’t Misbehavin’ and Old Deuteronomy in Cats). In fact, when Santa Claus asks Oogie, “What are you going to do?” and he responds, “I’m gonna do the best I can,” the character is borrowing a direct quote from the cartoon short The Old Man of the Mountain.

Be Prepared – The Lion King

If one song could challenge Hellfire for the most sinister Disney song of all time, it would have to be Be Prepared from The Lion King. After all, the visuals accompanying it were literally inspired by the 1935 Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will. As noted in Entertainment Weekly, the song, “grew out of one sketch by story staffer Jorgen Klubien that pictured Scar as Hitler. The directors ran with the concept and worked up a ‘Triumph of the Will’-style mock-Nuremberg rally.” Even the lighting in the scene was inspired by Nazis, made to resemble the “Cathedral of Light” used at their rallies. Add this to the fact that the song is Scar plotting the assassination of his brother, in a plot inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and you have a truly bone-chilling number. 

The music and lyrics were penned by the team of Elton John and Tim Rice and primarily performed by Jeremy Irons (who also provided a past narration for Spaceship Earth). However, voice actor Jim Cummings also provided some of the vocals on the track. It seems he was asked to step in and sing the last verse of the song after Irons developed voice problems. 

Shiny – Moana

Alas, David Bowie was never a Disney villain. Nor did he appear in any Disney films (at least not directly…he performed in a Miramax film while it was still a Disney subsidiary and a Touchstone Pictures film). This is an immeasurable loss to all of us who adored his performance as The Goblin King in Jim Henson’s masterpiece Labyrinth, and who would have loved to see what he could do for the House of Mouse. 

We can take some small comfort in the fact that his spirit is infused in one Disney villain. The creators of Moana have made no secret of the fact that the one and only Ziggy Stardust inspired the character of Tamatoa. Or maybe it was the Thin White Duke. Or Aladdin Sane. Or one of the other myriad characters David Bowie brought to the stage. 

And in the absence of David Bowie, it only makes sense that actor and musician Jemaine Clement was asked to step in and perform Tamatoa’s song Shiny. Why? Well, as Clement’s old comedy folk music duo (and HBO sitcom) taught us, he does one heck of a Bowie impression

Add in the spectacular genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s music and lyrics and you have a recipe for a truly unforgettable song, which is as mesmerizing as it is menacing.

Join us next week as we dive into five more classic Disney villain songs!

The Disney Book: A Classical Celebration

Disney music gets dressed up for a night at the concert hall in superstar pianist Lang Lang’s new album The Disney Book. The deluxe version of the record, released on September 16, 2022, by the Deutsche Grammophone label in collaboration with Disney Music Group, features 28 tracks that span the breadth of music from the Disney canon. It is a joyous collection whose release coincides perfectly with the centenary celebration of the Walt Disney Company.

The album’s first single, Feed the Birds (originally composed by the Sherman Brothers for Mary Poppins) is a delicate and lovely interpretation of the song that Walt Disney declared his favorite. A music video for the song was released, which was shared on the official Disney blog on June 23, 2022. Disney described the filming process, stating, “Captured as dawn broke over the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle at the Disneyland Park, the music video captures the magic of Lang Lang’s album and of Walt Disney’s legacy.”

Another highlight is Lang Lang’s collaboration with Academy Award-winning artist Jon Batiste on the song It’s All Right from Soul. The result is something akin to a piece that George Gershwin might have composed, combining the vibrant world of jazz with the sensibilities of classical. 

Speaking of the partnership, Lang Lang stated, “…we [got] my new great friend Jon Batiste to play New Orleans-style jazz on top of my classical and jazz style [in ‘It’s All Right.’] So we try to have this mix with classical jazz and New Orleans jazz.”

Some of the world’s great arrangers were enlisted to work on the album as well, with Sir Stephen Hough, Natalie Tenenbaum, and Randy Kerber all offering contributions. In an article by Deutsche Grammophone, Sir Stephen Hough stated, “I’ve been a huge admirer of Lang Lang for years and I was delighted to be asked to arrange some Disney songs for him. I loved the challenge of transforming these popular songs, beloved by generations of children and parents, into solo piano pieces, rooted in the classical tradition of the great transcribers of the past.”

Other artists contributing to the album include world-renowned singer Andrea Bocelli, Columbian singer/songwriter Sebastian Yatra, guitarist Miloš, Chinese erhu player Guo Gan, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under the baton of conductor Robert Ziegler. 

Featuring a good balance between classic Disney songs and beloved modern hits, the album does a good job of carrying the listener through the history of Disney song. Including numbers like Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, Whistle While You Work from Snow White, We Don’t Talk About Bruno from Encanto, Let It Go from Frozen, Baby Mine from Dumbo, and Remember Me from Pixar’s Coco. Though each will be instantly recognizable, they’ve been reworked and re-imagined to make them feel appropriately classical. It’s fascinating to identify these influences. For instance, a keen ear will likely note that Baby Mine clearly takes inspiration from the classical Impressionism of artists like Claude Debussy. 

The song When You Wish Upon a Star from Pinnochio feels like the album’s emotional core. Lang Lang is joined on the track by fellow virtuoso (and spouse) Gina Alice. In an interview with Yahoo! Entertainment, Lang Lang states that the song was recorded with their 20-month-old son in mind, saying, “We wanted to do this piece particularly for our son. So for the baby, we want to give him some smooth music to hug him, kiss him.” 

It seems that this is an album that Lang Lang was destined to record. Animation spurred his interest in classical music, after a viewing of a Tom and Jerry cartoon titled The Cat Concerto caught his imagination. In an interview with CNBC’s Tania Brier, he recalled how the characters,  “play the (Franz) Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody Number II and unfortunately I didn’t know who Liszt was at that time, but I certainly knew that Tom did a great job, and Jerry kind of cheated.”

His first encounter with Disney came in 1995 at the age of 13 when he visited Tokyo Disneyland. In the Yahoo! Entertainment article, he stated, “My first Disney memory is going to Tokyo when I was 13 years old, in 1995. After I won the competition in Japan. Because that time in China, they have no Disneyland. So that was my first time in Disneyland, which was in Tokyo. It was like the happiest day in my life. And it’s amazing that in 2015, when Disneyland opened in Shanghai, I played the opening. Because it was like, ‘I had to do this. This is so exciting.'”

Speaking with Deutsche Grammophone, he elaborated, “…it was the first time I had heard ‘It’s a Small World’ and the melody stayed with me all day – and long afterwards.”

In addition, Lang Lang credits the jazz heard in early Disney shorts and the impact of Elton John, Tim Rice, and Hans Zimmer’s music from The Lion King as spurring his passion for Disney music. 

The album also represents Lang Lang’s commitment to spreading music education to young listeners. When performing for school-age audiences, he found that the children consistently requested that he play Disney songs. He explains, “So this is another reason why we’re doing it. I think it’s something that’s good for us — for the classical music world, but also good for the kids. When they learn something purely instrumental, they want to hear something which connects to their life. We’d like to make sure that the kids will not be afraid of classical music.”

Walt Disney once said, “I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained.” His particular genius was his ability to marry the two, so that the audience was carried along toward education without even realizing it. Lang Lang’s album embodies Walt’s ideal, helping us better understand classical music by embracing songs that are part of our collective memory, that live in our hearts, memory, and imagination. 

Lavender’s Blue: From the Nursery to Disney

Folk singer and activist Pete Seeger once said of folk music that it, “helps reinforce your sense of history. An old song makes you think of times gone by.” In a way, music is magic. It can transport you to a different time and place with a few simple notes.  

As much as Walt Disney believed in progress, he also had a strong streak of nostalgia, a wistful romanticizing of the turn of the century world he grew up in. Nowhere is this more evident than in the 1949 feature So Dear to My Heart. Based on Sterling North’s novel Midnight and Jeremiah, the film is set in Indiana and tells the story of a young boy raising a black-wool lamb.

A midwestern boy himself, Walt was particularly attached to the movie, stating, “So Dear was especially close to me. Why that’s the life my brother and I grew up with as kids out in Missouri.”  He was so enamored of the film, that he built a gorgeous model of “Granny Kincaid’s cabin,” which he intended to use as part of a traveling exhibit called Disneylandia. Though the idea never came to fruition, it served as part of the early inspiration for Disneyland. That influence can also be found in visiting Disneyland’s Frontierland train station, which was patterned after the station in the film. 

While the movie was not a commercial success and has fallen into relative obscurity, it did earn an Academy Award nomination for “Best Song.” Credited to Eliot Daniel and Larry Morley, and performed by Burl Ives, the song, Lavender’s Blue (Dilly Dilly), was actually an adaptation of a centuries-old folk melody. It is performed twice in the movie and helps create the cozy, front porch feeling that flows throughout the film.

Tracing the origins of a folk song is never an easy task. They’re elusive by their very nature, passed from person to person, picking up and losing lyrics, incorporating bits and pieces of other melodies together. They’re a bit like the river in Disney’s Pocahontas. You never step in the same one twice. That’s especially true of Lavender’s Blue, which underwent a fairly substantial transformation from its earliest days.

The Story of a Song

Lavender’s Blue appears to date back to the 17th century and a song titled “Diddle, Diddle (or The Kind, Country Lovers).” However, even that only gives us an inkling of the song’s history, as notes from the published broadside instruct performers to sing the song to the tune of “Lavender’s Green,” implying the existence of an older melody that likely would have been well known to all performers at the time.

The lyrics in this early incarnation are a far cry from the sweet and tender love song performed by Ives in So Dear to My Heart. Instead, the lyrics are a bawdy celebration of the narrator’s desire for a young maiden who will get drunk with him and keep his bed warm.

The book “Popular Rhymes and Nursery Tales,” by John Russell Smith notes a version of the song titled “Twelfth Night,” explaining, “The following verses are said to be in some way or other connected with the amusements of this festival. They refer probably to the choosing the king and the queen on Twelfth-night:

Lavender’s blue, dilly dilly, lavender’s green,
When I am king, dilly dilly, you shall be queen:
Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so?
‘Twas mine own heart, dilly dilly, that told me so.
Call up your men, dilly dilly, set them to work,
Some with a rake, dilly dilly, some with a fork;
Some to make hay, dilly dilly, some to thresh corn,
Whilst you and I, dilly dilly, keep ourselves warm.
If you should die, dilly dilly, as it may hap,
You shall be buried, dilly dilly, under the tap;
Who told you so, dilly dilly, pray tell me why?
That you might drink, dilly dilly, when you are dry.”

The song was also published in the 1805 book “Songs For the Nursery,” which was penned by an anonymous author (theorized to be Eliza Fenwick). 

The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes by Peter and Iona Opie notes that the song was, “remembered almost solely in the nursery until 1948-49 when a dance version…popularly swept America and Britain.” Though not stated expressly in the book, this time frame corresponds with the release of the Disney film. 

Songwriter and lyricist Eliot Daniel lent his talents to adapting the melody for Disney. Born in 1908, Daniel had a long career composing music for the movies, though he would become best known for writing the theme song for I Love Lucy. His work with Disney included contributions to Make Mine Music, Fun & Fancy Free, Melody Time, The Magical World of Disney, and Little Toot. 

The lyrics for Disney’s version of Lavender’s Blue were provided by the remarkable Larry Morey. His resume includes contributions to animated shorts like Ferdinand the Bull, The Grasshopper and the Ants, and The Wise Little Hen. However, he is best remembered for his work on films like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (including songs like “Heigh Ho,” “Someday My Prince Will Come,” and “I’m Wishing.”), The Reluctant Dragon, and Bambi.

His accomplishments are all the more remarkable given the difficulty of his early life. His Wikipedia biography notes that he was born with a skeletal abnormality and that, “His left arm was not fully formed and caused his mother to reject him at birth, saying “he would never amount to anything.” She abandoned him to the care of his father, George T. Morey, a traveling musical ventriloquist. When he was only six years old, his father left him in a boarding house in Los Angeles and went on the road performing throughout California.”

America’s Favorite Balladeer

Modern audiences are most likely to associate Ives with his depiction of Sam the Snowman in the 1964 holiday classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. However, he had a career that spanned multiple mediums, with appearances in movies, on Broadway, on record, and on the radio with his program The Wayfaring Stranger.

One of six children, Ives’ first public musical performance came at the age of 4 when he sang at a soldiers’ reunion. His broad knowledge of traditional song was learned at the knee of his mother, Cordelia White, and his grandmother, Kate White. He wrote of his early years, “The rich Illinois land doesn’t stretch down to Jasper and except for the bottom land you can’t raise anything but nubbins there. . . . From the time I was born until I was school age I remember we lived on four different farms. There were seven of us children, three girls and four boys, and we always did a good bit of singing in the family.”

Speaking of his grandmother, he wrote, “To me her ballads brought a world shining with excitement and color; they brought people — like Barbara Allen dying of love and a lone lover sitting on top of a snow-covered mountain. I had never seen a mountain on the prairies of Illinois. Pictures, romance, passion, bravery, gallantry, sorrow, joy — she sang a storybook of tales culled through centuries and tempered by time into beautiful poetry. Kate loved the ballads and loved to sing them for the boys and girls, and that was her religion.”

He learned the banjo as a teenager but did not intend to pursue a career in music, instead planning to become a football coach. Those plans dropped by the wayside when he dropped out of school. In his autobiography, also titled The Wayfaring Stranger, he notes that he was listening to a lecture on Beowolf when he realized that he no longer wanted to be in school. He stood up in the middle of the class and walked out, slamming the door so hard that the glass in the door window shattered.

From there, he set off on the road as an itinerant performer, even landing himself in jail while traveling through Utah. It seems that he was accused of vagrancy, and for performing the folk song “The Foggy, Foggy Dew,” which authorities deemed “bawdy.”  His wandering eventually led him back to higher education, as he studied at Julliard School before breaking into Broadway and Radio.

A biography on the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE) webpage notes, “From the 1940s through 1960, Burl Ives was considered America’s most authoritative interpreter of American folk songs. A mainstream figure (better known than Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie), his penetrating, tenor voice with its unique timbre was recognized by millions.”

He would make “The Blue Tail Fly” and the gorgeous, haunting spiritual “The Wayfaring Stranger” his signature songs. 

In 1946, he made his film debut in the movie Smoky. Three years later, he appeared in Disney’s So Dear to My Heart. Controversy would soon follow Ives when, in 1950, he was identified in the pamphlet Red Channels and blacklisted as a Communist. Fearful of losing his livelihood, Ives would testify before the House of Unamerican Activities Committee two years later. Accounts vary as to the number of names Ives provided to the committee, with friends stating it was no more than 4, while, “the popular impression was that he had named many more. Sing Out! Magazine (in its 1995 obituary of Ives) wrote that he “named more than 110 people he knew to have left-wing or communist leanings. Many of these names were previously unknown to the committee.” Ed Cray’s biography of Woody Guthrie, Rambling Man, (2004) says that “according to newspaper accounts” he named “hundreds.”

The testimony led to years of acrimony between Ives and the folk community, including artists like Pete Seeger and others who continued to be blacklisted after Ives’ name was removed from the list. Despite the conflict within the folk community, Ives’ career continued to flourish, appearing as “Big Daddy” in the movie adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and even winning an Academy Award for his role in the film Ensign Pulver. He would also work with Disney again in the 1963 film Summer Magic and later provided the voice for Sam Eagle in the America Sings show in Disneyland.

As a sort of coda to Ives’ story, Seeger and Ives were reunited and seemed to bury the hatchet some 41 years after the HUAC testimony. A story in the Meacham Journal notes, “Forty-one years later on May 17, 1993 — 28 years ago today — the bitterness ended.

The then ailing Ives, 84, and Pete Seeger, 74, were reunited in a benefit concert in New York City. They sang “Blue Tail Fly” together. Following Ives’ death in 1995, Seeger praised his tenor voice and the role it played in keeping so many important American songs alive.”

Raise the Ceiling a Few Feet Higher

Studying music is a curious thing. Pull at a single strand and you find that it’s connected to an almost infinite number of others. From one song, like Lavender’s Blue, we stretch our reach back over centuries. We follow that thread into the nursery and find mothers singing lullabies to their children. Pull a little harder and we find ourselves learning the history of entertainment in the 20th century, as well as looking at the pain, fear, and, darkness looming in our past in the form of things like the Red Scare. We find passion, betrayal, fear, and even, perhaps unlikeliest of all, reconciliation. 

It brings to mind another quote by Seeger, when he said, “And when one person taps out a beat, while another leads into the melody, or when three people discover a harmony they never knew existed, or a crowd joins in on a chorus as though to raise the ceiling a few feet higher, then they also know there is hope for the world.”

Disney and Jazz: A Celebration

 (A version of this article previously appeared on the Celebrations Magazine Blog)

The great Wynton Marsalis once said, “Jazz music is America’s past and its potential, summed up and sanctified and accessible to anybody who learns to listen to, feel, and understand it. The music can connect us to our earlier selves and to our better selves-to-come. It can remind us of where we fit on the time line of human achievement, an ultimate value of art.” 

In a way, the quote reminds me of Walt Disney’s speech on the opening of Disneyland. He said, “Disneyland is dedicated to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America…with hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” While he was describing his theme park, he could have been discussing jazz, an art born of joy and suffering, struggle and passion, a marriage of ideals that recognize that we haven’t reached the promised land yet, but we can see it in the distance and will continue striving toward it. 

The world of Disney has been blessed by the sound of jazz, from it’s earliest cartoons to films like Pixar’s Soul. To celebrate the relationship, let’s take a look at a few of the best examples of times that Disney and Jazz intersected.

Soul exhibit in Epcot

Pixar’s Soul

In 2020, Disney and Pixar released the animated film Soul, directed by Peter Docter and starring Jamie Foxx. The movie, which would go on to win two Academy Awards for Best Animated Feature and Best Original Score, tells the story of jazz pianist Joe Gardner. 

While the story is a work of fiction, Gardner was inspired by a real-life music teacher from Queens named Dr. Peter Archer. 

The score was composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with original jazz numbers contributed by Jon Batiste – a Grammy award-winning pianist and the bandleader on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show. 

To ensure accuracy the film team consulted with legendary musicians like Herbie Hancock and even studied Batiste’s hands while playing piano as a reference for animating the sequences of Gardner performing. 

Following the release of the film, an exhibit titled “The Soul of Jazz: An American Adventure” was opened in Epcot, providing Guests a view of jazz history, along with artifacts such as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Charlie Parker’s saxophone, and Gene Krupa’s drum sticks.

Disney Songs the Satchmo Way

Disney Songs the Satchmo Way

From 1960 to 1970, Disneyland held an event known as ‘Dixieland at Disneyland.’ It featured live music and a Mardi Gras parade. The great Louis Armstrong performed at the event, and also appeared in the 1962 World of Color Episode “Disneyland After Dark.” You can still find recordings of it online, and it’s a treat to see Armstrong performing aboard the Mark Twain riverboat alongside singer Monette Moore.

In 1968, Armstrong released the album “Disney Songs the Satchmo Way”. In a 2021 article by Indiana Public Media, it was noted that this album was personally commissioned by Walt Disney. The record included performances of songs like “When You Wish Upon a Star,” “Whistle While You Work,” and “The Bare Necessities.” 

Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins

Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins

In the history of jazz, there are few figures who can stand side by side with a performer like Louis Armstrong. The great Duke Ellington is among their number, a true titan who revolutionized music, and whose influence can still be felt nearly half a century after his passing. 

The composer of such standards as “Take the A Train” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” Ellington released “Duke Ellington Plays Mary Poppins” in 1964, featuring arrangements of the classic Sherman Brothers compositions. 

A review in the Jazz Times raves, “Any Ellington fan is justifiably excited by the maestro’s own writing, but it would be a crime to neglect his gift for making other composers’ work his own.”

Saludos Amigos

The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos

The “Soul of Jazz” exhibit in Epcot featured information on several key cities in the evolution of jazz, including New York City, New Orleans, and San Juan in Puerto Rico. In an article about the display, Disney Public Relations Manager Sarah Domenech wrote, “Another pivotal city in the development of jazz, New Orleans, was heavily influenced by its Latin neighbors to the south, including Mexico, Cuba, Brazil, and Puerto Rico. From this cross-cultural exchange emerged a colorful style of jazz music, with distinctly Latin rhythms. In the jazz world, this sound is lovingly known as ‘the Spanish Tinge.’ ”

Disney gave the world a joyous celebration of this musical tradition in their films The Three Caballeros and Saludos Amigos. The song “Baia” (originally titled Na Baixa do Sapatiero), a samba number, was performed in The Three Caballeros and “Aquerelo do Brasil” appeared in Saludos Amigos. The latter would become a smash hit, performed by musicians like Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and Django Reinhardt. The Mexican bolero “Solamente Una Vez” also appeared in The Three Caballeros and would go on to become a success in English as “You Belong to My Heart,” performed by artists like Nat King Cole. 

Lady and the Tramp

He’s A Tramp

For over seven decades, Peggy Lee entertained audiences as a jazz vocalist and songwriter. She sang with Benny Goodman’s big band and had hits with songs like “Why Don’t You Do Right?” and “Fever.” Over the course of her career, she recorded over 1,000 songs and composed over 270.

For Disney fans, she is best known as the singer and co-writer of the song “He’s a Tramp,” the slinky jazz number performed by the dog Peg in 1955’s Lady and the Tramp. Lee also co-wrote the other originals songs featured in the movie, such as “Bella Notte.” 

Firehouse Five Plus Two

The Firehouse Five Plus Two

Dixieland jazz began in New Orleans at the beginning of the 20th century, blending ragtime and Sicilian influences into a toe-tapping explosion of musical joy.

The Firehouse Five Plus Two was a Dixieland band composed of Disney animators Ward Kimball, Harper Goff, Frank Thomas, and others. It seems that Kimball came up with the idea while chatting with other members of the animation department about their shared love of jazz. 

Over the years, they recorded numerous albums and appeared in Disney television specials like “One Hour in Wonderland.” Animated versions of the band can even be spotted in the 1953 Goofy cartoon How to Dance. 

Walt himself was a fan of the group and had them perform regularly at company events and at Disneyland.

The Princess and the Frog

The Princess and the Frog

Set in the birthplace and cradle of jazz, The Princess and the Frog is a gorgeous celebration of the Big Easy, music, good food, and the gumbo melting pot that is Louisiana culture. The film’s opening number, “Down In New Orleans,” was performed by legendary pianist and New Orleans native Dr. John. The character of Louis, a trumpet-playing alligator, sings about his love of musicians like Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bichet, dreaming of the day he can play in a band like the “big boys.” 

The movie also pays tribute to other musical forms, such as zydeco (in the song “Gonna Take You There”) and gospel (“Dig a Little Deeper”), which have influenced and been influenced by jazz music. 

There are numerous other examples of how Disney has helped celebrate the wonder that is jazz, from the hip, swinging music of The Aristocats, to the elegance of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue featured in Fantasia 2000. It can even be found in Disney’s earliest days, through animated shorts like 1929’s Mickey Mouse short The Jazz Fool. It’s a rich relationship that is a gift to fans of music, animation, and the Disney parks.   

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.

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.

Peter and the Wolf

Peter and the Wolf Scene

Neil Gaiman, paraphrasing G.K. Chesterton, once said, “Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” It’s a sentiment that might have been expressed by Walt Disney, the man most responsible for keeping so many classic, European fairy tales (albeit in sanitized form) in the collective consciousness during the 20th century. 

Peter and the Wolf, an animated short originally released as part of the 1946 anthology film Make Mine Music, seems to perfectly capture Mr. Gaiman’s statement. The story follows a young boy, Peter, who sets out to capture a dangerous wolf armed with nothing more than a pop gun. As in most fairy tales, he doesn’t undertake the journey alone. Joining him on the quest are a bird, a duck, and a cat. Against the odds, this motley crew manages to capture the wolf, surviving the dangers of the deep, dark woods. 

The music, written by Sergei Prokofiev, brilliantly uses melody to carry the story along, with each character being assigned a “theme” featuring specific instruments. This served not only a dramatic, narrative purpose but also helped educate young listeners about the various instruments in the orchestra. As Prokofiev later explained, “In Russia today there is a great stress on the musical education of children. One of my orchestral pieces (Peter and the Wolf) was an experiment. Children get an impression of several instruments of the orchestra just by hearing the piece performed.”

The character of Peter is represented by a jaunty section performed by the strings. Listening to it, you can picture Peter traipsing happily through the woods. A clarinet provides the slinky voice of the cat, while the waddling duck is depicted through an oboe. A flute is used for the bird, the airy sound flitting about from note to note, while the stodgy grandfather is represented by the bassoon. Then there is the wolf, whose menace is shown through a trio of French horns playing a minor progression.

Put together, the music moves the narration along, mirroring the rising and falling action of the story, alternating between moments of pastoral beauty, whimsy, and tension. This cinematic progression of the music was no doubt aided by the fact that Prokofiev had written scores for films. 

The blend of education and whimsy must have appealed strongly to Walt Disney, whose own creations often took a similar approach. To get a sense of this, one only needs to turn on one of the old Disneyland television series (with its segments like “Man in Flight” and “Man In Space”), the True Life Adventures Documentaries, and films like Donald In Mathmagic Land. 

Of course, the roots of Disney’s Peter and the Wolf go back further than any of those projects, with the earliest seeds being planted in 1938 when Prokofiev and Disney met in California. But that story cannot be properly told without a brief detour to learn a bit more about the composer.

The Prodigy

Young Sergei Prokofiev

Born April 23, 1891, Prokofiev was born into an agricultural family. His mother came from a family of serfs owned by the Sheremetev family. It is, perhaps, a curious twist of fate that this barbaric economic reality may have played a role in giving us the works of Prokofiev. It seems that the Sheremetev’s provided the children of serfs with education in theater and the arts. His mother Maria became a rather adept amateur pianist, in love with the works of Beethoven, Chopin, and Anton Rubinstein. 

As a very young child, Prokofiev would listen to his mother play the piano, enamored by the pieces she performed. He took quickly to the instrument, composing his first piano piece at the age of five. Four years later, he wrote his first opera. 

He was accepted into the conservatory at St. Petersburg, after a recommendation from the composer Glazunov. He attended the school from 1904-1914, but his natural talent led him to find the education boring. As a result, he developed a reputation as a somewhat arrogant student. During this time, he developed an active interest in musical innovation and took inspiration from artists in a number of fields (such as Pablo Picasso, various modernist Russian poets, the theatrical philosophy of Vsevolod Meyerhold, and the work of Sergei Diaghilev, who helped revolutionize Russian ballet). 

His early compositions were not particularly well received by the public. An article on Classic FM notes that he earned, “notoriety with a series of difficult works for his instrument, including his first two piano concertos. The second caused a scandal at its 1913 premiere. The audience reportedly left the hall with exclamations of “The cats on the roof make better music!”

By 1917, he’d written his first symphony, typically referred to as the Classical Symphony. Prokofiev stated that it was loosely based on the style of Joseph Haydn. Britannica notes that this was a creatively fertile period for the young composer. They note, “When Tsar Nicholas II was overthrown in February 1917, Prokofiev was in the streets of Petrograd, expressing the joy of victory. As if inspired by feelings of social and national renewal, he wrote within one year an immense quantity of new music: he composed two sonatas, the Violin Concerto No. 1 in D Major, the Classical Symphony, and the choral work Seven, They Are Seven; he began the magnificent Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major; and he planned a new opera, The Love for Three Oranges…” the last of which would become his most successful operatic composition.

He then entered an extended period of time spent abroad (with the sanction of the Soviet government), traveling to locations like San Francisco, New York City, Paris, London, and even the Bavarian town of Ettal. It was during this time that he met and married singer, Carolina Codina, and completed The Love for Three Oranges. He also composed, among other things, an opera called The Fiery Angels, ballets like Le pas d’acier and The Prodigal Son, several symphonies, and other orchestral works 

A sense of homesickness brought him back to the Soviet Union. Once home, he again entered an incredibly fruitful period, composing his Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, the ballet Romeo and Juliet, and music for movies such as Lieutenant Kije. 

In 1936, he wrote “a symphonic fairy tale for children”, which would become beloved around the globe.

Peter and the Wolf

Album cover for Peter and the Wolf conducted by Leonard Bernstein

Natalya Sats, director of the Children’s Theater in Moscow, commissioned Prokofiev to produce a pedagogical piece that would educate children about the various parts of an orchestra. As noted in a 2004 essay by Brad Weismann, “The official culture of the day in the USSR was socialist realism, a style that featured idealistic depictions of the common man, depictions that were mandated, reviewed, critiqued, and censored by the central government. A useful work of art taught a moral lesson and reinforced Soviet values. For a libretto, Prokofiev started with a rhyming narrative by popular Soviet children’s writer Antonina Sakonskaya, about a Young Pioneer (the Soviet equivalent of a Boy Scout) challenging an adult mired in reactionary, pre-Revolutionary thinking.” 

Prokofiev did not care for the text, instead providing his own, the story of a young boy who sets out to capture a wolf. Not merely a charming fairytale, the piece was also intended to instill Soviet-era virtues. A 2018 article from Classic FM relates, “Natalya Sats had another lesson she wanted to communicate: a lesson about the battle between youth and right-thinking (Peter) and the inflexible representatives of the old world (Grandfather) who did not understand the new Soviet ideology. Peter and the Wolf is a story about not being afraid, about taming nature and conquering external threats. The dark shadow in the woods beyond the fence perfectly evokes the paranoia of the Stalinist Regime, which wanted Russian citizens to believe that they “live in paradise, but there’s always an external enemy just beyond the fence, for which they must be on guard”.”

Of course, the message of a dark and unknown wilderness that poses unknown threats is hardly unique to Soviet propaganda. It’s been at the heart of fairy tales around the world. In many cases, used to reinforce the idea that danger awaits those who wander outside of the prescribed norms embodied by the values of the community, a rather different message than that provided through the story of Peter. In its own way, it does mirror some of the tales of man conquering nature, a sort of expansionist or colonialist concept that the wild can be subdued through progress. What that progress looks like, of course, is contingent on the values of the culture that creates the story. 

To the average Russian listener, the story must have conjured a wealth of contradictory emotions. As the BBC noted in an analysis of the piece, “It is outwardly “apolitical”, but all too clear in its message. The original Peter was to be a Pioneer, one of the dawn-facing youngsters who would go on to join the Komsomol – the Soviet youth organization in Stalin’s new Russia. But surely when children shuddered at the line “If a wolf should come out of the forest, then what would you do?” their parents must have looked anxiously at one another. There, in a single rhetorical question, was their day-to-day dilemma. Living in an isolated giant, with a fascist wolf just to the west, a circling group of hunters in the Western democracies, and a secret police who turned up so regularly to knock on doors that the majority of thinking Russians (and certainly Shostakovich after “Muddle Instead of Music”) kept a “little suitcase” packed and ready by the front door.”

Curiously, for a piece that was born of Soviet Russia, it was a trip to America and a meeting with a man who might be considered the quintessential capitalist, Walt Disney, that helped give Peter and the Wolf some of its lasting fame. 

The Magic of Disney

Scene from Disney's Peter and the Wolf

Walt Disney released the world’s first feature-length animated picture, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, in 1937. It was a film that immediately grabbed the heart and imagination of Prokofiev, who was said to be so enamored of the film after his first viewing that he wanted to see it again the very next day. 

Peter and the Wolf had debuted a year before, and the following year found Prokofiev traveling to the United States and Los Angeles, where he would play the piece for Walt Disney. It’s a meeting that would later be recreated in the 4th-anniversary episode of Walt Disney’s Disneyland (with the role of Prokofiev performed by composer Ingolf Dahl, who closely resembled him).

As Walt narrates in the film, “I remember how his fingers flew over the keys of our battered old piano. How his face glistened with perspiration as he concentrated on the music. And all the time I could see pictures. I could see his lovely fantasy coming to life on the screen.”

Sadly, World War II interfered with production. Disney became fully devoted to creating work for the war effort, such as training films, insignia for various crafts, and even propaganda-style cartoons. 

With the end of the conflict, Disney returned to making movies with the sole intent of entertaining, and Peter and the Wolf found itself included in Make Mine Music. The segment was narrated by Sterling Holloway (best known now as the voice of Winnie the Pooh, the Cheshire Cat, and The Jungle Book’s Kaa). As in the original, the piece starts with an introduction of the various themes, and the characters they represent, letting the listener and viewer know which instruments are associated with which character. 

The story remained generally faithful to Prokofiev’s original, with a few exceptions. Disney gave the duck, cat, and bird names, and also gave names to the hunters. In addition, Peter was already aware of a nearby wolf, whereas in Prokofiev’s piece Peter is simply warned of the possibility of a wolf by his grandfather. The inclusion of the young boy heading off to hunt the beast armed only with a pop gun was another invention not found in Prokofiev’s text. Disney also gave the tale a slightly happier ending. In the original, the duck is swallowed whole by the wolf, and the audience is told that if they listen closely they can still hear it (a pretext for repeating the duck’s theme at the end). In Disney’s version, the duck is thought dead, only to be discovered alive.

Sadly, by the time Disney made the film, Prokofiev was back in Russia and there is no indication that he was aware that the film was made. 

A Lasting Legacy

Sergei Prokofiev at Piano

By a cruel twist of fate, Prokofiev’s death occurred on the same day as that of Joseph Stalin. Crowds of people filled the streets to mourn the death of the dictator, rendering it impossible for Prokofiev’s body to be taken out of his home for burial. He remained there for three days.

Even the newspaper paid scant mention to his passing, with it being noted on page 116. The 115 pages prior to that were devoted to Stalin. As noted in a Houston Press article, “Adding further insult, no musicians could be found to play the great composer’s funeral. Every musician of any note was ordered to perform at Stalin’s funeral and the various surrounding festivities. Prokofiev’s family was reduced to playing a recording of the funeral march from his ballet Romeo and Juliet.”

Fortunately, time has a way of correcting these things. While the name of Joseph Stalin has become reviled around the globe, that of Prokofiev has only grown in stature. Composer Arthur Honegger declared him, “the greatest figure of contemporary music.” During his life, the great composer Shostakovich said of him,  “I wish you at least another hundred years to live and create. Listening to such works as your Seventh Symphony makes it much easier and more joyful to live.”

Eighty-six years after its original composition, Peter and the Wolf continues to delight and inspire audiences. Performers as diverse as Viola Davis, Alice Cooper, David Tennant, David Bowie, Leonard Bernstein, David Attenborough, Sir Peter Ustinov, Carol Channing, and Itzhak Perlman have performed the narration for the piece. Numerous adaptations have been made for film and television (including a Sesame Street interpretation with Elmo as Peter). 

After being released as part of Disney’s Make Mine Music, it was reissued as a stand-alone short and was later released on home video. The episode of Walt Disney’s Disneyland that featured the dramatization of Walt and Prokofiev’s meeting was included in the Walt Disney Treasures release “Your Host Walt Disney: TV Memories (1956-1965).”

Prokofiev once said, “In my view, the composer, just as the poet, the sculptor or the painter, is in duty bound to serve Man, the people. He must beautify human life and defend it.” He would be happy to know that his music continues to live on, inspiring those who hear it, carrying them away into rhapsodies of beauty and imagination. 

He’s a Tramp: Peggy Lee’s Sultry, Swinging Masterpiece

Peggy Lee with Tramp and Peg

In the Westwood Village of Los Angeles, there is a cemetery that serves as the final resting place of some of the greatest talent the world has ever seen. Within the Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park and Mortuary are the graves of Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Buddy Rich, Natalie Wood, Frank Zappa, and numerous others. If you were to wander the grounds, you’d likely come across an elegant marble bench beside a fountain. The inscription on the bench reads “Miss Peggy Lee 1920-2002”. Above this are the words, “Music is my life’s breath”. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting epitaph.

In 1994, Frank Sinatra said of Peggy Lee, “Her wonderful talent should be studied by all vocalists; her regal presence is pure elegance and charm.” Duke Ellington was equally ardent in his assessment of her talent, stating, “If I’m the duke, man, Peggy Lee is the queen.”

As effusive as both were with the praise, it almost seems inadequate to what she accomplished over seven decades in the entertainment industry. She earned 13 Grammy nominations with one win (1969) and a Lifetime Achievement award in 1995, appeared in motion pictures like Pete Kelly’s Blues (for which she received an Academy Award nomination,) and wrote over 200 songs. She was the first female recipient of the Songwriters Guild of America’s Aggie and President Awards and her official biography notes, “she recorded more than 1,100 masters and over 50 original albums. Her total number of radio broadcast performances is over 800, and her television appearances surpass the 200-mark.” 

She collaborated with artists like Duke Ellington, Quincy Jones, and Marian McPartland, while the list of those who have covered her compositions reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ in 20th-century entertainment: Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, Bing Crosby, Doris Day, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Queen Latifah, Janelle Monáe, Nina Simone, Regina Spektor, and Sarah Vaughan, to name just a few. 

For the passionate Disney fan, she is best known as the co-writer and performer of the song ‘He’s a Tramp’ from the 1955 animated masterpiece Lady and the Tramp. It wasn’t the only piece that she contributed to the film, but it is the one that has become an unquestioned part of the Disney canon, standing alongside songs by such brilliant artists as Howard Ashman, Alan Menken, Robert and Richard Sherman, and George Bruns.

From Norma to Peggy

Peggy Lee

Born Norma Deloris Egstrom, Lee was the sixth of seven children. Her mother died while Lee was young. Then, like a character in a Disney film, her father remarried a woman who would embody the “evil stepmother” role, physically and emotionally tormenting Lee until she fled home at age 17. The experience would later be captured in her song, “One Beating a Day” as part of a musical autobiography that debuted on Broadway in 1983. 

Her professional music career began at a radio station in North Dakota, where the program director dubbed her ‘Peggy Lee’. She then began performing around the country, including a stop in Palm Springs where she truly developed the vocal styling that would become her trademark, a quiet, husky delivery that could be simultaneously understated yet seductive, simple, and sultry all at the same time.  

It was a style that she adopted strategically, as a way to combat the noisiness of the crowds at her shows. She recalled, “I knew I couldn’t sing over them, so I decided to sing under them. The more noise they made, the more softly I sang. When they discovered they couldn’t hear me, they began to look at me. Then, they began to listen. As I sang, I kept thinking, ‘softly with feeling’. The noise dropped to a hum; the hum gave way to silence. I had learned how to reach and hold my audience—softly, with feeling.”

During this period, Benny Goodman heard her and asked her to join his band. She recorded her first song, ‘Elmer’s Tune’ in 1941, and recorded a hit in 1942 with ‘Somebody Else is Taking My Place’.  In 1943, with Goodman, she released the song “Why Don’t You Do Right?”, a recording that became a smash hit and catapulted her to fame. 

That same year, she married guitarist Dave Barbour, and briefly retired from performing. Fortunately, it was a short-lived departure. Two years later she returned to the industry, collaborating with her husband on songs like “It’s a Good Day” and “Everything is Movin’ Too Fast”. 

David Barbour and Peggy Lee

Hits like “Fever”, “Big Spender”, “Golden Earrings” and “Is That All There Is?” followed, as Lee spent 24 years with Capitol Records before moving briefly to Decca, and other labels. Listening to her catalog today, it is clear that her belief that “The eternal struggle of art is to leave out all but the essentials” informed all of her performances. Each song feels spare, though not in a way that leaves them lacking. It’s as though she takes the listener to the precipice of every passion, be it love or despair, and leaves them teetering there, balancing on the sharp and refined edge of her voice. 

Lady and the Tramp

Peg and the Pound Dogs in Lady and the Tramp

In the midst of all of this success, Lee was contacted by Disney. According to her biography, “Walt Disney took notice of Peggy’s songwriting ability, and in 1953 he hired her to write all of the original lyrics for his classic animated film, Lady and the Tramp. Walt liked Lee’s song demos so much, he asked her to voice four of the characters, and even named one after her.”

Alongside Sonny Burke, she wrote:

  • He’s a Tramp
  • La La Lu
  • The Siamese Cat Song
  • Bella Notte (This is the Night)
  • Peace on Earth
  • What Is a Baby?

Of those numbers, she performed three (“He’s a Tramp”, “La La Lu”, and “The Siamese Cat Song”). She also provided the voices for the human character of Darling, the cats Si and Am, and the heartsick pound puppy Peg.

The song “He’s a Tramp” is the true show stopper, a number that seems as though it could have been a hit without the help of Disney. It begins with a slow, big band-style introduction that hearkens back to her days with Benny Goodman and would be at home in the old dime-a-dance halls. It then transitions into a gently swinging blues, Lee’s smoky voice accompanied by a jangly piano and jazzy bassline. The sound of dogs barking and whining in the background morphs into subtle harmonizing from the Mellomen (including a memorable bass line that goes “Boom-ba-boom ruff”).

Though the song has a tinge of melancholy and longing, as you’d expect from a blues number, it never becomes maudlin. Instead, it takes a playful approach, as though the lamentations are being given with a wink and a grin. Lee, as Peg, bemoans Tramp’s rambling nature while hinting that she wouldn’t change it. The result is a song that would be nominated for the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Songs” list of the greatest songs in cinematic history. It remains a perennial favorite of Disney fans around the world, rising to international attention again when performed by Janelle Monáe in Disney’s 2019 “live-action” adaptation of the movie. 

Sadly, the relationship between Lee and Disney would not have a fairytale ending. In 1987, the company released Lady and the Tramp on VHS. Lee believed that she was due performance and song royalties for the home releases, which Disney refused to pay. As a result, she sued them and was eventually awarded $2.3 million. 

In an interview, she stated, “I’m not being a saint, saying I don’t want the money — I want it…I think it’s shameful that artists can’t share financially from the success of their work. That’s the only way we can make our living.”

While it may not have been the perfect coda to her relationship with Disney, it was a landmark victory for artists’ rights. As explained on her official webpage, “Peggy Lee was quietly standing for this cause as early as the 1940s. In solidarity with the American Federation of Musicians’ 1948 record ban, she was among the vocalists under contract who refused to do any recording activity for the entire year…More than just an advocate, Lee was an artist willing to stand up for her craft. Facing an industry ruled by conventional corporate (and, all too often, mostly male-oriented) thinking, Lee fought multiple battles on behalf of not only her artistic vision but also the rights of fellow artists. The most famous of Lee’s legal cases was a lengthy court battle (1988-1992) regarding her work on Lady and the Tramp. This precedent-setting case pertaining to home video rights redefined how entertainment contracts are written.”

Life’s Breath

Looking back over the length of her career, it’s remarkable to note that Peggy Lee achieved her first charting single “I Got It Bad” in 1941, and her last, the posthumously released “Simalu” in 2017, 76 years later. It’s a body of work that continues to inspire, enticing listeners to revisit her songs over and over again. Thinking about brings us back to the simple inscription at her grave: “Music is my life’s breath”. 

But there’s more to the story. Music may have given her life, but she breathed life back into music. As Frank Sinatra would say, “Peg is just about the best friend a song ever had.”