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Kids’ Show Rock Part Three: The Cattanooga Cats, those Fantastical Felines

October 28, 2013

Though remembered by almost no-one, the Cattanooga Cats were one of the most interesting – and in my opinion, the genuine best – of the bands currently under discussion. Unlike The Bugaloos and The Banana Splits, who were live-action kids’-show characters, The Cattanooga Cats were a cartoon group, like the Archies. Their eponymous T.V series was produced by Hanna-Barbera for NBC, and ran from September 6th of 1969 to September 4th of 1971. Like The Banana Splits Adventure Hour (also produced by Hanna-Barbera),

The Cattanooga Cats show was a package program, composed of three or four different, unrelated segments. (Strangely, more people remember two different serial cartoons that rounded out the program – It’s the Wolf!, and Motormouse and Autocat – than The Cattanooga Cats show in its entirety. I personally think this is rather unfortunate.) But never mind all that. The important thing is the Cattanooga Cats themselves, and they – and the segments of the show that dealt with them – are truly a thing of wonder.

The Cattanooga Cats themselves were supposed to be (literal) hillbilly cats, from Tennessee (‘Cattanooga’ being a pun on ‘Chattanooga,’ one supposes.) The lead singer and guitarist was an orange tabby named Country, who wore a pink neckerchief and a big floppy hat, green or black depending on episode. (He looked, now that I think about it, a little bit like the singing-orange-cat character O’Malley, from Disney’s The Aristocats.) Then there was Scoots, the Bassist, Groove, the drummer, and – in some ways most importantly – Kitty Jo, the one girl in the group, with go-go boots and mini-dress, who danced around like a go-go girl and occasionally sang, and was the one character everyone recognized. The speaking voices for the characters were provided by Bill Callaway (Country), Jim Begg (Scoots), Casey Kasem (Groove), and Julie Bennet (Kitty Jo); and each character had a pseudo-Southern accent. Only nine ‘story segments’ featuring the characters were produced; these involved the group being ‘hounded’ by a literal ‘autograph hound’; or encountering strange supernatural entities – gormless ghosts, wacky witches, that sort of thing. But the group would pause once or twice every episode for a musical interlude completely unrelated to the plot, and of course it was the musical interludes that were really special.

It is here we come to a discussion of the actual music attributed to the Cattanooga Cats. Thankfully, these songs were not sung by the voice-actors mentioned above, and did not go out of their way to sound ‘Southern.’ Most of the songs were performed by Michael Lloyd, a seventeen-year-old singer-songwriter wunderkind who also headed two different L.A bands, The October Country and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. (The end of the ‘60’s was the glory period for foolishly- and grandiosely-named bands.) Lloyd sang the songs attributed to Country, the leader of the Cattanooga Cats; he also wrote the lyrics to most of the songs. The songs attributed to Kitty Jo were performed by Peggy Clinger, of the recording group The Clinger Sisters. The songs were produced and arranged – with more care and complexity than anyone expected two-minute pop songs aimed at kids and played on a cartoon show would have – by Mike Curb. (Mike Curb, an impresario who had his fingers in multiple pies over the course of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, is a man fascinating enough to merit an article of his own. In this context, though, the most important thing about him is that he wrote the lyrics to all the Cattanooga Cats songs that weren’t written by Michael Lloyd.)

The songs, in my opinion were brilliant – maybe even better examples of sunny ‘60’s pop than the ones attributed to the Banana Splits. For starters, there was the gleefully goofy theme tune, which, like the Banana Splits’ theme tune, featured lyrics so sublimely silly they were almost Zen: “The Cattanooga Cats don’t ever purr, they know how, but not what fer,/The Cattanooga Cats don’t go meow, wouldn’t try it if they did know how, they’re doin’ their thing!” Then there was ‘The Story of my Life’, with Michael Lloyd’s bright, clear voice floating over a sprightly piano riff. (The gloriously trippy Peter-Max-style images in the background of all the musical-interlude clips are by animator Iwao Takamoto. Besides the music, these images were what really set the show apart.)

Another favorite of mine is the winsome and chipper ‘Sittin’ by the Fireside’,with its opening flurry of strings, and what could almost be an answer song, the wistful ‘I Wish that I was a Fire.’ Like Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘I Am A Rock’, the lyrics to ‘I Wish That I Was A Fire’ suggest there might be something liberating in being an insentient object – that fires, like rocks, never have to die, cry, or suffer the ravages of love. ‘Maybe if I close my eyes/I can try to visualize/just what it would be like to burn away…’ Michael Lloyd sings, and the faint air of melancholy in his voice is an intriguing contrast to the upbeat tune and instrumentation. By the time the trumpet fanfare comes in at the song’s close, it sounds more than slightly ironic. Also notable was ‘Merry-go-Round’,  Peggy Clinger’s (or should I say, Kitty Jo’s) thrilling, trilling tribute to riding the carousel at the summer fair and grabbing for the brass ring, among all the other transient joys of childhood.  (D’you think Michael Lloyd read The Catcher In The Rye?)

Last but not least, there’s my favorite of the bunch, ‘Sleep Tonight.’ It’s sung by Peggy Clinger as Kitty Jo, it’s awfully mature for a song ostensibly intended for a kids’ show, possibly an example of Getting Crap Past The Radar – and in my opinion, it’s the best song ever attributed to the Cattanooga Cats. In the song, Peggy-as-Kitty-Jo weepily confesses having ‘been untrue’ (to whom? Country?) just so she can sleep again without her conscience keeping her awake.  Now I know this is a one-minute-and-forty-five-second pop song that no one seems to remember except me, and I know there are a lot of other short sharp pop songs on the same topic, that are generally considered to be better by a lot of people.  But I must confess, with no irony whatsoever, that I love this song, entirely out of proportion to its merits. I love everything about it. I love the general air of low-fi franticness, I love the drummers going at full-tilt, I love the howling backing vocalists. I love the cold, brittle-sounding piano notes – like sleigh-bells, or shards of ice. I love the desperation in Peggy Clinger’s voice. I’m sorry to say, I couldn’t find a YouTube video of this song that actually has a clip from the show with it – just one with a still picture. Listen to it here anyway, just so you can hear what I’m talking about, and see whether or not I’m raving.

And that concludes our brief tour of the wonders of Kids’-Show Bubblegum Pop. I hope I’ve told you a few things you didn’t know, put some weird thoughts into your head, given you some fun videos to watch while you ought to be working, and hopefully broken through the film of snobbery and ignorance that too many people display towards the prefab pop of the past.

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