One of jazz's wiliest mysteries involves a Looney Toons cartoon released in January 1957. The animated short is called Three Little Bops, a hep-cat jape of The Three Little Pigs. Instead of a straight retelling of the children's fable, the cartoon features three porkers as hat-clad hipster musicians who struggle to fend off a tin-eared, trumpet-playing wolf determined to jam with them at three different clubs. With the help of Stan Freberg, the legendary comedian who wrote the jive-rhyme storyline and the last surviving member of the Three Little Bops team, I think I've managed to narrow down the mystery musicians on the soundtrack.
But before I go any further, if you're unfamiliar with Three Little Bops, go here. Everything I tell you from here on out won't make much sense unless you're familiar with the unusual Looney Toons short.
I turn to the cartoon today because last week I noticed that Doug Ramsey at Rifftides featured comments from readers who just discovered the cartoon. They, too, seemed to struggle with the jazz personnel. The post prompted me to go back to my recorded interview with Stan Freberg over the summer.
As anyone who has viewed the cartoon short knows, the sole jazz musician listed on the opening credits is trumpeter Shorty Rogers. Yet there's also a saxophone, guitar, piano, bass and drums playing in the cartoon. For years, instrument credits were believed to be Stan Freberg (vocals), Shorty Rogers (trumpet), Art Pepper (saxophone), Pete Jolly (piano), Barney Kessel (guitar), possibly Joe Mondragon (bass), and Shelly Manne (drums)."
My interest in Three Little Bops mystery began in June, when movie director and blogger Raymond De Felitta [pictured] posted about the cartoon. In the post, he urged me to dig into the personnel puzzle. So I began making calls, starting with Daniel Goldmark, author of Tunes for 'Toons: Music and the Hollywood Cartoon and one of the country's leading experts on Looney Toons. Daniel said there was nothing in his records reflecting who else played on the date. He suggested I call Carmen Fanzone [pictured] at the Professional Musicians Local 47 in Hollywood, since checks must have been cut for the musicians playing on the date.
Days later, Carmen reported back that there was nothing in the Local's records listing the unnamed musicians. Carmen suggested I reach out to Stan Freberg [pictured]. For those unfamiliar with Stan (shame on you!), he was something of a renaissance comedian who essentially invented the irreverent 1950s. Back at the dawn of the decade, before Saturday Night Live and other social commentary comedy shows, Stan began leveraging his many talents as author, recording artist, animation voice actor, comedian, radio personality, puppeteer and advertising creative director. His early fame was built on novelty records that poked fun at popular culture and larger-than-life personalities.
During our phone conversation, Stan reflected on Three Little Bops: "Shorty [pictured] brought the date together. He got the musicians. I wrote the script and did all the characters' voices for director Fritz Freleng, and I sang. I also helped with the music. Not many people know that."
While Art Pepper has long been credited as the saxophonist, that's virtually impossible. As any ear can hear, the instrument playing in the cartoon is a baritone saxophone. Art Pepper played alto sax and clarinet, and according to Tom Lord's Jazz Discography, Art recorded on baritone sax only once in his entire career, in 1977, for The Gauntlet movie soundtrack.
So I gave Laurie Pepper, Art's widow, a call on Saturday. "Art rarely played the baritone and almost never recorded on it," she said. "The one time he did was in 1977, when he got a call to play on Jerry Fielding's score for The Gauntlet. When Art was asked on the phone if he played the baritone, he said he did, even though he didn't. [laughs] When he showed up to the date with a baritone sax case, Art said the musicians in the band looked at him dumbfounded. They had never seen him play or hold the instrument."
So if the baritone saxophonist on Three Little Bops isn't likely Art Pepper, who could it be? Perhaps Pepper Adams, who played only baritone sax? The similarity of his name and Art Pepper's may be behind the mix-up. When I asked Stan Freberg about Pepper Adams, he agreed. "I think you're right," he said.
What about the rest of the musicians? Stan thinks the guitarist was Barney Kessel [pictured], which makes sense given Kessel's sharp attack. At the time, he was recording frequently on many rock 'n' roll sessions, including dates for Elvis. Since the music Stan wrote for Three Little Bops required a Bill Haley, jump-boogie feel, Kessel would have been the perfect choice. Stan also said he's sure the pianist was Pete Jolly and that the drummer might have been Shelly Manne. Who was the bassist?
"It was an African-American fellow who also played the tuba," Stan said.
"Red Callender?" I asked
"That's it. It was Red," he said.
Of course, memory is a quirky thing. While it's a pretty fair assumption that Pepper Adams and Barney Kessel were there, how certain are we of Pete Jolly, Red Callender and Shelly Manne [pictured]? If we look at Shorty Rogers discography for early 1957, we see that he recorded in January and February with Pepper Adams, Pete Jolly, Red Mitchell (on bass) and drummer Stan Levey, who also recorded on many pop-rock dates at the time.
Could Stan Freberg be confusing Stan Levey with Shelly Manne and Red Mitchell with Red Callender? Of course, we'll never know for sure unless someone produces a list from the musicians' union or the Warner Brothers' cartoon archives. All of the above-mentioned musicians were recording in Los Angeles in the fall of 1956, when the Three Little Bops score was recorded in advance of the cartoon's January 5, 1957 release.
And just because Shorty recorded with Mitchell and Manne in January and February 1957 does not mean they recorded on the Three Little Bops date in the fall of 1956. So the mystery continues on the bass player and drummer. At least we now can be sure that the baritone wasn't Art Pepper and might have been Pepper Adams and that Barney Kessel and Pete Jolly were there.
If I were guessing based on what I know now, I'd say Red Callender was the bass player (based on Stan Freberg's recollection) and that Stan Levey [pictured], not Shelly Manne, was on drums. Stan was the drummer on Gene Pitney's Town Without Pity (1961), and his attack on the pop single here sounds very close to the one on Three Little Bops. He also was recording with Shorty Rogers at the time.
For now, this is the best we can do until more information surfaces or documents are discovered.