Fat Albert, the Bill Cosby Pilot Show, with music by…

Last week, my four months of Mwandishi band book talks wrapped up with two events in the New York Metropolitan area. All of the talks have been recorded and I’m in the process of preparing segments to make available on the web to help people explore the book.

While in New York, I finally had the opportunity to view the pilot for Bill Cosby’s animated “Fat Albert” series. This first episode, for which Cosby commissioned Herbie Hancock to write a score, was aired first on November 12, 1969 and maybe at the beginning of the actual series, in April 1970. The NBC series itself, but not the pilot, is available on DVD. Thus, it was a real treat to see this original segment, which is part of collection at the Paley Center For Media.

I’ll tell you, it was really interesting. The animation is quite unusual. The backdrop throughout most of the episode is in a dark blue and gives the viewer the impression that s/he is seeing documentary film footage. This “wallpaper” offers the illusion of a three dimensionality, as well as the bleak quality of Cosby’s North Philadelphia childhood neighborhood.  There is a long (probably overly long) football sequence, which is of an action-packed football game.

In the foreground are the Cosby kids characters, drawn in bright pastel colors. The outlines of the characters, however, are fuzzy as if they are in motion. This offers an artistic and dynamic quality to the characters. Think about the dust floating around Pigpen in the Peanuts television animations and transfer this quality of motion to the boundaries of each of the Cosby characters and you get the idea.

Herbie Hancock’s music includes some of the most R&B inflected tunes included on his 1969 recording “Fat Albert Rotunda.” This was Hancock’s first Warner Brothers release and the one that led to “Mwandishi” and “Crossings.” Actually, Warners interest was in seeing more popular music (although the reviewers who dismissed “Fat Albert” as popular fluff that was “not jazz” miss the fact that the vamps at times set up extended improvisation and that the recording also includes classic Hancock ballads “Jessica” and “Tell Me a Bedtime Story”). Thus the record company assigned a rock record producer, David Rubinson, to work with the pianist. As it turned out, Rubinson was quite in sympathy with Hancock’s far more adventuresome inclinations, it it took work for him to sustain Warner’s interests for as long as they were willing).

Some of the vamp-based tunes provide the music for the opening introduction and major scenes.  These include “Fat Albert Rotunda,” “Wiggle-Waggle,” and “Oh, Oh, Here He Comes,” which of course introduces Fat Albert himself. He first appears as a huge balloon-like purple blob from which the actual character emerges, dressed in a blue suit and tie.  The main story line, of course, is about how the kids make fun of him, thus hurting his feelings and alienating him. They do so when they need him most, during a football game against a much more athletic team of larger players (while the serious team’s uniforms are marked “Al’s Market,” the kids refer to them as “The Terds;” The underdog Cosby team, of course of course the Eagles, is dressed in their street clothes). Fat Albert decides to come through on his own initiative and becomes the team hero after routing the bigger guys.  The heroics are accompanied by further sections of “Wiggle-Waggle.”  The pilot ends with Fat Albert falling while being carried by his fellow victors, crushing them and causing the collapse of a neighboring building.

Herbie Hancock’s score is not all R&B. There are abstract solo piano passages, particularly during more emotionally heightened scenes. Piano clusters and Bartok-like or maybe Rite of Spring era Stravinsky harmonies, followed by ringing cymbals, accompany the screening of a Wolfman film. The moving image appears as an authentic silent film inserted within the pastel-drawn theater where the kids are watching. Another segment related musically to the theater scene occurs while the kids are walking home and feel frightened. Pointallistic piano gestures accompany the walk across a bridge. A stray cat crosses the children’s path and scares them. The images and sounds become more abstract before calm returns, as they walk back through the dark blue background of the City and into their apartment. A colorful and melancholy musical section with a lyrical trumpet solo (similar to what we will hear a decade or so later in Hancock’s score for the film “‘Round Midnight”) accompanies the scene when Fat Albert overhears the children talking badly about him.  

The pilot’s scenes are wrapped around several Mattel commercials, blond haired “living” Barbie (her wrists and other joints can be rotated and moved), “Whizzer” spinning tops, Chatty Cathy, Hot Wheels cars and accessories, and Talking Storybooks. The scene taking the episode out has the Cosby kids – Fat Albert, Rudy, Bill and his younger brother, Weird Harold (but I don’t recall seeing here the single female character, a love interest) – wearing shirts marked “Mattel” on their backs. They sing over a vamp “de-bee-lie…”

Thanks to John Cottrell for tipping me about where to view this pilot show, and to Shira Gluck for accompanying me on the trip. Shira was also one of the readers of the book.

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~ by bobgluck on February 18, 2013.

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