The Ol' Redhead with the Ukulele: Godfrey's Musical Career
by Pete Crigler
I have been obsessed with radio/early TV personality Arthur Godfrey since I was 12 years old. It was summer of 1998 and the A&E channel ran a new episode of Biography one weekday night. That week was '50's-based and they ran episodes on Ozzie & Harriet, Ernie Kovacs and Arthur Godfrey. As a child without the internet, I had little to no knowledge of most of these personalities, but the episode on Godfrey really struck me. He was one of the biggest TV stars of the era with three shows on the air including Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, which helped launch stars such as Lenny Bruce, Patsy Cline and frickin' Pat Boone among others. He also had Arthur Godfrey Time which was a morning gab fest which also featured on CBS radio and then there was Arthur Godfrey and His Friends, which was a prime-time variety show. He was king for almost a decade before tastes started changing.
This wasn't why he stuck out to me as a dynamic personality. It was because of his hubris. In 1953, he was having trouble that one member of his troupe of performers referred to as the "Little Godfreys" was receiving more fan mail than him. That performer was Julius LaRosa, who had become a huge singing star and was having hits on his own and this didn't sit well with Godfrey. He consulted with CBS brass about what to do and he decided to fire LaRosa live over the air on his radio show. This action took the country by storm and Godfrey's accusation that LaRosa "had lost his humility" really didn't help his case. As a 12-year-old watching this forty years later, I was fascinated by the balls on this guy. How someone who could be at the top of the world one minute could blow himself up over some minor thing and decimate everything he'd worked for in just an instant was fascinating. The events that transpired inspired the classic 1957 Elia Kazan A Face in the Crowd starring Andy Griffith as Lonesome Rhodes, a Godfrey-type personality whose ego and hubris destroys his career overnight. In fact, it quickly became my favorite film of all time due to the similarities with Godfrey.
After reading and watching everything I could to gain an understanding of Godfrey, I became interested in his musical pursuits. He was an early fan of the ukulele and played little ditties on his radio show. As the show expanded into an enterprise, he began bringing in different types of singers including pop singers like LaRosa, Marion Marlowe and Janette Davis, R&B interracial group The Mariners, Hawaiian songstress Haleloke and many others. Through his association with CBS, Godfrey had a deal to release 45's and had a major hit in 1948 with "Too Fat Polka," a novelty that still gets attention not only due to the lyrics but because of the whole presentation of it. It ended up becoming one of the more notable pop hits of the forties and that was because of how Godfrey presented the track. Other songs of a questionable nature that became hits included "Slap 'Er Down Again Paw" but it was a different era; rock and roll didn't exist yet and music lovers pretty much had to take what they could get at this time. Godfrey's singing voice was never more than mediocre but his charm, his personality, his gumption in presenting the song helped people get over the lack of real melody in his voice. Godfrey had that ability to work his way into your family; he brought people together for a time and he expected to be remembered for that, not because he was a giant asshole with a raging ego.
Around the year 2000, a small Sony subsidiary released a compilation of some of his best and well-known tracks. It was during this time that I started purchasing vinyl and one of my first finds was a 1953 album entitled TV Calendar Show which featured Godfrey and all the little Godfreys doing songs relevant to their location and the seasons of the year. It was a buck in an antique store and I thought it was interesting enough. I still have it. Back to the compilation, I managed to track down a copy a few years back in a Goodwill in Richmond, VA and became obsessed with it. It encompasses everything from "Too Fat Polka" to the end of his major recording career which came around '59-'60.
One track in particular stands out from the rest. It's called "Pale Potomac Moon" and it's a beautiful gem of a song. Written by Godfrey himself and released in 1959 and featuring some ukulele accompaniment and some female backup, it's just gorgeous memories of being with the one you love 'under Virginia skies.' It's just one of the most simplistic yet beautiful ballads I had ever heard and it was one of those songs I fell in love with on the first listen. It's hard to believe that the man who sang the somewhat abhorrible "Too Fat Polka" could create something so special and beautiful.
Not like it mattered at that point though; his career was essentially over. Talent Scouts had been cancelled in 1956, And his Friends went off the air the same year as "Pale Potomac Moon" and Arthur Godfrey Time had been pulled from TV screens by this point but continued as a daily radio show until 1972! By that time, he was considered a fossil and a remnant of radio of the past at the same time. When he left the air, he continued acting in B-movies including the infamous Angels Revenge, which was spoofed on Mystery Science Theater 3000. According to Discogs, he continued releasing 45's here and there including a song for the Doris Day vehicle The Glass Bottom Boat which he also co-starred.
His final years were dedicated to lobbying against the tobacco industry and trying to save the planet through ecology. He was brought aboard PBS pledge drives dedicated to the oldies so he could sing "Too Fat Polka" for the type of audience that would still remember it. He died of emphysema in 1983 and is buried in Leesburg, VA. He had always loved Virginia and owned a massive farm just outside of Leesburg and to me, that's another reason to be fascinated with the man.
I might not love the town I live in but I love my state and any song that accurately describes the state's beauty and comfort instantly carves a spot in my brain. The fact that Godfrey's hubris and ego destroyed him in such a dramatic way while also seemingly disregarding the true talent that he actually possessed was a revelation for a kid working his way through media at such a young age. The fact that the song is not available on digital music platforms, let alone YouTube is just an absolute shame. It's a wonderful little song that deserves to be heard and cherished for what it is. That the song and what Godfrey stood for have stayed with me all these years made Godfrey one of the most encompassing and fascinating media personalities I've ever dealt with and has left a battered legacy that holds a special place in my mind.
See more from Pete Crigler at his blog
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