Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
In 1988, tribute album pioneer Hal Willner released Stay Awake: Various Interpretations of Music from Vintage Disney Films. The likes of Tom Waits, Bonnie Raitt, Sinead O’Connor, Los Lobos, and Ringo Starr all contributed to a record that mostly leaned toward the nightmarish feel of films like Snow White (1937) and Sleeping Beauty (1959). This was not an album to play for the kids at bedtime.
One cover that stood out was Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s performance of “Pink Elephants On Parade” from Dumbo (1941). Those who knew Sun Ra as a pioneer of free jazz might have expected a drastic reinvention, but what he delivered was a faithful recreation of the original arrangement. This approach was not unusual for the Arkestra: while the group was (and is) famous for their improvised freakouts, they were (and are) equally adept at reverent renditions of standards by Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and others. Sun Ra approached this Disney song as he would any tune from the Great American Songbook.
Stay Awake was released, and everyone involved soon moved on. Everyone, that is, except for Sun Ra, who plunged headlong into a full-on Disney obsession. By February 1989, Ra was ready to premiere a series of concerts billed as “A Salute to Walt Disney,” which lasted nearly three hours and were comprised almost entirely of Disney material. At the first such concert at NYC’s The Bottom Line, for example, the Arkestra mined the Disney songbook for classics like “Chim-Chim Cheree” from Mary Poppins (1964), “When You Wish Upon a Star” from Pinocchio (1940), and “Cruella DeVille” from 101 Dalmations (1961). Wikipedia reports that Sun Ra even performed a concert at Disney World, although details of this event are hard to come by.
These live performances allowed for more improvisation than the studio recording of “Pink Elephants,” but they were still played with respect for the original melodies, and in a spirit of fun that’s often missing from the covers on Stay Awake. While the arrangements themselves are usually very faithful, the fact that these songs are being played by Sun Ra at all gives the performances an extremely surreal vibe.
For years there was no document of Sun Ra’s 1989 “Disney Period” outside of bootlegs. That all changed in 1999 with the release on Leo Records of Second Star to the Right (Salute to Walt Disney), featuring tracks from a show in Ulrichsberg, Austria. This is an audience recording, and someone close to the taper can be heard throughout the show laughing aloud in disbelief at what’s unfolding onstage.
The song selection indicates that Sun Ra had immersed himself in some serious research, presumably having scoured Philadelphia’s video rental stores for every Disney movie he could find. The first track is an almost note-for-note reproduction of the extremely sinister “The Forest of No Return” from the 1961 film Babes in Toyland. The prominent growling vocal is bassoonist/percussionist James Jacson, while the unusual absence of Arkestra mainstay John Gilmore on tenor saxophone opens up space for a Knoel Scott alto solo.
Up next is “Someday My Prince Will Come” from Snow White (also recorded by Miles Davis on his 1961 album of the same name), which opens as a piano/saxophone duet between Sun Ra and Marshall Allen, who interjects his trademark alto squeals here and there. Vocalist June Tyson sings some of the lyrics, before the song closes out with another Marshall solo.
At this point there’s a brief non-Disney interlude, with the band breaking out “Frisco Frog” by Jimmy Lunceford. It’s quickly back to Snow White, however, with the Arkestra playing a big band-ified version of the first song from that film (and, by extension, the first song in an animated Disney film), “I’m Wishing,” featuring some vocals by Sun Ra himself alongside June Tyson.
Listening to this album can make you feel increasingly like Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole, and that feeling only increases with the next song: “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” from Song of the South (1946), a film that will not be showing up on Disney+ any time soon. James Jacson returns with his Louis Armstrong-esque vocal on this Acadamy Award winning composition, which must be one of the most insanely catchy songs ever written.
Sun Ra then leads the band through “Second Star to the Right” from Peter Pan, taken at a leisurely pace in the style of Duke Ellington. Once again, this track is played dead straight, the only avant-garde aspects being Marshall’s occasional saxophone shrieks and Sun Ra’s vocals toward the end of the song.
This is followed by another return to Snow White for a fun-filled version of “Heigh-Ho,” which – unlike Tom Waits’ terrifying re-working from Stay Awake – is pretty much faithful to the original. We stay with Snow White for the final track (and the second straight cover of The Seven Dwarfs), “Whistle While You Work,” sung by everyone with solos by Knoel Scott on alto sax, Michael Ray on trumpet, and Bruce Edwards on guitar.
The fact that Second Star to the Right exists at all might be enough to warrant instant Cover Classic status, but thankfully the music itself is excellent, from one of the Arkestra’s strongest late-period years. This delightfully surreal album is everything that a Disney covers album should be: fun, silly, catchy, yet displaying a sincere and unironic love for the material. Humanity is better off for its existence.