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.