Is Raymond Scott’s Powerhouse cartoon music’s most famous melody?
Composer Raymond Scott (1908-1994) was destined to write cartoon music.
Whether he wanted to or not is another matter.
Scott’s association with animation was established in 1943 when he sold Warner Bros. his highly eccentric, but very catchy original instrumental music catalog. There, Carl Stalling, Warner’s resident music director, arranger and composer, latched onto to those compositions, guaranteeing Scott’s membership in the cartoon music pantheon.
By 1943, Stalling was maestro for Warner Bros’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. Formerly a facile keyboard improviser for silent films, Stalling was also an early sound pioneer, originating techniques for synchronizing animation tempos with music, as in Walt Disney’s Dance of the Skeletons (1929).
Dance of the Skeletons, with its extended dance accompaniments, is a forerunner of Disney’s concept for Fantasia (1940). It certainly has little in common with Stalling’s trippy cartoon scoring of the 1940s and 1950s.
At Warner Bros., Stalling transformed into a quixotic wit and punster. He provided hilarious melodic jolts for quickly-paced slapstick, sudden mood swings, dropped anvils, topical tunes and exploding cigars. These fully orchestrated spurts, splats and stutters became a Looney Tunes’ signature.
Stalling wrote original music for many Looney Tune cues, including hundreds of transitions and musical onamonapias (he loved, for example ‘Mickey Mousing’ footsteps). But he also heavily relied on thematic quotes from a large repertoire of popular tunes and familiar classical excerpts, as evidenced in the 1942 Bugs Bunny outing, The Wacky Wabbit:
Undoubtedly, the acquisition of Scott’s catalog excited Stalling, providing him with the treasure trove of a kindred musical spirit.
Scott probably did not envision a future as a cartoon composer. That said, listen to the first recorded pressing of his composition “Powerhouse” in 1937 – and try to convince yourself otherwise.
“Powerhouse” was recorded by his group, the Raymond Scott Quintet, a misnomer given that the score and recording feature six, not five, instrumentalists, including a trumpet player doubling on xylophone. The tune employs an ABA structure consisting of two unrelated sections. In the hands of Stalling, however, that’s a feature, not a ‘Bugs.’
Here the Raymond Scott Quintet performs “Powerhouse” on the April 16, 1955 episode of Your Hit Parade (complete with a technologically primitive and unnecessarily distracting visual effect):
(Trivia: Johnny Williams, who at one point played drums for the Raymond Scott Quintet, is the father of Star Wars composer John Williams.)
Stalling scored and rearranged the breezy up-tempo first section, and its ostinato-based, bluesy middle section, as the story and cartoon visuals required. The first section was used for chases, mechanized flight and other high-energy activities. The second section was deployed for conveyor belts, factor automation and other robotic movements.
As with Leroy Shield whose music is readily associated with the Our Gang and Laurel and Hardy comedy shorts, “Powerhouse” is a ubiquitous and uncredited stock arrangement in the cartoon ether.
And like Shields, Scott has been resurrected by the Dutch recording group, Beau Hunks.
Looking to revisit some of these cartoon classics?
You can rent the first three seasons of The Ren & Stimpy Show, which ran five seasons form 1991 to 1996, from Amazon for $1.99 an episode. The last two seasons are currently unavailable to stream.
An extensive library of Looney Tunes, Bugs Bunny and other animated classics are available from streamer Boomerang, which offers a $4.99 monthly and $39.99 annual plans.
Of course, YouTube is a wonderful resource for original Warner Bros. classics which you can stream for free. Here’s one compilation:
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