Thursday, January 21, 2021

"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" by The California Raisins

Song#:  3381
Date:  01/23/1988
Debut:  84
Peak:  84
Weeks:  4
Genre:  R&B, Novelty

Pop Bits:  In the early/mid 80s, the sales of love 'em or loathe 'em raisins were steadily declining. The California Raisin Advisory Board (CALRAB) was hunting for a way to promote raisins. Ad man Seth Werner and his writing partner Dexter Fedor came up with an offbeat idea for the board. The concept was actually simple. A group of raisins dancing to the Marvin Gaye hit "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." Apparently, when it came time for his presentation to CALRAB, Werner simply started a tape player with the song and began dancing around the room. Werner wanted to do a claymation commercial that gave a quartet of raisins identities and personalities. Then have them perform "Grapevine." Although the board had wanted a celebrity spokesperson, they liked the idea and Werner's pitch enough to give it a go. It took over a month to film the commercial, which first aired on September 26, 1986. It was a success, but more than that the ad spurred a pop culture phenomenon. The claymation raisin group became known as The California Raisins and not only did it help boost the sales of raisins, but other merchandise would follow such as plush toys, lunch boxes, clothing, and costumes. Then there was an appearance on the Emmy award winning TV special A Claymation Christmas Celebration. With the Raisins' popularity still growing, it was inevitable that an album would be recorded. Produced and arranged by Ross Vannelli (brother of singer Gino Vannelli), Sing the Hit Song by The California Raisins was released late in '87 on Priority Records. This first single was released and it spent a quick month near the bottom of the Pop chart. The album, however, did very well getting to #36 and selling over a million copies. Three more albums would follow quickly along with a mockumentary TV special Meet the Raisins! and a Saturday morning cartoon series. However, like most pop culture phenoms, the Raisins' days in the sun faded and by 1990 it was becoming too expensive for CALRAB to keep up the promotions and the campaign came to an end.

ReduxReview:  These commercials were all over TV in the late 80s. They were memorable and kind of fun. I think the MJ one (see below) was pretty funny and well done. However, I really didn't think we needed the whole commercialism of a commercial-based group (is that double commercializing?). Because they were everywhere, the Raisins wore out their welcome quick with me. I certainly didn't need an album of remade old hits by "raisins" either. Yet, it seems other people did (apparently over a million). The only good thing from it is that perhaps a few people who heard the songs went back and bought the originals. Usually, this promotional, novelty-style of single I would abhor as they are, for the most part, poorly done and are just cashing in on a moment. While the latter is a true statement with this single, I have to say that the actual recording is not all that bad. Producer Ross Vannelli did a solid job taking a cheesy, promotional gimmick and turning it into a solid track. The lead vocals (see below) were also well done. Would I buy this? No. Do I ever need to hear it again? No. Still, as the touchstone for a pop culture moment, it certainly wasn't bad.

ReduxRating:  5/10

Trivia:  Double Shot!  1) So who provided the main vocal for The California Raisins? The lead vocal done for the original commercial was handled by singer/drummer Buddy Miles. Miles was known for being a member of the blues rock band The Electric Flag and for his work with Jimi Hendrix. He also recorded several solo albums along with works by his band Buddy Miles Express. Miles would be the lead vocalist for three of the California Raisins albums. For the fourth one that was tied to the TV special Meet the Raisins, other vocalists were used with Andy Stokes taking over the character that was voiced by Miles.  2) How hot were the Raisins? So much so that celebrities got involved. A claymation version of Ray Charles was created and he sings "Grapevine" with the Raisins (in the style of the Gladys Knight version, not Marvin Gaye's). However, the big endorsement came when Michael Jackson came on board. Jackson worked with the animators to come up with claymation versions of him as a raisin (complete with top hat and white glove) and as himself. Jackson performs a "Bad"-ish style version of "Grapevine" for the commercial.


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