Fred Mertz Meets The Man In Black & The Guy Who Climbed Blueberry Hill
March just came in like a lion in New Hampshire, USA (we got a foot of snow, our
first big storm since October), and I’m coming in late with my latest birthday clock tribute illustration, which features three guys born on February 26th: character actor William Frawley (1887-1966), country music singer Johnny Cash (1932-2003), and R&B pianist and songwriter Fats Domino (b. 1928). Here’s the final:
The name William Frawley might not be familiar to those living outside the United States, but I’ll bet most people know the name Fred Mertz. That’s because the old television series I Love Lucy is known and loved throughout the world. Frawley played Mertz, the Ricardos’ landlord, for the entire run of the series. Here’s a larger detail image:
You may be thinking: I thought Johnny Cash played the guitar– why is he playing that odd-looking drum? That’s a conga drum, and it’s the musical instrument most associated with bandleader Desi Arnaz who starred with his wife Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy. I decided to squeeze in an extra joke by having Johnny Cash stand in for Desi with his old pal Fred Mertz.
These birthday tributes give me a chance to have some fun with type. Here’s a close-up of my Fats Domino caricature. Fats always had a rather sparse moustache, giving me a chance to work in the title of his biggest hit.
William Frawley had a long career as a movie character actor, almost always playing an irascible curmudgeon. One of my own personal favorite Frawley roles is in the Christmas movie Miracle On 34th Street. He plays a “political advisor” who tells a judge in no uncertain terms that his political career is over if he rules there is no Santa Claus.
I was unable to find a decent still from that movie, but here’s a nice studio portrait of Frawley, along with a typical scene from I Love Lucy. Frawley had a paunch and wore
his pants fairly high, giving me an idea for where to place the birthday clock.
Frawley played Fred Mertz from 1951 to 1960. He then played “Bub” O’Casey, the live-in grandfather and housekeeper for the first five seasons of My Three Sons, which starred Fred MacMurray as a widower raising three boys. Frawley and MacMurray had first worked together in a forgotten film called Car 99 way back in 1935.
Here’s a scene from My Three Sons, along with a publicity shot for Car 99, which also starred a very young Ann Sheridan.
Johnny Cash (d. 2003) is an undisputed country music legend. He was famous for performing free concerts in prisons, which led to hugely successful live recordings: At Folsom Prison (1968) and At San Quentin (1969) were both multi-platinum best-selling albums. Over time, he began wearing black for his stage performances, which led to his nickname, The Man In Black.
His hit songs are too numerous to mention, but they included Ring Of Fire (#1 Country, #17 Pop, 1965) and the hugely successful A Boy Named Sue, a novelty song by Shel Silverstein (#1 Country, #2 Pop, #4 UK, 1968).
Cash wore his hair in a bit of a pompadour in his early rockabilly days (below, left). I thought it gave him a slight resemblance to Desi Arnaz which led to my conga drum joke. His hair got lower as he became an established country star (below, right).
Fats Domino is primarily remembered today for one song: Blueberry Hill, which peaked at #2 on the Pop charts in 1956 (#1 R&B, #6 UK). That’s a pity because he racked up 37 Top 40 hits during a racially-segregated era when R&B (rhythm and blues) meant “black music,” and white artists like Pat Boone had greater success with milder versions of the same songs (Domino’s first Top 10 record, Ain’t That A Shame, peaked at #10; Boone took it to #1).
Here’s the studio portrait of Fats that I based my caricature on, along with a shot showing the obvious joy and energy he brought to a live performance.
Did our three birthday boys have anything in common besides February 26th? Incredibly, yes: they were all recording artists. I was astounded to learn in researching this post that Frawley had been an old song-and-dance man, and the first person to publicly perform some songs that were immensely popular in their day, including Melancholy Baby (1912) and Carolina In The Morning (1922). Frawley recorded an album of his old songs, Bill Frawley Sings The Old Ones, in 1958. Fred Mertz, crooner– amazing.
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