Thursday, May 13, 2004

Roto-Rooter's Ditty Turns 50

We'll bet it's playing in your head right now

By Mike Boyer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

For Capt. Stubby and the Buccaneers the tune was one of many they sang to pay the bills. But in the half-century since the group's recording of the Roto-Rooter jingle, it has become one of the longest-running in commercial advertising.

With its familiar tagline "Call Roto-Rooter, that's the name, and away go troubles down the drain,'' the ditty recorded by Capt. Stubby and the Buccaneers, an Indiana-based novelty band, 50 years ago this month has become one of the best-known advertising jingles.

Steve Pollyea, vice president of marketing for the Cincinnati-based sewer and drain cleaning provider, said the value of the jingle is priceless.

"It's what we are to people,'' he said, noting it has become part of pop culture.

To help mark the anniversary, Roto-Rooter recently commissioned a national phone survey of well-known jingles among 1,000 adults. The Roto-Rooter jingle was the second-best-known after Wrigley gum's "Double your pleasure,'' theme and ahead of General Motors' "See the USA in your Chevrolet.'' It ranked first among those in the 35 to 54 age group.

The original 1954 lyrics:

Roto-Rooter is quick first aid
For clogs, sewers and stopped-up drains
The wonderful Roto-Rooter machine
Twists and turns and shaves lines clean.
Call Roto-Rooter, that's the name
And away go troubles down the drain
Roto-Rooter, Roto-Rooter.
Call Roto-Rooter you will see
How quick your drains are trouble-free.

Roto-Rooter jingle
Other jingles:
Doublemint gum
See the USA in your Chevrolet
Chiquita bananas (original)
Chiquita bananas (current)
Jingle expert Ben Freedman says the Chevy jingle, made famous in the closing of the Dinah Shore Show in 1953, ushered in a sort of golden era for commercial jingles fueled by the 1950s boom in consumer spending.

Today, Freedman says the jingle business is as big as ever, estimating it at $300 million worldwide, but the nature of the music has changed.

Instead of original tunes, advertisers are relying on bits of established music.

"Why do they call it a jingle? Because it rings a bell in your head,'' said Freedman, a Buffalo, N.Y, resident who is semi-retired after 39 years in the jingle business.

He defines a jingle as any short piece of music that's used to identify an advertiser.

Freedman's list of the top 10 jingles of the 20th century includes the Wrigley and Chevy jingles, classics such as Brylcreem's "A little dab'll do ya,'' and Campbell Soup's "M'm, M'm good;'' as well as more recent ones like McDonald's "You deserve a break today'' and the Army's "Be all that you can be.

The Roto-Rooter jingle is not on that top 10 list.

Still, Freedman, who operates an online training program for jingle writers called Jingle University, says the Roto-Rooter jingle is at the top of the longevity list.

"It's been continually used,'' said Freedman. "I don't think there's any jingle that's been used this long.''

(Actually, the jingle of another Cincinnati-based company, Chiquita Brands International, was created in 1944.)

Beyond that, Freedman said, the Roto-Rooter jingle "has a catchy melody.'' Then he broke out singing it.

"I'm not much of a singer, but that's big time,'' he said. "That's the melody people know. Just start and people know how to fill it in.''

Even in a movie

The Roto-Rooter jingle appears on the soundtrack of the 1997 movie Conspiracy Theory, starring Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson, and was parodied in an episode of TV's The Simpsons.

All of which bemuses Capt. Stubby and the Buccaneers, which got its first big break on WLW radio before World War II.

"It surprises me it's still around,'' said Jerry Richards, 85, who played clarinet as a Buccaneer. "We did a lot of jingles. When they hired us, I didn't even know what Roto-Rooter was.''

Richards, who splits his time between LaGrange, Ill. and Vero Beach, Fla., hooked up with Capt. Stubby - whose real name is Tim Fouts - at Indiana Central University in Indianapolis about 1938.

Fouts, also 85, lives in Logansport, Ind. He recently suffered a stroke that has left him unable to speak. But in an audio interview recorded by Roto-Rooter, Fouts recalled how the band got its big break and how the jingle was recorded.

The group, then known as the Six Hoosiers, was doing a live Sunday afternoon show on a small Danville, Ill., radio station when they were heard by then-WLW program manager George Biggar. Biggar brought them to WLW, where as Capt. Stubby and The Buccaneers they performed on the Boone County Jamboree and other shows.

After World War II, Fouts - who said he has always had the nickname Stubby "because I grew up that way: short and stubby'' - said the group was again hired by Biggar.

This time, it performed on the National Barn Dance program on Chicago's WLS. It was in Chicago they were asked by another musician, Larry Wellington, to record a jingle he had written.

"He laid out the charts of this little jingle for Roto-Rooter. We sang it right out,'' Fouts recalled, but added they wanted something distinctive for the tagline.

Fouts, who said he sometimes used a deep frog-sounding voice he copied from Smiley Burnette, one of Gene Autry's sidekicks, sang the tagline - "away go troubles down the drain'' - with that voice.

"They said: 'That's it, by golly,' '' and the frog voice stuck with the jingle.

Capt. Stubby and The Buccaneers continued to perform together until the late 1960s, even doing some recordings on Decca and other labels. Fouts did other commercial work as well. He was the voice of Sprout in the Jolly Green Giant commercials of the early 1960s.

One of the things Fouts doesn't recall is just how much the group was paid for singing the jingle.

"It didn't make us wealthy, I tell you that,'' he said. "I don't know, maybe $50 apiece, but we were glad to do it.''


Federated shareholders happy
Peale: XU center chief stepping aside
Roto-Rooter's Ditty Turns 50
Jeff Ruby's opens soon at Belterra
Tristate business summary
Investors seek bargains, leaving U.S. stocks mixed
Enron employees gain pension deals
Business digest
Business People
Innovest conference helps startups meet investors
NBC Universal forms newest media giant