Will Ryan interviews Joanie Sommers the voice of the Pepsi Generation...and many, many cartoon characters.
Jazz critic Gil Hunter has praised Joanie Sommers' eclectic career thusly: "Joanie Sommers successfully juggles several show-biz careers: Top-Ten pop singer ("One Boy," "Dr. No," "Johnny Get Angry," etc.), cultural icon (Official Voice of the Pepsi Generation), comedienne, actress, and a much-admired jazz singer." However, he missed an entire aspect of her career -- cartoon voice acting -- which has received little public attention. Until now.
I spoke with Joanie at the 1,500 seat Orange Coast College Theater as she was about to run through some new charts with Randy van Horne's Alumni Orchestra in preparation for an evening concert.
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Will Ryan: Joanie, most jazz writers and music critics who praise your voice seem to be unaware of your work as a voice-over artist.
Joanie Sommers: You're telling me! My current agent doesn't even know about it, because he only books concerts. Most people in the business, though, still seem to know that I did all those Pepsi jingles.
WR: Well, the voice is unmistakable. Not only did you lead the world into the Pepsi Generation, but you introduced Diet Pepsi to a parched public.
JS: I guess somebody had to do it.
WR: Joanie, you've worked with most of the great names of the cartoon voice world. Any stand out to you?
JS: I probably had the most fun with Mel Blanc, because it was on-camera. And the rest of the cast was fun too.
WR: Was this with Jack Benny?
JS: And Peter Lorre. The real Peter Lorre. Not Paul Frees, who did the Peter Lorre sound-alike on "My Old Flame" with Spike Jones.
WR: And you should know, because you worked with Paul Frees, too.
JS: Who didn't in those days?
WR: Come to think of it, even Peter Lorre did. They both performed together as "Peter Lorre" on a Spike Jones radio show.
JS: I guess that was before my time. I just realized I worked on a movie with Paul Frees where neither of our voices were actually heard.
WR: I give up. How'd that come about?
JS: In my first movie, Everything's Ducky, I played opposite Mickey Rooney. His best pal was Buddy Hackett, and Paul Frees was originally the voice of their talking duck.
WR: Based on the Shakespeare play, I gather.
JS: Of course. Post-production happened while I was performing in Hawaii. I couldn't fly back in time, so my lines had to be looped by someone else!
WR: That's crazy! You have such a distinctive and appealing voice.
JS: Thank you, Terwilliger. Anyway, then they wanted something different with the duck too. So Walker Edmistun replaced Paul Frees' voice. Walker did a fine job, of course, but all things considered, this is not my favorite motion picture.
WR: Joanie, I've seen a record of yours and a poster featuring your photo promoting an animated film called The Peppermint Choo-Choo. What was that all about?
JS: That would have been the late '70s, I think. I had an agent then who was getting me lots of voice work in commercials and animation. That recording got airplay in L.A., but no real nation-wide promotion. The Peppermint Choo-Choo was supposed to be an animated feature. They showed me storyboards and character drawings and I recorded a few tunes for it. It was adorable. A Christmas story with really loveable characters. I really was looking forward to seeing the movie. But ... it was scrubbed.
WR: How did you get started in cartoons?
JS: Well, I always liked them. When I was a kid I used to corral a bunch of littler kids and take them to the movie theater. This would be the Rivoli and Roosevelt theaters in Buffalo. They'd have twenty cartoons and call it a "Cartoon-A-Thon" or something. Little Lulu, Sylvester, Popeye, Mr. Magoo...
WR: Who was your favorite?
JS: Little Lulu. She was cute and she could get away with a lot of mischief.
WR: What can you tell me about the B. C. Thanksgiving Special you worked on?
JS: I played the lead girl, who appears throughout but actually only has a few lines. But I think Johnny Hart, who created B. C. and co-wrote the special, liked what I did.
WR: Why is that?
JS: Because he used my name in his comic strip later. Gave me a nice plug.
WR: I just saw your name in a crossword puzzle, too!
JS: That was the New York Times originally. It ran in the L. A. Times and who knows where else. Twenty albums with some of the greatest names in jazz and I'm eternally linked to "Johnny Get Angry."
WR: The rest of the B. C. cast was pretty good too, by the way.
JS: Sure -- Daws Butler, Don Messick, Bob Holt. Daws and Don were 90% of the early Hanna-Barbera characters. Daws alone was 70%!
WR: It goes without saying that you've worked with June Foray.
JS: Sure. She and Paul Frees seemed to do half the characters on another animated special I did called The Mouse on the Mayflower. John Gary and I were the leads in that. It was produced by, oh, what were their names? Baskin-Robbins?
WR: Well, it was either Howard Johnson's or Rankin-Bass.
JS: I'll go with the latter.
WR: Wise move. Any cartoon voice greats you haven't worked with?
JS: The entire cast of The Smurfs. I had two call-backs when they were casting that series, but I didn't get the part.
WR: You mean, you almost became -- ?
JS: That's right. I narrowly escaped becoming the only female in a bizarre village filled with little blue men.
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Joanie Sommers is a premiere singer of Warner Bros. Records. Three of her albums have just been re-released through Warner's Rhino subsidiary and on the Collector's Choice label. More re-releases, as well as new releases, are forthcoming. She continues to tour and record. Joanie left the voice-over business around the time of The Smurfs audition but sounds exactly the same, speaking and singing, today.
Will Ryan collects Japanese releases of Joanie Sommers records. He admits to having performed in at least one episode of The Smurfs.