Top 10 Songs of… Bill Barretta

Kieran Moore – Quite often these top ten countdowns end up very Sesame Street-centric, either because the performer is primarily known for that show or simply because Sesame Street has been going for such a long time that there’s a wealth of material available. This week, however, although the songs featured come from a very wide range of sources, none of them have anything to do with Sesame Street. Bill Barretta (for it is he that we are here to discuss) first started performing with the Henson Company in the early 90s and is known for his work with the classic Muppet troupe and a certain “King Prawn”. His big break was performing the body of Earl Sinclair on Dinosaurs (a show on my re-watch list) and his Muppet career has seen him take on all kinds of challenges since including live performances, movie roles, and behind the scenes positions such as Producer and Muppet Captain. Because of all of this we’ve got a lot of ground to cover and some pretty darn awesome songs to look at. I guess we should get on with it…

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10.   Gersberms – The Swedish Chef (as feat. artist) with Hard n’ Phirm & Hayley Williams from The Nerdist Channel
I think Bill does such a great job with Chef that I really wanted to feature him somewhere on the chart, but was struggling to find anything Muppety that gave him a large enough role to qualify – this song is still a bit of a fudge on that score, but is probably his biggest musical performance in recent years. I think the only reason this song hasn’t gone more “viral” as it is pretty hilarious is that the meme it’s based on is quite obscure. Having Chef rap is a genius idea and is one that really should be exploited more at some point. His appearance in this video is definitely the killer moment that takes it to the next level. Bill is so funny – not just vocally, but in terms of what the Chef is actually doing as well. It might not be from a Muppet production, but this song definitely deserves its place on the chart.

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9.   Merry Christmas Baby – Pepe the King Prawn from A Green & Red Christmas
I couldn’t produce a Bill Barretta list without including Pepe somewhere and this is arguably his biggest solo vocal performance. Sadly, Pepe fared very badly musically in the edit on Muppets Most Wanted with his two biggest moments being cut. I have a sort of love/hate relationship with him. The old-school Muppet fan in me would see him as Toto in The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz and feel like he stole that part from Rowlf (equally sarcastic and an actual dog), but he can be a funny character and has helped see the Muppets through some dark days. Now that the troupe is more fully rounded with a wider range of characters being used, I think he’s finding his place more and it now feels about right. Anyway, regarding the song I think Bill does a great job here and this is suitably merry and Pepe is bang on character. My favorite Pepe musical performance is actually “When I’m With You” from The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz (“Cashmere is washable”), but he’s not in it enough for it to have counted unfortunately.

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8.   Shaking the Blues Away – Johnny Fiama & Tony Bennett from Muppets Tonight (scene starts at 2:19)
This is officially my first Muppets Tonight song on these top ten lists after “The Coffee Song” was deemed ineligible on my Leslie Carrara-Rudolph chart due to the fact that she didn’t actually sing it! This jazzy, bluesy number is a lot of fun and Tony and Johnny work brilliantly together. There were only a handful of Muppets Tonight characters that made it beyond the show and with Johnny, Bobo, and Pepe Bill performs the three that have arguably had the biggest impact. Johnny seems to have fallen by the wayside a little recently and that’s a shame, but I guess as Brian Henson is no longer part of the regular group of Muppet character performers the loss of Sal has made the difference. Either way, this performance feels like it could have come from the Muppet Show days to me in the way it starts offstage and then becomes a part of the actual show with a larger cast. Johnny and Sal really could have come from that era I feel.

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7.   I’m a Believer – Bobo & Mickey Dolenz from Muppets Tonight
You wait ages for a Muppets Tonight song and then two come along at once! We’ll gloss over the fact that Bobo is making comments about a “14-year-old” Cindy Crawford and simply enjoy this fun musical moment. Bobo is such a great character. He’s an awesome puppet first and foremost, but his gruff exterior and voice belie the heart of gold he has underneath. He’s such a sweetie and super-hilarious. His pairing with Nathan Lane in “Letters to Santa” is the absolute highlight of that special. Talking of pairings, I think we need to see more of Bobo and Uncle Deadly – it’s like someone used the Muppetwiki Random Muppet feature to put them together, but they really do work. I remember reading that Bobo’s voice was Bill’s homage to Jim’s vocals on similar characters like Rowlf and all of the growls that go with that really come to the fore here. Bobo’s version of this song sounds much more soulful than the original track.

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6.   Christmas Party Singalong – Rowlf the Dog from A Green & Red Christmas
Speaking of Rowlf… After the title track this was my favorite new song from A Red & Green Christmas. Songs like “North Pole Comedy Club” and “Christmas Queen” seem like the audio to actual performances, but this is the song that’s most like a Muppet one to me. It’s a fine distinction, but this wouldn’t be out of place at Emily Bear’s house for example. I have happy memories of this album as I bought it on a trip to Walt Disney World so it takes me back to that time. Listening to this directly after the Dr. Teeth track in seventh place you can hear the subtle differences that Bill has put into the two voices. To my ear, Rowlf has a softer tone and is more melodic and that’s just how it should be. This song makes me very happy not just because it was my first indication that Rowlf was in good hands, but also because it’s just a happy song that you can’t help but smile at!

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5.   Bohemian Rhapsody – Johnny Fiama & Sal from 2005 MDA Labor Day Telethon
So here’s the second most famous Muppet version of Bohemian Rhapsody! This is flat-out hilarious. I don’t know what else there is to say really. Hilarious pretty much does cover it all! I’ve been trying to work out if the vocals are performed live or if they’re lip-synched and I think they’re live which makes this all the more impressive. I touched upon the Johnny and Sal relationship earlier, but now’s a good time to discuss it further. I used to get quite annoyed at the way Johnny treated Sal thinking that he took advantage of the chimp’s good nature and need to please, but actually I do think the relationship is more equal than that. They are truly great friends who simply want to be there for each other. The Muppets are full of great double-acts like Beaker and Bunsen, Kermit and Fozzie or Statler and Waldorf and I’d put Johnny and Sal on that list too. They work on an emotional level as well as just being sidekicks and that sets them apart.

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4.   Celebration – Lead-Singing Alien Gonzo from Muppets From Space
In another first this is my first (and let’s face it – last) song from Muppets From Space. Who’d have thought that film would even get an entry on these lists? In fact, I have a feeling it has now leapfrogged “The Great Muppet Caper” and “Muppet Treasure Island” as I’m not sure I’ve featured either of those movies yet. I’ll have to check… There’s plenty to say about this movie and its merits (or lack thereof depending on your opinion), but in my mind it’s biggest flaw was trying to explain what Gonzo was thereby robbing him of one of his biggest charms. Anywhooooo….. Celebration is such a good song and Bill does an equally good job of performing it. It’s strange to see “Gonzos” in different colors and the lead singer here is giving of a Phil Van Neuter/Evangelist Preacher vibe that I find a really intriguing mix. It’s kind of a shame I don’t really want the Alien Gonzos back as they actually could be a lot of fun!

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3.   Stand By Me – Big Mean Carl & Bunnies from Muppet Viral Videos
Big Mean Carl is probably the most Muppety of the post-Jim Muppets. He could totally have come straight from a performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. I think it’s great that he’s been able to shine in the viral videos. In fact, this song is really representing Bill’s contribution to the Muppet Viral Videos in total as he’s definitely been a leading light in them – especially as The Swedish Chef with his appearances in “Popcorn”, “Carven Der Pumpkin” and songs like “Habanero”. Bill really does seem to have been a major part of keeping the Muppets alive in this regard and his performance here is nothing short of brilliant. Personally, Stand By Me is also a special song as it reminds me of someone very close to my heart. For a song with such meaning it sure can stand to be made fun of as anyone who’s ever seen the Timon & Pumbaa version will attest.

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2.   Can You Picture That? – Dr. Teeth and The Electric Mayhem & Travis Barker from Jimmy Kimmel Live
I can’t tell you how happy I am to be able to include this song here. It’s quite simply one of my favorite Muppet songs ever so thanks to Bill’s sterling performance as Dr. Teeth here I get to talk about it now. I really like this “live” arrangement of the song – you can clearly hear each instrument and Zoot’s sax part has never sounded better. I also think the new arrangement makes the recast voices sound less obvious as the whole piece is really its own entity and much less of a copy of the original as it could have been. I also feel that having the new performers “mime” to the original would have disrespectful to both them and the previous Muppeteers so I’m glad they didn’t go down that route. I can’t tell you how much in love I am with Bill’s performance of Dr. Teeth in this song. We need more of this in our lives.

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1.   You and Me Against The World – Johnny Fiama from Muppets Tonight (song starts at 3:46)
A week or so ago I was doing some research into Muppets Tonight for a chart that didn’t make it off the starting blocks, but in doing so I decided to re-watch the “Johnny Fiama Leaves Home” episode as it is cited as the moment the show really clicked. I agree, it’s a great episode, but sadly it proved to be the last. I was however struck by this track and how heartfelt it was – so much so that I immediately watched it again. The song has a great Muppet pedigree – not only was it written by Paul Williams and Kenneth Ascher, it was also performed by Kermit and Helen Reddy on The Muppet Show, so it’s only appropriate that it’s number one here. However, this version in particular touched me as it showed the love between Johnny and his Ma and without getting sentimental I can really relate to that on a personal level (not that my mother ever beat up a clown). It also somehow seems fitting that this was the last proper song performed (Johnny Mathis cameo aside) on Muppets Tonight. I bet sometimes making the show it felt to the cast and crew that they really were up against the world. As we’re at position one in the chart it goes without saying that Bill is terrific here, but I love the softer side he brings to Johnny and this song exemplifies that. It’s a great vocal that really means something.

And that’s a great way to end this rundown; a song that really means something from a Muppeteer who is exactly the same. Bill Barretta really has been a shining light for the Muppets in the last 20 years or so. His original characters are the ones that stood out recently and it’s with good reason as they all have well-rounded, interesting, layered personalities. His work with already established characters has also brought the Muppets some of their best and funniest moments. So all that is left is to say “Thank You”. Your contribution has been immeasurable and the quality of performance here speaks for itself. Thank You Bill, for doing what you do.

The Muppet Mindset by Ryan Dosier, muppetmindset@gmail.com

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One thought on “Top 10 Songs of… Bill Barretta

  1. I wholeheartedly must echo the sentiment, Bill Baretta’s contribution to the post-Henson era Muppets is incalculable.

    That said, I think it would be just to congratulate and thank all the current Muppet performers for their love and contribution in keeping our beloved characters alive – without them, I’m positive we would have had a soulless, all CGI, badly voiced iteration of the Muppets by now* So a huge “Thank you” to everyone involved.

    *for those who like that sort of thing, New Inspector Gadget coming soon! :/

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