Kieran Moore – When I mentioned to a non-Muppet friend earlier this week that I was writing an article about Rowlf the Dog they instantly exclaimed “He’s my favorite Muppet!”, and I think this could be the case for a lot of other casual fans too. He’s certainly one of my favorites (not that I class myself as a casual fan – if you need proof see: this article). When you think about it Rowlf is almost the dictionary definition of a Muppet (assuming you don’t have a cockney dictionary). He’s musical. He’s funny. He’s kind of cool but also a bit of a goof. He’s friendly and supportive. He loves to perform. He’s comfortable in his own skin. And most of all he’s talented.
Oh so talented. Sifting through the wealth of material that Rowlf has amassed since his debut in 1962 has been a lot of fun and the work is so good that I’ve actually compiled a top 20. I’m going to present the top 10 here in long form, but I’ll list the songs at 20-11 at the end so you can see what just missed out. So here we go. Hold on, things could get “ruff”…
10 – Carbon Paper – Rowlf the Dog – Ol’ Brown Ears is Back
This is such a great song. Abe Borrows wrote some of my favorite pieces covered by the Muppets including “Sea Chantey” and “Gypsy Violin”; and Rowlf was no stranger to his compositions as three of them appear on his album Ol’ Brown Ears is Back. We’ll discuss the album in greater detail as we go through the chart (as you know it’s coming back), but for now we’ll bask in the glory of this wonderful song. From my first ever listen its clever lyrics grabbed me. Although originally (in Muppet terms) performed by Annie Sue this song is perfect for Rowlf as it features fantastic puns and wicked wordplay. Rhyming “original” with “pigeon’ll” is clearly the work of a genius. This particular recording has The Muppet Show’s signature vaudeville feel with brass and woodwind added to great affect and Rowlf’s matter-of-fact delivery is the icing on the cake.
9 – What a Wonderful World – Rowlf the Dog – The Muppet Show
If I’m completely honest I’ve never been a huge fan of What a Wonderful World (the song itself) so I was surprised to find myself rating this so highly. However like Mary, there’s something about this. Maybe it’s the use of a real animal instead of a puppet, maybe it’s Rowlf’s tender delivery or the oasis of calm that it provides. It could be any of those things, but actually I think I can sum it up in two words “Jim Henson”. If you want a few more words I can add that I find his performance here to be incredibly touching. This is the first time I think I’ve ever properly considered the words to the song and this is because it’s the first time I’ve really been moved to do so. These first two songs demonstrate Rowlf’s versatility brilliantly, but there’s still so much more to see…
8 – Eight Little Notes – Rowlf the Dog – Ol’ Brown Ears is Back (Song starts at 2:08)
I swear that this song’s position here in eighth place is purely a serendipitous co-incidence! I’ve chosen to feature the version of this song from Ol’ Brown Ears… rather than The Muppet Show for several reasons; first, I really like Fur Elise, second, I really really like the orchestral arrangement on the album. For those that don’t know, back in 1993 Jim Henson Records and BMG Kidz released the album Ol’ Brown Ears is Back; it consisted of 14 tracks – all performed by Rowlf. Jim Henson had died three years prior to the release and the vocal tracks were all unused recordings from a series of sessions in 1984. The release is something of a Muppet oddity in my opinion though I’m certainly glad it happened. The quality of the album coupled with its limited release makes it the Holy Grail for many Muppet collectors’. If you find it, buy it for me. If you find two, go ahead and get one for yourself as well!
7 – Halfway Down the Stairs – Rowlf the Dog – Ol’ Brown Ears is Back (Song starts at 6:00)
Ol’ Brown Ears is Back is certainly getting lots of love here today! Many of the songs featured on the album were originated by Rowlf on The Muppet Show, but presented with a few more bells and whistles. This song, however, is much better known for being sung by Kermit’s nephew Robin. What I like about Rowlf’s Muppet covers (such as this) is that his interpretation allows me to take another look at the song and what it means. When sung by Robin this song is all about growing up, but Rowlf’s version feels much more adult and talks about the feeling of not fitting in or being in a transitional state. Maybe you can decide to go up or down, maybe that choice will be made for you, but you get a sense of inevitable change that really resonates. I have to quickly mention the orchestration of this track and its beautiful strings. Jim’s original 1984 tracks were simply Rowlf and a piano (played by Derek Scott) and the orchestra was added later for the album release. I find that incredible!
6 – You and I and George – Rowlf the Dog – The Muppet Show
This is one of the few occasions where I actually prefer the original to the Ol’ Brown Ears… version. I think the simpler arrangement works better and Rowlf’s introduction is definitely funnier. Every word here has the power to induce laughter. As a singer I empathize with Rowlf’s comment about his mother turning down her hearing aid when he plays the song! I’m trying to think if there’s a Muppet I find funnier than Rowlf and truly I don’t think so. Fozzie has his moments (“The comedian’s a bear!”), Scooter and Uncle Deadly have been awesome in “The Muppets (2015)”, but can they make me laugh like Rowlf? Certainly not as regularly. Rowlf has a great sardonic wit that cuts through the wackiness of some of the other Muppets. It puts him in a position where he gets to wink at the audience and cements his stature as one of the elder statesmen of the group. It’s not snarky though. It’s affectionate and good-natured and feels very much like the familial bond that the Muppets are known for.
5 – Bein’ Green – Rowlf the Dog – Ol’ Brown Ears is Back
This version of this song is a previous number one and it very much deserves its status as such. When I did my recent retrospective I was actually shocked at how few times Rowlf has had a number one so I’m pleased to add to the number with this chart. Bein’ Green is a song that has never really resonated with me as much as it probably should. I actually find both this and Oscar the Grouch’s version talk to me much more. Again, Rowlf puts a different spin on the lyrics and it really works. What is interesting is that both Rowlf and Kermit are performed by Jim Henson and yet their versions are so different – even down to how the lyrics are interpreted. There is actual honest-to-goodness acting here. This isn’t just a guy with a sock on his hand singing a song. I love the way this builds and falls; it starts out really quiet and intimate, but by the time we’re “big like a mountain” we hit a fantastic crescendo that then diminishes and shrinks back to something much more delicate. Bravo!
4 – I Never Harmed an Onion – Rowlf the Dog – The Muppet Show
This is the perfect example of the other side of Rowlf’s humor – the pun. I love a good pun. I really do. One of my favorite comedians is Tim Vine whose jokes include the fantastic “I decided to sell my Hoover… well it was just gathering dust.” Rowlf is equally as good. Veterinarian’s Hospital (where Rowlf features as Dr. Bob is probably my favorite of “The Muppet Show’s” recurring skits. Jokes like “I’d never call myself a Doctor, they don’t come when you call them anyway!” are brilliantly written and fantastically delivered. Jim definitely had impeccable comedy timing and Veterinarian’s Hospital is another example of his great partnership with Frank Oz. (I also have to praise Richard Hunt for his part as Nurse Janice.) The other thing I love about this particular video is Rowlf’s wildly waving ears. It’s not something I’ve given a lot of thought to previously, but they add an extra layer of kinetic energy that helps to bring his character to life.
3 – Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas – Rowlf the Dog and John Denver – A Christmas Together
This is hands down the best version of this song I have ever heard (even better than the one I sing with my a cappella group). It’s funny because several times so far today I’ve talked about the meanings of songs and this is one that I think can be interpreted in so many ways. For such a well known piece it’s incredibly personal to the listener. Over the last year or so I’ve featured John Denver several times (especially at Christmas) and my love for his work with the Muppets hasn’t changed since then. I truly think he is one of the best Muppet/celebrity matches there has ever been. This song brings to mind Rowlf’s other big scene with John – the moment from “Rocky Mountain Holiday” when John cures Rowlf’s hiccups by taking him up in a plane to perform a few stunts. Although it’s online it’s unlikely to ever get an official release again as it was removed from the special after John’s death in a flying accident. This song is a tender moment, one of my absolute favorites, and a great tribute to John.
2 – You Are My Sunshine – Rowlf the Dog and Jimmy Dean – The Jimmy Dean Show
Although this song starts at 6:02 I implore you to treat yourself and watch the full video. I promise you won’t regret it! Rowlf first appeared on The Jimmy Dean Show in 1963 and he was an instant hit making him the first nationally known Muppet. He went on to appear in regular spots until 1966. His fame led him to several other TV appearances and Rowlf became a celebrity in his own right. As you’ll see from this clip Jimmy and Rowlf have great chemistry and the way Jim Henson was able to interact so well with a human co-star must have really given him encouragement that a Muppet show could work. Of note particularly in this sketch is Rowlf’s piano playing – I’m not sure if this is the first time he ever did it, but it certainly has to be a contender for the title. I especially enjoy Rowlf’s jazzy interlude towards the end of this criminally short song; I’ve never heard this song performed in that way, but I think it could really work.
1 – I Hope that Somethin’ Better Comes Along – Rowlf the Dog and Kermit the Frog – The Muppet Movie
Was there ever any question that this would be number one? Probably not, but such is the quality of Rowlf’s work there are songs not even in this top 10 that I’d be happy to class as a chart-topper for anyone else. I find it interesting that Rowlf’s top three songs are all duets. I’m not sure if any conclusion can be drawn from this, but it is interesting. Perhaps it’s a testament to Rowlf’s ability to work off of other people and by extension that of Jim Henson himself. There’s something of Jim in all of his characters. I never met the great man, but I’d like to think that Rowlf’s sense of humor and co-operative nature came from him. This song really feels like the ultimate example of the character traits I mentioned in my opening paragraph. It’s musical. It’s funny. It’s kind of cool but a bit goofy. It’s friendly and supportive. It shows a Muppet who’s happy in his own skin and it’s a talented performance. Quite frankly I can’t imagine that anything better could come along.
At the start of this chart I promised that I’d list the tracks from 20-11. There are several songs on this list that I’m surprised didn’t make the top 10 and several more I’m surprised aren’t to be seen at all!
20 – Garden Song – Ol’ Brown Ears…
19 – Memory Lane – Ol’ Brown Ears…
18 – Cottleston Pie – The Muppet Show
17 – New York State of Mind – Ol’ Brown Ears…
16 – She’ll Never See Any Dog like Me – The Jimmy Dean Show
15 – When – The Muppet Show
14 – Wishing Song – Ol’ Brown Ears…
13 – It’s Not Where You Start – The Muppet Show
12 – The Cat Came Back – The Muppet Show
11 – Old Dog Trey – Ol’ Brown Ears…
Hopefully if your favorite didn’t make the top 10 it’s listed somewhere there.
Rowlf truly is one of the greatest Muppets ever created. He’s been around for over 50 years and the fact that one of the most requested changes to “The Muppets (2015)” is to see more Rowlf is proof that his star hasn’t diminished. In fact speaking of stars, how do we get Rowlf a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame? He totally deserves one (next to Lassie). Thank You Rowlf, for being, in my mind at least, the ultimate Muppet. The world needs you; the Muppets need you and I need you. Thank you.