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These dolls just wanna sing and dance

May 04, 2003|Robert Hilburn; Steve Hochman

Bobblehead dolls are the best thing that has happened to sports culture since the hot dog. You can get bobbleheads of just about everyone in sports who matters, from former Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda and thoroughbred horse trainer Bob Baffert to the late Laker announcer Chick Hearn.

Now pop music fans have a doll that extends the concept in several enticing ways. Rather than 6 inches high with a bobbing head, these animated dolls are 18 to 20 inches tall and they shake, rattle and sing!

Push the button on the base of the James Brown doll and it begins moving frantically as it declares: "Yowwwww, I feel good!"

You'll feel good too.

These dolls are guaranteed to make you smile.

The other pop subjects in the singing-head doll collection include:

* Bing Crosby. Complete with suit and hat, Der Bingle stands holding a vintage microphone in his right hand and a signature pipe in his left. Push the button and his mouth, head and arms move as he sings: "Cheek to Cheek" and "Ac-Cent-Tchu-Ate the Positive." (A companion Christmas version features "White Christmas.")

* Dean Martin. The tuxedo-clad crooner sings "Everybody Loves Somebody" and "That's Amore" in his languid style.

* Hank Williams Jr. In his trademark dark glasses, black hat and boots, the rowdy country star delivers "Family Tradition" and "Born to Boogie."

* Louis Armstrong. The jazz marvel holds a miniature trumpet in his hand as he swings his arms and hips while singing "What a Wonderful World" and "Hello, Dolly!"

The items -- which retail for about $30 -- are among the hundreds of entertainment-minded novelty items from Gemmy Industries Corp., the Texas firm that sold millions of the Big Mouth Billy Bass plaques a few years ago.

The singing-head dolls, in fact, owe much of their existence to the success of Billy Bass, a fish that swung its tail to the beat as it sang "Take Me to the River" and "Don't Worry Be Happy."

Joe Pellettieri, the company's vice president of product development, says one of Brown's lawyers contacted the firm after the success of Billy Bass to ask if it would be interested in doing something with the celebrated soul singer.

"We came up with the idea of making him dance and move his mouth -- something that would be funny, and it worked," Pellettieri said. The item was introduced in 2001 and sold in the tens of thousands. That led Pellettieri to begin exploring licensing deals with other pop culture figures or their estates.

The latest item in the series, which is sold chiefly through toy and department stores, is an Abbott and Costello doll that recites the entire six-minute "Who's on First?" comedy sketch. An "I Love Lucy" doll is also on the way. There will be new talking-head dolls of John Belushi, Yogi Berra and Don Knotts' Barney Fife character.

In the music field, the company has just scratched the surface. If Gemmy gets them into music stores, the dolls should create a big buzz. Pellettieri said he has explored getting the rights for dozens of artists, from Frank Sinatra and Elton John to Eminem, but no deals have been struck.

Who is No. 1 on Pellettieri's wish list?

"Elvis Presley," he said without hesitation. "We've had talks with the estate, but they don't want to do a doll right now."

That hasn't stopped the industrious executive.

Look this Christmas for a line of hound dog novelties, each singing Elvis songs.

Declares Pellettieri, "They're going to be big."

-- Robert Hilburn

At the top of the list: Q magazine

England's Q magazine has done more to change the tone of rock journalism than any publication since Jann Wenner moved Rolling Stone to New York. Without compromising its artistic judgment, the monthly magazine has pioneered a breezy approach geared to the obsessive fan who loves lists.

The approach has not only influenced Rolling Stone in recent years but also serves as Blender's strategic blueprint.

Q still, however, sets the standard for fun each month, with lists that have ranged in recent years from "The 50 Bands You Must See Before You Die" to "The Greatest Drug Albums Ever Made."

In the latter, Q nominated the records according to the type of drug described in the album or reportedly used by the artist during the recording. There are the best cocaine albums (including David Bowie's "Station to Station" and Oasis' "Be Here Now"), best acid albums (Love's "Forever Changes" and the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band") and so forth.

Even the relatively scholarly Mojo magazine favors lists. In the British magazine's March issue, which can still be found on some newsstands here, there's a booklet listing the singles that should be on the "ultimate jukebox."

Some noteworthy figures serve on the panel that selects the 100 singles, including Nick Hornby, the novelist who captured the spirit of obsessive music fans so marvelously in "High Fidelity."

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