July 11, 2017 | by James Greene, Jr.
Is Gumby rock ’n’ roll? Possibly. He was born around the same time as rock ’n’ roll. The area of Gumby’s head we perceive to be hair is shaped like that of Little Richard or Elvis. According to 1995’s Gumby: The Movie, this sentient, emerald-colored oddity occasionally participates in a hard rock combo called the Clayboys (for which he plays guitar). On the other fingerless slab substituting for a hand, Gumby creator Art Clokey once decreed that his only begotten talking eraser man is never allowed to dip into “wisecracking and cynicism,” both staples of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle. “He makes children feel safe,” Clokey also noted, which is not something you can say for Slipknot or L7.
So it could go either way. Nevertheless, Gumby received his own rock ’n’ roll tribute record in 1989, courtesy of Buena Vista Records. Gumby was having a revival moment in the mid to late ‘80s — thanks in no small part to Eddie Murphy’s bitter interpretation of the sedimentary icon on Saturday Night Live. They launched a new TV series in 1987, why not a tribute album to boot? Gumby: The Album was produced by Shep Stern, veteran of numerous Disney-themed music releases, including 1987’s Mickey’s Rock Around the Mouse. Little Richard (speak of the devil) shows up on that one, singing “Gawsh Golly Goofy.” As fate would have it, Little Richard was unavailable for Gumby: The Album, or unwilling (if anyone has honest beef with Gumby, it might be Little Richard, for reasons only he understands). Thankfully, LR’s name wasn’t the only one in Shep Stern’s rock ‘n’ roll Rolodex.
Gumby: The Album kicks off with the Zappa progeny — specifically, Moon Unit and Dweezil — who team up for a hunk of pop-metal nougat they should have ridden to chart glory. Alas, in 1989, the world was not ready to accept the love (lust?) one far out young woman may have had for an unflappable piece of (genderless?) green clay.
“You’re bendable, dependable, most of all friend-able,” Moon rhapsodizes. “Gangly and green, you’re taut and you’re lean… everybody wants you, if you know what I mean.” Eventually, Frank’s daughter cuts to the chase: “Show me the stuff that you’re made of, ‘cause I think I’m in love — with you, Gumby!” Meanwhile, Dweezil squeezes green hell out of his fretboard, proving he could have easily stepped in for Steve Vai on the Eat ‘Em and Smile tour.
Brave Combo swings two cuts on this musical love letter to Gumby, showcasing just how thirsty America was at that time for polka/world beat assemblies from Texas. If you’ve ever dreamed of a downhome bayou anthem for Art Clokey’s creation, “Zydeco Gumby Ya Ya” is here to fulfill all your steamy gumbo dreams. Brave Combo go rogue on their second offering, eschewing the titular hero in favor of his orange equine sidekick. Truth be told, “Pokey’s Polka” is up there with all the revered Mondale-era accordion hootenannies — the Schmenge Brothers’ “Cabbage Rolls And Coffee Polka,” “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Hooked On Polkas,” “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Hot Rocks Polka,” etc.
“I like Gum-by!” innocent troubadour Jonathan Richman sweetly enthuses on a trademark jangle of the same title — though the legendary Modern Lover seems to be inadvertently damning our clay boy with faint praise. On the verses, all Richman does is casually recount various items he’s passed on the street (Tonka trucks, carnival rides) that jog Gumby-related memories. A pretty roundabout salute, and let’s please note Richman can’t even bring himself to say he loves Gumby. It’s only like, and probably not “like” like. Still, Jojo is adamant: “I like Gumby ep-i-sodes! Especially certain ep-i-sodes! And I still remember the spooky parts!”
I think we can all agree the overall concept of a tiny green humanoid who can materialize within the narrative of any book he touches is extremely fucking spooky, so absolutely no harm, no foul to Jonathan Richman for that comment. Also, there’s nothing wrong with just liking something. Not everything has to be a torrid love affair.
Similarly, not every artist on Gumby: The Album has to be as heavy a hitter as Jon Richman or Moon Unit Zappa. See Eddie Wade, who wraps an unexpectedly heavy love story into the breezy reggae of “Concrete and Clay,” or Donna McElroy, who contributes an electro soul rendition of the American Breed’s “Bend Me, Shape Me.” Very clever, Donna.
You ever wonder what it would be like if Gumby were the Sheriff in a lawless and dust-laden Western settlement? Rick Shulman’s got you covered in the gulch-shaking showdown that is “The Ballad of Gumby.” Gunfire! Ten gallon hats! Jokes about Gumby’s inherent nudeness! If you think that’s weird and stupid, hold on to your love beads for Flo & Eddie’s “I Am the Walrus” pastiche “We All Are Gumby.” “I’m not green and you’re not green, but he is green and plasticine to boot,” they whine in their best Magical Mystery voices. At the very least this exercise will make you wonder what John Lennon thought of Gumby. The only reason we should believe Heaven exists is so we may have the chance to ask former Beatles about Gumby.
Just when you think you can’t take any more brain-twisting nonsense, Frank Sinatra, Jr. materializes to class up the joint with his big band rendition of the original “Gumby” theme. Secondhand Sinatra gives his all; the results are so smooth and fun and genuine they might make you forget Richard Cheese ever existed. Lounge music can be a hoot without being outrageous novelty.
The appearance of Frank Sinatra, Jr. on a Gumby tribute also feels like some kind of comment on the infamous Eddie Murphy/Joe Piscopo dynamic. Murphy lampooned Gumby on SNL and leap-frogged to international movie stardom; Piscopo performed loving tributes to Frank Sr. on SNL and never broke out beyond “lovable sidekick.” Though they began as friends and comedy partners, tale is told that Eddie Murphy’s success went to Joe Piscopo’s head, much to Murphy’s chagrin. The two fell out hard before anyone could even mouth the words “Beverly Hills Cop 2.” Frank Sinatra, Jr. performing Gumby’s theme could be interpreted as a cry for peace between the warring comedy vets.
“If you’ve got a heart, then Gumby’s a part of you!” Frank Jr. boldly insists. Who knows what that literally means, but it’s nice to hear that and imagine Eddie meandering up the walkway to Joe’s McMansion deep in the lungs of New Jersey. A surprised Piscopo slowly opens his door. Eddie stops in his tracks. There’s a pregnant pause. Then:
“Hey, Joe. Long time. I was just in the neighborhood, and I thought I’d come by to see if you wanted go down to the deli, maybe get a cream soda, talk about Prickle and Goo?”
And with that, the glaciers melt. Gumby makes children feel safe, inspires love in the Zappas, and maybe, just maybe, he can heal the wounds between Saturday Night Live alums, In light of all that, how can this be a bad album at all? It can't be, especially when it features iconic Jamaican duo Sly & Robbie's white-hot synth burner, "Gumby, We Love You," which will have you imagining Gumby as a sexy, sweaty clay boy doing the cabbage patch in a pair of hot pants several sizes too small.
Dweezil and Moon Unit Zappa, "In Love (With You Gumby)"
Flo & Eddie, "We All Are Gumby"
Jonathan Richman, "I Like Gumby"
Sly & Robbie, "Gumby, We Love You"