The California Raisins: Guiding Path to Soul or Cataclysmic Mistake?
August 23, 2018 | by James Greene, Jr.
It’s easy to frame a conversation about the California Raisins advertising campaign with the phrase “in retrospect,” but plenty of Americans during that era recognized the issues surrounding darkly colored soul-singing raisins in white gloves and matching spats performing for larger and mostly caucasian onlookers.
“The shit ain’t cute,” legendary black comic Paul Mooney remarks on his 1993 album Race in a bit called “[N word] Raisins.” “I bet if I get me some marshmallows and put some arms and legs on some goddamn marshmallows and let ‘em sing ‘Surfin’ USA’ they won’t think that shit’s so goddamn cute… white folks will call in and bitch… ’I’m not a goddamn marshmallow!’”
Seth Werner, the copywriter for ad agency Foote, Cone & Belding who co-created the California Raisins, claims that turning four pieces of dried fruit into an assembly of Motown crooners was their last resort. He and partner Dexter Fedor exhausted every possible vision except the very on-the-nose idea of Claymation raisins singing “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
This whole campaign came about because the California Raisin Advisory Board (CalRAB, as the heads call it) saw raisin sales slump during Reagan’s second term and feared consumers were lacking “emotional connection” with their wrinkled health nuggets. And so they turned to Werner and Fedor. These were the days before U.S. agriculture was strong enough to operate autonomously and without the benefit of government aid. Thus, Uncle Sam issued a $3 million grant to CalRAB that wound up funding the California Raisins, the only plan (allegedly) that could save nature’s candy from whatever fate it was facing.
The gambit worked. Our nation went bananas for the California Raisins when they debuted in 1986, gobbling up figurines and t-shirts and even the intended product, raisins. These TV spots attracted star power, too — both Ray Charles and Michael Jackson gave voice to Clay-mated versions of themselves in customized California Raisin commercials. Jackson adored the purple brand ambassadors so much he’s actually the one who got the grape rolling on his 30-second ad, contacting Claymation head Will Vinton himself. MJ had the whole spot planned out, as behind-the-scenes snippets on YouTube can prove.
“The rap raisins materializing behind me… the one guy has the glasses,” Jackson passionately explains, “and he has the type of attitude that… he’s so cool, I’m fortunate that he’s here.”
Another staggering true fact — the California Raisins released four albums of Motown covers in a two-year time span. That kind of saturation would sink any other artist, but according to official literature the only reason these state-sponsored Raisins had to cease in 1994 is because they were too successful. Farmers couldn’t keep up with the country’s ongoing thirst for raisins and production costs eventually dwarfed their profits.
The primary voice of the California Raisins (the top raisin, if you will) was the charming and charismatic Buddy Miles (pictured left), a multi-talent who drummed for Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys and whose early ‘70s solo LPs overflow with a soulful funk succulence that make them exemplary pieces of art. What a shame the three Raisins efforts Miles performs on — 1987’s Sing the Hit Songs, 1988’s Sweet, Delicious, & Marvelous, and the same year’s beautifully titled Christmas With the California Raisins — can’t hold a damp match to his previous concoctions, let alone a candle. The Raisin “sound” is low-end karaoke that would be laughed out of a Red Roof Inn.
Buddy Miles gives 110% in the vocals, however, and the story goes he had a wonderful time recording Raisin renditions of “Stand By Me,” “When a Man Loves a Woman,” and all the rest. Buddy’s former tour manager Chealsea Dawn has said Miles would arrive for these sessions “dressed like the raisin from top hat to gloves. He’d lay the track down in no time flat and [walk] out of the studio with a huge grin.”
1988’s Meet the Raisins! is a departure from the other dehydrated entries. It’s the soundtrack to a half hour CBS special (aired that November) in which the Raisins are given individual names and looks (Red has what could be a mohawk, A.C. sports a pompadour, Beebop is heavy set with a crew cut, Stretch is the skinniest). The shriveled quartet also receives a rags-to-riches backstory, complete with a Rodney Dangerfield-esque manager. John Smith and Valerie Day from Nu Shooz were hired to construct the music for Meet the Raisins!; the results are fuller, if slightly organ heavy.
A vocalist known only as Karreem is front and center on Meet the Raisins! and makes for a boisterous presence. MTR!’s Associate Producer Jeff Lorber told us via email that Karreem has done “a bunch of recording,” though details online are scarce. Lorber also says the eponymous singer provided several ad libs on Jesse Johnson’s “Boys Are Back In Town” (another Lorber production) from the soundtrack to Another 48 Hrs.
The “Meet the Raisins!” special spawned a cartoon series, “The California Raisin Show,” which ran for 13 episodes on CBS in 1989 without the talents of Buddy Miles or Karreem. Brian Stokes Mitchell, who voiced Stretch in this program, would eventually win a Tony for his role in a 2000 production of Kiss Me, Kate. Willard E. Pugh, the voice behind Red, moved on to roles in CB4 and Puppet Master 5: The Final Chapter. And yes, in 1990, “Meet the Raisins!” got a formal sequel in the awkwardly titled half hour Claymation special Raisins: Sold Out!: The California Raisins II. Karreem’s work on this outing went uncredited (according to Lorber, Karreem currently resides in Las Vegas under a different name).
If you must seek out the oeuvre of the California Raisins, Meet the Raisins! might be the most satisfying place to begin. Of course, everyone would be better off skipping right to a Buddy Miles disc like We Got to Live Together or A Message to the People or (duh) the original magical versions of “Grapevine,” “My Girl,” et al that the Raisins failed to replicate.
And if that is what the California Raisins can accomplish in this day and age, a guiding path to authentic soul experiences, then maybe their creation wasn’t entirely a cataclysmic mistake.