Jim Copp and His Things

atlanticmonthlyby David Owen

This article originally appeared in the November 1993 Atlantic Monthly

One day, I dropped my son at nursery school and went to do some errands in another town. After I had driven about twenty miles, I realized with horror that I had forgotten to eject my son’s Raffi cassette from the car’s tape player. For nearly thirty minutes, I had been listening to “Baby Beluga” without a child present. A full half hour of potential adult in-car listening enjoyment had irretrievably been lost! I felt angry and resentful. But I got over it after a while.

A year or two later, I discovered some children’s tapes that I actually play on purpose when I am alone in my car. What’s more, my children like them as much as I do. The recordings were made in the late fifties, sixties, and early seventies by a former nightclub performer named Jim Copp, with the help of a friend of his named Ed Brown. Copp did all his own recording, on three Ampex portable tape recorders. His stories and songs are funny, sophisticated, uncondescending, and dark, and they belong on the short shelf of true American children’s classics.

When Copp’s first record for children came out, in 1958, he was compared (in a brief notice in The New Yorker ) to the young Walt Disney, but there is nothing remotely Disneyish about him. His stories and songs are like those of no other children’s performer I can think of, and certainly not like those of the creator of Mickey Mouse. If Copp reminds me of anyone, it is the filmmaker Preston Sturges, who had a similar ability to make intelligent jokes at which one actually laughs, as opposed to merely nodding with smug superiority. Copp’s characters include a dog with a nearly endless name (who, coincidentally, goes to Yale), a despotic fourth-grade teacher named Miss Goggins (whose voice always simmers with barely suppressed rage), an unpleasant talking pancake (who persuades an inch-tall girl named Teenytiny to climb onto him while he is frying), and a marching shrimp. My children can now recite long stretches of Copp’s recordings from memory, and so can I. Copp’s song lyrics and stories in verse are deft and understated. In “Cloudy Afternoon,” for example, Copp tells of a childhood excursion to the park with a nanny named Zella,

she, waddling; and in the lead,
me, on my velocipede.
The clouds were fleecy white that day.
The month was March — or was it May?
And was I three? Or was I four?
Or was I two? Or was I more?
I pedalled on, and up ahead
I saw the pond, and Zella said,
‘You must be tired, pedalling that.
And here’s a bench. Let’s sit.’ She sat.

Zella yawns, falls asleep, and begins to snore. The fleecy clouds turn black. The little boy anxiously lingers a while, then pedals through the park, is told to wipe his nose by some girls skipping rope , passes a fountain, is frightened by a katydid, visits the carousel, falls in the mud, and, in pouring rain, heads out into the busy streets of the city where, terrified, he is nearly run over by a bus. Suddenly, someone grabs him by the arm. It’s Zella:

‘Oh, saints preserve us, child,’ she said,
‘Your Zella is a blunderhead.
Thank heavens — wicked child! That shirt!
Where have you been , all mud and dirt?’
She shook me. ‘Answer! — where’d you go?’
But all I said was, ‘I don’t know.’

Unlike many children’s performers who allegedly appeal to adults, Copp is never coy or painfully clever; you don’t get the feeling that he is winking at you over the heads of your children. When my wife and I went out to dinner with another couple recently, we played “East of Flumdiddle” in the car on the way home from the restaurant, and ended up driving around in circles for half an hour so we could hear the whole thing. At Christmas, I gave a set of the tapes to my sister’s children. They love them and so does my sister, who listens to them on her way to work. Copp’s recordings contain none of the creepy moralizing of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” or — I shudder even to type the name — “Barney”; his stories and songs don’t sound like self-help seminars for tots. Like good grown-up stories, Copp’s are woven through with conflict and death and folly and friendship and abandonment and loathing and love. They are the quirky products of a real imagination, not the wan output of some anonymous, age-appropriate assembly line. Even better, they are truly funny. Listening to Copp has significantly raised my children’s threshold of laughter. Other tapes don’t win many yucks in our car any more.

I would know nothing at all about Jim Copp if it weren’t for my wife, who loved his records when she was a child. Last year, her brother copied several of the old albums onto cassettes and sent them to my children. I despaired of ever finding any others, until my wife came across a small advertisement for some re-releases of his recordings. When she called to order a set of tapes, the phone was answered by a man who turned out to be Copp himself. I called him back later and asked him why he hadn’t made any records after “The Sea of Glup,” which came out in 1971. “I made all those recordings in my parent’s house, here in Los Angeles,” he said. “I used the kitchen for the voices, and another room for the piano, and the bathroom for some of the sound effects, and so forth. When my father died, my sister wanted to sell the house, so we did, and I moved over to Ed Brown’s house, and after that I really didn’t have a place to record. Ed’s house was all carpeted, so the sound wasn’t live enough. And my tape recorders were all worn out, and I sold the microphone. I didn’t want to make any more records at that point, but Ed did, and he probably would have talked me into it if he had lived a little longer. He died on February 15, 1978. He had a pancreas thing. He left me his house, and that’s where I live now.”

Copp had a brief career as a nightclub sensation during the forties. He shared billing with Lena Horne, Art Tatum, Teddy Wilson, Billie Holiday, and many others. A decade later, while working as a newspaper columnist in Los Angeles, he began reworking some of his old routines, and recording them himself on a wire recorder. Eventually, on a whim, he sent a sample recording to Capitol Records.

“Several days later,” he says, “the telephone rang, and when I picked it up, a voice said, ‘Marvelous.’ That was all. I said, ‘What?’, and again, only ‘Marvelous.’ It turned out that it was Alan Livingston, who was the president of Capitol. I was very excited, but when I went to see him, Livingston said, ‘We love your stories, but we don’t want you to do them. We don’t like your voice. We want Jerry Lewis to do them.’ Now, I’ve always thought my voice was pretty good. But after a lot of discussion, I agreed to let Capitol have one story, called ‘The Noisy Eater,’ and Jerry Lewis recorded it. They brought it out on seventy-eights and forty-fives, and it sold pretty well, but the royalty was something like a half cent a side. That was when I decided to try making records myself.” Copp enlisted the help of a younger friend, named Ed Brown, whom he had met at a party while researching his newspaper column. Brown had recently graduated from the University of Southern California, after returning from the war, and he was unhappily employed at his father’s steel company. They became partners, with Copp doing most of the performing, and Brown handling the marketing and designing the innovative album covers. (Gradually, Brown became an important performer as well.) This compact disc contains Copp’s favorite selections from the nine records that he and Ed Brown Made. It also includes two of Copp’s old nightclub routines, “Agnes Mouthwash and Friends” and “The Itch” which appeared as 78’s back in the forties but has been unavailable since. This CD provides a wonderful introduction to the work of a hitherto neglected genius. I have no doubt that more CDs will follow.

David Owen is a staff writer for the New Yorker. His most recent book is “The Walls Around Us”.