By now, you’ve probably heard that Annette Funicello died this week, though perhaps the news was eclipsed by the death of Margaret Thatcher. Obviously, the passing of Britain’s first female Prime Minister should get more press than that of our most successful Mouseketeer. Still, Annette Funicello (or Annette Funny Jello, as she was affectionately known in the pages of Mad Magazine) was, in her time, a cultural force to be reckoned with. As a Mouseketeer, she received 6,000 letters a week and was the only star of that beloved show to continue on to further stardom, as a cinematic ambassador of surf culture. The six “Beach” movies she made with Frankie Avalon were frothy delights—innocent and flirtatious idealizations of southern California life that made the rest of the country’s teenagers want to live there. Annette’s mix of feminine pulchritude and girl next door sensibility was a huge part of the equation; she was one of the few starlets that both teenage boys and their protective mothers could heartily agree upon.
This single finds her in the years between the Mickey Mouse Club and the “Beach” films. Still on contract with Disney, she continued to star in movies like Babes in Toyland and record albums for Disney’s Buena Vista Records. Released in 1961, Annette (note the lack of a last name on the sleeve, probably meant to maintain the first name basis rapport fans felt with her) had already recorded five LPs by the time this single was released. “Strummin’ Song” would appear on the sixth: The Story of My Teens…And the Sixteen Songs That Tell It! and was featured in the 1961 movie The Horsemasters.
All well and good, but kind of “It’s a Small World” in its need to please. “Dreamin’ About You”, on the other hand, is a genuine Brill Building jewel—a Gerry Goffin/Carole King collaboration that sounds a bit like what Lesley Gore would be doing two years later. With the Vonnair Sisters on backing vocals and some very tasty strings, this is Grade A Sixties pop.
In 1964, Annette Funicello would introduce America to ska music. No, I am not high—she really did. This cover of “Jamaican Ska” by Byron Lee & the Dragonaires, while pretty vanilla, was still the first taste of Jamaican music that most Americans had ever heard. Give ’em both a listen:
The song reappeared in Back to the Beach, a suitably kitschy late-80’s Frankie and Annette reunion film that featured Pee Wee Herman doing “Surfin’ Bird” and Annette performing “Jamaican Ska” with a very young Fishbone as backup.
In a 2011 interview, Fishbone’s Norwood Fisher gave credit where it was due, saying:
What people don’t understand is that Annette Funicello introduced America to ska music by and large. You know, Harry Belafonte brought us Caribbean music, the whole region. Annette Funicello actually covered Jamaican ska and that is why ska music to this day is intertwined with surf culture and why reggae music is intertwined with surf culture, because of Annette Funicello.
Margaret Thatcher, of course, made her own contributions to ska culture by inspiring “Ghost Town” by The Specials (Government leaving the youth on the shelf/This place is coming like a ghost town) and “Stand Down Margaret” by The Beat (you tell me how can it work in this all white law/what a short sharp lesson/what a third world war). But she had to start an unnecessary war and kill the British post-war dream (to paraphrase Roger Waters) to do it; all Annette Funicello had to do was cover a fun song and encourage people to dance.
I know which recently departed icon I’d rather toast.