In the mid 80s, Alberto Culver – yep, the company that made VO5 and other hair care products – introduced a butter substitute that would melt when you shook it onto your food. Tasted like butter and less messy. How did the hair company get into food products? Either they set out with that as the goal, or they stumbled into this butter substitute while developing a new hair treatment. I heard both stories back in the day.

Alberto Culver used a few different ad agencies in Chicago for their various products, and Stern Walters got the Molly business. Here’s the ad they made.

Yeah, that’s me singing. Here’s how that happened. If you weren’t ever in the ad business this will seem ridiculous and random to you. If you were, this will seem like an ordinary Wednesday.

Kathy Harrington was the Creative Director and wrote the ad. Once the script was approved, the agency team chose the preferred director, production house, actress, wardrobe, voiceover talent, and editing house, and Kathy chose me for the music. On previous projects the agency had encountered some – let’s call it resistance – on first choices, so they had backup choices for all of those. I don’t know who the backup was for the music. Fortunately we didn’t have to find out.

Kathy gives me a week and I come up with that little slightly French sounding piano groove. In 1989 I was writing everything on the Synclavier II, so I could do the whole track – flutes and all. Kathy and I had already agreed that we’d get Bonnie Herman to sing the little tune – which was just the name of the product three times. Bonnie Herman was a legendary jingle singer in Chicago and lead singer of the Singers Unlimited. Here’s more about Bonnie.

So I was ready to make a demo and the question was which key to build it in? Kathy and I had worked together enough to build up trust, and both of us had been in situations where we did the demo in one key and the final in another and someone said “hey, that’s not the same….”

We wanted to avoid that, and anyway the demo was just for her and her team – not the client – so we decide I’ll just do it in Bonnie’s key and sing it the best I could. It’s just a demo.

I send it to Kathy and she loves it. Her team likes it, too.

So it’s time for the pre-production meeting where the agency presents all their preferences for director, actress, etc. to the client. This Alberto Culver team had a reputation for being picky, but this time they hated everything. They shot down the first Director, but settled on the second choice. Then they get to the actress. “She’s too tall, that one’s too short. This one’s ok if she’ll cut her hair.” Then they tackle wardrobe. Similar disaster. etc etc… That kind of a meeting.

After duking it out for a couple of hours, everybody’s ready to call it a day. As people are packing up, one of the clients says ” Hey, what about the music?” And Kathy thinks “Gee, I have Joe’s cassette in my office. It’s in Bonnie’s key and has Joe’s attempt at a falsetto vocal. It might start another war, but it was such a crappy meeting – what the hell.”

So she plays it for them. And the main guy asks to hear it again. And a third time. And she sees feet tapping and they’re smiling. And they clearly like it.

So Kathy says “We plan to use Bonnie Herman to sing lead on the fi…” And the main guy cuts her off and says “Don’t change a thing. It’s great just like it is.” And she says “But that’s the composer singing and that’s not his key and…” And the main guy again says “We love it. Don’t change a thing.”

Kathy knows that this commercial’s going to run daytime TV for months and months. And I get a SAG solo rate for singing it. So when she calls me to tell me this story she says “you’d better sit down.” That’s how my voice got onto the Molly McButter track.

Three quick musical things about the track.

It’s in Bb.

To the extent it sounds “French” or Continental – there’s a 6th in the root chord. And it’s buried. Every time there’s a root it’s voiced Bb – F – G – D. It’s a nice open voicing and since the Cm chords are voiced normally – tight – there’s kind of a release that comes when you get back to that open voicing.

There’s a gliss. It’s really hard to do a piano gliss in Bb on a real piano. If you do the white keys you get B and E which you don’t want. The black keys is even worse. But on the Synclavier it was easy to do a gliss in C then transpose it to Bb.

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