Although our mental image of a big band era crooner is of a suave, velvet-voiced charmer who could purr into the microphone while the ladies swooned, it wasn’t always like that. Harry Babbitt, who could certainly fill the bill as a traditional crooner – his boss, bandleader Kay Kyser, usually introduced him as ‘Handsome Harry’ – was sometimes called upon for something a little different. Like doing Woody Woodpecker’s maniacal laugh.
Kyser’s outfit could generate some solid music but it was also known for novelties, so when a special new song came along in the late 1940s Babbitt was enlisted to help. The St. Louis native had been with the band for a decade by then (minus a couple of years of WWII military service) and was an important part of the popular band’s many activities, including its numerous movie appearances. He’d also sung on many of the hits, like “Who Wouldn’t Love You,” but he was just as good with whimsical songs like “Three Little Fishies.” So when “The Woody Woodpecker Song” came along he was ready to tackle it.
Songstress Gloria Wood actually did most of the conventional singing in the song, but it was Babbitt’s crazy-sounding woodpecker laugh that sold it. The record became a best-seller for the band and led to the song’s use in later cartoons, which made it a part of every kid’s memories of those days. (Including mine.)
As for Babbitt, he eventually built up quite a list of hit records with the band, with songs like “I’ll Get By,” and “How Are Things in Glocca Morra?” among his best. But he also had a lot of fun with other novelty pieces like his best-seller “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth.” (Another record I remember being around our house.)
By the 1960s he was ready for something else, and he spent a couple of decades in private business. However, when Kyser died in 1985 Babbitt bought the rights to his musical legacy and for many years led a reconstituted outfit on tour. He eventually retired for good and died at age 90 in 2004.