Friday, June 3, 2016

Friday Dance Party: Muddy Waters Off The Tallahatchie Bridge

I love a good Story Song.  Now I know all my composer friends will tell me, quite rightly, that ALL good songs tell a story of some kind, even if it's, well, non-linear.  But I really love a song which tells a story in the traditional sense, a song with a beginning, middle, and end;  one with characters and a plotline and a conflict, a climax, and even a denouement.  
Many of the great Story Songs are in the Country/Western
genre. Those dudes and dudettes from Memphis can really
spin a tale with a tune. Dolly Parton is an expert; I'm a crusty
old agnostic, but her rendition of the Resurrection as told by
the Apostle Peter ("He's Alive") gives me chills. She didn't
write it, but she performs it with gusto.
This kind of Story Song has been around since the beginning of time, I imagine, when tribes of humans gathered around the fire and told stories of their ancestors.  But when a modern Story Song pops up (and it's a good one), I'm in heaven.  This week's Dance Party, in honor of the Third of June (another sleepy, dusty, delta day), is the best such song I have ever run across.  It was written and delivered by this gal, way back in 1967:
Bobbie Gentry
"Ode to Billie Joe" launched a pretty substantial career for Gentry, whose sultry good looks, voluminous hair, and down-home Southern charm made her a natural country/western star.  Plus she wrote great tunes.  
Gentry's second Story Song was "Fancy." It
described a cracker gal who was
pimped out by her mother, in order to escape
poverty.
In addition to "Ode", our gal had success with duets with Glen Campbell, and on her own, she wrote another terrific Story Song, "Fancy", about some poor white trash who uses her feminine wiles to accumulate wealth and prestige.  (Reba McEntire has often used "Fancy" as her encore number in her concerts, as well as recording a well-received cover in 1991). Sometime in the 1980s, Bobbie Gentry withdrew from public life, for reasons unknown.  Nobody's seen or heard from her in decades, and when the Washington Post tracked her down this week, living on an estate just a few miles from the scene of her greatest song, she hung up on them. Certain wags have tagged her the J.D.Salinger of country music.
Bobbie recorded frequently with Glen Campbell, and appeared on his variety show as well. On the strength of her biggest hit, she maintained a thriving Vegas career for a while.
Both the film and TV series based
on "Harper Valley PTA" starred
Barbara Eden. I'm not aware of
any other hits by singer Riley.

Everybody called Jeannie C. Riley a real copycat when she landed on the charts a year after "Ode" was released, with a Story Song called "Harper Valley PTA". The song, about a sexy single mother who scandalizes a small town with her mini-skirts, shares enough melodic similarity to "Ode to Billie Joe" that there were murmurs of plagiarism.  In tone and rhythm, though, the songs couldn't be more different, with Harper Valley being a comedic look at small-town hypocrisy. Composer Tom T. Hall filled out the "PTA" album with other story songs about the other residents of Harper Valley.
People who know Vicki Lawrence only as her grouchy alter-ego, Mama, will be surprised to learn that, in her younger years, she was a One-Hit Wonder.  "The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia" was written by her husband (at the time), Bobby Russell.  Vicki was enjoying some fame as a supporting player on The Carol Burnett Show and was certainly not a recording star, so her success with this Story Song was a total fluke.
Vicki Lawrence's husband was having no luck with his composition.  It was first offered to Cher (and turned down by Sonny) and composer Russell was ready to abandon the song when Vicki, who was sure it was a hit, recorded a demo herself.  Most unexpectedly, the song took off,and soared all the way to #1 on the charts.  The song has a tone similar to "Ode"; both tunes have been called Southern Gothic. 
In addition to recording a version of Gentry's "Fancy",
Reba McEntire also covered this hit, 20 years after it
rose to #1.
There was a murder, you see, on that Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia: a philandering woman two-timed the wrong man, who had a sister (the singer) with justice on her mind. The denouement of the song reveals the singer to be the murderer (and she gets away with it! Hooray for Southern Gothic!) 


While the Country/Western gang probably creates most of the Story Songs, several Folk/Rock artists have delivered admirable entries as well. Perhaps the most famous for my generation is Harry Chapin, who introduced his song "Taxi" on the Tonight Show in 1972.  
Harry Chapin hit the jackpot with "Taxi." Years later, he revisited his two characters by creating a sequel song, ingeniously called "Sequel." He wrote other Story Songs, and also delivered a huge hit with a tune which really isn't one, but reminds you of one: "Cats in the Cradle," a weepy song about fathers and sons.
This tune peaked at #24 on the charts. Its
sequel, called "Sequel," hit #23.
The response to "Taxi" was huge and immediate, and Johnny Carson invited Chapin back on his show the very next night. The song concerns a cab driver who picks up a female fare, soon to recognize her as a former lover from long ago. It's a pretty maudlin tale about lost chances and regrettable choices:  the woman exits the cab and returns to her loveless marriage as the cabbie returns to the streets and his drug habit.  Happy Valentine's Day!
I love this Story Song and wouldn't be surprised if it showed up on the Dance Party one day.
Two former lovers are also at the center of "Same Old Lang Syne", Dan Fogelberg's sad Story Song which takes place on Christmas Eve.  The story is a true one: Fogelberg was attending a family Christmas in Illinois when he ran into his high school sweetheart at a grocery store.  
This Story Song peaked at #9 in 1980.
The two wanted to reminisce but couldn't find an open bar, so they settled for a six-pack of beer in the car.  As with "Taxi", there are intimations that neither of the old friends are happy with their current lives, and when they part, the "snow turned into rain," revealing a melancholy which a lot of people feel at the holidays.
"And no one's gettin' fat 'cept Mama Cass," goes the refrain to this 1967 hit Story Song.  Papa John and Mama Michelle penned this history of the formation of The Mamas and the Papas. It reached #5. 
The Mamas and the Papas sang a Story Song about the formation of their group when John and Michelle Phillips wrote "Creeque Alley".  The song mentions many of the folk/rock artists working in the 60s as they form groups, disband groups, form other groups, and generally chase fame while being broke. The story ends when "California Dreamin' is becomin' a reality," that is, when the group had their first hit song.  I'd be interested in another song describing the dissolution of the Mamas and the Papas, which was messy and full of drama.
This film was produced 9 years after the initial release of the song. Robby Benson and Glynnis O'Connor were a popular teen couple at the time, appearing in several films together as well as a TV version of Our Town. They were not a couple in life, but they had an onscreen chemistry. Note the director of this little film: it's the man who played Jethro Bodine. He knew what he was doing, as the finished product, made for 1.1 million, grossed about 36 times its budget.
This week's Dance Party is the best of all these Story Songs, in my opinion. "Ode to Billie Joe" is a haunting song, made all the more mesmerizing by the way Gentry composed it.  Details of the suicide of the title character are revealed matter-of-factly, amidst the banal conversation at the table during a midday meal on a farm in Mississippi.  
"Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?"
This is Ford's Theater at its grand reopening in 1968. After
watching the televised concert, I dreamed the solution to the
mystery of "Ode to Billie Joe."
There is a mystery at the song's center which has never been solved.  But I solved it, in my sleep, back in 1968.  The night was January 30, 1968, and Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, held a huge gala to celebrate reopening as a legitimate theater.  The event was televised, and I have clear memories of watching it, with great excitement, from my family's home in Atlanta.  I was about 12, and the main reason I was tuning into this show was to watch one of the stars performing at the gala.  Bobbie Gentry was to sing her "Ode to Billie Joe", and I was not going to miss it.  The song had been around a year or so, and was still very prominent in the country's consciousness.  
In 1967-68, you could tune into almost any radio station and wait only 10-20 minutes before hearing this song. It was the epitome of the cross-over hit;  it reached #1 on the Pop chart (knocking the Beatles's "All You Need is Love" out of the top spot), plus the song also spent time on the Easy Listening chart (#7), the R&B chart (#8) and the Country chart (#17). The song earned 8 Grammy nominations and won 4, three of them for Gentry herself.
EVERYBODY knew this song, loved this song, and was mystified by this song, for the story had a mystery which even its writer, Ms. Gentry, has declined to solve.
What did they throw off the bridge?
Why did Billie Joe kill himself?
Why did the filmmakers change the
spelling of Billie Joe's name to Billy?
Ms. Gentry ain't talking.
In the song, a  young teen aged couple is seen throwing something off a bridge into the muddy river below;  soon afterward, the young man throws himself off the same bridge.  What the hell did they toss?  That night in 1968, I fell asleep in front of the TV almost immediately after Bobbie Gentry's performance of the song.  And I dreamed the rest of it.  
Robby Benson is now remembered primarily as the voice of the Beast in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. Glynnis O'Connor has maintained a steady but unremarkable career in film and TV.
Oh, how I wish I could recall my dream exactly, because my subconscious was singing added stanzas to the song, all completely within the rhythm and rhyme. When I woke up from this dream, I told everyone I knew:  the teens threw a baby off the bridge.  (I have since learned that this conclusion has been reached by others over the years, but believe me, I had no idea until I dreamed the song).  Years later, when a film was produced based on the song, the protagonists did not throw an actual baby off the bridge, they threw a doll.  I was pretty damn close though, right?  
Poor Billy Joe had to pay for being gay.
The film answered the question regarding Billie Joe's suicide as well: according to the screenwriter, our hero was a closeted gay kid who got drunk one night and Did the Deed with a Dude.  His guilt was so strong, he could do only what every gay protagonist of the period was required to do: either be murdered or commit suicide. No happy endings for homosexuals could be allowed back then, so Billie Joe had to go.

Bobbie Gentry remained silent about the movie based on her masterful song, so we don't know if she agreed with the screenwriter's embellishments.  She certainly didn't object.  We'll probably never know, since she has been secluded for decades in her big house in Mississippi, for reasons unknown.  Now THAT'S a Story Song waiting to happen!


Friday, May 27, 2016

Friday Dance Party: Once Upon The Natchez Trace, Twice


 The Robber Bridegroom, CSUN, 1978.
I still have this shirt.
I've been feeling a bit nostalgic for my old undergraduate college days, for a couple of reasons.  Cal State Northridge's Department of Theatre celebrated its 60th anniversary a few weeks ago, and a big party was held. I couldn't attend;  I'm afraid the days of my making frequent return trips to L.A. are behind me now, my finances just won't support such things.  But thanks to the glories of Facebook, I was treated to many photos of the event, and it surely seemed "my generation" of alumni (who attended the college during the latter 70s and earlyish 80s) dominated the proceedings.  We certainly felt "dominant" while we were there back then.
Broadway heartthrob Steven Pasquale has been playing the title role in The Robber Bridegroom in a major Off-Broadway revival.  It closed this weekend.
By coincidence or providence, the weekend before this big event occurred, I snagged a ticket to the Off-Broadway revival of a barely-remembered musical from the 70s, The Robber Bridegroom.  
The musicians in this revival are not hidden in the pit. Here's
Banjo-Boy Mike, center stage with the star.
I have an acquaintance in the cast, a young gent who played guitar for a production of Man of La Mancha in which I appeared in Virginia years ago (see a pic from that production in a moment).  Michael Rosengarten has since graduated to the big time, playing and singing all over New York City, and he is a central part of the onstage band accompanying this new Bridegroom.
Our Robber Bridegroom, with a cast of about two dozen, plus a bluegrass band uptop.
The "Story Theatre" style of the piece kept the full cast on
stage throughout the show, as the actors created the
atmosphere. Note my superb presence at the left. We call
that "active listening."
The show itself brought back many memories. I appeared in a college production of the piece, during my final year at CSUN (hence the heightened nostalgia I've been feeling lately).

The Robber Bridegroom has had a unique history.  It was developed in the early 70s during a musical theatre workshop, where John Houseman snagged the piece for his fledgling group of Julliard grads, The Acting Company.  
Fresh out of Julliard, Patti Lupone landed her
first Tony nod for her 2 week Broadway run in
The Robber Bridegroom. That's fellow alum
Kevin Kline with her. Whatever happened to
those two?
They ran the show for two weeks on Broadway before setting out on a national tour.  (Can we imagine such a thing happening today?) This first cast included Patti Lupone and Kevin Kline;  Lupone actually earned a Tony nomination for her performance in the two week gig.  The tour was such a success that another production was created, which reopened on Broadway the following season.  Though the runs were barely a year apart, the show was now considered a revival (has there been another musical which was revived only a year after its first production?).  
Barry Bostwick won the Tony playing
Jamie Lockhart, while the original
Robber Bridegroom, Kevin Kline, was
stuck on tour.
The national tour was still going strong, so the show was recast and the new leading man, Barry Bostwick, won the Tony.  It is this cast which recorded the "original Broadway recording," though it in fact was not the original cast (Patti, Kevin, et. al., were still on the road).
This "Original Cast Recording" really isn't one, but it's the only one out there, so far.  The Off-Broadway revival which just closed is set to release a new recording, which may renew interest in this very accessible score.  It's a cinch to sing, and the show itself is catnip to any hammy actor.
I didn't know any of this history when The Robber Bridegroom was announced as the big fall musical at CSUN in 1978. This was toward the end of my college career, during which I made many close friends and learned a little bit about the Theatre as well.  
No, it's not Frau Blucher, it's Maryellen
Clemons, who guided our production. I
did 3 musicals for her at CSUN, but she
never gave me a chance at a substantive
role.
I'm sure those years will occupy a few chapters in my memoirs, and the director of this production of Bridegroom will probably get a footnote.  When she died a long while ago, I wrote about the director of Bridegroom, MaryEllen Clemons, with whom I had an oddly difficult relationship (go here for that memory).  Suffice it to say that whenever I auditioned for a MaryEllen musical, she trusted me enough to place me in the ensemble, but never gave me the chance to audition for a leading (or even supporting) role.  The Robber Bridegroom was no exception.  As I recall, the audition process for this show was lengthy, going on for weeks on end, and I auditioned exactly once for it, during the initial call.  
This cast was packed with
my good friends,
including these two,
Valerie and
Claudia.
My great buddy Judy was MaryEllen's assistant director, and she later reported to me that, each time the auditionees were cut from consideration, I remained in the pile of actors to keep.  Yet the director never called me back for an actual role, in fact I forgot all about the show until the cast list went up and I was on it.  In the ensemble, natch.
Maryellen cast the strongest ensemble I saw in any musical during my time in college.  Most of us had played leading roles in other musicals, in fact, during our rehearsal period, I was in performance off-campus, playing the Dick Van Dyke role in Bye Bye Birdie.
Jenny and Ronnie were good friends of
mine, and very close to each other. I'm frankly
surprised MaryEllen allowed them to
choreograph several numbers, including the
hysterical highpoint of our second act,
"Goodbye, Salome."
Everybody knows the chorus of a musical does a lot of the work, and ours even more so.  We remained onstage throughout the show, singing back-up and moving various planks, barrels, and stools around the raked stage to create the world of the play.  It's the usual concept for this show and it worked like gangbusters.
 
This is a typical moment in our production, hauling planks around the stage to reset the scene. This caused us some trouble at early blocking rehearsals.  We would call it quits for the evening, then when we returned the next night, everything had been struck, since our theatre was used as a classroom during the day. We could never remember where the hell all the planks and barrels were, or even where WE were, when we picked up the action, so we'd have to retrace our steps by starting over.
MaryEllen had cast the ensemble with actors who had played larger roles, so the background players of this show were very, very alive.  
In the midst of such a strong cast, it must be said that our show
was stolen by these two first-class musical clowns. John
Dantona as hapless thief Little Harp, and my best buddy
Claudia DeCea as wicked stepmother Salome, were pure gold. 
I recall being told by an audience member that he had returned to see the show multiple times, each time keeping an eye on one or another of the ensemble members, just to enjoy the individuality we were each bringing to these background roles.
In the revival, Leslie Kritzer as Salome is a human firecracker.  Leading man Steven Pasquale (in the vest) throws himself into this show with huge abandon.  They both won Lucille Lortel Awards for their performances.
My buddy Susie Kaufman as simpleton Airie.
The revival handed this role to a large black
ensemble man, who plopped a silly blond wig
onto his head to play the role. It was a hoot. 
The Off-Broadway revival of the show maintained the concept of the ensemble creating the world of the play.  The Laura Pels Theater is considerably smaller than the house we played in at CSUN (well it would be, wouldn't it?) and the cast was less than half the size of our college production (well, that's understandable too, isn't it?).  The writers of The Robber Bridegroom were involved in this revival, trimming it down a bit so it now fits into the 90-minute, intermissionless formula current theatre-goers seem to prefer.  Alfred Uhry, the lyricist and librettist, was a youngster when he adapted this American fairy tale into a musical;  he went on to write a little thing called Driving Miss Daisy and to win a little thing called the Pulitzer.  (He's won two Tonys and an Oscar as well.) So surely he knows what he's doing, but I still blame him for removing, in the current incarnation, my big scene:
In the original two act version, an early scene takes place at an inn and includes a duplicitous Landlord, who sets up a wealthy farmer to be robbed.  I played that Landlord, so I waited with eager anticipation for the scene to be played in the revival.  I waited in vain: it was cut.  It must be admitted, though, that the scene wasn't really needed, so perhaps this guy Uhry knows what he's doing.
The Robber Bridegroom revival closed this weekend (it was always meant to be a limited run), so it's appropriate that this week's Dance Party come from the score.  There are lots of clips out there of various regional productions of the show, as well as high school, college, and community theater versions.  
This is not The Robber Bridegroom. Years ago, I played
Sancho Panza in Man of La Mancha in VA, and this guy
(with the guitar) opened the show with impressive string
skills and tenor notes in the sky. Mike Rosengarten always
finds a way to grab attention! He's out of work today, but not
for long, I'm sure.
It seems the show is better known in the regions than in New York.  All those clips are grainy and pretty much unwatchable.  Sadly, the two years in which the show was nominated for Tony Awards occurred before it became traditional to showcase numbers from the nominated musicals on the broadcast;  thus, there are no network quality clips of the show out there.

But our gal pal Patti Lupone saves the day.  She introduced one of the few ballads in the Bridegroom score, and still sings it on occasion.  One such occasion gives us this week's Dance Party.  
Our leading lady Cindy had a glorious voice and deliciously offbeat comic timing which served the piece well. This quiet moment between our lovers led to "Sleepy Man," my favorite song in The Robber Bridegroom.
At a recent benefit, Patti and Kevin
recreated this moment from the
original.
I love this simple song, which holds a special place in my memory.  Back in my CSUN days, though I did my share of musicals, I did not consider myself much of a singer;  this song proved to myself that I could deliver harmony, which was a bit frightening to me back then (I still remember my notes!)  
Lupone sings "Sleepy Man" to Kline in the original.
The men were the only ensemble members singing backup to this song, and the richness of the harmony comes through nicely with only the gents singing.  It comes at one of the very few quiet moments in an otherwise raucous show, as our heroine sings to her sleeping lover while removing the disguise which fuels the mistaken-identity plotline.  This one's for the gang who created the Natchez Trace at CSUN, so many years ago. Enjoy.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Friday Dance Party: Wouldn't You Like To Be A Pepper, Too?

When the news came over the interwebs this week, of the demise of this fellow, I was engulfed in a flood of memories.  Turns out reports of his death were greatly exaggerated.
My father always claimed Dr Pepper must be drunk from an ice-cold bottle (no cans).  I haven't seen a bottle in years.  This week's internet hoax proclaimed that Dr Pepper had been sold to its chief rival, Coca Cola, who was planning to end production of this unique soft drink. I'm glad this was not the truth. Dr Pepper is the oldest of the major softies, having been invented in 1885. It consistently lags behind its competitors, Coke and Pepsi, but has such an unusual flavor, the rivals have driven themselves nuts trying to compete with it. Anybody REALLY want to drink Mr Pibbs?
Running across one of these was
always a treat. It meant you could
get a DP in a cold bottle. You
put your money in, then opened
the glass door and yanked out
your choice.

I have to confess I don't drink this stuff anymore, mainly because it has become too sweet for my taste buds.  But for many years as a kid and younger adult, Dr Pepper was my Go-To soft drink.  Or, as Southerners would say, my favorite coke is Dr Pepper.  (Because Coca Cola is based in Atlanta, and is such a giant of the industry, Southerners use the brand name instead of the generic word "soda."  Nobody I grew up with ever wanted a "soda," or God forbid, "pop." They wanted a coke.  Though sometimes it was a Pepsi.  But we always went out for "a coke," not a "soda." Got it?)
Dr Pepper and its most famous spokesman.
A more recent shot of our hero and the actor
he made famous, for a time.
Anyway, this week's internet hoax got me thinking about my history, particularly my teen years growing up in Atlanta.  My old friend Donna reminded me that, along with our other friend Robert (we were the three musketeers for a while), I would dash home from school to catch Dark Shadows.  
This star of Dark Shadows was not responsible for my sleep
problems, though my parents thought so. Maybe it was the
daily caffeine-filled Dr Pepper I drank while WATCHING
this guy which was the problem.
Actually, we always went to Robert's house, never to mine.  While watching, Robert and I would enjoy a Dr Pepper. This was dangerous behavior on my part for two reasons.  I have always had trouble sleeping, and during this period, my parents were convinced my chronic problems at night were caused by this silly soap opera.  So, being good parents, they forbade me to watch the program.  And being the sneaky kid I was, I simply went to Robert's house every day to catch the antics of Barnabas Collins and Joan Bennett.  (I wrote about this seminal series when actor Jonathan Frid died, go here for that report.)
See? He's drinking it out of a bottle. The can's
flavor was slightly rank. There was even a rumor
that DP's recipe included prune juice. The rumor
harmed sales so badly that the company had to
publicly deny it.

While watching this forbidden show, I was also drinking forbidden contraband.  My parents always felt that soft drinks (or "cokes" of all types) were bad for kids, so for many, many years, I was allowed only one soft drink per week.  Can you imagine such a thing today, when sodas are sold in vending machines in high schools?  But back then, even though I doubt there was actual evidence to support my parents' beliefs (as there is now: the stuff is poison), they did not believe their kids should drink cokes.  (They gave us Kool Aid instead...I wonder how healthy THAT turned out to be...).
OK, I had no idea THIS existed: DP bubble gum. yuck.
Once a week, though, I was allowed to indulge.  I was always sure to announce to my mother and/or father that I was having my "Drink For The Week" (yep, I even named the event), usually Saturday afternoons after I finished mowing our expansive lawn.  As I recall, this rule of only one soda per week became more and more contentious as I moved through my middle teens;  everybody I went to school with drank soft drinks whenever they wanted, why couldn't I?  
My Friday night TV drink of choice.
While everybody else watched the
ABC lineup of Brady Bunch &
Partridge Family, I chose adult fare:
High Chaparral & Bracken's World
on NBC. There's a reason those
shows are not remembered today.
Dear Ol' Dad compromised and allowed me TWO cokes per week.  That second event became known as my Middle of the Week Drink, though as I recall, I usually saved it for Friday nights while watching High Chaparral, The Name of the Game, and Bracken's World.  (This drink was not usually a Dr Pepper, as it had caffeine, and I was still suffering sleep issues, so I was granted a Fresca instead.)

Anyway, my buddy Robert's parents did not ration soft drinks, so I had an illegal Dr Pepper almost every week day while watching the adventures of Barnabas Collins.  Sorry, Mom...

I have surely wandered off into Me-Land here...
Conventional Wisdom claims men won't drink "diet" soda, so DP has come up with this purposefully sexist version. It's not calorie free, so men can still maintain their masculinity while drinking it. Who dreams up this stuff?
This week's Dance Party comes from the most memorable (at least to my generation) ad campaign Dr Pepper ever presented.  And this is saying something, since my research has unearthed the fact that Diet Dr Pepper is even now in the midst of a hilarious ad campaign starring American Idol loser Justin Guarini.  
Justin Guarini, then and now.

Playing an elfin cross between Little Richard and Michael Jackson, "Lil Sweet" pops up various places to convince people (usually men) that they deserve the "sweet, sweet" taste of Diet Dr Pepper.  Take a look:

This campaign, though enjoyable, will never top the most famous Dr Pepper ad campaign ever.  
This old gal is 104. Somebody asked her this week to
explain the secret of her longevity. She answered that she
drinks 3 Dr Peppers every day.
In the early 70s, Coke hit the jackpot with their jingle "I'd Like to Buy the World a Coke," which was so successful it spawned an actual hit song ("I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing").  It was almost a decade later that Dr Pepper came up with their own ubiquitous jingle.  
David had good looks and a non-
threatening sexuality which appealed
to everybody.
An unknown actor named David Naughton was plucked from Joe Papp's Free Shakespeare in the Park, where he was carrying spears, to headline a series of toe-tapping commercials to celebrate our product.  Our guy was an immediate hit.  Naughton became a star from these commercials, a star which flamed for about four years, and included headlining a sitcom and releasing a disco tune which hit the Billboard Top 5 in 1979. 
These days you can buy a Coke with your name on it, or a
Dr Pepper with an Avenger. Give me back the bottle.
Take a look at the opening credits for his sitcom, which flopped after about 9 episodes. Trying to capitalize on Saturday Night Fever, the show centered on a poor shlub who worked in an ice cream parlor by day, and partied at the disco by night. John Travolta's sister Ellen was in the cast, but that did not help. The theme song, however, rose to #5 on the charts, months after the show was cancelled:
I remember this disco hit but never made the connection that
it was the DP dude who was singing it.

David Naughton's career was on the rise.  In addition to starring in a string of snappy Dr Pepper commercials, he snagged the leading role in a motion picture.  He will be remembered fondly for this film, which was an unexpected smash but which caused his career to stumble.
This horror flick laced with humor was directed by John Landis, who had made his name with comedies such as The Blues Brothers and Animal House.  The budget was about 10 million;  everyone was surprised when the film garnered critical raves.  The box office exploded, earning the movie $30 million in its initial release.  David Naughton was now a movie star.
 The fact that their spokesman was now a movie star should have been good news for the Dr Pepper folks.  But it wasn't, because of this:
When somebody turns into a werewolf, aren't they wearing clothes?  Or does the animal tear them off during the transformation? John Landis addressed this question head on.  A good bit of the humor of the film comes from the fact that, when our hero reverts to human form after a night howling at the moon, he's naked.  Hilarious fun for everyone.  Dr Pepper was not amused. 
An American Werewolf in London actually won an Oscar:
the first ever award given for make-up and hairstyling.
The Pepper people were not pleased that their star had performed in the nude, and he was sacked from the advertising campaign.  Naughton's celebrity began to slide, and though he has maintained a career since, he never regained the momentum which the Dr Pepper ads gave him.

Time to take a quick look at one of these commercial spots.  Forgive the grainy quality and enjoy instead the wholesome, fun energy which Naughton projects.  And be thankful, as I am, that the rumors are false: Dr Pepper is here to stay.