Rock Stories: Tom Brown remembers the dope smoking and drama at Flo & Eddie’s “Strawberry Shortcake” sessions

By on January 5, 2016

By the early 1980s, musicians Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan — better known perhaps as The Phlorescent Leech & Eddie, which they later shortened to just Flo & Eddie — had established a working relationship with Murakami-Wolf Productions, after appearing in Frank Zappa’s 1971 film 200 Motels, which was produced by animation director Charles Swenson, who would later join the MW company in 1978, necessitating a name change to MWS.

Flo & Eddie would later create the voices and music for Swenson’s 1974 X-rated animated feature cartoon Dirty Duck, which we told you about here, and their working relationship with Teruaki “Jimmy” Murakami, Fred Wolf and Swenson continued on and eventually led to Flo & Eddie on the music for a couple of children’s animated TV series, “Strawberry Shortcake” and “The Care Bears,” on which Flo & Eddie were joined by keyboardist Andy Cahan (this trio would also evolve into what they called “The Two-and-a-Half-Man Show,” where they would present “History of…” performances, like their low-budget version of Pink Floyd’s The Wall — their version was called “Flo & Eddie’s The Fence”).

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Night Flight’s new contributor Tom Brown was working at the Rhino record company at the time, and he was also gigging as a rock drummer back then, and occasionally he would find himself booked for a recording session too.

In the early 80s, Tom happened to be in the right place at the right time and he ended up playing drums on the recording sessions for two of the “Strawberry Shortcake” TV specials: “Strawberry Shortcake in Big Apple City,” (airdate: April 10, 1981), and “Strawberry Shortcake: Pets on Parade” (airdate: April 9, 1982).

Both prime-time TV specials drew quite respectable ratings, and further fueled the huge Shortcake fad. They were written and produced by Romeo Muller, the legendary writer of such Rankin-Bass classics as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” and other children’s classics.

Tom also played drums on the recording sessions for the Easter TV special “Peter and the Magic Egg,” a 1983 musical animated Easter holiday special, narrated by the great Ray Bolger as the voice of Uncle Amos the egg. (Check out this rehearsal clip where Bolger and Cahan work out a song for the TV special).

Tom wrote about some of these experiences in his book Confessions of a Zappa Fanatic, and today we present a few lengthy excerpts about those recording sessions, which may surprise some of our readers to learn involved a lot of dope-smoking and drama.

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Tom Brown:

This is how it came to be…

A year before I was in the band  (King Cotton and the Kingpins, circa 1980), the Kingpins’s bass player (Dusty Wakeman), along with their drummer (whose name I do not know), hooked up with Mark and Howard to record the first of the Strawberry Shortcake TV specials, “The World of Strawberry Shortcake.”

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I have to believe this came about through sheer happenstance, simply because no one involved can remember the details. Although it’s likely because a good friend and musical associate of mine (Mark Avnet), was in touch with their manager at the time, due to the fact that Marky and Howie had produced some demos for a group we were both involved in prior to this, in 1977.

Plus, they had to be aware that Mark Avnet owned Mad Dog Studios, in Venice, California and probably thought they could garner some time in the studio at an inexpensive rate.

Avnet remembers, “I engineered some of that stuff too, played bass on at least a track or two, but I think Dusty did the rest of the bass and recording stuff…Andy Cahan playing the silly little toy keyboard, Mark and Howard totally getting into the absurd nature of doing the cartoon and being completely out of it.”

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Mark Avnet (foreground), and Tom Brown (right side), posing with props found at Culver City Studios, where The Johnny Baltimore Band used to rehearse

He then goes on to recall our experience when they produced our demos:

“My main memories were them blowing out the speakers at Hollywood Sound Recorders, what must have been a pound of very sticky pot which they tried to cut up with scissors from the studio office…the scissors became unusable from the pot, and Mark moving the faders with his stomach by accident.”

“I also remember they had us try a recording trick, that was actually a pretty cool idea. Johnny playing his red Strat, but not plugged in, with a Shure sm-57 microphone about an inch from the body of the guitar picking up the sound of the unamplified guitar, which we mixed in with other guitar tracks to give it a different sort of tone. Percussive and twangy. Unfortunately, the playback was so inordinately loud while they were mixing (Fletcher-Munson was alive and well), that they ultimately sounded terrible when played at a normal volume.”

I have no choice but to concur with Mark Avnet’s memory of our demo adventure with Flo & Eddie. I can unequivocally confirm that Mark and Howard probably consumed more reefer during our relatively short time together than Bob Marley and the Grateful Dead might devour in an entire week.

It wasn’t any secret that they had diligently been practicing the art of worshiping Jah, for a great many years, going back to the days when they were The Turtles, and their capacity to smoke a massive amount of the herb approached astonishing. And their ability to function while in this highly spiritual state (only the Rastafarians out there will know what I’m talking about, along with ten billion potheads), was truly remarkable, except for a few unintentional instances of slightly imprudent, but harmless behavior.

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Flo & Eddie at pre-concert press conference, Boston

Just to make sure that our memories of this event haven’t been muddled by time to any great degree, I checked in with our old friend Arthur Barrow, who was handling the keyboard duties at this particular session, to see what he remembered (this was at least a year before he won the job as Frank’s bass player):

“I remember Howard coming into the studio and launching into a frantic plea for something to drink. ‘I’ll take water, Coke, Pepsi, whiskey. Anything that’s wet. I’m dying of thirst.’”

And it didn’t surprise me at all that Arthur’s next immediate memory was the unforgettable image of Volman inadvertently moving the faders with his stomach during the mix. No one who was witness to this incident could ever forget that drug induced, golden rock n’ roll moment, which has to qualify as the perfect example of the “slightly imprudent but harmless behavior” I was referring to a few paragraphs ago.

However, in their defense I will offer this…they were getting paid (not a huge amount), to produce demos for a group they weren’t really crazy about, and probably thought that their experience and history of achievements, which were quite impressive, would be enough to placate a band who probably had no real future anyway.

Part Two

As it turns out, they were 100% correct, in spite of all the drugs that were ingested at the sessions. Mostly by them, but we were never really angry about our experience, except maybe at ourselves for not realizing that consequently one is not going to produce an ideal mix when everything is being played back at an exceedingly high volume.

I can only speak for myself, although I will include the speculative notion that we were all a little star-struck at having our demos produced by these two great singers, and weren’t about interject any criticism that suggested that their approach might be the wrong way to go. They were the one’s who had sang and performed on the numerous pop hits by The Turtles, before joining up with Frank Zappa and being an integral component of the classic “Vaudeville” band.

Once that part of their career came to a tragic end for all involved, they immediately gathered the wagons and whipped out two excellent albums for Reprise, backed by the suddenly out of work Mothers of Invention, although the sales were disappointing. They began doing the background voices on a number of hit records by major artists, and continued to make a mark for themselves.

There was certainly no one in our group with the credentials to rival their accomplishments, so we shut the fuck up and followed their suggestions. But there was never really a moment when it wasn’t fun, and they continually made us laugh. No one who was in attendance is going to tell you that we didn’t have a good time, even though the finished product wasn’t quite as we expected.

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So in 1981, when Dusty Wakeman of the Kingpins informed me that he and I had an upcoming session scheduled to record “Strawberry Shortcake in Big Apple City” at the behest of Mark and Howard, I was elated at being asked to participate.

Mark and Howard may have been inhaling a considerable amount of illicit substances on a daily basis, but it obviously didn’t impair their ability to cross over to the kid market, with their involvement with this up and coming franchise, as well as “The Care Bears.” They were not sitting around and staring at the walls in wonderment, they were out there hustling for all they were worth, and doing a fine job at finding employment that suited their skills, and insuring that checks would be arriving in their mailboxes on a regular basis.

Adding a major tweak to this upcoming session (not counting the pay, which was substantial, considering that there was no rehearsal), was the fact that we were going to be recording at TTG Studios in Hollywood. For most musicians this would be just another decent paying gig, but to me, this was a stupendous occasion.

TTG was the very same place where Freak Out had been recorded fifteen years earlier, and I was going to be recording there with Flo & Eddie. It’s not as if we were going to be recording anything that was even close to being as adventurous or groundbreaking as anything Frank had ever produced, and the likelihood of anything resembling a hit record coming out of this was nil.

The project was designed to instill a longing for “Strawberry Shortcake” product among young children, primarily girls. That was it. No one was going to be rocketed to stardom as a result of this session, but that was fine by me. I would be there recording at this legendary studio with two renowned figures from my world, getting paid a decent wage and probably having a good time doing it. This menial brush with fame also guaranteed that I’d have something to brag about to my friends in the waning years of my musical career.

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On the day of the session I arrived a little early, as I always do and easily found the back entrance, where I proceeded to unload my gear and haul it into the studio, after greeting Mark and Howard and finding out where to set up.

Being the professionals that they are, they had arrived early and were exhibiting their usual jovial demeanor to the studio crew, and warming up for the session with each of them carrying around a large spliff of their own and smoking incessantly. Being a pothead myself, I had absolutely no problem with the way they conducted business, but it was far too early in the morning for me. Plus, I never, ever smoked pot when I was recording, and it wouldn’t have made any difference if I did, because they weren’t offering to share their stash with anyone.

It was just before 10:00 AM, and upon entering the studio I was surprised how large the room where we’d be recording truly was. What few photos I had seen didn’t do it justice.

(To see not only the entrance in question, in addition to a number of other studios where FZ recorded, including the infamous jail where FZ spent a little time in tank C, click on “Recording Studios and Jail Time.” The photo depicting the musician’s entrance in the back of TTG is just how I remember it. In addition this site will provide you with a plethora of other photos related to FZ’s legacy. Special thanks to Bill Lantz and Charles Ulrich for making them available).

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I began setting up at the far end of the studio, with my back to the musicians entrance, and parking lot, facing the glass enclosed engineering booth, while trying to visualize Carl (freaky down to his toenails) Franzoni, and Vito cavorting around the studio with their fellow freakazoids at the 1:00 AM, session for Freak Out, howling, and banging on the assortment of $500.00 worth of rented percussion at Frank’s direction.

It was hard to believe, but Mark and Howard either didn’t know the history of the studio, or chose not to even mention it. They weren’t going to hear it from me because they always seemed to be guarded or apprehensive, or perhaps bored when it came to discussing Zappa.

Several years prior to this (during the demo producing adventure), I had attempted to start a conversation more than once about their work with Frank, and it was obvious that they weren’t interested in reliving that time in their lives… at least with me. The only comment that was offered came from Howard, who shrugged his shoulders, while shaking his head and told me, “I’ll tell you what I don’t miss, and that was standing on stage night after night while Frank took his two chord guitar solos for ten minutes at a time.”

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Another of Tom Brown’s many bands, Acid Casualties, featuring, left to right: Louis Maxfield, Mark Avnet, Tom Brown, and Harold Bronson of Rhino Records fame

With that statement indelibly etched in my memory, I wasn’t about to reopen a discussion that might not sit well with my celebrity employers. I had just finished setting up my drum kit when Dusty arrived, soon to be followed by the other two members of our ensemble for the day that I would be meeting for the first time. Billy Steele was the guitar player, and I have absolutely no knowledge of his background or his history of working with Mark and Howie, then or now. I can tell you that he was a nice, low-key guy, and a terrific guitar player. A true pro.

He was accompanied by keyboardist Andy Cahan, a founding member of Geronimo Black, who first started working with Mark and Howard as early as 1973, and was now enjoying his title of “musical director” for the majority of their projects. Not a bad gig at all.

Andy was an up and energetic kind-of-guy, with a constant smile on his face, and he definitely knew his way around the keyboard, which usually results in a good time for all. I had no idea at the time that his relationship with Mark and Howard was on the verge of dysfunctional, or at the very least bordered on unhealthy.

As far as I know Andy has remained on good terms with Mark and Howard, but I always detected, or thought I did, that they thought of Andy as an amenable subservient who would gladly take their goading and insults and they proceeded to verbally whip on him at every opportunity. Interestingly I never witnessed them treating anyone else in this manner. Only Andy. But what the fuck do I know? Maybe it was because they loved him so much.

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Vincent Price, Alice Cooper, Flo & Eddie

Mark and Howard retired to the control booth to mediate over the sounds and balances of the instruments, which was completed in record time, and we were ready to go.

Interestingly, a video monitor had been set up in front of our ensemble to enable Mark to watch it, while he directed us when to start and stop. For some strange reason the animation had already been completed so the monitor was needed to ensure that the musical segments would be in sync with the images. Usually the voices and music are done first and the animators will then apply their technique to coincide with the available audio, but not this time. I can’t tell you why we were stuck doing it this way because I never bothered to ask.

We began by Andy quickly showing the chords for the first cue to Billy and Dusty, and we were off. The piece was incredibly simple and all that was required of me was to keep time, and, insert an occasional easy pick-up fill here and there. Even so, I found myself feeling very anxious until we finished the short segment in one take. This was just about as straightforward as it gets, as we continued to nail the remaining musical cues in the same manner, while Mark conducted us using the joint in his hand as a mini baton. It was more than a little surreal from where I was sitting and incredibly entertaining.

Needless to say, Frank would not have approved.

Part Two, and Part Three

Tom Brown (Shithead)

Tom Brown

At this point in the story, Tom details how he joined Mark and Howard for a quick gig as The Turtles, taking place in northern California, but we now pick up the story again a few months later:

Tom Brown:

I saw Mark about two months later when he was paying a visit to the Rhino offices to discuss upcoming Turtles reissues along with a documentary, which was ultimately released with the title The Turtles – Happy Together and is a hilarious look at the history of the group.

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Stopping by my office before leaving for the day Mark invited me to take a ride with him around the block to indulge in the usual illegal activities. Evidently our goal for this day was to see how much pot two people could consume in fifteen minutes and I’m proud to say that we must have come very close to setting a new world record. In the interim, Mark told me that they were doing a new “Strawberry Shortcake” special and Andy would be calling me with the date, time and place. This was a great piece of news and it sent my confidence soaring.

Unfortunately, we would not be recording at TTG this time. It had been arranged that on the appointed date we would be appearing at a small studio somewhere in the Valley (not Reseda) to record the music for “Pets On Parade.”

As usual, I arrived a little early and discovered that the studio was on the second floor of a building that had no elevator. Since the road crew was on their perpetual drug break there was no choice but to haul the goddamn drums up the stairs by myself, which is what I proceeded to do.

Upon entering the studio, Mark and Howard greeted me from behind the glass of the engineer’s booth. It wasn’t quite 10:00 in the morning and I was shocked to see Mark hoisting a fifth of Seagram’s to his lips. Of course the herb had already been lit as well, and Howard was doing his part of adding to the festivities. His favorite attaché case was open in front of him and I spied numerous bags of different types of herbs and medications (much like the marijuana dispensaries of today), as he would extract a portion from one of the bags and roll it up for later use.

I ask you…how many jobs are available that one can carry on with abandon immediately after getting up in the morning, and make a terrific living doing it? How many people are even able to act responsibly after imbibing that early in the day? I had logged a number of hours interacting with Mark and Howard up to this point and I could see how proud they were at being able to ingest a massive amount of substances and still perform their jobs at a very high level. Not an easy thing for most people, but for them being able to “maintain” was a credo.

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It wasn’t long before the remaining members of our rockin’ ensemble appeared and after plugging in and quickly getting a drum sound we were ready for another bout with Strawberryland and the reintroduction of the villain of the piece, The Peculiar Purple Pieman of Porcupine Peak.

Fortunately, this episode was being approached in the correct manner and we weren’t being restricted by having to sync with pre-recorded animation; and the session was a breeze. Andy would quickly teach us the cue and we were off with Mark conducting us while holding the fifth of Seagram’s aloft and a joint dangling from his lips. Most of the time we wouldn’t even bother to listen to the playback. We’d finish a cue when we’d hear Howard’s voice through the headphones telling us that it was “Magic …next.”

I couldn’t help but speculate what the parents of the young girls who adored Strawberry Shortcake might think if they knew the way these endearing TV specials were being created. However, at our end it was nothing but fun being conducted by Mark in his questionably sober state, and it was undetectable that he might have been wavering at all.

The session was done in a flash, and we were told that it would air six months from now (it aired in 1982). There was no talk of another upcoming gig or session so I more or less assumed that my would-be career with Mark and Howard was over.

But I was wrong.

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I bided my time by working with the King at the Central and elsewhere and four months later Mark and Howard showed up at Rhino to discuss Turtle business with the executive faction.

Once again, I was invited to accompany them for a quick drive around the block before they left for the day and in the midst of the haze I discovered that I was still employable in their eyes. Good for me. Andy would be calling me, etc. Within the week, Jerry Lewis had hosted a telethon and I received the call from Andy to learn that we would be recording at the same valley studio as last time, but it wasn’t a Strawberry Shortcake project. It was to be for an animated Easter TV special starring Ray Bolger (of the Scarecrow, Wizard of Oz fame), titled “Peter and the Magic Egg,” (it aired around Easter in 1983), and it would feature songs written by Mark and Howard.

Upon my early arrival at the valley studio I scaled the stairs yet again with my equipment in tow and entered the studio to discover that Andy and Dusty were already there, but for the first time, there was no Mark or Howard yet. After the morning greetings were dispensed I busied myself by setting the drum kit up in preparation for the event that was to transpire shortly, but I had just started when Mark and Howard arrived and proceeded to lay into Andy about taking their parking space.

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“What the fuck is wrong with you Andy?” Howard declared angrily, as he reached into his pocket to extract his car keys and flung them at Andy. “How fucking stupid can you be? You know better than to park in our space. Now go down, move your car and park mine where it should be.”  Mark then chimed in with a veiled threat of his own. “Damn, Andy I thought you liked your job.”

Andy was doing his best at taking the harassment being directed him by mustering up a questionable smile of good nature, and it was obvious that their annoyance was causing him a great deal of frustration, but he immediately complied with their request and vacated the studio to do their bidding. Mark and Howard seemed to instantly return to their usual pleasant demeanor and greeted Dusty and I as if nothing had ever happened.

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I will admit to being somewhat shocked at their reaction to the parking fiasco, as I hadn’t really seen this side of them prior to this. I had definitely witnessed them taunting and teasing Andy before this, and thought that I had detected an underlying disrespect but this instance convinced me that I wasn’t imagining it. Was it absolutely necessary to harangue Andy in such an insulting way because he had mistakenly parked in their space? He had been a loyal sideman to them for a decade. Aren’t there more important problems to be concerned about?

I guess it’s not really my place to say, but I can tell you that no one I know would have such a venomous reaction to such a simple mistake. Then again, I hadn’t performed on an endless amount of hit records and had people kissing my ass since high school, which can twist one’s view of the world in mysterious ways. They were the fucking stars and if one of the underlings parked in their space, mistake or no, they were going to hear about it.

Upon Andy’s return, he immediately made his way to the engineer’s booth to return Howard’s car keys to him. I noted that Howard was glaring at him sternly and slowly shaking his head as Andy made a quick get-a-way to the safety of his keyboard. Howard then opened the attaché case that never left his side and began to prepare the spliffs for the day, while the engineer gathered the sounds and levels at Mark and Howard’s direction.

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Mark then took center stage in the studio armed with his trusty fifth of Seagram’s and a freshly rolled joint and we began to run down the cues. As usual, the music was tuneful, simplistic and for lack of a better description; Turtles music for very young adolescents.

The rest of the session was devoid of any further berating of Andy (until it was over), and it actually turned out to be one of the more amusing sessions I had been involved in. Mark was infinitely animated and actually had us laughing so much that we botched a few of the cues. Howard added to the frivolity of it all with his dry, but brief dissertations after each of the cues had been performed correctly, although “Magic” and “More magic” seemed to be his favorites.

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After we had rendered the last cue of the day, Mark and Howard then declared that the mission was completed successfully and thanked us all for participating. Since Ray would be adding his vocals at a later date, I began to dismantle the drum kit when I noticed that Andy was in the engineer’s booth and was apparently still being reprimanded about the parking fiasco. I couldn’t hear what was being said, but it was obvious that Andy wasn’t too happy to hear it. His head was down as if he couldn’t bear to look at the messengers of bad tidings. Mark and Howard both had disgruntled looks on their faces, as their mouths seemed to move in complete synchronicity while bashing the hell out of poor Andy.

As I was toting the drums down the stairs and into the car, I was hoping that I might hear some good news regarding my future in performing with Mark and Howard when returning to the studio to bid adieu to all involved, but it was not to be. They were both incredibly nice to me and thanked me again for participating, but there was no word forthcoming of any future Strawberry Shortcake projects or anything else.

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I was told that they’d be going to New York for a bit to do a radio show, and would see me when they returned, more than likely at the Rhino offices. I did however hear from Andy a month or two later when he called to ask me if I knew of a decent bass player who might want to play at a private party being held in an upscale neighborhood near Hollywood. Billy Steele would be handling the guitar duties. We’d be doing simple covers for a very decent paycheck and I immediately called my good friend Arthur Barrow, since he was in-between commitments and could always use an easy dollar.

The gig went swimmingly, although no one attending the party actually paid much attention to us. We did our best to entertain each other and to keep it interesting. Arthur was on fire that night and I remember looking over at Andy from time to time when Arthur would administer a blazing bass run in the middle of a song, and his jaw would drop. It was three short sets and out the door with our pockets lined with cash.

I continued to see Mark and Howard when they’d visit Rhino and they were always gracious to me, and proved it by inviting me to participate in the whirl around the block smoke fest routine that had been established, but I never worked with them again. They were always nice to me as I was paid well and treated with respect, and had nothing but a great time working with the duo. I can’t say one bad thing about them.

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About Tom Brown

Tom has published two terrific books, Summer Of Love, My Ass!: A Memoir June 12, 1967 – April 28, 1969, and Confessions Of A ZAPPA Fanatic, both credited to H.T. Brown (but please call him Tom). They’re both available from Amazon and other places where you can buy books. He's also previously worked in the music business, on both sides of the coin (or lack of it), at the venerable Rhino record company, and playing drums on the surf classic "Jezabel" by the Illusions, and with Zoogz Rift, beginning in 1988.