Great Moments in Lip Syncing

Recently, the entertainment world was rocked by yet another lip syncing controversy. It seems that on the November 3, 2011 edition of “X Factor,” contestant Leroy Bell’s vocals could be heard before he even positioned his microphone in front of his mouth. The next day, the Fox network admitted that lip syncing was allowed during “X Factor’s” ensemble numbers, but insisted that “all survivor songs are performed live, with a backing track.” Nevertheless, “X Factor” immediately became the recipient of a lot of anger from viewers who felt the hit show was being a bit deceitful in its presentation. Although “X Factor” producers claim that having group sing a longs prerecorded is also standard procedure on “American Idol,” “X-Factor” has officially become part of an exclusive list of lip syncing scandals that have soiled the music industry over the past several years. Although lip syncing is a long accepted practice in presenting music in rock videos or in films, concert goers and viewers of live television variety shows expect the singing to be done live on the spot. Despite this, Ashlee Simpson, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and Milli Vanilli have all either been caught or have been accused of performing live shows with the aid of prerecorded accompaniment.

Those who have been enjoying the ongoing feud between Elton John and Madonna might remember that the root of their dustup had to do with John’s unhappiness with Madonna earning a Q Award nomination in 2004 for “Best Live Act.” “Anyone who lip syncs onstage when people are paying more than $100 a ticket should be shot” complained Elton about Madonna, further saying “Madonna, the best live act? Since when is lip syncing live?” Just the other day, John had this message for Madonna in regards to her halftime appearance at this weekend’s Super Bowl…”Make sure you lip sync good.”

Although lip syncing is largely associated with rock and roll, the practice goes back over 80 years, to the early days of talking motion pictures. Producers of films like “The Wizard of Oz” realized it made logical sense to prerecord the singing sequences, allowing people like Judy Garland to concentrate on her movements and facial expressions without having to worry about her vocals. Movie lip syncing also made it possible for John Wayne, Lauren Bacall and Audrey Hepburn to have singing roles in a few of their films, since the songs they were mouthing to did not feature their own actual voices.

Television, in its beginning, was mostly a live medium. Ed Sullivan, Milton Berle and Steve Allen’s Tonight Show all featured live performances by the top recording artists of the day. By the mid 1950’s, rock and roll became popular, particularly among teenagers, and several weekday, afterschool TV shows devoted to the new music began to pop up all over the country, most notably “American Bandstand.” These rock and roll dance programs operated on small budgets, and could not afford the expense of providing the resources necessary to allow any of the musical guests to perform their hit records live. Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand” would, for over 30 years, be the epicenter for lip syncing, and the practice spread to other shows like “Lloyd Thaxton” and “Where the Action Is.” Even prime time popular music shows like “Shindig” and “Hullabaloo” relied mostly on lip syncing, and it’s safe to say that the vast majority of rock and roll presented on television throughout the 1960’s were not legitimate live performances. This brings me to my favorite moment in lip syncing history.

In 1967, Noel Walker produced a novelty record called “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman”, which was composed by the British songwriting team Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway. The tune, which is comprised mostly of whistling done by Walker himself, was released under the pseudonym “Whistling Jack Smith.” Surprisingly, the tune became a hit in the spring of 1967, which led to an entire album of whistling selections, as well as requests for “Smith” to perform the number on various television variety shows. Since “Whistling Jack Smith” did not really exist, an actor named Billy Moeller was hired, not only to pose for the album cover, but to appear on live television, pretending to be the phenomenal whistler responsible for the tune’s success. Watching Moeller 45 years later giving his all while lip syncing “I Was Kaiser Bill’s Batman” is an experience in itself, especially when you consider that Moeller, before this, had never even whistled for a taxi. Milli Vanilli would have been proud.

Notes: The Ed Sullivan Show had no set policy regarding the practice of lip syncing. The Beatles performed completely live during their appearances, while the Rolling Stones prerecorded their instrumental tracks, with Mick Jagger doing a live vocal. Several other rock and roll acts were allowed lip sync, including the Mamas and Papas, with Cass Elliot shouting “cue the tape” just as they started to “sing” “Creeque Alley.”

Trivia: Speaking of well known whistling performances, the theme to the “Andy Griffith Show” (The Fishin’ Hole) was performed by the song’s co-composer, Earl Hagen. The whistling heard during the theme to “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” was done by John O’Neill, who was also an accomplished singer and trumpeter.