The Oral History of 'The Simpsons Sing the Blues'

The creators of 'The Simpsons Sing the Blues' talk about how they put together the hugely successful 1990s album, 25 years after its release.

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Image via Complex Original
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Today, with over a quarter-century of Springfield’s finest embedded in our brains, it’s hard to imagine a world without The Simpsons. The show set off a merchandising frenzy in its first season after being spun off The Tracey Ullman Show, and suddenly The Simpsons were everywhere. The year was 1990, and The Simpsons was a full-fledged pop culture phenomenon. From T-shirts to bootleg T-shirts to action figures and fast-food collectibles, a Simpsons album was inevitable.

The result was The Simpsons Sing the Blues, a record whose list of special guests was even more impressive than the show’s at that point, and it would propel the animated family to the top of the music charts. Released in 1990, the 10-track album boasted all the voices from the show singing both original songs and classic blues covers written by the show’s writers as well as talented industry names. Hitting No. 3 on the Billboard charts in America, going double platinum and spawning the No. 1 UK single “Do the Bartman,” The Simpsons Sing the Blues was a monster success at its time, and it still intrigues curious fans who stumble upon it today in the “special price” CD section of department stores.

With all the urban legends surrounding it, we decided to mark the 25th anniversary of the album’s release by speaking to the people who put it together. Here, in their own words, is the history of The Simpsons Sing the Blues.


Chapter 1: Moaning Lisa

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Al Jean: When [Simpsons co-creators] Sam [Simon] and Matt Groening told us the idea for [season one episode “Moaning Lisa”], they wanted Lisa to feel sad and then meet a jazz/blues musician. He plays at a spot called the Jazz Hole, but he also sings the blues. So, we thought, Lisa has the blues in the episode, and it would be funny and appropriate, since Yeardley [Smith, voice of Lisa] has a great voice, for her to sing the “Moaning Lisa Blues.” It was just a little song about the plot of the episode, “I got a bratty brother who bugs me every day,” etc.

John Boylan: The first person to call was [Geffen Records’] David Geffen. He pulled me into a meeting with Eric Eisner, and they asked me to do the Simpsons project.

Al Jean: Very early, I think in the first season airing, [with] how big it was, they got the album offer.

John Boylan: Absolutely [I was a fan of The Simpsons]. I had known James Brooks for quite a while, since Terms of Endearment. I was peripherally involved with that movie as a music consultant, not on record or anything. I had been friendly with Jim Brooks, and I think he’s a wonderful filmmaker. Probably what happened was, and I have no proof of this, but Geffen gave him a short list of record producers and I was the only one on the list that Brooks knew.

Al Jean: Then, Jim [James L.] Brooks had an offer to do the album when the show was such a success. He said, “We should have them sing the blues, like they do in that song.” So, we got to expand the song and put it on the album. And, through the expansion, a bunch of other people got the credit in addition to us. [Laughs.] Welcome to the music business!

Bill Merryfield: I knew I was going to do the album from the very beginning because the creative director told me I was going to do be doing it. That sort of thing is what I did at Geffen Records. I just knew that I was going to do it.


Chapter 2: The Mountain of Madness

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John Boylan: You gotta remember this was highly collaborative and it was under tremendous pressure. The Simpsons were at the top of the zeitgeist at the time. I think they were selling something like 250,000 Bart T-shirts a week. It was just ridiculous. And, of course, all the right-wing people were getting mad at The Simpsons. It was the talk of the country at that time. David wanted to get the album out ASAP. At one point, I was collaborating with Geffen Records and Fox and Gracie Films all were involved with it. A guy named Matt Walden was the guy at Fox. Of course, I dealt with Jim Brooks, Richard Sakai at Gracie Films, and The Simpsons characters. Geffen Records [was] mostly dealing with Eric Eisner, Al Coury, and Eddie Rosenblatt. We were trying to keep that all together.

David wanted to get it out that year because his distribution was going to change over from Warner to Universal from ’90 to ’91, and he promised Warner he would get the record out before the changeover happened so they could sell a bunch of records. It had to come out before Christmas, so at one point we had two studios going to try to get the thing done.

Brooks and everybody thought it would be great to be a blues album. The writers got involved to come up with title ideas. I wrote a couple things. Brooks wanted to come in and write something about the sibling rivalry between Lisa and Bart, so I came up with the idea of Homer singing “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and we just started to have blues ideas. Even Mr. Burns has things to complain about, and it fit.

Al Jean: Jeff Martin, who was a great songwriter, wrote a song with Sam called “Look At All Those Idiots,” a Mr. Burns song that did make the album, which was really funny.

John Boylan: Brooks was really the creative. Everything came through him. He had a couple of directives. He said, “First of all, we have to have wit.” And he didn’t mean baggy-pants comedy. He meant wit. Smart funny stuff. The second thing, “It must be character-driven from The Simpsons’ characters.” Of course Matt Groening loved that, since he had created the characters, and he got into it and co-wrote something too.


Chapter 3: The Simpsons Family Smile Time Variety Hour

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John Boylan: We had a lot of people volunteer. I can’t remember who it was that was a big fan of the New York Dolls, but everyone liked David Johansen, and he fit that one song that we worked on, so we brought him in as a guest. I had to go to Toronto to record him because he was working on Car 54, Where Are You? at the time. [Matt Groening] co-wrote a rap tune that we did with DJ Jazzy Jeff, “Deep, Deep Trouble,” which became the second single.

DJ Jazzy Jeff: If my memory serves me, I just got a call that “The Simpsons were going to do an album,” and this was the high point of Simpson-mania. “They’re doing an album, and they want you to do a song.” Wow. Of course, it’s a little weird because someone tells you a pretty-much cartoon character is making an album, you don’t know what the approach of that is. I remember going out to L.A., and I sat down and went to Matt Groening’s house, and he shared a lot of The Simpsons’ structure. Then we went into the studio, and I pieced together something at the studio in Philly and played it for them. They were kind of blown away. It was cool, because at that time, I never knew that Bart Simpson was [voiced by] a woman.

It was cool, because at that time, I never knew that Bart Simpson was [voiced by] a woman. —DJ Jazzy Jeff

John Boylan: My daughter Amy was 8 or 9, and I would have her come to the studio. She wanted to meet Bart and was flabbergasted that Bart was a woman. I had to explain carefully, “You see with cartoons, you have to have a woman playing an adolescent boy. If you have an adolescent boy, he’s going to grow-up and his voice will change.” “Oh, I see, Daddy, I get it.” But she wanted to meet all of The Simpsons, which she did, and she learned all the words to the songs and could sing along with the record.

DJ Jazzy Jeff: I remember going in the studio, and they had a song up. It was kind of a sample in the song that wasn’t fitting right. I remember watching this guy come in, and he pulled out this machine. And they started putting in all these numbers and turning these knobs. I remember just kinda sitting there with a scowl on my face, and after about 15 minutes I just couldn’t take it any more. I was like, “Can I try something?” I walked over to the sampler, and I dialed in the speed, and I basically tuned it by ear and got it to the point where it fit right, and everyone in the room was like, “Oh my God, that’s great!” I could tell these weren’t music people because something you can tell by ear whether it’s right or wrong, they were using machines to do it. I’ve been used to trusting my ears for things like that. It’s funny looking at different people’s approaches to getting the job done. It wasn’t just a super natural progression of going into the studio for making a record.

They pretty much wrote it, came in, and recorded it, and we came in and mixed it down. That process was extremely simple because we worked on our song; we didn’t work on the other songs. I remember being out there for two, maybe three days. We may have went into the studio twice and knocked it out. You don’t realize the process other people may do, but this was a time when we were making records every week, so you’re in a flow. It wasn’t a difficult process for me at all.

John Boylan: We got some of the best musicians on the planet playing on that thing. B.B. King played on it. We did “Born Under a Bad Sign,” and the track came out really great. We wanted to get an authentic bluesman. The original “Born Under a Bad Sign” was a blues guy named Albert King, but unfortunately he had passed away. I’m sitting around thinking there’s only one other name fits in that category and that’s B.B. King. I called his manager in New York, and he said “B.B.’s on tour in the Pacific Rim.” So, I got the tape, I put a scratch vocal on it myself—I hope no one ever hears it—and I took the 24-track tape. I had done four albums down in Australia with the Little River Band, so I had a lot of contacts in Australia. I called Ernie Rose, one of the engineers I used in Melbourne, and I said, “B.B. King’s on a tour of the Pacific Rim. He’s coming into Melbourne for three days. I’m sending you the tape. Overdub a guitar solo, he’s going to know the song forwards and backwards, I’m sure he’s played it before. Would you just do three or four takes, send it back, and I’ll compile it?” We expressed the tape down there, he overdubbed it, expressed it back, and I compiled the solo and mixed it in L.A. Not many people know that particular story, but that’s a true story. That was only a case of 4-5 days, and it was early on. We were still working on other stuff.

Al Jean: We went and saw Yeardley sing, and it was great. She was really good. There were additional lyrics that we wrote for the album. Everything from the show, people say, “Wow, that’s a great song,” but they’re usually like a minute or less, so it’s a hard thing for someone to have to listen to for radio play. It’s so funny. It did come out on vinyl, and so many things have changed from then that it’s insane.

John Boylan: Dan Castellaneta is a really good singer, and Yeardley Smith, who plays Lisa, is a really good singer. So, no problem there. Julie Kavner [voice of Marge Simpson], who couldn’t sing, but she acted her way through it.

Al Jean: Julie is always a little more reluctant to sing. She’s afraid that singing isn’t what she’s known for, and it’s always a little more effort on her part to do it.

John Boylan: The hardest thing we had to get them to do was to be good singers and put their character voices on. Can you imagine how hard that is for an actor? I mean, it’s bad enough to sing, but now you have to sing doing a character voice. Danny had to put on the Homer voice and sing, and Yeardley had to do the Lisa voice, which isn’t really conducive to singing. It’s like an extra layer. It’s like I said to you, “Do an impression of Jack Nicholson.” You could work on it for a while, now I say to you, “OK, now do an impression of Jack Nicholson doing an impression of Stephen Colbert.” It’s hard. And, boy, those people were incredibly intelligent and hard workers. It was a really nice experience because they were so professional. Harry Shearer was the most musical. He’s, as you know, part of Spinal Tap.

Harry Shearer was the most musical. He’s, as you know, part of Spinal Tap. —John Boylan

Bill Merryfield: We didn’t create all the art ourselves, even though we came up with some of the ideas. Matt Groening’s staff created the art. We just sort of put it together as a package and designed the typography and part of the logo and came up with the overall look. For me as an art director, it was kind of an easy job. There was no photo shoot, I wasn’t working with a band. It was a pre-assembled package. We had to use the characters, and they were already created. They gave us cels that were already drawn, and we cropped it the way we did.

I do remember it was very fast. Sometimes packaging takes a long time, especially if there’s photoshoots, but this one we did in a week, week-and-a-half maybe. It wasn’t necessarily simple, but it was a fast one. There was a ton of approvals that had to be done for Geffen Records, approvals by Matt Groening’s team, but it was a pretty easy process. I don’t think he even made any changes. I think the first set of design was pretty much picked. There were a few options, but not that many, where with some packaging you have 20 options. Everyone was pretty much on the same page. Everyone agreed on the cover, and we went with it.

Al Jean: The thing that I think really pulled the sales from the first one was the Michael Jackson-inspired one.


Chapter 4: Radio Bart

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John Boylan: We also pulled in Michael Jackson to help out. Actually, he called and volunteered. I knew Michael because he was an Epic artist. He was our top-selling artist while I was there. Being an A&R person at Epic, I knew him enough so that he recognized me. He brought in a co-producer name Bryan Loren. He and Loren were going to write a song based on a dance that Michael made up called “The Bartman.”

Bryan Loren:  At the time, I was working with Michael Jackson at Record One Studios in Sherman Oaks, Calif., on the Dangerous album. James Brooks came to Mike about doing a song for an album project on The Simpsons. Michael brought it to me. "How'd you like to do a song for Bart Simpson?" he asked. Of course, I jumped at this! He said, "Do it however you want. Just find a spot where you can say, 'If you can do the Bart you're bad like Michael Jackson!’”

John Boylan: Michael sang some backups on it and oversaw it when Nancy came in to do the lead vocals. He was in the studio with Bryan, me, and Nancy. He wanted to maintain some secretiveness about it, so we weren’t supposed to talk about it, but in the end he let it out that he was involved.

Al Jean: We just did a performance of it a year ago at the Hollywood Bowl led by Nancy Cartwright, which was great.

Bryan Loren: There is even a coffee-table book of odd factoids that suggests that “Bryan Loren is a pseudonym for Michael Jackson!” Apparently, I don't even really exist. I am the creator of [“Do the Bartman”]. While I have never denied it was MJ's idea/concept to call the song “Do the Bartman,” and he does perform background vocals with me in the chorus—not the bridge—I am the sole writer.

Al Jean: There’s also a Brad Bird-directed video, which you can see online. It’s terrific.

Bryan Loren: Matt Groening was in the studio and met me while we were doing it. He even offered to include my image in the animation for the video. I never gave him the picture he asked for. I kinda now regret having not done that.

Al Jean: What’s funny is Jeff Martin had written a song for the album called “Do the Bart,” which didn’t make it on the album because it got bumped by Michael Jackson. Jeff’s song actually gave instructions on how to do an actual dance. He was always going, “You can’t ‘Do the Bartman.’ It doesn’t make sense! ‘Front-to-back in a rock-like motion,’ what does that mean?”


Chapter 5: A Star Is Burns

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John Boylan: Given the fact that it had to be done so quickly, there’s an old adage in the entertainment industry. You offer the buyer three things: You can have it good, you can have it fast, you can have it cheap—pick two. They wanted it fast, and they wanted it good, so it wasn’t cheap, so since we had the money to spend, a really good budget, there were no issues at all.

Al Jean: I wasn’t there, but Michael Jackson I believe told Jim Brooks, “I’m going to give Bart a No. 1 hit,” and “Do the Bartman” was No. 1 in the UK, so he was a man of his word.

I wasn’t there, but Michael Jackson I believe told Jim Brooks, “I’m going to give Bart a No. 1 hit,” and “Do the Bartman” was No. 1 in the UK, so he was a man of his word. —Al Jean

DJ Jazzy Jeff: It came out and just blew up. It was great. It was really funny because, I remember after the success of the record, [I] didn’t just go around telling people I produced “Deep Deep Trouble” on The Simpsons Sing the Blues. But when I’d tell people, “I did a song on The Simpsons album,” it was amazing. [I] almost got more props from doing that than some of the other records that I did. You knew people were really big fans of The Simpsons but not to the point that people bought the record and actually knew the name of the record.

Al Jean: I didn’t expect it to be as huge as it was. I don’t know really, if honestly. I think it’s a novelty album with a capital “N.” I don’t think people will listen to it as many times as they’ll listen to Darkside of the Moon. It has a little less replay value.

Bill Merryfield: Originally, the “Sings the Blues” was written in blue. Somewhere along the line it got changed to purple, probably in another run, and I had nothing to do with that. It was originally always in blue. I don’t even know why it would have gotten changed to purple, but it did.


Chapter 6: The Springfield Connection

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Al Jean: When Sarah Michelle Gellar was on the show, she said, “I bought it when I was a kid.”

DJ Jazzy Jeff: I collect 45s and, about three or four months ago, a friend of mine sent me a record in the mail, and it was a “Deep Deep Trouble” Simpsons 45. I had never told him I produced it.

Bill Merryfield: I feel fine about it. It was a fairly non-stressful project for me and everyone involved, except maybe in the recording aspect. It think it’s a successful package and did everything it needed to do for The Simpsons.

John Boylan: There was [talk of a sequel], but scheduling was stupidly hard to do. We kept trying, but we just couldn’t get it done. The show had exploded. It was so big, and everyone was so busy. The main issue after that was just scheduling.

I still like it a lot. Let’s face it, it is what it is. It’s an album made by the cast of a cartoon show. As such, if you compare it to any other project that fits those parameters, I think it’s really great. It’s certainly the most character-driven, the most creative, and compared to something like The Archies, this is really good stuff. It’s way deeper than you would expect it to be. I’m extremely proud of it, I don’t mind telling you.

Al Jean: I’m in disbelief that I have a platinum album. Of things I thought would come to me in my life, that’s one of the last I ever thought I would have. Everything with The Simpsons always surprises you. It’s amazing how popular the show is, how long it’s lasted, and that I’m still talking about this album 25 years later.

I personally wish it was a little funnier. It’s not like there weren’t funny things on it, but it attempted to be more true to its title and be about singing the blues. There were covers of legitimate sad songs that weren’t for humorous purposes. I wish it reflected a little more of the humor of the show, but who can complain about a platinum album? Not me.


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