Millions of kids grew up with the groovy yet educational cartoon comedy of Fat Albert, and millions of adults may find it difficult or impossible now to watch the show without thinking of the crimes of its creator. Such is life in the 21st century, but so it was too at the end of the 1960s when the first iteration of Fat Albert debuted. There were plenty of reasons to feel terrible about the culture. Yet the music that came out of the various jazz/funk/fusion/soul scenes seemed like it couldn’t let anyone feel too bad for long.
In 1969, Herbie Hancock had just been let go from the Miles Davis quintet and left historic Blue Note. During this pivotal time, he signed on to compose the soundtrack for the TV special Hey, Hey, Hey, It’s Fat Albert, the precursor to the episodic cartoon Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids, which ran from 1972 to 1985 and taught serious ethical lessons about such subjects as kindness, respect, stealing, drugs, scams, kidnapping, smoking, racism, and more with original songs.
The later show’s unforgettable theme song (“na, na, na, gonna have a good time!”) was not penned by Hancock, nor were any of its other tunes. Only the original special used his music, which is maybe why the soundtrack is not better known, as well it should be. “It’s a deeply soulful affair,” writes Boing Boing, “that presaged Hancock’s 1973 jazz-funk classic Head Hunters.” The album, Fat Album Rotunda, had gone out of print, but has now been reissued on the label Antarctica Starts Here.
After listening to the tracks (hear samples above and below), you might find it difficult to resist buying a copy. Whether or not you still enjoy the cartoon, the incredible grooves here evoke much more than its adolescent characters and their junkyard mishaps. This is such an expansive, joyous album, one “in which Hancock,” Superior Viaduct writes, “clearly had a great time.” So too did the rest of the band, "which by the time of recording in late 1969 was both razor-sharp and confidently loose from rehearsing and touring.”
The band included three horn players, “Joe Henderson on sax and flute, Garnett Brown on trombone and Johnny Coles on trumpet and flugelhorn.” Hancock’s solos run fluidly through each song, held in place by the rock-solid swing of Albert Heath’s drums. The compositions are complex and catchy, with lilting melodies, mean hooks, and big refrains.
The album is instantly classic, whether you heard it fifty years ago or just now for the first time. Warner Brothers agreed, and gave Hancock and his band a deal on the strength of the album. So did Quincy Jones, who recorded his own version of the track “Tell Me a Bedtime Story,” a mellow, dynamic slow burn that builds to some of the finest Fender Rhodes playing Hancock put to tape. Fat Albert Rotunda was hardly his first or his last soundtrack album, but while it has fallen into obscurity, it should rank as one of his best.