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Show Business: Mammon Tabernacle Choir

4 minute read

If there are any truly American sounds, one is surely the radio station break, complete with fragmentary tune and a slick chorus−”Double-yew Emmm Eeee Ellll, Light and Lively!” Blame it on Pepper & Tanner of Memphis, those wonderful folks who also brought you “Hey, Culligan Man” and the Roto-Rooter jingle (“. . . and away go troubles down the drain”).

Not content with producing commercials and 70% of all the station identifications that racket through the middle ear of Middle America, P. & T. is now seeping into the semiconsciousness of the whole world. The BBC’s pop network is overrun with Pepper & Tanner jingles (“It’s what’s happening . . . Radio One”). So is station Rediffusion Singapore. For the state radio system of Malawi, P. & T. tapes are dubbed in Chitumbuka, a native dialect. It was P. & T., naturally, which prerecorded the “This Is Apollo Weather” parody “intros” played by the astronauts during the Apollo 12 moon shot.

The Fun One. Servicing its universal clientele, P. & T. spins out some 38,000 tapes a month, all of them rendered by one of two groups consisting of four or five singers each. By overlaying three separate tracks, a P. & T. quartet can sound like Fred Waring and everyone in Pennsylvania, or, on commercials, like the massed voices of a Mammon Tabernacle Choir.

The arrangements are the work of four musicians recruited from groups like the Stan Kenton band and the Harmonicats. True virtuosos of the pop spectrum, the four compose jingles to suit every current radio-station format−top 40, soul, middle of the road, easy listening, country and western, and subtle variations in between. One of the composers is a master of the Moog Synthesizer and the sophisticated electronic effects that are increasingly in vogue.

P. & T. also has a house lyricist, Garry Wells, a sometime Laugh-In writer, who crafts promotion slogans and monthly gag tapes taken by many stations. Usually identifying themselves as “The Fun One” in their towns, these subscribers broadcast intermittent programming spoofs (“Notre Dame 20, William and Mary 6 each”) and sappy little one-liners (“I know my wife is trying to poison me−she wants me to eat at home”).

“The most difficult thing,” says Cyd Mosteller, the group’s leggy alto singer, “is having to be cheerful at 8:30 in the morning.” But it beats three-a-night club gigs and the hassles of band tours that the P. & T. singers used to endure. Their annual take is $15,000 to $20,000 a year. The composers make about the same. Unlike the two vocal groups, however, they are not played out by the 3:30 p.m. quitting time, and can moonlight for another $10,000 annually. Though they all probably get more air play than Streisand, Jagger or Bacharach put together, P. & T. staffers are paid no residuals or ASCAP royalties.

Racer’s Edge. P. & T. charges a big-city station up to $25,000 for a “customized concept” and reel of round-the-clock jingles. A tiny coffeepot of a station that does not require the Moog Synthesizer or fancy arrangements may get its custom image for as little as $690, or perhaps a combination of cash and commercial time. P. & T. gets reimbursed by reselling those commercial minutes to such spot clients as Orkin pest control, Safeway supermarkets, or STP (“is the racer’s edge”).

In the ad game, that is known as “the barter system”; it was the basis on which the firm’s president. William Tanner, 40, established P. & T. back in 1961. A musically illiterate promoter from Missouri whose previous experience included “chopping cotton” and running a fertilizer plant, Tanner took over Memphis’ money-losing Pepper Records. Driving from station to station, he traded reels of identification jingles for free commercial time for Ever-Dry Deodorant, a company of which Tanner also happened to be national sales manager.

Today, bartering is more lucrative than jingle making. Sixteen different divisions of the company are constantly trading off radio spots for Cadillacs, fur coats, Las Vegas hotel space and airline credit. Currently, Pepper & Tanner has at its disposal $27 million worth of spot time on U.S. stations. Last year the corporation grossed upwards of $40 million.

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