In 1968, Filmation studios were producing a Saturday-morning cartoon called The Archie Show which would launch in the autumn. The focus of the show - the first appearance of the comic-book-based teenagers on television - would be on the fictional Archies musical group, in that each episode would feature two ten-minute story/adventure segments bracketing a brief musical interlude, a 'dance of the week.' Thus, the music would be an important and integral part of the upcoming series.
Filmation hired producer Don Kirshner to oversee the creation of the fictional band's music; Kirshner had previously been the executive producer for the Monkees TV show, and before that had made innumerable contributions to popular music through his publishing label, Aldon, which boasted such songwriters as Carole King and Neil Sedaka. Jeff Barry was a songwriter whose main claim to fame was writing and producing (with his then-wife) most of the popular girl-group songs of the 60's. Barry had gotten Kirshner to take one of his client's songs for the Monkees to perform - "I'm A Believer" by Neil Diamond became one of the biggest-selling hits of the decade. When Kirshner got the Archies gig, he remembered Barry and brought him on board.
Ron Dante was a young vocalist with plenty of commercial success - the kind of commercials one found on television. He was the popular singing voice behind many ad campaigns for soft drinks and fast food, but longed to break into 'real' music. After auditioning for Kirshner and Barry, Dante got the job as lead and background vocalist for the Archies. (Ironically, Dante's one earlier attempt at popular-music fame could have cost him his chance with the Archies gig: as part of the short-lived gag group The Detergents, he'd had a brief minor hit with the spoof song "Leader of the Laundromat" - a satirical dig at the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack," which was written by none other than Jeff Barry. Fortunately a quick out-of-court settlement had put to rest any legal shenanigans, so that by the time Dante auditioned for the Archies the entire incident was forgotten.)
Dante, Barry, and Andy Kim, one of Barry's clients who would meet with minor success, wrote songs for the fictional group. Most of the vocals were simply handled by Dante alone, with a few various other vocalists brought in now and then to beef up particular arrangements. To provide the female voices in the cartoon band - i.e., Betty and Veronica - Toni Wine, a former staff writer with Kirshner's music label, was brought in. Studio musicians provided the instrumentation.
The Archie Show debuted on September 14th, 1968, and was an immediate hit with young fans; the show captured the spirit (if not quite the quality) of the original comic books in providing a picture of suburban teens running around having good clean fun - and offering up a new song, and a unique dance to go with it, every week. A soundtrack album was available for kids to purchase, and the show's first single, "Bang-Shang-A-Lang," climbed to Billboard's #22. The band's biggest hit, though, wouldn't be found on this initial album.
In June, a new Archies single was released to take advantage of the summer music-buying frenzy among young people. "Sugar, Sugar" quickly became a regional hit in southern California - presumably with the burgeoning hippie crowd, despite its bubblegum-pop sound. By the time the kids had gone back to school for a few months in autumn, the song was a smash hit single all over the world. It topped the charts in the U.S., England, Germany, Japan, and other countries, and would eventually sell over ten million copies and be chosen the Record of the Year for 1969 by the RIAA.
All over the nation, kids were crazy about the Archie gang. Despite the liberal tone of the era, the Archie comic book characters - who had been created in the early 1940's - could be adapted to fit the times: Betty and Veronica stepped out in the latest fashions, or in the hot pants and micro-bikinis then popular; Archie's Madhouse, a comic originally showcasing zany gags not involving the core gang, began featuring a hippie musical group called the Madhouse Glads. Archies merchandise flooded department store shelves, producing lunchboxes, figurines, record players - even Archies records printed on the backs of cereal boxes (which I recall fondly). Likewise, the Saturday morning cartoon soared in popularity - so much so that its length grew to a full sixty minutes and it was appropriately renamed The Archie Comedy Hour.
The Archies musical group responded with a new single, "Jingle Jangle," but as one might expect, the success didn't last long. One problem was that the Archies never truly existed in the real world, and so could never be seen live by their fans - an important publicity route for a group trying to stay within kids' attention spans. (This despite a few groups popping up here and there claiming to be the 'real' Archies, until being smacked down by lawsuits.) Also, the Partridge Family TV show was becoming popular - with David Cassidy in particular gaining a lot of fan attention; and there wasn't room enough for two fictional TV musical groups in this town, Mister. Also, one has to consider that the Archies craze was, more than anything, a kids' fad, and no matter how catchy "Sugar, Sugar" was, it could only hold people's interests so long.
Alas, in time all the involved parties went their separate ways. Kirshner stayed a vital part of the music business; his name is best remembered these days from when he hosted Don Kirshner's Rock Concert, a late-Saturday night music show during the late 70's which featured the biggest recording acts of the time. (Paul Shaffer did a spot-on imitation of Kirshner for a popular skit on Saturday Night Live, which preceded Kirshner's show on NBC.) Jeff Barry went on to write themes for television and movies, as well as produce singles for other artists. Ron Dante would produce most of Barry Manilow's hits as well as a few top Broadway shows.
The Archies gang packed up their instruments and went back to their schoolday lives in Riverdale. A few years after their successful animated Saturday-morning adventures, many of their more popular comic titles were converted to digest form and could subsequently be sold in supermarket checkouts - a position that allowed them to survive where a lot of other great comics have disappeared. So while the Archies bubblegum-pop sound may have lasted only a short time, it's certain that the gang's adventures will be around for many years to come. Thank goodness.