There’s a wonderful moment in the Heat of the Night when a cop cruiser is prowling the streets searching for trouble and elsewhere actor Anthony James has just broken into a jukebox with a screwdriver and begins dancing to the song Foul Owl (On the Prowl). It’s the creepiest dance scene this side of Twin Peaks and the music matches the film perfectly. This was the era of the A.M. band when format radio didn’t strangle markets like it does today. That is a simplistic view of radio, but it is also true that the savior FM was has become the monster we know. In the AM heyday pop music, country music, crooners and big bands all crowded together on the airwaves one after the other. One of the great small details in the film is the small transistor radio hanging from the rear view mirror of the cop car playing the hits and out comes this creepy, vaguely familiar little song.
It was written by Quincy Jones, who also produced the film’s soundtrack, after he was unable to secure the rights for the great Stan Kesler penned song Lil Red Riding Hood by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Jones remains an American master and at the peak of his career I don’t believe anything musically was beyond his reach. Today writing something like Foul Owl would most likely get the writer sued, but this was at the tail end of a time when singers made their livings off of cheap knock off covers of big hits. This was a time when hit songs like Don’t Let the Stars Get In Your Eyes would have an answer song like I Let the Stars Get In My Eyes within weeks of release. Most of the time these rip-offs were terrible, but occasionally someone got it right. Foul Owl was one of those times. It’s strikingly close to Lil Red Riding Hood, but rather than just a movie throw-away it stands beside the original as tribute and inspired verse. The wolf has become an owl in the song, but while a case can be made for the wolf in Lil Red Riding Hood being misunderstood nothing of the sort can be made for our foul owl. This song is dire warning to take flight and look over your shoulder on the way. The song is firmly a novelty number, but that word is used so disrespectfully in terms of song craft that I wish I could call it something else. In its four short verses it contains all the elements of horror: menace, violence, comedy. It’s set to something like a child’s melody and the internal rhyme scheme makes for ridiculously great triplets like “foul owl on the prowl” and the even better “quail he’ll tail.” Now that’s wonderful writing.
The story has it that Anthony James is actually dancing to Lil Red Riding Hood when we see him in the film and that is partly why Foul Owl rhythmically mirrors it so closely so as to fit the way he moves. A duo credited as Boomer & Travis sing and play the song. They sometimes are also credited as The Lewis & Clark Expedition and are actually Owens Boomer Castleman and for your country music fans Michael Martin Murphey.
I’m a big fan of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. I think Sam Samudio was a brilliant rocker, singer and bluesman, but I’m also glad the rights were never worked out. It gave us this wonderful song.
Foul Owl on the Prowl, Boomer and Travis
Lil Red Riding Hood, Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs