Billy_Bass_Oral_History

An Oral History of Big Mouth Billy Bass

How the famous singing fish swam to the heights of fame, before being flushed down the drain of the pop culture commode

“Surprise your friends with this rare catch!” exclaimed the product description for the now legendary Big Mouth Billy Bass novelty product, which debuted 20 years ago, early in the year 2000, at an Atlanta gift convention. “This realistically-detailed Large Mouth Billy Bass looks ordinary enough. But when he senses an unsuspecting admirer, he flaps his tail and sings them a song!”

Two decades later, it’s truly hard to imagine anyone ever “surprising their friends” with such a kitschy product, or anyone ever thinking a Big Mouth Billy Bass would be a good gift. After all, Billy has spent the last 19 of his 20 years as a tired joke — a novelty relic that invites as much derision as nostalgia.

But for a short time there — a few months, at least — Big Mouth Billy Bass truly was an awe-inspiring product. Billy was such a massive success that it was estimated to have made over $100 million in that first year alone, and it found its way into the homes of the world’s most famous and important people. It also appeared in movies like WALL-E and some of the biggest TV shows of all time, ensuring that Big Mouth Billy Bass would never truly be forgotten. 

But Billy’s origins were about as humble as any fish’s could be — thought up outside a Bass Pro Shop in Grapevine, Texas, in 1998.

The Spawning of Big Mouth Billy Bass

While Bass Pro Shops are known as a resource for catching and killing fish, the retail chain is also partially responsible for the birth of the most famous bass of all time.

Joe Pellettieri, inventor of Big Mouth Billy Bass: I guess I’m known for Big Mouth Billy Bass, but I always tell people that I’m not a one-hit wonder. I’ve had a lot of hits that you may or may not be familiar with over the years in toys, Halloween, Christmas and a lot of different categories. Do you remember the dancing hamsters, the ones that did “Kung Fu Fighting” and a bunch of different songs? That was me. 

I work for a company called Occasions now, and they do a lot of holiday inflatables that I’ve worked on too. My start, though, was with the Dancing Flowers — those were my first hit with Gemmy, a novelty seasonal company where I was in product development. After the flowers, I did Big Mouth Billy Bass for them, so I started out with a bang, really — I guess I got lucky.

Until late 1997 I was in retail, and in the beginning of 1998, I’d taken a job in Washington, D.C. I was going to work for Ron Ziegler, who before that was President Nixon’s press secretary. I took the job, but I called Gemmy — who I interviewed with earlier — and I said, “Look, I’d kind of rather make toys, so if you want to make me an offer, now is the time.” So they made me an offer, and I’ve been making toys and seasonal products ever since. I would have been wearing a suit and a white shirt and been a bureaucrat, or I could make toys for a living. I chose well.

Excerpt from the Gemmy website: In 1984, Gemmy introduced its first product line — ballpoint pens. An entrepreneurial company at heart, Gemmy soon found its creative legs and began developing novelty items that mirrored cultural trends in music and movies like Dancing Hamsters, Frogz, Pete the Repeat Parrot, Douglas Fir the Talking Tree and, of course, Big Mouth Billy Bass.

Pellettieri: In 1998, I’d just started with the company. One day my wife and I were driving by a new Bass Pro here in Grapevine, and we were banging back and forth ideas and she said, “How about a singing fish on a plaque?” I thought it was hilarious, and I said it could sing “Take Me to the River,” so that was the initial concept.

The first prototypes were horrible and no one but me was really excited about the project, but after working on it with the engineers for about a year, it finally came together. I was in Hong Kong in our showroom one day before all the buyers got there, because all the buyers would go to Hong Kong to see what we were offering. So, it was the day before I left Hong Kong and I had the fish. It wasn’t a bass yet; it was a generic fish on a plaque, and it just wiggled and the mouth moved — it was okay. So I stared at that thing for like 10 minutes, then I just took it off the wall and took a train into China, where our engineers were. I got there and I asked them, “Can you make the head turn?” 

At that point, that was a pretty state-of-the-art mechanism — most animation for stuff like that only had one movement where it just bounced up and down, things weren’t that sophisticated at the time. The engineers managed to get it done, and they put it on the wall of the showroom. Later on, the salespeople got there, and next thing I know, my emails blow up with, “Where’d this fish come from?” and “Who did this fish?” Because no one knew I was working on it. So I said, “Well, it was me,” but I didn’t know if it was good or bad. 

The reaction was phenomenal, and from there, it took off. We decided on a bass because that was the most popular kind of fish and the most popular kind of fishing. I also went to a taxidermist to make it realistic looking. I’d never been to a taxidermist, but I asked him for a couple of samples to base it off of and we picked one. It wasn’t an exact copy, but it was something to base it off of. 

For the music, initially the whole concept was “Take Me to the River,” which was the perfect song for it, and then somewhere along the line, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” became the second song. That one wasn’t my choice, but it was a great choice. I was in charge of all the music and music production as well. A singer named Steve Haas sang “Take Me to the River,” as we’d worked with him on a number of different projects. I don’t remember who we used to record “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” though.

We also had to work on what kind of material it was going to be. We experimented with latex, which looks good at first, but then it dries up after about a year and starts cracking and stuff. So we did a soft PVC material. Then our packaging department, they came up with the name Big Mouth Billy Bass, and the first packages were great. I had a lot of help. There were all the engineers and the artists and other people that helped me. So I didn’t just do it by myself, but I was the one who persevered and made sure that it happened.

It really goes back to that head turn, though. Once Billy Bass’ head turned, that’s what hooked people. It was that surprise factor. That’s what made it the item it would be. If it was just a wiggling fish on a plaque, we might have sold some, but it would have been long forgotten. 

America Catches a Big One

Deservedly, the first store to stock Big Mouth Billy Bass would be Bass Pro Shops, with Cracker Barrel gift shops carrying them soon thereafter. These two chains would be the primary retailers for Billy in those first few months, but the product would prove so popular that it would soon find itself just about everywhere.

Pellettieri: Initially, we only distributed it to specialty stores and department stores, because we realized that once we brought it to mass, those people wouldn’t buy it because then they’d be priced out of the market. So we held it for six months — we just sold it to Bass Pro, Spencer’s, Cracker Barrel, KB Toys and people like that to give them a head start on it. Then we released it to Walmart and Target and everybody else.

David Stewart, professor of marketing at Loyola Marymount University: It’s an interesting novelty product, and the appeal really comes from that startle factor. He looks just like a trophy fish on the wall, and then you walked by and he suddenly would start singing — that’s something not really found in novelty gifts like a Chia Pet or a Pet Rock. It does something, which is part of the appeal. I mean, what do you do with a Chia Pet? It’s like watching paint dry. 

There are always the people that you don’t know who to buy for, and so, a novelty gift is often a very safe gift that says, “We were thinking of you.” I suspect that these were bought more as gifts rather than for personal use. I was actually given Billy Bass as a gift by some of my students because I’d used it as an example in an MBA class lecture about novelty products. Now we bring out Billy every Christmas, and he holds a place of honor in the house. 

Chris Bensch, vice president of collections at the Strong Museum of Play, home of the National Toy Hall of Fame: Novelty toys like this tend to pop up every now and again. I’m thinking of the Pet Rock in 1975 or the Rubik’s Cube. More recently, there was Tickle Me Elmo. It seems like there’s sort of a snowball effect: People get it, people like it, people talk to their friends. Even before social media, they sort of went viral and would wind up on the covers of magazines and on talk shows. That always fueled the demand further and then you’re nobody if you don’t have one.

Stewart: This product was also sold via word-of-mouth, which is another characteristic of novelty products. A lot of awareness of novelty products comes about as a result of exposure, so you go to a friend’s house and there’s Billy Bass, which precipitates a conversation. Then you say to yourself, “My dad’s birthday is coming up. I bet he’d really like that singing fish.” It’s called an “imitation effect.” 

Word-of-mouth is a very powerful marketing tool. There are a lot of marketing organizations that spend a lot of time and a lot of money trying to create word-of-mouth. Actually, the models that we use for the spread of information by word-of-mouth are exactly the same models that we use for the spread of disease. Literally, they’re borrowed from epidemiology.

Peyton, Big Mouth Billy Bass owner: It was a long time ago, but I bought my Billy Bass at Walmart or Walgreens. I used to love watching the commercials when I was a kid and I was starting to get a deep voice, so I thought “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” was funny. I displayed it for a few years, but when I went to college, I put him in a box along with some other items at my house. He’s still in that box, actually. 

Holly, former Big Mouth Billy Bass owner: I had one in my father’s house in the early 2000s. I remember seeing it in the store, and I was absolutely smitten with the singing fish. I can still remember one of the songs was “Take Me to the River,” and I’d sing that song to myself in the hallways at school. I’m a huge Muppets and animatronic fan, so having something like that was a big deal to me. I have no memory of what became of it though — it might have been sold in a garage sale.

Scott, son of a Big Mouth Billy Bass owner: My dad had one in his camper. He thought it was the funniest thing around. I’m not sure where he got it, but knowing my dad, he probably bought it at Big Lots or at a yard sale. He passed in 2007, and even though it didn’t work anymore, it was still up in his motor home. I believe Billy Bass was thrown away when we cleaned up the motor home to sell it.

Sarah Booz, daughter of a Big Mouth Billy Bass owner: My dad had one. He had it engraved. He was so proud of it. He ordered it off a late-night infomercial because he was an insomniac. The engraving said, “Mamoo Booz killed me. Ho ho ho.” Mamoo was his nickname because his brother couldn’t pronounce his name when he was a kid. That was also his stage name when he was a clown, “Mamoo the Clown.” He passed when I was 17 and I had the fish for a while, but I just recently threw it out.

Pellettieri: George Bush had one and Bill Clinton gave one to Al Gore. Queen Elizabeth had it. There’s just so many stories about famous people who were into it.

Intelligencer Journal, July 18, 2000, excerpt from “Gore Shows Off Big Mouth Billy Bass Gift”: Ever wonder what President Clinton is up to while his wife and No. 2 are out campaigning for offices of their own? The Shopping Channel, guesses Vice President Al Gore. Gore laughed — but asked not to be photographed — as he showed off the singing bass recently given to him by Clinton.

Fishing Magic, October 27, 2000, excerpt from “Queen Duet with Billy Bass”: According to The Sun, Her Majesty loves the fish and has a real laugh as she sings along with Billy as he waggles his head and flaps his tail. A royal spokeswoman said, “Her Majesty does indeed own a Big Mouth Billy Bass. It resides on her piano at Balmoral and she obviously enjoys its company.”

John Kelso, Austin American-Statesman, December 8, 2000, excerpt from “Could It Be? Why, Yes! It Is! Gov. Bush Owns a Billy Bass”: Anybody who was fixin’ to give Darn Near President George W. Bush one of those battery-powered singing fish mounts for Christmas is out of luck — he already has one. The Billy Bass showed up in newspaper photos of Not Quite Yet President Bush last weekend while he was meeting in the living room of his Crawford house with Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Teenie Hodges, R&B, funk and soul musician, co-writer of “Take Me to the River,” excerpt from Mabon Teenie Hodges: A Portrait of a Memphis Soul Original: Really, Big Mouth Billy Bass made me more money than any song I ever recorded. What a world.

Shannon Wynne, owner of The Flying Fish restaurant chain and founder of the Billy Bass Adoption Center: Back in the day, everybody had a Billy Bass. If you fished at all, somebody gave you a Billy Bass. People gave me Billy Bass after Billy Bass — I had probably six at one time. They were fun for a while, but then they ended up in the attic.

Billy Gets Thrown Back

The heyday of Big Mouth Billy Bass would only last about nine months or so before it began to wear out. The product was so big and had been gifted to so many people that a crash was inevitable, especially for a product whose main pull was its surprise factor. Its demise would only be aided by the countless other iterations and ripoffs, some made by Gemmy themselves to keep the momentum going, while others were made by competing companies trying to get in on the craze. By that fall, the product had already begun to be marked down, and by Christmas, it was in the discount bins, having already been gag-gifted to countless fishermen earlier in the year.

Pellettieri: Typically, the hotter an item gets, the quicker it dies. This thing was extremely hot, and we were actually telling people, “You need to back off on your orders. We’ll sell it to you, but don’t go crazy because everyone’s got this thing now.” Some people listened, some people didn’t, so some people got hurt in the end because they had too much product when it died. We knew that it was just a fad — it was eventually going to die.

Stewart: That kind of lifespan is fairly typical and that’s what defines it as a novelty product. People buy it because it’s different — it’s novel — but the very fact that the appeal is that it’s novel and different means that over time, it’s not so novel and not so different anymore. So it loses its appeal. 

Wynne: After listening to “Take Me to the River” 150 times, it starts to get old. 

Bensch: It’s not really one of those timeless things that you pass down to your grandchildren. 

Kourtney Stringer, The Morning Call, December 1, 2000, excerpt from “Shoppers Hooked on This Fishy Gift”: Matt Antener, an amateur bass fisherman, has an unusual way to wake up his wife in the morning. About 5 o’clock, the Bellmore, N.Y. resident crawls out of bed and tiptoes over to a trophy fish hanging on their bedroom wall. After Antener pushes a button, the mounted bass wiggles its tail fin, turns its head and bursts into “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Take Me to the River.” Antener cracks up as his wife is jolted from her slumber. Elizabeth Antener isn’t laughing. “He does this just to annoy me,” she says.

Big Mouth Billy Bass may be the most annoying yet in a long line of silly adult toys like the Dancing Flower and the Pet Rock. The singing fish recently made an Amazon.com list of most-hated products, based on consumer reviews, rivaling Bubble Fairy Barbie, Dutch, a biography of Ronald Reagan, and the video of the movie Showgirls

Pellettieri: Once Billy Bass started to die down, we followed it up with all these other characters, like a trout, a catfish, we had a shark doing the Jaws theme. We had a lobster, and then we did a jackalope and a turkey — all kinds. We’ve also done variations of Billy, like a Halloween one which was all bones, and a Christmas one where we just put a Christmas hat on it. We really capitalized on it.

Kellie Kreiss, writer at Slacker and others, author of “The Rise and Fall of Big Mouth Billy Bass, the Kitschy Singing Wall-Fish That Ruled the Year 2000”: There were so many Billy Bass knockoffs that it was ridiculous. There’s Boogie Bass, Travis the Singing Trout, Jake the Jackalope, Rocky the Lobster. There are just so many, but that’s what happens in capitalist America — a good idea becomes a great idea, becomes an awful idea once too many people get their hands on it.

Billy’s Lasting Aroma

Despite its precipitous fall in sales, Big Mouth Billy Bass would never truly go away. So many were sold back in the year 2000 that people often received more than one, ensuring that Billy would be found at yard sales and in the depths of attics for the foreseeable future. He’s also found himself to be the subject of the occasional news headline in the years since, reminding everyone of the time when Billy was the biggest fish in the pond. Perhaps most notably though, Billy Bass also made a singular stamp on popular culture by appearing in many TV shows and movies. Much like a hit summer song that’s played out by mid-August, Billy Bass was such a flash in the pan that it forever evokes a time period for those who remember the year 2000. 

Bart Simpson, “The Great Money Caper”: Wow, look at all this loot! What should we buy first?

Homer Simpson: A singing rubber fish, of course.

Pellettieri: Billy Bass was so big that it’s part of pop culture now. It was on The Simpsons, and recently, I saw it on a Geico commercial. McDonald’s did a Filet-O-Fish on a plaque a couple of years ago. I don’t work for Gemmy anymore, but Gemmy’s come out with anniversary versions of it and stuff like that, so I guess they’re still trying to keep it alive. 

Bensch: We here at the Strong Museum of Play have a Big Mouth Billy Bass. We got one in 2000 because it was one of the hot things from that year. 

Stewart: Certain things define generations, and novelty products are one of them. The Frisbee was kind of a defining product of the 1950s. Every generation picks up on different icons of their generation, much the same way that each generation has its own genre of music. 

Pellettieri: It was neat that it was on The Sopranos when The Sopranos was really hot. [Tony Soprano] opened it up as a Christmas gift. 

Vincent Pastore, actor, Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero on The Sopranos: In the show, Tony was having these dreams and the wise guy term is “sleeping with the fishes,” you know? So he dreamt about these fish. I guess it was in his head that he wanted to whack Pussy, because he knew Pussy was a rat. He knew Pussy was a rat from the time I came back from wherever I went, and then I met him in the driveway and we went downstairs and he was frisking me. He never trusted me! He never trusted me after John Heard, the cop, told him that I was a rat! But I always felt that Tony knew Pussy was a rat and he couldn’t accept it, which is why he had that dream.

For the fish scene, I had to go into the studio and they filmed me saying those lines, “four dollars a pound, blah, blah, blah.” Then they created the fish character using me moving my lips, so I was involved in the animation process, which I thought was cool. They do that a lot for animated stuff, like when I did Shark Tale, they did that. Anyway, I thought it was a funny scene.

People often show up at meet-and-greets with that fish and I sign it. But that fish, the one that this thing is all about, that was seen in the series later, when Tony got one. But my character wasn’t that fish, my character was a bass lying in Asbury Park along with other fish.

That fish you’re talking about though, I’ve signed that at a lot at meet-and-greets. I wish I could make some money on that, to be honest. As a marketing thing, I wanted my agent to get involved with those people because, after The Sopranos, when people saw that thing — if they were a Sopranos fan — they thought of me. That’s why I’m doing this interview — maybe something will come out of it.

Kreiss: In the pilot of the British version of The Office, David Brent is trying to land all of these different jokes with the new temp and nobody’s laughing, then he finally comes to the Big Mouth Billy Bass, which is supposed to be this perfect gag, so he pushes the button and the batteries are dead, which is kind of their way of showing that not only is it out of batteries, but also David and his jokes are out of batteries. It’s funny, this episode was only in 2001, but it already knew the role that Billy was going to play in the culture, like the joke was already tired.

It also appeared just this year on an episode of What We Do in the Shadows, so it’s still popping up on TV.

Wynne: I was designing a fish restaurant in Little Rock, Arkansas, back in 2002 and I needed to come up with a good hook — get it? This was 20 years ago, and back then, Billy Bass was closer in the rear-view mirror than they are now in terms of their relevance, so I knew that there were lots of them out there that people had and didn’t want anymore, and I needed to cover some walls. So I came up with the Billy Bass Adoption Center, which means that if you brought your Billy Bass in, we’d give you a free basket of catfish and adoption papers that stated that we’d feed and house your Billy Bass for the remainder of its life. 

The walls filled up so quickly with them, they soon gravitated to the ceiling. I’d say there’s close to a thousand fish in there now. That was our first location; now we’ve got 11 and each has a Billy Bass adoption program. I have no idea how many Billy Basses we have altogether, probably 5,000, but we’re still doing it, so if you’ve got a Billy Bass to get rid of, we’ll give you a free bucket of catfish for it.

Pellettieri: This is kind of a funny story. A few years later, we had this big, life-size deer. Its name was Buck, and we launched it on TV with a local network here in Texas. We did it at The Flying Fish restaurant and they knew I did Billy Bass, but during the session they didn’t cover my lunch. I thought, “You’ve got to be kidding me! Your whole concept is based on an item that I created, and you won’t even pay for my lunch?” I didn’t say anything, but I still think they owe me a lunch.

Pam Louwagie, Star Tribune, February 5, 2014, excerpt from “Robbery Thwarted by Big Mouth Billy Bass, the Singing Fish”: Score one for the fish. The crime scene of a break-in at a Rochester’s Hooked on Fishing shop showed evidence that a burglar got scared off by a motion-activated, singing bass, authorities said. The novelty bass, which had been hung near the door and would start singing “Take Me to the River” whenever someone entered the shop, was found on the floor after the intruder knocked it down as part of breaking the door to get in.

Ashley Albert, co-owner, Royal Palms Shuffleboard Club: Here at the Royal Palms in Chicago, there are lots of little delightful moments all around the club that you can discover. Like, we have this very iconic pink flamingo wallpaper and a hedge wall of View-Masters, so there are all these strange things. I was looking for something to put on the wall leading up to the roof deck and someone suggested a giant marlin, but from an animal cruelty perspective, having a giant stuffed, magnificent, nearly extinct sailfish on our walls would probably not go over well with people. So I searched for fake trophy fish and Big Mouth Billy Bass kept coming up. We thought it would be hilarious if we just did a wall of them. Then it snowballed into, “What if we could get them all to sing at the same time?” and “What if we could get them to sing what we wanted them to sing at the same time?”

I scoured the internet and got 75 of them. I asked a friend who was a prop master if he knew someone who would wire them all together, and he immediately said, “I know a guy.” After I mailed the guy a couple Billy Basses to figure them out, he flew to Chicago and we put it all together, so now they sing the Talking Heads and the Bee Gees and lots of other stuff.

Richard Carter, creator of the Sashimi Tabernacle Choir: Here in Houston, there’s a big thing called the Art Car Parade and I always thought about making one. In late 2000, I saw all these Billy Bass around and it was kind of cool and extraordinarily ridiculous. I thought, “Maybe I could turn that into a car.” I bought one and took it apart and all the mechanics were really simple, so I started to think about making an art car with them to choreograph them to different music.

A bunch of friends joined in the project, and we made it work. We started around Christmas of 2000, and the Houston parade was just a few months after that. We managed to get about 250 of the fish mounted onto the car. So we put it in the parade with a couple hundred thousand spectators and people were dropping to their knees and cracking up — it was just beyond anything that we could have imagined in terms of making people laugh. 

In the years since, we’ve kept it going and even taken the car on a few trips to the East Coast and four or five trips to the West Coast. It’s still a hit at the Art Car Parade every year — it’s evolved over the years and become more sophisticated, with different soloists and a lobster as the conductor. The car is from 1984, but it’s a Volvo and they run forever. The fish, though, not so much — maintenance of the fish has been a major concern. I actually became an early adopter of 3D printing so that I could start printing replacement parts for them instead of buying more fish online. Most people probably would have given up in the last 20 years, but people laugh so hard at this, you know? How can you give up on the people who want to laugh? 

James Vincent, Circuit Breaker, November 28, 2018, excerpt from “You Can Preorder an Alexa-Enabled Big Mouth Billy Bass for $40”: The must-have gadget of the holiday season is finally here, the latest in cutting-edge fintech: an Alexa-enabled Big Mouth Billy Bass, which is now available at Amazon for $40. This gadget has been a long time coming. A developer named Brian Kane first came up with the idea of hacking a Billy Bass to connect to Alexa’s API in 2016, before, in 2017, the makers of the fishy ornament said they were going to make Kane’s idea real. More than a year later, the product is available for preorder, complete with an official “Alexa Gadget” certification.

Unfortunately, you’ll need to connect the Alexa-enabled Billy Bass to an existing Echo device for it to work. But once it’s hooked up, you can use it for all of the usual tasks, including setting timers, answering basic queries, and playing music.

Bensch: Items like this, especially those that are only around for a short while but that are very popular, they become sort of the landmarks in our lives. When you see that item, it sends you to a particular time and place. So, when you see Big Mouth Billy Bass, you remember, “Oh, that was the haircut I had back in 2000,” or, “I hung my Billy Bass over this piece of furniture.: They really help crystallize a time period because of the power of their nostalgia and their ability to set our personal chronologies.