Something Fishy: Big Mouth Billy Bass

Museum of Play
Museum of Play / Museum of Play

A Cracker Barrel in Manassas, Virginia sold 400 in three days. Spencer’s had waiting lists in stores across the country. Queen Elizabeth kept one on top of her piano. One woman tried to take out a second mortgage on her house so she could buy hundreds, load them in a trailer, and drive across the country selling her inventory at a markup.

For a very brief period of time in 2000, the world seemed to be awed by a motorized largemouth fish singing “Take Me to the River.” His name: Big Mouth Billy Bass.

Billy was the brainchild of Joe Pellettieri, a product developer of novelty items at Gemmy Industries. The company, which opened in 1984, had seen some success with a line of dancing, lip-syncing creatures that used a small chip to play digitized songs. Gemmy sold the gopher from the film Caddyshack singing “I’m Alright” by Kenny Loggins; Pete the Repeat Parrot would mimic whatever its owner said; a car window accessory named Mr. C. Mor Bunz mooned passersby.

Hard acts to top. Yet that was exactly what Pellettieri did, with no small amount of assistance from his wife, Barbara. In 1998, the couple was about to enter a Bass Pro fishing supply store in Grapevine, Texas when Barbara remarked that Gemmy hadn’t really made anything to appeal to outdoors enthusiasts. “Why not a singing fish?” she asked Pellettieri.

Why not? Pellettieri made a quick mock-up that looked prehistoric, with a sinister frown and a gray pallor. His boss told him to bury the idea. But Pellettieri continued to toil on it, enlisting a taxidermist to get the fish’s color just right and adding a motor that would—and this would be key—allow the head to turn away from its mounting plaque to address his audience.

Securing rights to both “Take Me to the River” and Bobby McFerrin’s hit “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Gemmy debuted Billy during an Atlanta gift product convention in January 2000. By April, it was shipping to sporting goods stores with a $25 to $30 price tag. By summer, it was selling through at major retailers like Walmart. Bill Clinton gave one to Al Gore; Tony Blair received one as a gift.

Pellettieri knew that if the fish appeared cartoonish, the “surprise” of his vocal talents wouldn't work. At first glance, Billy looked like a mounted catch—breaking into song seemed to provoke the same kind of startled response as a cat jumping into a frame of film. One realtor used it to break the ice with new homeowners. News reports of men tormenting their spouses with it or hauling it around to surprise people began to fill newspapers.

Billy broke consumers into two warring camps: those who found him amusing, and those who grew very tired of his antics. He once made an Amazon list of most-despised gifts, next to a VHS cassette of 1995's Showgirls.

Cheap pretenders like Boogie Bass came and went. Billy grew into Gemmy’s biggest hit, rumored to have grossed in excess of $100 million.

To the company's credit, Gemmy knew the ultimate fate of any beloved flash-in-the-pan gift: discount bins. By fall of 2000, they kept a close watch on sales figures and began to ramp down production in anticipation of a steep drop-off. Retailers who didn’t heed their warning were forced to run through inventory by marking Billy down as low as $5.

While the talented bass may have had a brief life on store shelves, he made a lasting impression on David Chase: The creator of The Sopranos featured Billy in several scenes of the HBO series, including one in which Tony Soprano is given the wall decoration as a gift from his daughter. (It appears to reminds him of a close friend he sentenced to a watery grave.)

Although Gemmy tried to revitalize Billy in 2005 and again in 2014, they’ve never been able to recapture his early success. Johnny the Talking and Singing Toilet, another Pellettieri creation, failed to make waves; Big Mouth Billy Bones, a fully de-scaled version, came too late; a Billy sporting a Santa hat provided only mild Christmas cheer. Once the initial amusement wore off, many Billys were taken down, stripped of their batteries, and abandoned in basements.

One bait shop in Rochester, Minnesota never tired of his talents. In 2014, burglars who broke into the store in the middle of the night triggered the fish’s motion sensor, launching it into a performance. The thieves were so startled they left the money on the counter.