Big Mouth Billy Bass is one of those silly ideas that no one expected to become a huge success, but it did. The animatronic singing and flopping latex fish became a hot item during the early 2000s.
The plaque-mounted singing fish even became part of the décor of elegant, refined homes owned by sophisticated ladies and gentlemen. It found itself gracing the walls of George Bush’s Oval Office and Queen Elizabeth’s Balmoral castle. Tony Blair and Al Gore received them as gifts. Despite the “classy” reputation it earned, Big Mouth Billy Bass sang kitschy covers, notably of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” and Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.”
Although Big Mouth Billy Bass is now past its prime, it continues to be a part of American and global culture, appearing in several movies, television shows, online games and even podcasts.
In a fickle industry where few novel products hit it big, how did Big Mouth Billy Bass become one of the most commercially successful and iconic gag gifts in history? Here’s its “fishy” story:
Meet Joe Pellettieri
Big Mouth Billy Bass was the brainchild of Joe Pellettieri, former product developer of novelty items at Gemmy Industries.
Pellettieri received his MBA in marketing and finance from Indiana University. Soon after, he was involved in the retail industry, working as a buyer for various department stores around the Midwest. But after ten years in the industry, Pellettieri went searching for the “next big thing.”
That “next big thing” turned out to be at Gemmy Industries. Here’s a bit something about the company: it was founded in 1984 in Coppell, Texas, just outside of Dallas. Its products are diverse, ranging from animatronic items to lighting to seasonal décor. It had seen some success with its line of lip-syncing, dancing creatures – such as the gopher from the movie Caddyshack singing Kenny Loggins’ “I’m Alright,” and Pete the Repeat Parrot.
Pellettieri was employed by Gemmy in 1998, and his successful concepts and creations eventually earned him a promotion to vice president of product development. But he was aware that the success and popularity of novelty toys were no more than a fad, and he soon found himself looking for the next potential “craze.”
The birth of Big Mouth Billy Bass
Being new in the field of product development, Pellettieri was still looking for inspiration for the next latest fad. One day, towards the end of 1998, he and his wife Barbara made a pit stop at a Bass Pro Shop outlet. Barbara came up with an unusual suggestion to her husband, “Why not a singing fish?”
Well, why not? While most people would scoff and laugh at the idea, Pellettieri sensed it had potential.
Pellettieri proceeded to make a quick mock-up of a prehistoric-looking fish. His boss told him to reject the idea, but Pelliettieri continued to work on it. He hired a taxidermist to get the correct color of the fish. He then added a motor that would allow the fish to turn its head away from the mounting plaque to face its audience.
Pellettieri later said: “I always come from a place of what makes me laugh. The idea of a fish on a plaque singing ‘Take Me to the River’ was hilarious.”
Gemmy Industries secured the rights to Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” and Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” The company launched Big Mouth Billy Bass at an Atlanta gift product convention in January 2000. The following April, the company was shipping the product to several sporting goods stores with a price tag between $25 to $30. By summer, Big Mouth Billy Bass found itself on the shelves of major retailers such as Walmart. When the holiday season came, Big Mouth Billy Bass was a national sensation and a full-blown phenomenon.
And this was amazing, considering Gemmy using only word of mouth in the first place to market Big Mouth Billy Bass. There was no big advertising involved.
Thanks to the wild popularity of Big Mouth Billy Bass, Al Green himself said that he received more royalties from it than from any other recording of his song.
While cheap pretenders (such as Boogie Bass) came and went, Big Mouth Billy Bass continued on its reign. The singing and flopping plaque-mounted fish became Gemmy Industries’ biggest hit, being rumored to have grossed more than $100 million.
A flash in the pan
To Gemmy’s credit, the company knew the ultimate fate of any short-lived novelty item: discount bins. During the fall of 2000, Gemmy closely monitored the sales figures and began to decrease production in anticipation of a steep sales decline. Retailers who ignored Gemmy’s warning were forced to run through their inventory by bringing Big Mouth Billy Bass price’s down as low as $5 each.
Trying to follow Big Mouth Billy Bass’s success, Gemmy launched other plaque-animal novelty items, including a Christmas-themed Billy. But to Pellettieri, he didn’t want to get stuck being known as the “singing fish guy.” Innovation was important to him.
He went on to create other inventions, including the Kung Fu Hamsters that sang Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting,” which came during his latter years with Gemmy. He left Gemmy in 2010, and now serves as vice president of another novelty products company, Occasions Limited, which is also based in Texas.
Like many “flash-in-the-pan” gift items, Big Mouth Billy Bass had a brief life on store shelves. At least, Pellettieri had made people smile and laugh through Billy. With his new company, he continues to do so by hunting for the next big thing… or the next big fish!