A 20th anniversary is usually something you celebrate. But is “celebrate” the right word for acknowledging one of the tackiest gifts ever to hit stores? Yes, that’s right, Big Mouth Billy Bass, the singing fish has been around for 20 years.
In a recent article in Mel Magazine entitled “An Oral History of Big Mouth Billy Bass,” inventor Joe Pellettieri says that back in 1998 he came up with the kitschy concept while brainstorming ideas with his wife for his then job with novelty products company Gemmy. The couple were driving past a Bass Pro Shop store in Texas when his wife suggested a singing fish mounted on a plaque.
The seed was planted, but what made the fish really stand out is its wagging tail and motion-activated head that flips towards you as you pass by. “Once Billy Bass’ head turned, that’s what hooked people,” Pellettieri told Mel Magazine about the engineering add-on, fishing pun fully intended, we trust.
The kitschy tunes the bass belted out no doubt helped as well with the irony of a mounted fish signing covers of Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” or Al Green’s “Take Me to the River”—including the lyrics, “drop me in the water”—helping boost sales. (Teenie Hodges, co-author of “Take Me to the River,” says that the royalty payments he received for the fishy cover exceeded anything else he ever wrote.)
Appropriately, the product initially launched at Bass Pro Shop stores in early 2000 before a wider release later that year. Long before “going viral” became a thing, Big Mouth Billy Bass quickly became the novelty gift to give to friends (and possibly enemies). Bill Clinton once gave one to his vice president, Al Gore, and Queen Elizabeth reportedly had one mounted next to a piano at Balmoral Castle.
Eventually, the pesky Pisces started making cameos in a variety of movies and TV shows, including the animated movie WALL-E and the hit series, The Sopranos, when Tony Soprano started having visions of talking fish heads after he sent one of his associates to swim with the fishes. McDonald’s even ran a spoof ad for their Filet-O-Fish sandwich.
As the fish’s popularity began to fade, the company rolled out spinoffs, including a shark, a lobster, and a Halloween-themed model that was just fish bones. But none of them, ahem, hooked an audience like the original bass did. By Christmas 2020, Big Mouth Billy Basses were being dumped en masse into the discount bin.
More recently, the tacky talking point is having a bit of a renaissance. For example, a bar in Chicago installed 75 Big Mouth Billy Basses along a stairway leading to their rooftop patio. They hired a designer to program them to sing in harmony, including The Bee Gees “Staying Alive” and The Talking Heads, “Once in a Lifetime,” that includes the lyrics, “How did I get here?”
There’s even an Alexa-enabled model on the market now, but at press time it was out of stock on Amazon.
But what should you do with a Big Mouth Billy Bass you don’t want? The Flying Fish restaurant in Memphis set up the Billy Bass Adoption Center, where patrons have donated hundreds of their under-appreciated Billys. In the interests of staff and diners’ sanity, the owners wisely decided to remove the batteries from the fish before mounting.