As long ago as 1490 BC, it was noted in history books that the origin of raisins came from sun-dried grapes. If you won a sporting contest in Greece or Rome, you were likely given raisins as your prize. And if you felt sick, or even afraid of aging, Roman physicians would prescribe raisins as the cure for anything that ailed you.
While these all-natural fruits were all the rage back in the ancient day, history couldn’t have predicted that raisins would find fame all over again in the 1980s. This time, the raisins were animated and singing along to Marvin Gaye in commercial spots, making them an instant national phenomenon with audiences. But why raisins anyway? Their catchy signature song aside, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the origins behind these clay crooners.
1) All of the Claymation credit goes to Will Vinton of Will Vinton Studios.
Introduced by the California Raisin Industry marketing staff in 1984, the California Dancing Raisin campaign was developed to increase awareness and demand for California raisins. And as we know from experience, there’s no better way to get audiences invested than to give a brand some animated personality.
3D animator Will Vinton (who coined the term “Claymation” and produced the Red and Yellow M&M’s in his studio) had won an Academy Award in 1974 for “Closed Mondays,” an animated short that used three-dimensional clay figures. The award made him a hot commodity with ad and film agencies looking to differentiate themselves, including the California Raisins Advisory Board. Will Vinton Studios introduced their ad in 1986 starring the harmonious, groovy raisins and it was an overnight success.
2) Who was responsible for those awesome pipes?
Stepping in to sing along to “Heard It Through the Grapevine” was none other than musician Buddy Miles, who played and recorded with Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana previously.
3) According to their CBS musical short, Meet the Raisins!, these raisins do have names.
AC, Beebop, Red, and Stretch (who replaced Zoot) with their manager Rudy Bagaman. But officially? The public named three California Dancing Raisins in a contest with the winning names including Ben Indasun, Justin X. Grape, and Tiny Goodbite.
4) They also have four LP albums.
Sweet, Delicious and Marvelous, Meet the Raisins, Christmas with the California Raisins, and the California Raisins Sing the Hit Songs. All featuring covers of existing chart toppers, of course.
5) Their versatility won them Clios and cartoons alike.
While the California Raisins have an impressive amount of Clio clout including an award for Best Commercial of the Year in 1987, let’s not forget they also had a Saturday morning cartoon. From 1989-1990, you could catch “The California Raisin Show” on CBS where they opened with their own musical number. “Cool is the rule ‘cause the music’s so fine! You might have heard about us through the old grapevine.”
6) Ray Charles and Michael Jackson were immortalized as Celebrity Raisins.
For Jackson, his commercial spot featured him transforming into a California Dancing Raisin and debuted in 5,700 movie theaters. The California Raisin Marketing Board even told me that both Charles and Jackson made their commercials at no fee — they loved the campaign that much!