About 15 minutes into Patton Oswalt’s 2016 Netflix special, “Talking For Clapping,” the comedian finishes a joke, takes a long pause and suddenly breaks into song. “Ourisman Dodge, you can depend on Ourisman Dodge. Great name, great cars,” he sings in a low, drawling voice, as if he was passionately delivering his favorite Johnny Cash song at a karaoke bar. “That’s the radio jingle for Ourisman Dodge in Sterling, Virginia. I first heard that when I was eight years old, and it’s been in my head perfectly since then. I’ve taken two infant CPR classes, I cannot remember whether I’m supposed to press on her chest first or blow into her mouth first. That can save my daughter’s life! Very muddled up here, not clear on it. But ... “Ourisman Dodge, you can depend on.”

Art Ehrens, a veteran ad man who lived in Bethesda, Maryland, passed away at the age of 76 on April 16. But not long before that, earlier this year, Ehrens was having a conversation about commercials with a friend who brought up Patton Oswalt’s routine, and the auto dealership jingle that stayed in the comedian’s head for decades. “Yeah, I wrote that shit,” Ehrens replied, according to his son Jon.

Less than a week after Art Ehrens died, a tribute to his gift for brief, instantly memorable nuggets of musical advertising, compiled by his son, appeared on Bandcamp, an artist-friendly music streaming platform. “Works of Art: The Jingles of Art Ehrens” is a sprawling yet breezy compilation of 48 tracks recorded over the last few decades, most of them spanning 30 or 60 seconds to fit the precisely-timed ad breaks that TV and radio stations sell to advertisers. Occasionally, he got to flex his songwriting and arranging skills on a larger canvas, though; the NBC affiliate WRC commissioned “Washington in the Spring,” two minutes and forty seconds of soft rock celebrating the arrival of cherry blossom season in the nation’s capital, complete with a syrupy jazz saxophone solo.

These radio jingles were often the moments that people changed the station, or turned down the volume as they waited for their favorite pop songs to return. But thanks to craftsmen like Art Ehrens, an avid Steely Dan fan who grew up in Miami and cut his teeth playing covers at frat parties in college, those jingles burst with melody. His songs trumpeting buffets, banks and bike stores could be as bright, catchy and memorable as the Billboard hits that were drawing listeners to the radio in the first place. Some of the tracks are undeniably silly — the jingle for Rochester Big and Tall features a woman seductively cooing, “You great big Rochester man” over a swinging jazz groove. But the sheer variety of styles is amazing, from barbershop quartet harmonies for MotoPhoto to the new jack swing beat in a local TV station’s ad announcing the new time slot for “The Arsenio Hall Show.”

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The jingle that helped make Jerry’s Subs & Pizza a recognizable name throughout Maryland and Virginia may be Art Ehrens’s lasting calling card, and the “Ooh, ooh, Jerry’s” sting stayed in the regional chain’s ads long after they stopped using the full 30-second melody. “They used that for decades after my dad worked with them,” Jon Ehrens says. “He didn’t get any sort of royalties, but they bought it.” That jingle, or others Ehrens worked on for Jiffy Lube or Len The Plumber, are like a secret handshake to anyone who grew up in this part of the country. The album sort of functions as a time capsule not just for a bygone era of advertising, but also countless businesses that have since closed or changed names, like Sunworthy Inn or Spa Lady.

Art Ehrens' songs never hit the Billboard charts. But if you grew up in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, you’ve heard a lot of the music he wrote over the years. (courtesy of Jon Ehrens)

Jon Ehrens assembled “Works of Art” in the days after his father’s unexpected passing, having driven down to Bethesda from Vermont, where he lives now, to be with his grieving family. “We had to plan a service, and everyone seemed to be taking care of that aspect,” he remembers. So he went down into his dad’s home studio and started assembling a tribute to his musical legacy, pulling together tracks made over a span of at least 45 years, preserved on a variety of formats. “In his basement, there’s piles of cassettes and loose CD-Rs,” Jon Ehrens says. “I had to learn how to run a reel-to-reel in order to do this.”

Having grown up in a musical household, Jon Ehrens became one of the most prolific songwriters on the Baltimore indie scene about 10-15 years ago, releasing hundreds of songs under dozens of band names including Repelican, The Art Department and Dungeonesse. Even after having moved to Philadelphia, and then Vermont, he remains deeply connected to the Baltimore scene — Repelican’s latest album, released in 2021, features collaborations with members of Future Islands and Horse Lords.

When he was digitizing his father’s oldest radio jingles, Jon was often reminded of the hazy nostalgic sounds that he and his indie rock contemporaries make in homage to the bright, often campy sounds of the popular music of yesteryear. “They’re really muddy, if you like chillwave or lo-fi. The tape itself is degraded, so I was, y’know, ear-squinting to try and figure out what some of the products were.” The jingle for the defunct Rosedale store Webster’s Menswear sounds like it’s playing through a wall. And the track labeled “(yet another unknown from the 1977 tape)” on Bandcamp is so muffled that you can’t make out a word of the vocals. But you can tell one of the session musicians is laying down an incredibly nimble bassline, a far more detailed and individual performance than anything a modern ad agency would throw together in ProTools for a radio spot today.

Putting together the compilation also gave Jon a renewed appreciation for his father’s style of wordplay. “I’ve been noticing that something he does is sort of these almost palindromic phrases,” he says, citing the circular logic of his jingles for Easby’s Buffet (“Good home cookin’ for less than cookin’ at home”) and Jiffy Lube (“Be good to your car so your car will be good to you”). “He would get really pumped when he came up with a cool tagline for a hook.”

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Art Ehrens’s team of collaborators included Todd Wright, who first worked with him in the mid-’90s on an ad for Erol’s, an internet service provider (“The world is finding Erol’s — the fastest way for finding the world!”). “When I was still trying to make it as a singer/songwriter, I would say ‘Art, listen, I’ll sing the demo, but they are not going to use my voice on the jingle,’” Wright remembers. “And then, always, the client would come back and be like, ‘Yeah, they don’t wanna spend money on a singer, so they’re just gonna use your vocal.’ I’d be like, ‘Goddammit!’ So I am the voice of Len The Plumber, I am the voice of Pizza Boli’s.”

Sometimes, however, Ehrens did have the budget or the connections to work with successful recording artists, though. Country singer Mary Chapin Carpenter sang a promo for WRC and the D.C.-based ’70s hitmakers Starland Vocal Band contributed harmonies to a number of jingles, with Ehrens meeting both via a mutual collaborator, the late Rockville guitarist John Jennings. And he worked with Woodstock star Richie Havens on a spot for Children’s Hospital.

Art Ehrens' songs never hit the Billboard charts. But if you grew up in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia area, you’ve heard a lot of the music he wrote over the years. (courtesy of Jon Ehrens)

Wright recalls that in the mid-2000s, Ehrens hired D.C. go-go band legend Chuck Brown for an ad for SunRocket, a short-lived internet phone service, but ad agency execs kept meddling. “He goes into the booth, and these four white dudes are trying to direct Chuck Brown on this bluesy thing that we’re doing, and we did like 20 takes, and nobody was liking any of them. And finally Art was like, ‘Can we just let Chuck do what Chuck does?’” Wright remembers. “And of course Chuck did it in one take when Art gave him free reign to do whatever he wanted. But it was really funny, because you guys are telling the Godfather of go-go how to be soulful.”

Occasionally, Art Ehrens would get his kids involved in the family business. Jon Ehrens helped his father record jingles, including a series of spots for Marlo Furniture, and his older sister Emily sings the “Bring your style to life at Marlo” chorus in an ad on the Bandcamp compilation. But even those ads, recorded in the 2010s, consciously evoked the already bygone heyday of radio jingles, which had started to go out of fashion in recent decades. “I tried to make them sound as ’80s and cheesy as I could, it was great fun.” Jon Ehrens even brought his father’s ad music world into his own indie rock world a little: a safe sex PSA urging responsible condom use with the refrain “Put it on, put it on” was recorded at Beat Babies, the Baltimore studio owned by Oxes drummer Chris Freeland, where albums by Wye Oak and Lower Dens were made.

“Works of Art” ends with “King of the Mountain,” a triumphant four-minute Art Ehrens original from the early ’80s that perfectly captures the avid skier’s love of hitting the slopes. “My dad had heard the Christopher Cross song ‘Sailing’ around that time, he was like ‘Well, there should be one about skiing,’” Jon Ehrens says of the track, recorded with his team of crack session musicians after their commissioned work was done. It sounds like it could’ve been a jingle that would entice thousands of radio listeners to a ski lodge, but the elder Ehrens just wrote it for his own pleasure. “After a hard day of tracking jingles, I think they were like, ‘Let’s have some fun.’”

Al Shipley is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.

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