On September 12, 1970, children who watched Saturday morning cartoons were treated to the debut of a new Hanna-Barbera cartoon called Josie & The Pussycats, based on the Archie Comics comic book series about an integrated all-girl pop music band that toured the world with their entourage getting entangled in crazy adventures, spy capers, and mysteries. Characters included guitarist Josie, hair-brained drummer Melody, the group’s manager Alexander Cabot III, his mean-spirited sister Alexandra and her cat Sebastian, muscular roadie Alan, and tambourinist Valerie Smith.
The character Valerie broke new ground in cartoons in general since she was the first African American female cartoon character on a regular animated television series. From her afro to her mini-skirt, Valerie was indeed a timely character during the height of the black power movement.
In many of the episodes of Josie & The Pussycats and its sequel Josie & The Pussycats in Outer Space–which aired in the 1972-1973 Saturday morning season–Valerie was viewed as the most clever one of the group, most often saving the day when she and her friends ran into trouble thanks to her street smarts and her scientific and mechanical ingenuity.
While Valerie’s speaking voice was performed by Barbara Patriot, her singing voice was performed by Patrice Holloway, sister of Motown recording artist Brenda Holloway. Ironically, Valerie did the lead singing on most of the tunes played in the show, considering Josie was the leader of the group. The perky uptempo theme song even featured Valerie’s lead vocals. Perhaps the group should have been called “Valerie & The Pussycats.”
Holloway even made an appearance on an early episode of Soul Train.
The Pussycats’ songs were played mostly during the cartoon’s chase scenes and sometimes in closing scenes. In preparation for the upcoming cartoon series, Hanna-Barbera began working on putting together a real life Josie and the Pussycats girl group who would provide the singing voices of the girls in the cartoons, and also record an album of songs to be used both as radio singles and in the TV series.
The recordings were produced by La La Productions, run by Danny Janssen and Bobby Young. They held a talent search to find three girls who would match the three girls in the comic book in both looks and singing ability, and after interviewing more than 500 finalists they settled upon casting Kathleen Dougherty as the singing voice of Josie, Cheryl Ladd (way before Charlie’s Angels) as the singing voice of Melody, and Patrice Holloway as Valerie’s singing voice.
Janssen presented the newly formed band to William Hanna and Joseph Barbara to finalize the production deal. However, Hanna-Barbera wanted Janssen to recast Holloway because they had decided to portray Josie & the Pussycats as an all-white trio and had altered Valerie in the ongoing animation of the character as a white character (she was African American in the comic book series). Janssen refused to recast Holloway and threatened to walk away from the project. After several weeks of a standoff between Janssen and Hanna-Barbera, Janssen prevailed and was allowed to keep Holloway and thus, the animators changed Valerie back to being African American.
Unlike the romance between Josie and Alan, Valerie didn’t have a love interest on the show–although many fans believe Alexander had a crush on Valerie since he was always helping her with building and fixing gadgets (he usually wound up fouling things up). But if there was a crush, Valerie never seemed to pay Alexander any heed. She always seemed more annoyed by his lack of mechanical know-how than anything else.
Sixteen episodes of Josie & The Pussycats aired during the 1970-1971 Saturday morning season, and 16 episodes of Josie & The Pussycats In Outer Space aired during the 1972–1973 season. The cartoons ran for many years in syndication and became a cult favorite of many. The characters from the show appeared in an episode of The Scooby Doo Movies in 1973, helping Scooby and his friends solve a haunted mystery.
A live action movie Josie & The Pussycats was released in 2001, with Rosario Dawson playing the role of Valerie. Many hardcore fans of the cartoon took issue with the fact that the movie version of Valerie was much lighter than the original version of Valerie in both the comic book and cartoon series, and her afro hairdo was straightened to coincide with that of her white female counterparts.
Valerie is somewhat unsung in the annals of cartoon history. Not only was she was the first black female character in a regular animated series, but her character had qualities that were admirable. She was brainy, smart, beautiful, strong-willed and, in many ways, unofficially the more intelligent one of all the main characters. She is indeed an icon in cartoon history. To paraphrase a verse of one of the Pussycats’ songs, “Valerie, you came a long way baby!”
In addition to being a journalist, Stephen McMillian is also working on developing projects within the entertainment industry.