I was six years old in 1962 — too young to do my own record shopping. This meant I was at the mercy of what Mom and Dad deemed fit to play on the Victrola in the living room. Looking back, it could have been worse. At the mercy of my parents’ tastes, I was exposed to show tunes, pop vocalists, and an odd fat guy who sang songs which sounded funny, even if I wasn’t always sure what he was singing about. His performances were captured in front of a live audience. He would sing and they would laugh.
His name was Allan Sherman, and his success story surprised a lot of people back then. Remember, this was pre-British Invasion days when the charts were filled with pop stars, crooners, and original cast albums (the bestselling record of that year was the West Side Story film soundtrack).
In the 1950s, Sherman had recorded a few Borscht Belt parodies for Jubilee Records, then went on to work in the shiny new world of television. After he had been fired as producer of The Steve Allen Show and I’ve Got a Secret, a game show he co-created, he decided to take up where he left off and went back to being a song parodist.
Weird Al Yankovic owes more than just a tip of his hat to Sherman. You could say he owes his career to this purveyor of wit and witticisms, whose songs were sung to the tunes of such classics as “Streets of Laredo” and “Alouette”. Where Yankovic has been able to write his parodies using hit songs of the day (per the “fair use” provision of U.S. copyright law), Sherman was forced, early on (before the money started rolling in), to use songs in the public domain for fear of litigation.
In September, Collectors Choice Music released eight titles from the Allan Sherman catalogue. The four I sampled were recordings Sherman made early in his career and contain what is considered his ‘classic’ material.
His first record, My Son the Folk Singer was released in 1962 and was an unexpected smash, reaching the number one position on the Billboard charts. Recorded in Radio Recorders studio before an invited audience of one hundred Hollywood friends, luminaries and Warner Brothers executives, it was more a party record than your typical chart topper. Listeners really took to Sherman’s parodies. As reissue annotator Dr. Demento writes, “He had developed a style that somehow preserved the soul of Jewish humor but made it sound all-American.” Songs such as “Sarah Jackman” (“Frere Jacques”) and “Oh Boy” (“Chiapanecas”) were intelligent and witty, peppered with pop culture references and Jewish-isms. Sherman sang with an everyman charm. Relating to his humor was easy, even if you were unfamiliar with Jewish culture and had no idea who the heck the members of Hadassah (a shout-out in the song “My Zelda”) were.
1963 became the most successful year of Sherman’s career, and saw the release of the album My Son the Celebrity, an album recorded in the same style as Folk Singer. It was another huge hit, topping the charts almost immediately upon its release. The album cover depicted Sherman strumming away on his guitar while his wife (clad in the most politically incorrect mink coat imaginable), his kids, maid, and dog look on with love and pride. If anything, this release was even more hilarious than its predecessor, taking on subjects like replacing telephone exchanges with all digit dialing (“The Let’s All Call Up AT&T and Protest to the President March”) and true love sung to the tune of “Hava Nagila (“Harvey and Sheila”), which made ample and imaginative use of initials:
“They bought a house one day,
Financed by FHA,
It had a swimming pool,
Full of H2O.
Traded their used MG,
For a new XKE,
Switched to the GOP,
That’s the way things go.”
Sherman continued to ride a wave of success with his followup album that same year. My Son the Nut was, again, a smash hit, spending eight weeks at the number one spot even though Sherman had altered his winning style slightly. For the first time, his band was augmented with a string section. And since he was now flush enough to pay royalties, he included in his repertoire parodies of well-known songs such as “C’est Si Bon” (“I See Bones”), “Rag Mop” (“Rat Fink”) and “Five foot Two, Eyes Of Blue” (“Eight Foot Two, Solid Blue”). This album also included Sherman’s Grammy award winning signature song, and the biggest hit of his career: “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh”, a song whose melody was taken from “Dance of the Hours” from Ponchielli’s opera La Gioconda. The idea for the song was inspired by Sherman’s son, Robert, who went to summer camp, hated it, and sent letters home saying so. The song held the number two spot on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for three weeks.
My Son the Nut was Sherman’s most successful album. But at this point, he was steering away from the sort of humor that gave his earlier releases a certain unique charm. Nut is a much more mainstream offering. With its homages to suburbia, summer camp, headache commercials and alien beings, it is no wonder it was his biggest selling release. However, it was not his best.
In his 1964 album, For Swingin’ Livers Only! (its title a homage to Frank Sinatra’s Songs For Swingin’ Lovers), Sherman makes an attempt to return to the glory days of those first two albums. A smattering of the old Jewish-American everyman humor is once again evident in “J.C. Cohen”, “Kiss of Myer” and “Shine On Harvey Bloom”, in which Sherman croons about Mr. Bloom’s astronaut son Harvey:
“Shine on, shine on, Harvey Bloom up in the sky,
You have been in orbit since January, February, June and July,
Don’t come back too soon, we rented out your room,
So shine on, shine on Harvey Bloom–up there on the moon.”
On “Pop Hates the Beatles”, Sherman gets topical and sings with some bitterness about the changing times (Sherman’s failure to ascend the charts as he once did had a lot to do with the emergence of the Fab Four).
“Grow Mrs. Goldfarb”, is a somewhat disturbing little song with an uncharacteristic touch of cruelness thrown into the mix. To the tune of “Glow Worm” Sherman sings glibly about Mrs. Goldfarb’s relentless eating and growing girth:
“When you’re in department stores,
Don’t use revolving doors,
You might get stuck, Dear.
When you use the telephone,
Go in the booth alone,
And lots of luck, Dear.”
The album peaked at number thirty-two on the charts. It was a decent offering, which contained a few shining moments. But the quality was not consistent and Sherman had done better.
During his career, Allan Sherman released a total of eight albums and went on to write a Broadway show and two books. He died at age 47 in 1973-a combination of weight gain and emphysema contributing to his demise.
If you know the name Allan Sherman from “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” and enjoy the humor of that song, pick up those first two My Son releases before going on to the rest. You’ll see why Sherman’s talent as a song parodist has stood the test of time.