When I lived in Los Angeles, for years I found myself strangely addicted to a Sunday night radio show hosted by a whimsical whacko with the unlikely moniker “Dr. Demento.” If asked, I honestly couldn’t say whether I loved or hated the music played on this show. Although Demento’s show has been syndicated across the country since the seventies, you’d never find his “music” (if you could call it that) on any Clear Channel corporate playlist. If there is any classification for the strange eclectic esoteric funny and/or sick tunes that he plays, it would be called “novelty songs.” Some are wonderful like Cab Calloway’s “Reefer Man.” Others are atrocious like Mrs. Miller, the world’s worst vocalist, who mangled the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” in the sixties. And the rest may even be hilarious like Cheech and Chong’s “Basketball Jones.” Over the years, thanks to Dr. Demento and despite my better judgment, I’ve grown fond of these so-bad-they’re-good novelty songs, such as:
1. Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Cryptkicker Five’s one hit wonder “Monster Mash” may be the biggest selling novelty song of all time. It was a song with all the ingredients for failure, particularly the bad Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi impressions. It was not only a smash hit in 1962, Monster Mash wound up a perennial, played every Halloween on thousands of radio stations around the country. A trivia factoid: one of the Cryptkickers was legendary singer composer Leon Russell.
2. “Grandma got run over by a reindeer” by Elmo and Patsy is another example of a one hit wonder holiday novelty song becoming a fluke smash hit. It was written by country singer Randy Brooks, but his band hated it so much, they refused to perform it. Brooks then sold the rights to the song for $500 to Patsy Shropshire, who recorded it with her husband Elmo.
3. The Coasters were already a well respected and red hot R&B singing group when they recorded Leiber and Stoller’s novelty song about high school bad boy “Charlie Brown“ (no relation to Charles Schulz’s hapless comic strip character). This song led to a string of other hit novelty songs including “Yakety Yak” and “Along Came Jones.” My personal favorite Coasters song is “Searching”, far from a novelty song.
4. “Does your chewing gum lose its flavor? (on the bedpost over night)” by Lonnie Donegan was a smash hit one hit wonder in the States. In Britain, Donegan’s particular genre of music, dubbed “skiffle”, was far from a one hit wonder. It was a music craze, part jug band, part Dixieland, and part Spike Jones. He counted the Beatles among his fans. When he died in 2004, Rolling Stone Bill Wyman said, “He was the inspiration to all the bands of the 60s, and we owe it to him.”
5. Sheb Wooley was a movie western character actor when he recorded his smash one hit wonder “(one-eyed one-horn flying) Purple People Eater.” No one was more amazed than Wooley when the song hit number one on the pop chart for six weeks and sold three million copies.
6. “They’re coming to take me away ha haaaaa!” by Napoleon XIV vies for being one of the most irritating novelty hits of all time and certainly one of the most politically incorrect. It makes great fun of mental illness. Napoleon XIV was a pseudonym for record producer Jerry Samuels.
7. One of my personal favorite novelty songs is Groucho Marx’s rendition of “Lydia the Tattooed Lady.” Written by thirties songwriting masters Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg, the song was first performed in the Marx Brothers film “At the Circus.”
8. Another favorite novelty song is Monty Python’s “Lumberjack Song” (“I’m a lumberjack and I’m okay”) written by Neil Innes of the brilliant sixties British satire band Bonzo Dog. After his stint on the Pythons’ writing staff, Innes went on to create a Beatles spoof band, the Rutles, with Eric Idle.
9. Allen Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” was hit novelty song that was actually based on a real letter from his miserable son at Camp Champlain in upstate New York. This song was part of Sherman’s hit album, which spawned additional hit albums. “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” has particular resonance for me. Sherman’s son Robert is one of my closest friends.
10. “Who let the dogs out?” was a one hit wonder for the Baha Men, a group from Trinidad and Tobago. It became a big hit on the American charts after it was introduced in a Rugrats cartoon feature, and it became a perennial when an agent marketed the song as music to sports stadiums.
As for Dr. Demento, his show will be around as long as novelty songs keep rearing their ugly heads.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lydia_the_Tattooed_Lad Rutles”, Ashley Kahn, NPR, URL: (http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4206142)”After
“The boy in Camp Grenada”, Paul Lieberman, L.A. Times, URL: (http://www.petabit.com/steve/LATimes_Granada.html)