Monday, October 13, 2014

A graveyard smash: 10 things you may not know about "Monster Mash"

"Mash, good!": Bobby Pickett's song has been released many, many times over the last 50+ years.

An original pressing of the song.
Though there have been a few usurpers and pretenders to the throne over the years, including tracks by Alice Cooper and Danny Elfman among others, "Monster Mash" by Bobby "Boris" Pickett still stands as the official anthem of Halloween. Released in May 1962, the song hit #1 in October of that year and has been a staple of the season ever since.

The song's origins lie in an impression of British horror actor Boris Karloff which Pickett, a Korean War vet born in 1938, used to do in talent shows in his hometown of Somerville, Massachusetts, in the late 1950s after he'd gotten out of the Signal Core. "Every time I'd do it, I'd win," Pickett remembered. Later, Pickett moved to Hollywood with three of his Somerville buddies and formed a doo-wop group called the Cordials. Part of the group's act was a cover of "Little Darlin'," and Pickett liked to perform the spoken-word monologue in the middle of the song ("My darling, I need you...") in his Karloff voice. His bandmate, Leonard "Lenny" Capizzi, suggested that the voice would be perfect for a novelty record, and together the two wrote "Monster Mash." The rest? Well, you know.

Though he lived in the song's shadow for the rest of his life, Pickett didn't mind a bit. "Let's just say," he told the Washington Post in 2004, "that it has paid the rent for 43 years." In interviews, Pickett frequently compared himself to Guy Lombardo, the bandleader forever associated with "Auld Lang Syne" and New Year's Eve. Pickett happily performed the song at small venues until he died in 2007. So now, let us venture into the lab once again and learn a few things about this crucial piece of Americana.

1. Elvis hated it.

Ghouls, ghouls, ghouls: Elvis Presley was not a fan of "Monster Mash" in 1962.

According to a story Bobby Pickett told an interviewer: "I was a real Elvis fan. One day after the song became a hit, I bumped into this girl who used to hang around Elvis' house in Los Angeles. So I asked her, 'How's the King?' 'Well, he hates your record, Bobby,' she said. When I asked why, she told me, 'He thinks it's the stupidest thing he ever heard.' So I said, 'Well, whoever liked him anyway?' I don't think he knew who Boris Karloff was, to tell you the truth.'"

(source: The Wacky Top 40 by Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo)

2. But Boris Karloff was flattered by the record.

Boris Karloff was hosting the anthology series Thriller in 1962.

Pickett never had the pleasure of meeting Boris Karloff, the man he imitated so successfully on record. But the famous Frankenstein actor owned and enjoyed "Monster Mash" all the same. Pickett remembered: "I heard he was in a record store and was buying my album, which had 'Monster Mash' on it, and a friend of mine was there and said, 'Oh, Mr. Karloff, I know the young man who did the song, and he's a real big fan of yours.' And Karloff said, 'I love his record.' So I was thrilled."

(source: The Wacky Top 40)

3. Pickett had never been in a recording studio before.

Portrait of the artist as a young maniac: Bobby "Boris" Pickett in his 1960s prime.

When Bobby Pickett moved to Hollywood, it was to become an actor, not a singer, and he did land some guest roles on such classic '60s series as Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Dr. Kildare. He never set foot in a recording studio until the day he cut "Monster Mash" in the spring of '62. The session brought out the creative side of everyone involved, and Pickett made sure to thank these musicians when he gave latter-day interviews to the press. Those chains you hear at the beginning are real; they're being dragged over pieces of plywood on the floor. The sound of the coffin opening was created by prying a rusty nail out of a two-by-four with the claw end of a hammer. The bubbling chemicals were created by simply blowing air through a straw into a glass of water. And the background vocalists were instructed to sing "tennis shoe wah-oooh" repeatedly during the bridge. All this went smoothly, and Pickett was able to record the song in a single take with one pickup. "I was very prepared for it," he said. "I guess I'd done it out loud in front of a mirror a couple of times. I walked in and felt real comfortable." The studio's next client that day was a young trumpeter named Herb Alpert, who was also recording his first song. Alpert went on to be a major hit-maker in the '60s and '70s ("The Lonely Bull," "Rise," many more) and co-founded the A&M record label.

(Sources: The Wacky Top 40; The Billboard Book of Number One Hits by Fred Bronson)

4. The song rose from the grave and became a hit all over again over a decade later.

Parrot Records turned the song back into a hit in the early 1970s.

Though the word "novelty" refers to something new and therefore exciting, "Monster Mash" had quite a long shelf life after its newness wore off. Billboard commented on the song's "amazing longevity" and noted that "it re-entered the Hot 100 eight years later, on August 29, 1970, and peaked at 91. Almost three years after that, on May 5, 1973, it made a second re-entry, and this time went all the way to number 10." The 1973 reissue from Parrot Records sold 2 million copies, which is more than it sold back in 1962.

(sources: The Wacky Top 40; The Billboard Book of Number One Hits)

5. It inspired some freaky cover versions, plus two belated sequels.

Vivian Stanshall and the Bonzo Dog Band perform the song on Do Not Adjust Your Set.

Memorable and fun to perform, "Monster Mash" was a natural for cover versions. Though they never actually did a studio recording of Pickett's tune, the Beach Boys did perform "Monster Mash" in concert occasionally, with Mike Love doing the lead vocals. One such performance made it onto the Live Concert 1964 LP. British nonconformists the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band included their semi-psychedelic cover of "Monster Mash" on their 1969 LP Tadpoles. The previous year they also performed the song on Do Not Adjust Your Set, the ostensible children's program which served as one of the predecessors of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Several decades and countless cover versions later, the band CrabCorps reconfigured the song as a ballad for the 2012 film Silver Linings Playbook. (Since that movie was a serious Oscar contender, Bobby "Boris" Pickett was listed in the end credits as Robert Pickett.) And then there are the parodies! Reggae group the Toyes turned it into a pro-marijuana anthem called "Monster Hash." Actor Dennis Weaver released a countrified version called "Chicken Mash." And Pickett himself turned his signature song into the pro-environmental "Climate Mash." Years later, Pickett was still not done with the song. He recorded two '90s sequels: "Monster Rap" and "It's Alive!" In the later, the doctor retires and turns the operation over to his son.

(source: Wikipedia)

6. ...And a movie, too, with direct connections to Toy Story.

Bobby "Boris" Pickett himself stars as Dr. Frankenstein in a 1995 movie based on his 1962 song.

With some help from TV actor Sheldon Allman (Maverick, The Untouchables, Mr. Ed), Bobby Pickett wrote a comedic, horror-themed stage musical called I'm Sorry the Bridge is Out, You'll Have to Spend the Night (1967). This was followed by a sequel, Frankenstein Unbound (Another Monster Musical). In 1995, these musicals provided the basis for a full-length feature film called Monster Mash: The Movie (also known as Frankenstein Sings), directed by Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, the co-authors of  the screenplay for Disney-Pixar's Toy Story. Pickett himself played the role of Dr. Frankenstein in Monster Mash, with John Kassir (voice of the Crypt Keeper) as Igor. Other actors in the production include Candace Cameron (Full House), Jimmie Walker (Good Times), and John Waters regular Mink Stole (Pink Flamingos, Hairspray). Songs from the stage show and movie include "Play Your Hunch" and "All Eternity Blues."

(sources: The Wacky Top 40; Wikipedia)

7. It was produced and released by the "Alley Oop" guy (because no one else wanted it).

Two albums by the enigmatic Gary Paxton

The song's producer and arranger, Gary S. Paxton, was best known as a member of the Hollywood Argyles, who'd had a #1 novelty hit of their own with "Alley Oop" in July 1960. Paxton was also a member of the ad hoc backing band, dubbed "The Crypt-Keepers." Other musicians on the record include Johnny McCrae (Paxton's writing partner), singer Ricki Paige, and piano player Leon Russell. Leon went on to a substantial career as a songwriter, session musician, and occasional solo artist. In 1969, he even co-wrote "Superstar," which was a #1 hit for the Carpenters in 1971. In 2010, there was a major revival of interest in Russell when he recorded The Union with friend and admirer Elton John. The collaborative album peaked at #3 on the charts and went gold in Canada.

Gary S. Paxton also released the record on his own Garpax label, originally pressing only a thousand copies. Initially, the song was turned down by four major record labels, but Paxton had faith in it, pressed the copies at his own expense, and delivered them to radio stations. The strategy obviously worked. "I had no idea it would ever get played on the radio or be a hit," said Bobby Pickett. A musical jack-of-all-trades, Paxton later converted to Christianity and has since become an acclaimed gospel artist with such characteristically eccentric numbers as "Jesus Is My Lawyer in Heaven" and "When the Meat Wagon Comes for You."

(sources: The Billboard Book of Number One Hits; Wikipedia)

8. The working title? "The Monster Mashed Potato."

Dee Dee Sharp lets us know what time it is.

Pickett wanted to call the record "The Monster Twist," but Lenny Capizzi had another dance craze in mind. The Mashed Potato had been around since at least 1959, when James Brown first recorded "Do the Mashed Potatoes" under the contractually-obligated pseudonym Nat Kendrick and the Swans. But 1962 was when the dance really took off, thanks in no small part to Philadelphia R&B singer Dee Dee Sharp and her Top 10 singles, "Mashed Potato Time" and "Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes)." Capizzi thought the time was right for "The Monster Mashed Potato." He was right, but the title was still a little too long. "We decided that it was too much," Pickett said. It was "Monster Mash" forevermore. Incidentally, there was a monster-ized version of the dance to go with the song. In addition to the usual footwork, Monster Mashing teens were invited to make "monster gestures with the arms and hands."

(Sources: The Billboard Book of Number One Hits; Wikipedia)

9. The song may have permanently changed the public's perception of Igor.

An image of the lovable, cuddly title character from the CGI animated film Igor (2008).

Those unfamiliar with the 1930s Universal horror films which serve as the inspiration for "Monster Mash" may be surprised to learn that the character of Igor -- spelled "Ygor" and played by a never-better Bela Lugosi -- does not show up until the third film in the Frankenstein series, 1939's Son of Frankenstein, and when he does, he's not the hunchbacked, submissive lab assistant we might expect from latter-day Frankenstein parodies. Instead, he's a deranged, broken-necked criminal hellbent on revenge. Hardly the type to say, "Yes, Master!" The original Frankenstein movie from 1931 does feature actor Dwight Frye as a hunchbacked assistant, but he's called "Fritz," not Igor. Frye plays a similar character, "Karl," in 1935's Bride of Frankenstein. So why do we now think of Igor as Dr. Frankenstein's faithful assistant, as in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein (1974)? Well, in 1958, TV horror host Zacherle had the first of the big monster novelty songs with a track called "Dinner with Drac." That record featured Zacherle as mad scientist who was briefly heard bossing around someone named Igor. ("Igor, the scalpels go on the left with the pitchforks!") But Bobby "Boris" Pickett really took that theme and ran with it in "Monster Mash." His Dr. Frankenstein communicates at some length with Igor throughout the record. (My favorite comment: "Easy, Igor, you impetuous young boy!") And Igor talks back to the doctor in the monosyllabic style of the monster from Bride of Frankenstein. ("Mmmmm! Mash good!") The ubiquity of the the song may have forever changed the image of Igor in the public's mind.

(sources: the Internet Movie Database; Wikipedia)

10. Bobby Pickett did some non-"Monster Mash" records, too.

Sheet music and a 45 RPM single of Pickett's "King Kong (Your Song)," recorded with Peter Ferrara.

Bobby "Boris" Pickett's musical repertoire begins with "Monster Mash," but it does not end there. Garpax Records released a full-length LP by Pickett entitled The Original Monster Mash, which featured such songs as "Rabian - The Fiendage Idol" (a spoof of Fabian), "Wolfbane," "Skully Gully," and -- in case anyone was wondering about it -- "The Transylvania Twist." None of these were hits, but Pickett did reach #30 with "Monster's Holiday," which he describes as "a song I didn't like and didn't want to do." In the 1970s, Pickett has a moderately successful collaboration with Peter Ferrara (not the political pundit), yielding such Dr. Demento favorites as "Star Drek" and "King Kong (Your Song)."

(source: The Wacky Top 40)

I hope I've given you something to think about the next time you hear "Monster Mash," which should be pretty soon, considering what time of year it is.