SONGSTUFF by Cary Ginell Ransacking the Public Domain, Part 6- Allan Sherman: Overweight Sensation

One of the most astounding success stories in music during the 1960s belonged to an overweight, underachieving comedy writer with horn-rimmed glasses who couldn’t read music, couldn’t play an instrument, and couldn’t sing on pitch. A half century ago this summer, most of America was laughing themselves silly to a little ditty called “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” a forlorn letter from a homesick camper, sung by Allan Sherman. The song became a sensation, rising to the lofty position of No. 2 on Billboard’s best-selling singles chart. It eventually won a Grammy, and inspired a television situation comedy (“Camp Runamuck”), a board game, and even a Broadway musical. Like many of the song parodies created by Sherman, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” was based on a work in the public domain, Amilcaire Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” which was written in 1876.

The Allan Sherman phenomenon of the early 1960s wasn’t the first time parodies were written using traditional sources, but it became the most famous, and spawned future careers by such artists as Weird Al Yankovic, who cites Sherman as a major influence.

Song parodies based on folk songs have been around since the 16th century, when the word “parody” was first used. The term is Greek, derived from the post-classical Latin word parodia, which means a burlesque poem or song. Song parodies have been used in America almost from the very beginning, notably in political campaigns. (See my March 2012 blog: “The Beginnings of Political Songs in America”)

Musical parodists became especially potent in the 1940s and ’50s when Spike Jones and Stan Freberg took on whatever musical trends were popular, although both had to share royalties with the writers of the songs they were lampooning, which were often current hits.

Sherman had been writing song parodies since the 1940s, many of them aimed at Jewish audiences using Yiddish terminology and stereotypically Jewish phrases and situations. While working as a producer/writer for television (he was the creator of the hit quiz program “I’ve Got a Secret”), Sherman sang his parodies only at dinner parties, never recognizing their commercial viability. That changed when entertainer Steve Allen encouraged him to record some of his nutty songs before an invited audience in a Warner Bros. recording studio in 1962. Many of Sherman’s song parodies were based on Broadway musicals, but to play it safe, on his first album, which was titled “My Son, the Folk Singer,” he employed public domain folk songs so he wouldn’t get in trouble with publishers. The subjects of his parodies were usually mundane topics. Thus, the cowboy song “Streets of Laredo” became “The Streets of Miami,” describing a modern-day showdown between two businessmen at Miami’s Fountainbleu Hotel. The chain gang song “Water Boy” begat “Seltzer Boy,” which concerned an impatient, thirsty patron at a neighborhood delicatessen.

Despite the pervasive usage of Yiddish terms, a language most of America was not familiar with, “My Son the Folk Singer” became a runaway hit when it was released in the fall of 1962. Commuters who heard Sherman’s songs on the radio said they were laughing so hard they had to pull over to the side of the road. Word-of-mouth made Sherman the most famous man in America within days. After three weeks, nearly 400,000 copies of the album had been shipped from Warner’s overburdened pressing plants. Production of album jackets fell behind and some stores sold the records in plain white covers with a coupon allowing the buyer to get an album jacket when they were able to be reprinted. Here, Sherman and Christine Nelson sing a take-off on “Frere Jacques” that is typical of the material on his first few albums.

Sherman’s second album, “My Son the Celebrity,” came out in January 1963, with comparable results. Once again, Sherman used public domain songs such as “Hava Nagila,” “The Mexican Hat Dance,” and “Alouette” as the basis for his parodies. “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” which was released as a single that summer, marked the high point of Sherman’s success. Here’s a commercial for the “Camp Granada” board game featuring Sherman singing a parody of his parody.

Unfortunately, Sherman did not know how to handle his newfound fame. He made poor business decisions, was reckless with his money, and became an alcoholic. In later years, he could afford to pay royalties and started recording parodies of published works, such as this take-off on “That Old Black Magic.”

Allan Sherman died in 1973 at the age of 48. A new biography, “Overweight Sensation,” by Mark Cohen, was recently published to universal acclaim. More than any other artist, Allan Sherman showed how an ingeniously creative mind could achieve incomprehensible success with only banal, commonplace songs to work with.

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