Sunday, December 5, 2010

Hello Allan...

by Scott Schinder

He's been somewhat forgotten by today's retro tastemakers, but for a few short years in the 1960s, Allan Sherman was a major star. Although he remains best known for his smash 1963 single "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!"—a deadpan account of a tortuous summer-camp stay, set to the tune of Ponchielli's "Dance of the Hours"—Sherman was much more than a one-novelty-hit-wonder. Indeed, the eight albums of song parodies that he released on Warner Bros. between 1962 and 1967 comprise a remarkable body of work that shows him to be the greatest musical satirist of his era.

An ingratiating performer, an agile wordsmith and a vivid troubadour of the middle-class Jewish American experience, Sherman mixed post-Borscht Belt humor with pop-culture references to create music whose wit and warmth transcended mere yuks. His standard m.o. was simple enough: borrow a familiar pop, folk, Broadway or classical melody and outfit it with a gloriously absurd set of new lyrics. In his hands, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" became "The Ballad of Harry Lewis," which recounted the heroic struggle of the titular garment-business drone. "Alouette" became "Al 'N Yetta," a chronicle of a middle-class married couple's TV-watching habits. "Won't You Come Home, Bill Bailey?" became "Won't You Come Home, Disraeli?," in which Queen Victoria laments the absence of her prime minister.

Sherman's best tunes boasted multiple layers of audacious wordplay, along with an insight into the human condition that allows his material to connect with contemporary listeners who might not recognize his references to David Susskind, Metrecal and Bo Belinsky. Although his stardom was relatively brief, Sherman would be a seminal influence on virtually every pop parodist who followed (including avowed admirer Weird Al Yankovic, whose first album cover depicts a Sherman LP at the foot of Weird Al's bed).

Sherman wasn't the first parodist to work in the pop medium. Mickey Katz had begun retooling contemporary pop standards with Yiddish schtick in the 1940s, and Homer and Jethro started infusing pop tunes with hillbilly humor at around the same time. But Sherman's deceptively earthy, self-effacing output possessed a verbal sophistication and internal logic that put him in a class of his own. And while Sherman had no discernable affinity for rock 'n' roll (as his "Pop Hates the Beatles" confirms), his songs' gentle sense of subversion marked him as a rock 'n' roller in spirit. The same can be said for his untrained but enthusiastic singing voice, which novelty-song authority Doctor Demento once described as a "shower baritone."

Although his ascent as a recording artist was something of a fluke, Sherman had already been an entertainment-business professional for over a decade by the time he became a household name. Born Allan Copelon in Chicago on November 30, 1924, he suffered through a bleak childhood, adopting his mother's maiden name Sherman after his ne'er-do-well father walked out on the family when Allan was six. He and his mother relocated frequently, and Allan was often left with relatives for months at a time. At some point during his youth, he began writing parody numbers, which he'd sing for friends at parties.

After flunking out of college and being discharged from the Army for medical reasons, Sherman arrived in New York on V-J Day in 1945, with aspirations of becoming a professional entertainer. He managed to find a series of short-lived jobs as a low-level gag writer on various radio shows and in the embryonic TV industry, largely on the strength of a file of stolen jokes that he and his wife had compiled.

Sherman actually made his first record in 1951, releasing a single containing a pair of his song spoofs. Although that disc was little noticed by the public, he achieved a major break the same year, when legendary game-show producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman turned a Sherman concept into the long-running CBS hit I've Got A Secret. Rather than pay him for the lucrative idea, Goodson and Todman hired Sherman as the show's producer. The gig gave him numerous opportunities to exercise his creativity in the nascent medium, but Sherman's penchant for elaborate studio stunts eventually got him fired, after a stunt featuring Tony Curtis misfired during a 1958 live broadcast.

In 1961, Sherman moved west to produce the short-lived game show Your Surprise Package. He then took an even shorter-lived position as producer of Steve Allen's new syndicated talk show, from which he was fired before the show even hit the airwaves. An extended period of joblessness followed, but fate would soon lead Sherman back to his true calling.

Although he was unemployed, Sherman had won numerous high-profile fans while performing his songs at Hollywood parties. Those admirers included such showbiz heavyweights as Jack Benny, George Burns, Jerry Lewis and Sherman's next door neighbor Harpo Marx. Another new pal was powerful agent Bullets Durgom, who reportedly helped Sherman to get the attention of Warner Bros. Records by having him record a risqué number to be played at a Warner executive's retirement party.

Sherman won a record deal with Warner Bros., a company that had achieved limited results with music but which had scored big with Bob Newhart's early standup comedy LPs. It was decided that Sherman's first album should consist of reworkings of public-domain folk songs. That approach would avoid the hassle of getting music publishers' permission to rewrite mainstream pop material, as well as allowing the label to take advantage of the then-current folk-music craze.

Sherman's debut LP My Son, the Folk Singer, was cut at a Hollywood studio on the evening of August 6, 1962—the day after Marilyn Monroe's death—in front of an invited studio audience that included Harpo Marx, Theodore Bikel and Johnny Mercer. Released two months later, My Son, the Folk Singer quickly became one of the fastest-selling albums in history, selling nearly a million copies (a massive quantity by early-'60s standards) and reaching the top spot on Billboard's album chart. The album wasn't just a hit; it was a cultural phenomenon. President John F. Kennedy was even supposedly spotted crooning Sherman's "Sarah Jackman" in the lobby of New York's Carlisle Hotel.

The unsung hero of My Son, the Folk Singer, and of most of Sherman's subsequent releases, was composer/arranger Lou Busch, whose lush, mellifluous orchestrations provided a perfect, straight-faced contrast to Sherman's absurdist lyrics and lovably gawky bellow. Sherman described the juxtaposition thusly: "You're looking into Tiffany's most elegant show window, and in the middle of the window is a black velvet pillow, and right in the middle of the pillow is an onion. That's me."

By all accounts, Sherman had a tough time adjusting to his abrupt stardom, and his initial discomfort with the idea of performing for large audiences of strangers cost him some high-profile television appearances. Despite his misgivings, he soon became a familiar presence on the TV variety shows of the period—including some of those that had previously fired him. He also achieved considerable success as a concert attraction, headlining Carnegie Hall on New Year's Eve 1963. By the following summer, Sherman was enough of a beloved institution that he spent a week guest-hosting Johnny Carson's Tonight Show.

Sherman's sophomore album, My Son, the Celebrity, appeared in 1963. It largely continued in its predecessor's funny footsteps, also reaching the Number One spot on the Billboard album chart. My Son, the Nut, released later that year, achieved the same distinction. It also launched Sherman onto AM radio with "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!" which spent three weeks as America's Number Two pop single. later winning a Grammy as the year's top comedy recording.

"Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!" became an instant cultural touchstone, spawning a Milton-Bradley board game (which Sherman hawked in a TV commercial), a children's book and a stage musical incorporating several Sherman compositions. It also became Number One in Hong Kong, and reportedly inspired versions Hebrew, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and Esperanto versions. Sherman also rewrote a new version of "Hello Muddah" sequel with updated lyrics, which he debuted on The Tonight Show. Although not released on record, the sequel's popularity was such that radio stations played tapes of Sherman's TV performance.

Although "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!" made Sherman more famous than ever, it proved to be his last major success. He continued appearing on TV and performing on stage, but subsequent albums (including the Peter and the Wolf takeoff Peter and the Commissar, a collaboration with the Boston Pops Orchestra) sold disappointingly, and 1967's Togetherness marked the end of his recording career. More disappointment followed when the 1968 Broadway musical The Fig Leaves Are Falling, for which Sherman wrote the book and lyrics, closed after four performances.

By that point, Sherman, ill-prepared emotionally to deal with his sudden fame, had already had paid a heavy personal price for his success. His longtime wife Dee (whose pictured on the cover of My Son, the Celebrity) had divorced him in 1966 and gained full custody of the couple's two children. He would subsequently lose his money and his health as well. Sherman dealt candidly with his insecurities, and his use of humor to keep some of his demons at bay, in his 1965 autobiography A Gift of Laughter, which is long out of print but well worth reading.

Although his days as a record-maker were over, Sherman continued working in TV, contributing to some of Bill Cosby's specials, making occasional Tonight Show appearances and providing the voice of Dr. Seuss' animated Cat in the Hat in a much-loved 1971 special. He also won acclaim as author of the 1973 book The Rape of the A*P*E*, a controversial meditation on the sexual revolution and American puritanism.

By that point, Sherman had fallen upon hard times financially and health-wise, fighting diabetes, emphysema, high blood pressure and the effects of his overindulgence in food and alcohol. Despite his troubles, he continued working on new material, developing a non-musical standup act that had convinced Warner Bros. to sign him to a new recording deal.

Before a new album could be completed, though, Sherman died on November 20, 1973—just ten days short of his 49th birthday, and a mere decade after "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!" had stormed the charts. Steve Allen, who had remained a friend and supporter even after Sherman was fired from his talk show, delivered the eulogy at his funeral, and later penned a touching tribute to Sherman in his 1982 book More Funny People.

Rhino released My Son, the Greatest, a single-CD Sherman compilation, in 1988, and issued the comprehensive My Son, the Box in 2005. The latter is pricey and now out of print, which is OK since it's more Sherman than any sane person needs. A smarter bet is Collectors' Choice's recently released individual reissues of Sherman's four best albums: My Son the Folk Singer, My Son the Celebrity, My Son the Nut and For Swingin' Livers Only.


"Al 'n Yetta" mp3
by Allan Sherman, 1963.
available on My Son the Celebrity

"Sarah Jackman" mp3
by Allan Sherman, 1962.
available on My Son the Folk Singer

"Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max" mp3
by Allan Sherman, 1962,
available on My Son the Folk Singer

"Mexican Hat Dance" mp3
by Allan Sherman, 1963.
available on My Son the Celebrity

"Barry Is The Baby's Name & Horowitz & Get On The Garden Freeway"
by Allan Sherman, 1963.
available on My Son the Celebrity

"When I Was A Lad" mp3
by Allan Sherman, 1963.
available on My Son the Celebrity

"The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas" mp3
by Allan Sherman, 1964.
available on Songs for Swingin Livers Only


This is the fifth of eight posts at the Boogie Woogie Flu, in which eight Jewish writers will discuss the works of other Jewish artists for eight consecutive days in celebration of Hanukkah.


Timmy said...

Thsis is a great article & posting. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like your a New Yorker like me.
I was 12 when Camp Granada came out.
I have a few Lps.
Him and Soupy Sales, whom I met in 1998 in Las Vegas at his comedy show, nice guy, were great funny men.
Thanks for this wonderful post.