HELLO DADA! Allan Sherman

 

Some jokes never get old: John F. Kennedy,
Dr. Demento, Weird Al and Glenn Danzig were among the late singer-comedian’s fans.

 

BY MIKE SHANLEY

 

In a remarkable
example of marketing chutzpah,
Collector’s Choice rereleased Allan Sherman’s eight Warner Brothers albums on
the day before Rosh Hashanah, September 7. The start of the Jewish New Year served
as a perfect time to rediscover Sherman’s
song parodies, many of which incorporated Jewish humor into their subject
matter and delivery. But now, as much as they did at the time of their release
in the early to mid ’60s, albums like My
Son, the Folk Singer
can strike a chord with goyim listeners as well.

 

Sherman,
a former television writer who had never performed in public prior to making
the records, displayed a sharp satirical wit and utilized top shelf
arrangements that changed the face of musical comedy albums from novelties with
limited appeal and frequently blue humor into million selling radio hits. “The
lyrics were well constructed,” says Barry “Dr. Demento” Hansen, who wrote the
liner notes on the new releases. “Many of them were kind of timeless. And that
shower room baritone that he had was something. His voice certainly wasn’t well
trained but it wasn’t bad either.”

 

Although
Sherman had written song parodies as far as back
as college in the 1940s, he never tried to channel it into a second career
until he was encouraged by some Hollywood
bigwigs. He came to Los Angeles from New York City to write
for a game show and later The Steve Allen
Show
, from which he was fired. While all this was happening his next door
neighbor Harpo Marx began inviting Sherman
to parties where the bespectacled writer slayed the guests with his songs.
Among the invited was Bullets Durgom, a legendary Hollywood manager who had
worked for Jackie Gleason (for whom Sherman
had written jokes, briefly) and Mickey Rooney.

 

“Bullets
went over to my father and basically said, ‘If you can sing these songs onto an
album, I think I can get you a record contract,'” says Sherman’s son Robert. “And my father half
said, ‘Yes,’ and half thought [Durgom] was joking or crazy or drunk. A few days
later there was a call back saying there was a tentative deal set up with
Warner Brothers.”

 

My Son the Folk Singer,
recorded in 1962 and released before the year’s end, recreated the aura of the
Harpo parties in the recording studio, where 100 invited guests had drinks and
snacks while Sherman and a band took aim at traditional folk songs. Among the
brilliant turns: “The Ballad of Harry Lewis” which makes “Battle Hymn of the
Republic” into a salute to a tailor who died in a factory fire, with the
refrain “Glory, glory Harry Lewis,” sung with deadpan sincerity by the six-voice
chorus; the western “Streets of Laredo” becomes “The Streets of Miami,” with a
thick Yiddish dialect; and “Sarah Jackman,” a New Yawk phone conversation set
to the tune of “Frere Jacques.” The album sold so rapidly in 1962 that Warner
Brothers Records had to sell copies without completed album covers.

 

The
sophomore My Son The Celebrity quickly
followed, sustaining the wit, most significantly with “Harvey and Sheila,” a
tale of an upwardly mobile young Jewish couple, this time sung to the melody of
“Hava Nagila.” Littered with popular acronyms and initials of businesses, the audience’s
biggest laugh comes when Sherman
sings that the couple, “switched to the G.O.P./ that’s the way things go.”

 

Although
the Jewish family permeates his early work, it isn’t presented in a way that
would exclude or alienate Gentile listeners. Even President John Kennedy,
himself a Catholic, was once heard singing “Sarah Jackman” in a hotel lobby. “He
really changed the impression – that a Jew is not just, at that point, doing the
Yiddish jokes on Ed Sullivan that the
other people couldn’t really understand but were laughing at,” Robert Sherman
says. “People began to realize that the Jewish immigrant experience was similar
to the Irish experience or similar to the black experience or similar to the
Italian in that it was just a different version of what everybody’s crazy
relatives were.”

 

Sherman’s most
enduring songs came on album number three, My
Son the Nut
. This time, he appropriated the melody of Ponchielli’s
classical piece “Dance of the Hours,” to create “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!,”
a tragicomic letter detailing a kid’s misfortunes at summer camp. It became his
biggest hit single and has been appropriated in television commercials in
recent times for everything from fabric softener to flea and tick medicine for
pets. “Rat Fink,” a spoof of the 1950s novelty tune “Rag Mop” – with lyrics
that do little more than spell and sing the title – was the flip side of the
single and appeared on the album. The younger Sherman says with some amusement that the
song has gone on to become “a punk rock anthem” having been covered by both the
Undead and the Misfits. It was also used in Tales
of the Rat Fink
, a documentary about illustrator Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, who
drew the character named Rat Fink. “As far as I know, other than the recording
session, he only performed it once in his life, on a TV show,” Sherman says. “And I don’t think he ever did
it in his nightclub act or concerts.”

 

Later
albums included brilliant titles like “When I’m in the Mood for Love (You’re in
the Mood for Herring),” some then-current social commentary (“Dodgin’ the
Draft,” “The Drop-Outs March”) and spoofs of current pop hits like “Westchester
Hadassah,” (on the equally novel “Winchester Cathedral”). But none had the
runaway success of his early releases. After being dropped by Warner Brothers
in 1967, Sherman
wrote an autobiography (A Gift of Laugher)
and a collection of essays (Rape of the
A.P.E.)
before dying due to complications from poor health in 1973.

 

More than
four decades after his debut, Sherman’s
legacy continues, most clearly through Weird Al Yankovic, who took his cue for
his predecessor. But the albums still retain their lyrical zing. This staying
power would have surprised Sherman, who put a lot of effort into writing and
arranging (with help from musical director Lou Busch) but didn’t expect the
tunes to have any longevity. “He always thought that [the songs] were basically
disposable, that he was writing them for himself,” says Robert Sherman. His father
thought “he would get four or five years out of them if he was lucky.”

 

The
younger Sherman
discovered quite the opposite a few years ago during an afternoon screening of
the Disney classic Fantasia. When the
hippopotami began pirouetting to “Dance of the Hours,” most of the children in
the audience began singing “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!” “When you stop and
think, these kids’ parents weren’t
even born when that came out,” he says with a laugh. “How do these kids all
know that song so much that they will start singing it out loud in a movie
theater?”

 

Some
jokes never get old.

 

 

[Photo courtesy Robert Sherman]

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