28 April 2007

Bobby "Boris" Pickett: A One Hit Wonder Passes On

I have a collection of 45s dating back to my childhood. (45s are small vinyl disks that can be decoded to play music with the appropriate mechanical device, known as a phonograph or record-player. They were the MP3s of my generation.) One of these is a thing put out by Garpax records, with a black-and-white picture-sleeve showing a monster against a background of tombstones. I don't know where or when I picked it up.

The song was something called "Monster Mash" sung by Bobby Pickett backed by the Crypt-kickers. Mr. Pickett sang, in a stunning Boris Karloff imitation, a strange piece about a mad scientist and his dancing monster. I'm sure you must have heard it; it resurfaces every Halloween like a bad penny taped to a cork in a bloodwort stew.

It's actually kind of a survivor in a way; this sort of macabre humor was once common. Spike Jones, at the end of his career, when he was trying desperately to compete with the likes of Stan Freberg and Mort Sahl, put out an entire album devoted to this sort of thing. Katie Lee was edgier, with songs like "When I Was a Little Girl" and "Group Therapy." And of course Tom Lehrer was way ahead of the curve with "A Hunting Song" and "Irish Ballad." Eventually even the Cultural Wasteland succumbed, in a somewhat sanitized way, with TV shows like The Addams Family and The Munsters. (Who can forget the exchange between Wednesday Addams and an Avon Lady?
Wednesday: Nobody uses anything like that except Uncle Fester. He uses a preservative.
Avon Lady: A preservative? Oh, to keep young?
Wednesday: No, just to keep.
Or maybe, who can remember it?)

"The Monster Mash" went right to the top of the charts, as I recall--though if I looked it up I'd probably find out that it was only #11 on the Billboard chart, or something. Still, I'm doing this from memory, and I may as well tell it my way.

It was 1962 and "The Monster Mash" went straight to the top of the charts only a couple of weeks after it was released. It was impossible to escape that Halloween. I'm thinking this was that strange Halloween, not long after the Columbus Day Storm, when trees were still lying across parts of houses, and debris was everywhere. My buddy and I felt we were too old to go out begging for candy, but we still got into costume (as a television and a wall socket, I think) to shepherd our younger brothers and sister and friends about.

It would be a decade before I heard of Bobby "Boris" Pickett again, and this time we were on the road in search of America, or maybe just a good time. As we crossed the country that summer of 1973 every station in every town seemed to be playing it. Why, I wondered. It's just because of the success of the horror film guy (now I can't remember his name--Portland's equivalent of SCTV's Count Floyd anyway), one of my fellow-travelers suggested. But that wouldn't explain why it's playing out here in Iowa, I replied. Nobody knew, and apparently nobody cared. But me. And I didn't care that much.

From all accounts Pickett took his one hit wonder status with a certain grace and style. He used to announce his performances by saying that he was going to do a medley of his hit--fair enough, I guess, though that line must have gray whiskers by now. And one hit is more than most performers get, though fewer than most musician's ambitions. And what a hit it was, sure to resurface every Halloween for years to come.

Bobby "Boris" Pickett passed away last Wednesday. A moment of silence, please.

(Once again, I am doing this without benefit of my notes, records, or library, so some of the titles above may well be wrong. Not to mention dates, persons, sequence of events, and the like. Ah, well.)

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