OK, Baby Boomers: Without going Google, what dance were we doing, and what was the No. 1 song on the pop chart, 55 years ago about now?
It’s a number that, whether you’re listening to radio via satellite or the old-fashioned airwaves, you’re pretty likely to hear this week. And why not? “Monster Mash” is a fun piece of ’60s music, a Halloween classic, and a cultural relic of our child/teenhood.
“Monster Mash,” of course, is that novelty song from the fall of 1962, co-authored by one Bobby “Boris” Pickett. No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 from Oct. 20-27 of that year, it was the best-known recording by a wannabe actor and sometime nightclub comedian, but by no means Pickett’s only charge.
Pickett, born in 1938, was the son of a movie theatre manager, who apparently watched way too many horror flicks at his dad’s place of employment. He began doing impersonations of the actors in those movies as part of his nightclub comedy routine in the late ’50s.
Pickett was trying to land acting roles in 1962, but was also performing with a band called the Cordials at the time. During one show, he did an imitation of horror film great Boris Karloff while the band played “Little Darlin’” by the Diamonds.
Bandmate Leonard Capizzi liked the mashup so much that he encouraged Pickett to do more with it, and the two men wrote the song, named it “Monster Mash” and recorded it in May 1962. The recording was credited to Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers (and you thought that line in the song was a throwaway!).
The musicians actually performing on that song, the B side “Monster Mash Party” and the others on the resulting album, The Original Monster Mash, included Gary Paxton and Leon Russell. The latter, of course, became a household name, on his own and backing the likes of Joe Cocker and George Harrison. Paxton is less well-known, but was a Grammy Award winner, a member of the Hollywood Argyles, and the producer of two No. 1 hits, “Monster Mash” and the Argyles’ 1960 novelty hit “Alley Oop.”
The resulting hit was less “Little Darlin’” and more a mashup of Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time.” Inspired by Paxton’s “Alley Oop” and the dance crazes of that time, it in turn started a minor craze of its own. Come on, you remember it: Mashed Potato footwork, Frankensteinian hand and arm gestures?
The success of “Monster Mash” didn’t make a big seller out of Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers’ only album. The other songs on the LP had interesting titles, but apparently weren’t as memorable musically:"Rabian - The Fiendage Idol,” “Blood Bank Blues,” “Graveyard Shift,” “Skully Gully,” “Wolfbane,” “Monster Minuet,” “Transylvania Twist,” “Sinister Stomp,” “Me and My Mummy,” “Monster Motion,” “Irresistible Igor,” “Bella's Bash,” “Let's Fly Away” and “Monster's Holiday.”
While “Monster Mash” was a big (if short-term) hit in the U.S., it went nowhere on the Other Side of the Pond, at least the first time around. That’s because the British Broadcasting Co. banned it from the English airwaves for being “too morbid.” Ah, that underrated, understated British sense of humor!
“Mash” did chart in the U.K. during the second of the two re-releases of the single, in 1970 and ’73. And the third time around, it got as high as No. 10 in the U.S.
Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers did have several follow-ups to the first run of “Mash,” starting with the Christmas record “Monster’s Holiday” in December 1962, which was a No. 30. But subsequent singles didn’t fare that well: “Blood Bank Blues” failed to chart, ditto for “Werewolf Watusi” and “The Monster Swim” (do we see an attempted trend in titles and themes there?)
Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers did a reunion tour in Texas for Halloween 1973, in conjunction with the re-release of “Mash.” But a remake of “Me and My Mummy” stiffed that year.
Pickett resurfaced in 1985 with “Monster Rap,” in which the mute monster of “Mash” is taught to speak via rapping, which was then emerging as an “art” form. If that didn’t bring out the villagers with torches and pitchforks, his foray two decades later into environmental protest, “Climate Mash,” should have.
Pickett was more than just a rock star. OK, I’m being a bit facetious, but he also made a mark in play- and screenwriting, acting (albeit well after his auditioning days) and the world of weird, late-night radio. Some of his later novelty sings — the Star Trek parody “Star Drek,” a “Mash” sequel, “It’s Alive” — that did not chart, did get airplay on Dr. Demento’s offbeat syndicated radio show.
Pickett co-wrote two musicals, including I'm Sorry the Bridge Is Out, You'll Have to Spend the Night, which has been staged by local theater groups throughout the U.S. Another collaboration with Sheldon Allman produced Frankenstein Unbound, which was picked up by the writer’s of Toy Story and eventually became Monster Mash: The Movie.
The wannabe did later become an actor, turning up in beach, biker, horror and science fiction/comedy films, the last of those the excellently-titled Lobster Man from Mars. One of his last acts was narrating the 2004 animated children’s film Spookley the Square Pumpkin, the soundtrack of which included “The Transylvania Twist” referenced in “Monster Mash”; it was performed by a group of singing melons, fittingly named the Honeydoos.
Robert George Pickett died in April 2007, at the age of 69, from leukemia; three weeks later, a Dr. Demento show included a retrospective of his work. Sitting in that movie theatre five-plus decades earlier, in the flickering light of ’40s horror films, who could have foreseen that he would make the monsters mash?