Checking In…with the Singers of Billboard-Charting Funny Novelty Songs
In 1978, America had King Tut fever. The Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibit, which had previously visited Washington DC, Chicago, and Seattle, among other major American cities, made its way to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Over 1.3 million people paid to see artifacts from the Boy King, and over 30 years later, it’s still the Met’s most popular exhibition in its 141-year history. Elsewhere, “King Tut,” a song written by Steve Martin (“Buried with a donkey, he’s my favorite honky”) and first performed on Saturday Night Live, hit #17 on the Billboard charts, a rather remarkable feat for a novelty song. But “King Tut” wasn’t the first one of its genre kind to hit the Billboard charts. Here’s a look at five other artists who have done the same, and what their careers looked like following their wisecracking success.
“They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” by Napoleon XIV; Billboard Peak: #3 (1966)
Working under the alias of Napoleon XIV, Jerry Samuels was a songwriter (he wrote “The Shelter of Your Arms” for Sammy Davis Jr.) and recording engineer at Associated Recordings Studio when he wrote and performed “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” about a man who’s afraid “they’re” going to throw him in the “funny farm.” (The single’s B-side: “!aaaH-aH ,yawA eM ekaT oT gnimoC er’yehT.”) To capitalize on the song’s success, Samuels, with assistance from Jim Lehner (who wrote for The Jonathan Winters Show) and Bobby Gosh (who penned the top-20 hit “A Little Bit More” for Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show) quickly recorded a full-length album for Warner Bros., with song like “Let’s Cuddle Up in My Security Blanket” and “The Nuts on My Family Tree.” Samuels continued to bum around the music industry for years, and eventually began playing piano bars around Philadelphia. He’s now the founder of The Jerry Samuels Agency, which has been “entertaining the Delaware Valley since 1984.” So, if you need a clown or a ventriloquist and you live in Cecil County, Maryland, go here.
“The Purple-People Eater” by Sheb Wooley; Billboard Peak: #1 (1958)
In 1952, Sheb Wooley, who was one of America’s best young rodeo talents when he was a teenager, starred in High Noon, as the brother of criminal Frank Miller, played by Ian MacDonald. Six years later, “Purple People Eater,” which he wrote and sang, sold over three million copies. Not a bad double-threat. Although he wasn’t able to recreate the Hot 100-topping success of his novelty song, which became the basis of a 1988 film starring Neil Patrick Harris and Shelley Winters, he did have a #1 Billboard Country hit in “That’s My Pa”. He also wrote the theme song to Hee Haw. Wooley would later star on Rawhide as Pete Nolan, working alongside Clint Eastwood, and is the voice actor of the Wilhelm Scream, which can be heard in everything from Star Wars to Toy Story. In 2003, he passed away from leukemia at the age of 82.
“Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” by Brian Hyland; Billboard Peak: #1 (1960)
Brian Hyland, who is distantly related to Larry from the Three Stooges, was only 16 years old when he recorded “Polka Dot Bikini,” written by Lee Pockriss and Lee Vance (who had previously penned “Catch a Falling Star,” the 1959 winner of the Grammy for Best Male Vocal Performance, for Perry Como). The song became a cultural phenomenon (it topped the charts a week before Elvis’ all-time biggest hit, “It’s Now or Never,” did the same for five weeks), and even massively increased the sales of bikinis (thanks, Brian Hyland!). Hyland later released a series of hit singles, including “Sealed with a Kiss” and “Ginny Come Lately,” and began incorporating a country rock-sound to his music (partially because the Beatles had changed the musical landscape so much that cutesy novelty songs became mostly irrelevant). In 1970, he had a #3 hit with the Curtis Mayfield-penned “Gypsy Woman”; a year later, his cover of “Lonely Teardrops” charted at #54. In the late 1970s, he worked with Allen Toussaint and later, the Band. He continues to make music and tour.
“Shaving Cream” by Benny Bell; Billboard Peak: #30 (1975)
“I think I’ll break off with my girlfriend/Her antics are queer, I’ll admit/Each time I say, ‘Darling, I love you’/She tells me that I’m full of…/Shaving cream, be nice and clean/Shave everyday and you’ll always look keen.” So goes “Shaving Cream” by Benny Bell, a song that was all the rage in the jukebox joints of New York in 1946, and probably would draw the ire of the FCC in 2011. Bell was a Jewish vaudeville performer, and throughout the 1940s, he recorded a series of risqué novelty tracks, including “Everybody Wants My Fanny,” “The Tattooed Lady,” and “Pincus the Peddler.” He was a well known performer in the Big Apple, and continued making records throughout the decades (he also created gag gifts, too, such as a blank pamphlet entitled The Most Authentic and Factual Report on What Men Know About Women), but he wasn’t a nationwide success until the mid-1970s, when mad genius Dr. Demento began playing “Shaving Cream” on his radio program. At the age of 69 (which Bell would probably find particularly funny) and nearly 30 years after the song was recorded, “Shaving Cream” became a top-40 hit. He continued to make music (and never hiring a manager or agent) and tour until he passed away in 1999 at the age of 93. His grandson, Joel Samberg, wrote a book after him that’s worth reading called Grandpa Had a Long One: Personal Notes on the Life, Career, and Legacy of Benny Bell.
“Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp)” by Allan Sherman; Billboard Peak: #2 (1963)
Ten years after creating the hit game show I’ve Got a Secret, which aired on TV sporadically from 1952 until 2006, and after writing jokes for Jackie Gleason and Lew Parker, and after next-door neighbor Harpo Marx heard him singing, Allan Sherman released his first album, My Son, the Folk Singer, in 1962. It was the fastest selling record of all-time to that point, with sales in excess of 1.5 million, and contained parodies of “Greensleeves” (to “Sir Greenbaum’s Madrigal”: “And so he said to the other knights/You may have my possessions and my goods/For I am moving to Shaker Heights/Where I’ve got some connections in dry goods”) and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” (to “The Ballad of Harry Lewis”). Both of Sherman’s next two albums, My Son, the Celebrity and My Son, the Nut (which contained “Hello Muddah”), hit #1 on the Billboard chart, too. He was a pop culture mainstay throughout the early 1960s, guest hosting The Tonight Show and appearing in a series of commercials, but his popularity (as well as his type of humor) soon faded when JFK was shot in 1963. Sherman published his autobiography, A Gift of Laughter, in 1966, but never charted higher than #88 again and was dropped by Warner Bros. He wrote The Fig Leaves Are Falling, a Broadway musical that lasted only four performances, and The Rape of A*P*E*, a book about the repression and resurgence of sex in the United States (and was the voice of the Cat in the Hat for a CBS TV special), before passing away in 1973 at the age of 48. His legacy lives on, though, through references on The Simpsons (Weird Al: “They’re pretty much the same thing, Homer” Homer: “Yeah, like you and Allan Sherman”), Misfits’ covers, and a framed copy of My Son, The Nut in Judd Apatow’s Funny People.
Josh Kurp wants the Camp Granada board game.