Sometimes, all it takes to forge a career is a solid and/or unique concept. Elva Miller sold a lot of records in the 1960s with her odd covers of the hits of the day. What made Mrs. Miller so, um, special was her singular approach to the vocals: she sounded like nothing so much as the lady in the row behind you at Sunday mass. Her voice bore little of what might charitably be called commercial appeal, and perversely, therein lay her appeal: she was a novelty. (To sharpen the point, on her records, where the instrumental solo would usually belong, Mrs. Miller would whistle. Badly.)
And while the comedy record developed into a legitimate and significant portion of the consumer market, not all of the artists were lacking in substance. Many comedy albums of the era are now regarded as classics: Bob Newhart, Shelley Berman and Vaughan Meader (The First Family) all enjoyed well-deserved success. But whatever their merits, those artists weren’t performing music.
Allan Sherman bridged the gap. Over the course of several albums during his heyday (mostly the first half of the 1960s), Sherman created a singular body of work. His approach was deceptively simple: take a well-known melody — something in the public domain, preferably — and write some comedy lyrics to put atop it. The lyrics would often make use of puns (“Shine On, Harvey Bloom,” “Pop Hates the Beatles,” “Bye Bye Blumberg”) and — if you haven’t picked up on it already — he leaned in a Catskills Jewish comedy direction.
Sherman’s approach was winning. The man’s struggles to stay in tune — while the expert bands played behind him — were part of the fun. And while the lyrics probably resonated most with Jewish Americans, his borscht-belt appeal appealed to a very wide audience. While much of the material was just plain silly, it was expertly paced (often with a punch line to end the song) and engaged in clever word play. How else to explain a rewrite of the ballad of train engineer Casey Jones as “J. C. Cohen”?
Doubtless, Sherman’s most immortal tune is “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! (A Letter From Camp)” from the 1963 LP My Son, The Nut. Thanks to the radio programming of Barry Hansen (better known as Dr. Demento) the song would enjoy steady airplay well into the future. But the briskly-selling albums Sherman released in the sixties would be drilled into the imagination of youngsters like this writer, who has vivid memories of hearing Sherman’s debut LP (My Son, The Folk Singer from 1962) played whenever Mom and Dad had adult friends over.
One of many critical components of Sherman’s success was his approach to recording: all the albums (save one) were recorded onstage in front of a (presumably well-oiled) audience. The laughs are frequent and genuine. And Sherman’s everyman vocal approach bears repeated listening; unlike many comedy LPs, the grooves of a Sherman LP would wear out before the record’s welcome would.
Collectors’ Choice has reissued no less than eight Allan Sherman LPs, with new liner notes from Hansen. Sherman’s first three records — all of which charted #1 — are all uproarious. The My Son trilogy (…The Folk Singer, …The Celebrity and …The Nut) have all worn well; despite their often dated subjects, the material is still funny. But perhaps the most successful is the 1965 album For Swingin’ Livers Only. Here Sherman takes a more ambitious and varied musical approach, and the lyrical wit is as sharp as ever. Surprisingly, this album only reached #32 on the charts.
Those four discs were previewed for this piece, the other four were not. The latter titles span the period 1964-1967 and include Sherman’s final disc Togetherness. On that disc Sherman dispensed with the audience and made a studio recording. Sadly, by 1973 he was dead from emphysema and general poor health due to his weight.
“Timeless” is an apropos description of these records. They hearken back to a simpler, more innocent time, but they’re witty enough not to seem overly quaint. Check ’em out and enjoy some belly laughs.
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