Allan Sherman, a pudgy TV game show producer, dominated the pre-Beatles record charts with a string of hit singles and albums. His blend of post-Borscht Belt humor and pop-culture references, flavored by wit and warmth, found a ready audience in the early 1960s. He was a Mad Magazine feature come to life, counting Harpo Marx, Jerry Lewis, Jack Benny and JFK among his fans. He would go on to influence the likes of Weird Al Yankovic, Doctor Demento and The Simpsons (not to mention, the Misfits covered one of his songs!). Scott Schinder explores the how and why of this once giant of pop entertainment for PKM.
Just before The Beatles changed the face of pop culture, a rotund 37-year-old ex-TV game show producer briefly became one of America’s most beloved entertainers. Tapping into a rich decades-old tradition of humorous song parodies, he built a formidable body of work that scaled the heights of chart success, outselling such esteemed satirist contemporaries as Tom Lehrer and Stan Freberg. Sherman’s reign was relatively brief, but he left an unmistakable mark on popular culture, counting Harpo Marx and JFK among his fans and setting the stage for such future kindred spirits as Weird Al Yankovic, Doctor Demento and The Simpsons.
“Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!” – Allan Sherman performing his hit song on The Perry Como Show, 1963:
Although he’s been largely forgotten by today’s retro tastemakers, for a few short years in the 1960s, Allan Sherman was a major star. Although he remains best known for his smash 1963 single “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!” aka “A Letter from Camp”—a hilariously deadpan account of a tortuous summer-camp stay, set to the tune of Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours—Sherman was much more than a one-novelty-hit-wonder.
Indeed, the eight albums of song parodies that Sherman released on Warner Bros. Records between 1962 and 1967 comprise a remarkable oeuvre that shows him to be the greatest musical satirist of his era.
An ingratiating performer, an agile wordsmith and a vivid troubadour of the middle-class Jewish American experience, Sherman mixed post-Borscht Belt humor with pop-culture references to create music whose wit and warmth transcends mere yuks. His standard m.o. was simple enough: borrow a familiar pop, folk, classical or showtune melody, and outfit it with a gloriously absurd set of new lyrics.
In Sherman’s hands, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” became “The Ballad of Harry Lewis,” which recounted the heroic struggles of the titular garment-business drone.
“Ballad of Harry Lewis” – Allan Sherman:
“Alouette” became “Al ‘N Yetta,” a chronicle of a middle-class married couple’s TV-watching habits. “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey?” became “Won’t You Come Home, Disraeli?,” in which Queen Victoria laments the absence of her beloved prime minister.
Sherman’s best tunes boasted multiple layers of audacious wordplay, along with an insight into the human condition that allows his material to connect with contemporary listeners who might not recognize his vintage references to David Susskind, Metrecal and Bo Belinsky.
Although his stardom was relatively brief, Sherman would be a seminal influence on virtually every pop parodist who followed—notably avowed admirer Weird Al Yankovic, whose first album cover depicts an Allan Sherman LP at the foot of Weird Al’s bed.
the eight albums of song parodies that Sherman released on Warner Bros. Records between 1962 and 1967 comprise a remarkable oeuvre that shows him to be the greatest musical satirist of his era.
Sherman wasn’t the first parodist to work in the pop medium. Mickey Katz began retooling contemporary pop standards with Yiddish schtick in the 1940s, and Homer and Jethro started infusing pop tunes with hillbilly humor at around the same time. But Sherman’s deceptively earthy, self-effacing output possessed a verbal sophistication and internal logic that put him in a class of his own. And while Sherman had no discernible affinity for rock ‘n’ roll (as his “Pop Hates the Beatles” affirms), his songs’ gentle sense of subversion marked him as a rock ‘n’ roller in spirit. The same can be said for his untrained but assertive singing voice, which novelty-song authority Doctor Demento once described as a “shower baritone.”
Pop Hates the Beatles – Allan Sherman
Although his ascent as a recording artist was something of a fluke, Sherman had already been an entertainment-business professional for over a decade by the time he became a household name.
Born Allan Copelon in Chicago on November 30, 1924, he suffered through a bleak childhood. His father, a veteran of various unsuccessful business schemes, walked out on the family when Allan was six. Allan and his mother relocated frequently, living at various points in New York, Los Angeles, Ohio, Miami and Chicago. Allan was often left with relatives for months at a time. He took the surname Segal when his mother remarried a small-time L.A. con artist with vague mob connections, but he ultimately adopted his mother’s maiden name, Sherman.
Allan Sherman hosting Hippodrome, a live TV show in 1966, introducing the Zombies performing “Gotta Get a Hold of Myself”:
In high school and later in college, Allan demonstrated a nascent creative talent, penning witty essays for school newspapers and his college humor magazine, while creating ambitious original stage productions that incorporated satire and music. At some point during his youth, he began writing parody songs, which he’d sing for friends at parties. He’d also draw upon that talent during a brief stint working for a Chicago ad agency.
Sherman joined the Army in March 1943, but was honorably discharged after two months, due to his asthma and allergies. He returned to the University of Illinois but was kicked out two years later for various disciplinary infractions. Sherman arrived in New York on V-J Day in 1945, with aspirations of becoming a professional entertainer. He managed to find a series of short-lived jobs as a low-level gag writer on various radio shows and in the embryonic TV industry. He also made some fruitless efforts to drum up interest in getting one of his original musicals produced on Broadway.
Sherman actually made his first record in 1951, a single pairing a couple of his song spoofs. Although that release was little noticed at the time, he achieved a major career break later that year, when legendary game-show moguls Mark Goodson and Bill Todman turned a Sherman concept into the long-running CBS hit I’ve Got A Secret. Rather than pay him for the lucrative idea, Goodson and Todman hired Sherman as the show’s producer.
I’ve Got A Secret gave Sherman numerous opportunities to exercise his humor and creativity in the nascent medium of television. But his penchant for recklessly elaborate studio stunts eventually got him fired, after a bit featuring Tony Curtis misfired during a June 1958 live broadcast.
In 1961, after stints producing the game show Masquerade Party and Perry Como’s summer replacement series, and working as a script doctor on various troubled programs, Sherman moved his family west to produce the short-lived Your Surprise Package. He then took an even shorter-lived position as producer of Steve Allen’s new syndicated talk show, from which he was fired before the program even hit the airwaves. An extended period of joblessness followed, but fate would soon lead Sherman back to his true calling.
Although he was unemployed, Sherman had won numerous high-profile fans while performing his song parodies at Hollywood parties. Those admirers included such entertainment heavyweights as Jack Benny, George Burns, Jerry Lewis and Sherman’s next door neighbor Harpo Marx, who was so impressed with talent that he staged a party specifically to introduce Sherman to his showbiz friends. Another new supporter was powerful agent Bullets Durgom, who helped Sherman to get the attention of Warner Bros. Records by having him record a risqué number to be played at a Warner executive’s retirement party.
But his penchant for recklessly elaborate studio stunts eventually got him fired, after a bit featuring Tony Curtis misfired during a June 1958 live broadcast.
The pudgy, bespectacled 37-year-old won a record deal with Warner Bros., still a fledgling label that had achieved limited success with music, yet which had scored big with Bob Newhart’s early standup comedy LPs. It was decided that Sherman’s first album should consist of reworkings of public-domain folk songs. That approach would save the hassle of getting music publishers’ permission to rewrite mainstream pop material, while allowing the company to avoid paying publishing royalties in the process. The concept also took advantage of the then-current folk-music craze.
Sherman’s debut LP My Son, the Folk Singer was cut at Hollywood’s Radio Recorders on the evening of August 6, 1962—the day after Marilyn Monroe’s death—in front of an invited studio audience that included Harpo Marx, Theodore Bikel, Jackie Cooper and Johnny Mercer. Warner Bros. president Joe Smith drove Sherman to the session, stopping off at the unemployment office so Sherman could pick up his check. The entire album was reportedly recorded in a breakneck two hours.
“Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max”-Allan Sherman (parody of “Dear Old Donegal”):
My Son, the Folk Singer found Sherman rewriting material from some familiar sources, turning Harry Belafonte’s “Matilda” into “My Zelda,” while reworking the Irish standard “Dear Old Donegal” into “Shake Hands with Your Uncle Max,” and transforming the children’s favorite “Frere Jacques” into “Sarah Jackman.”
“Sarah Jackman”-Allan Sherman with Christine Nelson:
Released two months later, with Sherman having returned to TV work in the interim, My Son, the Folk Singer proved to be an unprecedented sensation. It quickly became one of the fastest-selling albums in history, moving nearly a million copies—a massive quantity by early-’60s standards—and reaching the top spot on Billboard‘s LP chart. The album wasn’t just a hit; it was a cross-cultural phenomenon. President John F. Kennedy was even supposedly spotted crooning Sherman’s “Sarah Jackman” in the lobby of New York’s Carlisle Hotel.
The unsung hero of My Son, the Folk Singer, and of most of Sherman’s releases, was composer/arranger Lou Busch, also known in his ragtime-piano-playing alter ego Joe “Fingers” Carr. Busch’s lush, mellifluous orchestrations provided a straight-faced contrast to Sherman’s absurdist lyrics and lovably gawky bellow. Busch’s discipline and professionalism was a perfect balance for Sherman’s habitually disorganized approach. Sherman described the juxtaposition thusly: “You’re looking into Tiffany’s most elegant show window, and in the middle of the window is a black velvet pillow, and right in the middle of the pillow is an onion. That’s me.”
My Son, the Folk Singer proved to be an unprecedented sensation. It quickly became one of the fastest-selling albums in history
By all accounts, Sherman had a tough time adjusting to his abrupt stardom. His initial discomfort with the idea of performing for large audiences of strangers cost him some high-profile television appearances; for instance, he turned down an offer to perform “Sarah Jackman” on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Despite his misgivings, Sherman eventually became a familiar presence on the TV variety shows of the era—including some that had previously fired him. He also achieved considerable success as a concert attraction, headlining the Hollywood Bowl in July 1963 and Carnegie Hall on New Year’s Eve. By then, Sherman was enough of a showbiz institution that he spent a week guest-hosting Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
Meanwhile, My Son, the Folk Singer‘s success inspired all manner of cash-in attempts, from comedian Morey Amsterdam’s LP My Son, the Jokeslinger to the enterprising if underhanded More Folk Songs with Allan Sherman and His Friends, which combined Sherman’s long-forgotten 1951 single with unrelated tracks by other performers.
Sherman’s sophomore LP, My Son, the Celebrity, largely continued in its predecessor’s funny footsteps and once again topped Billboard‘s album chart, even if it failed to equal My Son, the Folk Singer‘s lofty sales. Freed from the first album’s folk-song angle, My Son, the Celebrity saw Sherman spoofing a broader assortment of musical sources.
My Son, the Nut, Sherman’s third album in ten months, was released later in 1963. It became yet another blockbuster, and remained the last comedy album to reach Number One on the Billboard chart for over half a century, until Weird Al Yankovic broke the streak with 2014’s Mandatory Fun.
Allan Sherman on stage with Herman & the Hermits, composing a parody of “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter”:
My Son, the Nut also launched Sherman onto pop radio with “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!” The song, originally inspired by Sherman’s son Robbie’s unhappy stay in summer camp, spent three weeks as America’s Number Two single, and later won a Grammy as the year’s top comedy recording.
“Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!” became an instant cultural touchstone, spawning a children’s book, a Milton Bradley board game (which Sherman hawked in a TV commercial) and a stage musical incorporating several Sherman compositions. The song was also a hit in Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, and reportedly inspired versions sung in Hebrew, Dutch, Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian and Esperanto.
An ad for Milton Bradley’s Camp Granada board game:
Sherman also wrote a “Hello Muddah!” sequel with updated lyrics, which he debuted on The Tonight Show. Although not initially released on record, demand was such that radio stations played tapes of Sherman’s TV performance.
Although “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!” made Sherman more famous than ever, it would be his last major success. He continued appearing on TV, performing on stage and dabbling in book-writing, and was instrumental in launching the recording career of his Warner Bros. labelmate Bill Cosby.
But subsequent Sherman albums (including the politically-charged Peter and the Wolf takeoff Peter and the Commissar, a collaboration with the Boston Pops Orchestra) sold disappointingly, and 1967’s Togetherness marked the end of his recording career. His 1969 Broadway musical The Fig Leaves Are Falling, for which Sherman wrote the book and lyrics, closed after four performances, despite the presence of soon-to-be teen idol David Cassidy.
By that point, Sherman, ill-prepared emotionally to deal with his sudden fame, had already had paid a heavy price for his success. His wife and former college sweetheart Dee (who’s pictured on the cover of My Son, the Celebrity) divorced him in 1966, gaining custody of the couple’s two children. Sherman would subsequently lose his money and his health as well. He dealt candidly with his insecurities, and his use of humor to keep some of his demons at bay, in his 1965 autobiography A Gift of Laughter, which is long out of print but well worth reading.
Once his days as a record-maker were over, Sherman continued working for television, working on some of Bill Cosby’s specials, making occasional Tonight Show appearances and providing the voice of Dr. Seuss’ animated Cat in the Hat in a much-loved 1971 animated special. He also won acclaim as author of the 1973 book The Rape of the A*P*E*, a provocative meditation on the sexual revolution and American puritanism.
Cat in the Hat (Aka Chat Chapeau, I’m a Cat in a Hat) · Allan Sherman
By that point, Sherman had fallen upon hard times financially and health-wise, fighting diabetes, emphysema, high blood pressure and the effects of his overindulgence in food and alcohol. Despite his troubles, he continued working on new material. He developed a non-musical, golf-themed religious allegory/monologue, Hallowed Be Thy Game, that impressed Joe Smith enough to re-sign him to Warner Bros. Records.
Before a new album could be completed, though, Sherman died of a heart attack on November 20, 1973—just ten days short of his 49th birthday, and a mere decade after “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!” had stormed the singles charts.
“The Twelve Gifts of Christmas”-Allan Sherman:
Steve Allen, who had remained a friend and supporter even after Sherman was fired from his talk show, delivered the eulogy at his funeral, and later penned a touching tribute to Sherman in his 1982 book More Funny People. By that point, all of Sherman’s albums were out of print and he had largely been forgotten in the wake of a new generation of hipster comics. In the years since his passing, though, Sherman’s work has found new fans and attained renewed resonance.
In 1988, Rhino Records released My Son, the Greatest, a smartly-programmed single-CD Sherman compilation, and in 2005 the label issued the comprehensive box set My Son, the Box. The latter is now out of print and fetches hefty collectors prices, which is OK since it’s more Sherman than any sane person needs. A more sensible purchase would be the individual reissues of Sherman’s three best and most successful albums: My Son the Folk Singer, My Son the Celebrity and My Son the Nut. A number of public-domain Sherman collections and live recordings have also surfaced on various gray-market labels, but the originals are the ones you want.