Thursday, November 30, 2006

Schticks of One and Half a Dozen of the Other

Had he not died more than 30 years ago, Allan Sherman would be 82 today. For a brief moment in the 1960s, Sherman was one of the biggest stars in America--and there are still a few of us around who continue to be entertained by him.

Sherman's career started as a TV producer, best known for creating the original I've Got a Secret. Steve Allen hired him to produce the Tonight Show in 1962, but for various reasons, that job didn't last long. Out of work, Sherman managed to land a recording contract with Warner Brothers, the same label that had made Bob Newhart a star a couple of years earlier. Taking advantage of the folk boom in the early 60s, Sherman released an album of folk-song parodies--although he had been doing similar parodies at Hollywood parties ever since hitting town in 1950 or so. The album, My Son the Folk Singer, became a surprise hit. My Son the Celebrity quickly followed, and in the summer of 1963, My Son the Nut, which went to Number One. The single from the album, "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!" rose to Number Two (behind Stevie Wonder's first single, "Fingertips") in August. That same month, Sherman was invited to sit in for Johnny Carson--back to the Tonight Show as a star, about a year after having been sacked.

What happened next is a familiar showbiz story--at the moment of one's greatest triumph, something happens, often something one can't control, and wham--career over. That's more or less what happened to Allan Sherman. John F. Kennedy (who had famously been overheard singing a Sherman parody to himself) was assassinated; Sherman's next album was a relative stiff, and, according to's Jason Ankeny, the assassination was the reason. Sherman's brand of frivolity suddenly seemed inappropriate to the times.

Perhaps, although by the time Sherman released Allan in Wonderland in early 1964, the British Invasion was underway, transforming the record business, radio, and popular culture itself in ways that made it difficult for a lot of artists who had flourished beforehand to thrive afterward. The sunny pop of the early Invasion period was in some ways the spiritual opposite of Sherman's heavily Jewish comedy. (Sherman proved it later in 1964 by recording a song called "Pop Hates the Beatles.") After several more poorly selling albums, Sherman's showbiz career ended in 1966 after Warner Brothers dropped him. He was already suffering from emphysema and financial difficulties by that time, and he died in 1973. Sherman's schtick lives on, however, in the work of Weird Al Yankovic, who lists Sherman as one of his influences.

There are any number of Sherman tracks a fan might post. "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!" is the obvious one. "Pop Hates the Beatles" is another, although it's sung in the sort of gritted-teeth manner that makes clear Sherman knows he's lost the battle and the war. Like Yankovic, Sherman frequently recorded parody medleys, in which he'd take off on several songs one verse at a time (sample title: "Shticks of One and Half a Dozen of the Other"). But given that the holiday season is here, how about "The Twelve Gifts of Christmas"? Next to "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah!," it's the most enduring item in Sherman's catalog.

(Buy Allan Sherman here. )


At 12:27 PM, Blogger Jason said...

A fascinating recap of the man's life - I never knew any of this. Thanks for sharing it.

At 2:14 PM, Anonymous Dave P said...

Another interesting story about the ups and downs of Allan Sherman appeared on NPR earlier this year -- you can find an MP3 download of the piece here.

At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm confused. When you post a link to an mp3 song, aren't you inviting people to violate the copyright? Is there a way to leagally download songs (for free) that aren't yet in the public domain?

At 12:42 PM, Blogger jabartlett said...

Regarding the anonymous comment above, I adhere to the following music blog conventions: Links are for sampling purposes only. I encourage people to buy music if they like it, and I provide buy links for that purpose. Links to posted mp3s are live only for a brief period of time, and after that I take them down. If the copyright holder of any posted recording wants me to take it down, all they need do is contact me and I will take it down immediately.

These conventions are standard among most music bloggers, many of whom are far larger, post far more mp3s, and receive far more hits per day than I do. All blogs listed on the Hype Machine (a major music blog aggregator), as this blog is, are required to adhere to them.

If anybody reading this is still confused about mp3 blogs, contact me at the e-mail address in the right-hand column of this blog and I'll try to answer your questions.


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