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Bobby “Boris” Pickett
Born in Somerville Massachusetts in 1940, a young Bobby Pickett became fascinated by the horror movies he viewed at the theater managed by his father. By the time Bobby was nine, he mastered impressions of two of the best actors of the genre, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
After graduating from high school, Pickett served in the Army in Korea for three years and on the ship on his way home, an a cappella group needed a bass/baritone. He joined the group for a show and his singing career was born.
Once out of the Army, he tried stand-up comedy and incorporated the voices of Karloff and Lugosi into his routine. “I got to see all the classic horror films, all the Frankensteins, Draculas and the Mummys, plus gems like The Black Cat and The Raven. It was only natural that I worked Karloff and Lugosi into my stand-up act,” said Pickett. (1)
Pickett drifted out to Southern California scraping a living bouncing from gig to gig. Stand-up was a means to an end. His real passion was acting. He did auditions during the day and worked nights to pay the bills. He ran into some friends from Somerville who put together a doo-wop group called The Cordials. Headed by group leader, Lenny Capizzi, Pickett found a place in the group. “We used to sing around L.A. for our suppers. We'd sing in a place called Alvolturno's on Pico Boulevard on Friday nights. We sang in the parking lot of Ben Frank's - wherever we could get a paying gig, “ recalled Pickett. (1)
One night, they were singing on the beach and approached by a young lady who told them her dad was a record producer and they should give him a call. The lead was solid. The producer was none other than Gary Paxton, who as lead singer of The Hollywood Argyles rode the song Alley Oop to #1 in 1960. Capizzi called the producer, set up the audition and The Cordials were signed to a recording contract.
There is no information available for recordings by The Cordials on Paxton’s label, Garpax Records. But the group continued to perform. “The Cordials used to do Little Darlin’ by The Diamonds. In the monologue in the middle of the song there is a recitation, ‘Darlin' I need you, to hold in mine your little hand.’ Pickett told Lenny, ‘Let me do this rap as Boris Karloff!’ He said, ‘Great idea!’ So we sing the song, and I do Boris Karloff, and the audience would split up,” recalled Bobby.
No photo credit found.
“One night after a set, Lenny said, ‘Novelty records sell big time. We ought to do a novelty record with that voice.’ I didn't think much of the idea of writing songs at the time, but after a year of attempting to get acting jobs, I threw caution to the wind, and tried songwriting with Lenny. I couldn't get an agent, because I hadn't done anything. So I said to Lenny, ‘Let's go ahead and write that novelty song, just as a side project, because there's nothing going on.’ (1)
They met one morning at Capizzi’s apartment. Pickett recalled the writing session. “Lenny sat at the piano and started playing this four-chord progression. He said, ‘What do you think of this riff?’ I said, ‘I don't know, but maybe we should base something on the monster getting up and doing the latest dance.’ At that time, I thought the Twist was the latest dance, but Lenny said, ‘No, it's the Mashed Potato.’ So I said, ‘That's even better - we can call it the Monster Mashed Potato. We shortened it to Monster Mash. The song literally wrote itself, and we presented it to Gary Paxton, who proclaimed it a hit, on just a piano with my voice, on an old mono tape recorder.’” (1)
Paxton added the sound effects. He blew bubbles through a straw for the bubbling effect, pulled a nail out of a board to get the creaking coffin door sound and dragged chains across the floor. It took Pickett a half hour to add vocals to a rhythm track of bass, drum and piano played by Johnny McCrae, Rickie Page and Paxton — The Crypt-Kickers!
Paxton shopped the song to a number of major labels around Los Angeles but none were interested. So he pressed anywhere from 500-1000 copies, depending on the source, on his own Garpax label and drove up the coast from Ventura to Fresno handing out copies to radio stations along the way. The D.J.’s played it, the listeners loved it and the request lines lit up. By the time he returned to southern California the song was breaking as a major hit. London Records, one of the labels that initially rejected the song, said they changed their mind and wanted the record.
Courtesy of Garpax Records
Monster Mash hit the Hot 100 chart on September 8, 1962 where it began a fourteen-week ride ascending to #1 on October 20 for a two-week stay. (2) Arguably the most successful novelty song of all time, Bobby Pickett accomplished the rare feat of reaching the Billboard Hot 100 music chart three times with the same song. In addition to 1962, the song re-entered the Hot 100 on August 29, 1970 peaking at #91, and then again on May 5, 1972 when it went all the way to #10. (3) The song has sold over four million copies.
Pickett did hit the chart a few times after the 1962 release of Mash. The results were lukewarm at best. After a few more failed attempts as a singer, Pickett returned to his first love — acting. He appeared in a slew of television commercials including ads for Lipton Tea, Schlitz beer, and "all the cigarette commercials (which hadn't been banned yet)," according to Pickett. He also took small acting roles in television shows, including The Beverly Hillbillies (as a lieutenant) in 1967, Bonanza in 1969. (4)
So how did Bobby Pickett view the song that brought him in touch with fame? "Let's just say that it has paid the rent for 43 years," Pickett told The Washington Post when asked whether the royalties from his single would be enough even if he never worked another day in his life. It wasn't until 1989, under the direction of his longtime manager Stuart Hersh, that Pickett finally licensed the song for film and television use. (4) “I re-cut the song for Rhino Records. It's turned up on Dr. Demento compilations, as well as Elvira compilations. Peter Ferrara and I did a Star Trek spoof called Star Drek exclusively for Dr. Demento in 1975. It appeared on his compilations as well as on his radio show. On that particular version of Monster Mash, I get 50% of the action, which is great. It does very well in films and TV shows, but when Polygram (who owns the rights to the original recording) licenses it, I get nothing,” Pickett revealed. (1)
"It's certainly the biggest Halloween song of all time," said Demento. The DJ, who interviewed Pickett in 2006, said he maintained a sense of humor about his singular success: "As he loved to say at oldies shows, ‘And now I'm going to do a medley of my hit.'" In a 1996 interview with People magazine, Pickett said he never grew tired of it: "When I hear it, I hear a cash register ringing." (5)
Not everybody was a fan of the song. Pickett once said that Dick Clark didn't particularly enjoy his music. "As much as he was amiable and friendly, [he] was not a big fan of the record. He thought it was kind of silly I think," Pickett said. On several occasions—including during live performances—Pickett also made mention of his most high-profile nemesis: Elvis Presley. According to Pickett, The King called Monster Mash "the dumbest thing he'd ever heard." (4)
Pickett’s last known performance was in November of 2006, five months before he died from leukemia at the age of 69. His memory lives on every Halloween when the Monster Mash is resurrected on the airwaves.
Bobby performs Monster Mash on American Bandstand.
1) Henderson, Jan Alan, Articles: Bobby Boris Pickett, Link
2) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 547.
3) Whitburn, Joel, Billboard Hot 100 Charts.
4) Gorenstein, Colin, Mental Floss, A Graveyard Smash: Bobby Pickett, The Man Behind the 'Monster Mash', October 26, 2016, Link
5) McShane, Larry, Associated Press, Monster Mash Singer Pickett Dies at 69, Link
Photo courtesy of Stuart Hersh.
© 2017 Jerry Reuss