THE MONSTER MASH AT 50: SOME THOUGHTS ON A CULTURAL PHENOMENON
Fifty years since its initial release, Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash” has long since entered the pantheon of holiday evergreens, the Halloween equivalent of “Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer” or “Frosty The Snowman.” This is in itself an impressive feat. The song’s chart history is equally notable: After spending the last two weeks of October, 1962–just in time for Halloween—at number one on the Billboard chart, the song re-charted in 1973 and hit the Top 10 once again—except this time, it was in early August! As weird and inexplicable as that factoid is, however, it is not what inspires me to write about “Monster Mash.”
What fascinates me about “Monster Mash” is the fact that this record, created to cash in on not one but two then-current fads, managed to transcend them both to stand on its own as a classic of sorts, even as those two fads evaporated into the mists of cultural obscurity.
There’s no doubt that “Monster Mash” was the product of a very specific cultural moment and that upon its release the audience understood precisely what it was parodying. The two fads it drew on were the spate of Twist-inspired early 60’s dance craze records, in this case specifically “Mashed Potato Time” by Dee Dee Sharp; and the contemporaneous movie monster craze, ignited by the re-packaging for television of the Universal Studios monster movie catalog.
Let’s first deal with the movie monster craze: Universal brought its classic monster films of the 1930’s and 40’s—Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, the Wolf Man and their various offspring and spouses—to television syndication in 1957 under the title “Shock Theatre.” The films were an immediate hit with a new generation that had never seen them in theatres. By 1958, a magazine dedicated to the genre, Famous Monsters of Filmland, hit the newsstands and was a surprising success. Intended as a single-issue magazine featuring pictures and articles about old movie monsters, it instead sold out its initial run, became a popular monthly that published for years, and spawned numerous imitators. That same year, John “The Cool Ghoul” Zacherle, who was at the time the on-air host of the Philadelphia broadcasts of Shock Theatre, cut the record “Dinner With Drac,” a kind of proto-“Monster Mash,” and saw it reach #6 on Billboard. Zacherle was a friend of American Bandstand host Dick Clark, whose own show was broadcast live from Philadelphia during that period. Clark introduced Zacherle to Dave Appell, a producer/arranger associated with the local Cameo/Parkway record label, a company which, by Clark’s own admission, had a “warm relationship” with Bandstand and its host. Cameo/Parkway recorded and released “Dinner With Drac;” Zacherle performed it on Bandstand; and the single shot up the chart. Shortly thereafter, Zacherle went on to host Shock Theatre in New York and over the years became a camp horror icon.
By 1961, nearly every TV market in the country had its own spinoff of Shock Theatre: New York’s WPIX began airing Chiller Theatre in 1961, with Zacherle himself soon joining as host. Later that year, the Aurora Plastics Corporation, which manufactured kits for building model airplanes and cars (the kind you glued together with “model airplane glue,” of which the Ramones would sing a decade and a half later), released its first movie monster model kit, under license from Universal Pictures.
The Aurora Frankenstein was THE Christmas toy hit of 1961 for young boys; 1962 saw Aurora follow up their success by releasing Dracula and Wolf Man models. To feed young boys’ hunger for all things horror, trading cards, posters, lunchboxes and more began to appear, all featuring famous movie monsters.
It is in this context that Bobby Pickett, an aspiring Hollywood actor, hit upon the idea of “Monster Mash.” While waiting for his break as an actor, Pickett made his living singing in clubs with a group called the Cordials, and as part of his act he would do impressions of movie actors. With monster movies riding a wave of popularity, Pickett began to do imitations of their stars in his act. One night, he impersonated “Frankenstein” star Boris Karloff during his group’s performance of the Diamonds’ song “Little Darlin’” and the audience reaction inspired him to try to write an original song about movie monsters using the Karloff voice.
In writing the song during the summer of 1962, Pickett and fellow Cordial Leonard Capizzi decided to capitalize on yet another fad sweeping America at that precise moment: The Mashed Potatoes dance craze and the record that inspired it, “Mashed Potato Time” by Dee Dee Sharp. Coincidentally, “Mashed Potato Time” was released by the same Cameo/Parkway record label that had released “Dinner With Drac” four years earlier. More importantly, it was also the same label that had released the record that ignited the whole 60’s dance-craze explosion in the first place, “The Twist,” by Chubby Checker.
A cover of an R&B b-side by Hank Ballard, Chubby Checker’s recording of “The Twist” came into being when Dick Clark heard from the host of a TV dance-party show in Baltimore that Ballard’s record was getting a good reaction from his TV audience. The audience was also doing an unusual dance to the song, derived from the African-American plantation “wringin’ and twistin’”, which itself originated with West African pelvic dance motions. Clark liked the record, but deciding that Ballard did not have enough mainstream appeal to make his version of the song a big pop success (Ballard was largely known for his “raunchy” R&B singles). Clark got his friends at Cameo/Parkway to make a sound-alike version featuring the young, fresh-faced former chicken-plucker Chubby Checker (nee Ernest Evans). Produced by Dave Appell (yes, the producer of “Dinner With Drac”), “The Twist” was a massive #1 record upon its release in the autumn of 1960 and the dance itself was an instant teen sensation.
The Twist was also the object of condemnation from certain establishment types who found the dance—which, unlike all other previous popular dances, you danced alone—lewd and corrupting. Kids found it liberating, though—and fun—and in this regard it can be seen as the opening salvo of what we’ve come to know as “The 60’s.” As Eldridge Cleaver would later write in “Soul On Ice”: “The Twist was a guided missile, launched from the ghetto into the very heart of suburbia.”
When The Twist first hit #1, it was merely a big hit record. Less than 15 months after Checker’s initital chart-topping run, a strange thing happened: The record re-emerged as a full-on cultural phenomenon. In January 1962, “The Twist” hit #1 on the Billboard chart again—this time, driven by the fact of the dance becoming popular with adults, led initially by the fashionable jet-setters who congregated at New York’s Peppermint Lounge. Times were changing rapidly; condemnation of the dance was suddenly history and everyone could join in the fun.
The Twist was an even bigger hit the second time around, as it spread to every corner of the popular culture. At this point, a full-fledged dance-craze gold rush was on, with the Peppermint Lounge’s house band, Joey Dee and the Starlighters, immediately following Checker to #1 on Billboard with their “Peppermint Twist.”Immediately thereafter, the floodgates opened: “Sam Cooke’s Twistin’ the Night Away,” King Curtis” “Soul Twist,” the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” Gary U.S. Bonds’ 1-2 punch of “Dear Lady Twist” and “Twist, Twist Senora” and Checker’s own slew of follow-ups (notably “Let’s Twist Again”) all rocketed to the upper reaches of the charts. It was an incredible onslaught, all the more remarkable considering that the Twist didn’t spawn anything like this type of cultural response during its first visit to #1.
The Twist was suddenly everywhere, featured on TV shows (everything from Ozzie and Harriet to The Flintstones), in all sorts of advertisements, in glossy magazines, on the network news, etc. A quickie movie, “Twist Around The Clock,” even made it to cinemas, starring Chubby Checker himself. And it wasn’t long before the dance began to mutate, giving way to seemingly endless variations: the Hully Gully, the Monkey, the Watusi, and, notably, for our purposes, the Mashed Potatoes.
The first verse of Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time” opens with the line “The Mashed Potatoes started a long time ago/With a guy named Sloppy Joe.” But this is not actually true. As far as anyone can tell, the dance was originated in the late 50’s by James Brown, who danced it as part of his live stage shows. Brown even released a song called “Do the Mashed Potatoes” in early 1960. Credited to Nat Kendrick & the Swans (due to a contractual dispute), Brown’s instrumental recording was a Top 10 R&B hit, but barely dented the pop chart in an America that was still several months pre-Twist and hardly ready, stalling at #84.
With dance-craze fever in high gear in 1962, the folks at Cameo/Parkway, looking for their next hit, resurrected Brown’s original dance, tweaking the moves so that it would more closely resemble the Twist. Musically, the song owed a lot to the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” which had hit #1 late in 1961, just before “The Twist” began its second stay at the chart summit. “Please Mr. Postman” was, in fact, Motown’s attempt to produce a record you could Twist to, as was the Marvelettes’ follow-up single, “Twistin’ Postman.”
“Mashed Potato Time” was so similar in melody to “Please Mr. Postman” that Cameo/Parkway lyricist Kal Mann was ultimately forced to share writing credit with the five creators of “Postman.” Making the connection even more explicit, Dee Dee Sharp sang in “Mashed Potato Time” of how kids “discovered it’s the most, man/The day they did it to ‘Please Mr. Postman.’” Leaving no musical base uncovered, Sharp went on to instruct her audience that you could dance the Mashed Potatoes to the Tokens’ #1 hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and that “They even do it to ‘Dear Lady Twist.’”
It wouldn’t be long, though, before other records began to name-check the Mashed Potato. Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time” was released in March, 1962, hot on the heels of her hit duet with Chubby Checker, “Slow Twistin’.” It shot to #2 on the Billboard pop chart and went all the way to #1 on the R&B chart. James Brown quickly responded to this usurping of hs creation by releasing “Mashed Potatoes U.S.A,” this time under his own name, but saw limited success. Chris Montez’ “ Let’s Dance,” The Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” Chris Kenner’s “Land of A Thousand Dances,” Connie Francis’ “V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N” and Sam Cooke’s “Having A Party” subsequently had greater success than Brown in jumping on the Mashed Potato bandwagon.. (Sam Cooke is an interesting figure in the context of this story: An astute student of pop culture, he not only singled out the Mashed Potatoes and “Soul Twist” in “Having A Party”, but his song “Twistin’ the Night Away” documented the scene at the Peppermint Lounge in early ’62. Cooke even managed to work “a cat named Frankenstein” into his 1963 hit “Another Saturday Night.”)
By the time Bobby Pickett decided to make a record about movie monsters in the summer of 1962, not only had “Mashed Potato Time” saturated the airwaves, but so had its Top 10 follow up “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes),” co-written by Kal Mann and Dave Appell. The record Pickett came up with, “Monster Mash,” is a parody of both Dee Dee Sharp hits, although since her pair are pretty much interchangeable, you’re free to imagine he’s parodying either one. The chords, melody, piano part (supposedly played by Leon Russell, although some sources say he was late for the session and only played on the record’s b-side, “Monster Mash Party”)and lyrical structure in “Monster Mash” are clearly taken from “Mashed Potato Time” and the “wah-ooo” female background vocals are a direct lift of the exact same vocal part that can be found in both Sharp Records.
The magic of “Monster Mash,” what makes it entertaining, is that Bobby Pickett’s record parodies “Mashed Potato Time” by turning it into a song about the movie monsters craze. The monsters in question have all gotten together to party at Dr. Frankenstein’s place and learn a new dance called the Monster Mash. Pickett does most of the record in his Boris Karloff voice, except for one line, which is the record’s most brilliant moment: At the end of the fourth verse, in the exact same spot where Dee Dee Sharp had exclaimed “They even do it to ‘Dear Lady Twist,’” Picket suddenly stops imitating Karloff and takes on the persona of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, asking “Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?” What gives this line a certain poignancy (for the pop culture enthusiast, at least) is that Pickett was consciously commenting on the fact that the Twist had already become passé. By the time “Monster Mash” hit #1 in late October, all the aforementioned Twist records were gone from the charts; the kids were on to other dances like the Swim or the Loco-Motion; and Chubby Checker would never have another Top 10 record, after a 2-year run in which he’d had eight of them.
A year later, the Twist-inspired dance-craze fever itself would disappear just as quickly as it came, replaced by Beatlemania and all that followed in its wake. And though the Beatles did have early hits with their covers of “Twist and Shout” and “Please Mr. Postman,” they soon led the culture in another direction entirely, leaving the dance craze era a quaint but fading memory.
As for the movie monster craze, it too finally passed its expiration date, with parody at the end becoming its main form of expression: “The Munsters,” which aired on television from 1964 through 1966; 1967’s “Mad Monster Party” a Rankin-Bass production which featured animated monster puppets a la Davey and Goliath and the voice of Boris Karloff himself; Wolfman Jack’s jive-talking mid-60’s radio persona; and various Saturday morning cartoons produced by Hanna-Barbera, including “Frankenstein Jr.” (1966), and the Gruesome family’s arrival on the “The Flintstones” (1964). The classic monsters—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, et. al.—would of course live on, but not many remember that there was a time when cultural references to Frankenstein reflexively meant the Boris Karloff version from Shock Theatre. Horror films themselves would soon enter a new era, as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and all that followed would scare audiences without featuring Dracula or the Wolf Man.
Before retiring at the end of the 60’s and selling their company to Nabisco, the founders of Aurora had a few more flush years creating movie monsters under license from Universal Pictures. The Mummy model kit came out in 1963 to great success, followed by the Creature, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Godzilla. Aurora released their final monster model kits in 1966, this time in collaboration with Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which by this point was also running on fumes.
And yet despite the demise of its twin inspirations, “Monster Mash” managed to live on, to embed itself in the culture as a thing unto itself. Halloween comes every year, after all, and there are no other classic Halloween songs, to the best of my knowledge, so I suppose it had no competition. And kids still do think it’s funny. As I write this the day before Halloween, “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett sits at #25 on the iTunes pop singles chart. Click over to Spotify and you’ll find over 50 versions of the song to choose from—one of them by John “The Cool Ghoul” Zacherle, even.
I can’t think of another example in pop culture of a parody so outliving and outshining its inspiration(s) that people no longer even remember it was ever intended as a parody. And that has got to bring a (fiendish) smile to the face of Bobby Pickett.