It came out of left field when John Goodman, as emcee of the recent Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating The Music Of Inside Llewyn Davis Town Hall concert presentation of songs from and relating to the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ forthcoming film, announced, “Allan Sherman couldn’t be here, but Conor Oberst is!”
But there were probably a good number of attendees who were at least as familiar with Sherman, the early 1960s song parodist who reached No. 2 in 1963 with his Grammy-winning summer camp celebration “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp),” as contemporary singer-songwriter Oberst. And Goodman’s reference to Sherman was somewhat timely in that the rotund comedian, who died from emphysema at 48 in 1973, is the subject of a new biography, Overweight Sensation—The Life And Comedy Of Allan Sherman, by Mark Cohen.
“It’s been well-received and got a lot of press,” says Cohen. “Sherman still has a lot of fans out there.”
Indeed, Tommy Smothers supplied a valuable endorsement: “Allan was funny and clever, and he touched my heart. He was more than just a writer of song parodies. He was an extraordinarily gifted word-weaving rhymester, and this is a definitive look at this talented, complicated, conflicted little munchkin!”
Cohen had read Sherman’s 1965 autobiography A Gift Of Laughter: The Autobiography Of Allan Sherman and found it to be “a heck of a story.”
“He came out of nowhere, and in the 12 months between October, 1962 and October, 1963, he had three gold records, three million albums sold, a Grammy for ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh’ and had become an enormous star,” says Cohen, “and this was with Jewish ethnic material—before anyone knew Woody Allen or Mel Brooks! And Fiddler On The Roof didn’t open on Broadway until 1964, so in October, 1962, this kind of Jewish material was really kind of new.”
True, Cohen notes, there was the "borsht belt" circuit plied by Jewish comedians including Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, who had achieved mainstream success with their 2000 Year Old Man skit, which begot five albums commencing in 1961 with 2000 Years With Carl Reiner And Mel Brooks.
“But they weren’t giant hit records, contrary to what people think today,” says Cohen.
America at the time was “still pretty sensitive about ethnic material--and comedy made out of it,” says Cohen. “So I thought Sherman was an interesting and personal story to tell, with a cool social historical angle—and then the more I found out about his life, the more outrageous it became. The story got better and better!”
Sherman, he explains, had “absolutely bananas parents [and] a criminal stepfather who was connected to the Jewish mob and shot himself to death.” He had a voracious appetite, not only for food but for alcohol, cigarettes and sex.
But Sherman’s story also offers a “fascinating encapsulation of a lot of major trends in American life,” including “immigration, assimilation and the ethnic revival of the ‘60s,” as well as Sherman’s personal background of a “dysfunctional family and dysfunctional son.”
“On top of that,” Cohen continues, from his own fan’s standpoint, “we were kids and reading Mad Magazine and loving it--and listening to Allan Sherman records that our parents bought and loving it.”
But all this was “under the radar, and not high culture,” notes Cohen. “But never mind, it was really pretty good.”
Sherman was so good, in fact, that besides his album sales, he was invited to entertain the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., performed at the 50th anniversary of the Department of Labor and met President Kennedy, whom he referenced in “Harvey And Sheila” (sung to the tune of "Hava Nagila") and was a big Sherman fan.
"He achieved a level of fame and public embrace at a neat historical-social-cultural moment,” says Cohen, attributing this to “the perfect combination of elements.”
“It was a moment in American life when the country was just beginning to be ready for his type of comedy,” he says, citing as an example a key scene in Billy Wilder’s 1960 film The Apartment, starring Jack Lemmon.
“Jack Lemmon tells his boss that he doesn’t want to be a vice president, but a mensch, which is a Yiddish word for being a good person. This Jewish flavor was infiltrating American pop culture, with American characters like Lemmon’s starting to incorporate aspects of Jewish values or points-of-view in life--so it was an interesting moment.”
Sherman’s signature talent was manifest at a young age.
“He was always attracted to song and poetry,” says Cohen. “He attended a junior high school in L.A. in the '30s that had its own newspaper—which was very unusual--and he wrote for it. I found one of his articles, and he was already doing little song parodies in 1938! So he loved the idea of taking well-known songs and parodying them--and including Jewish material.”
Indeed, Cohen points to the then 14-year-old Sherman’s parody of “Humpty Dumpty” that referenced the Andrews Sisters’ Yiddish-inflected hit in the lyric “Humpty Dumpty sat on a train/Happily singing ‘Bei Mir Bist Du Schön.’” He would carry the concept into his first album My Son, The Folk Singer (1962) with songs like “The Ballad Of Harry Lewis,” about a Jewish worker in New York’s garment center and borrowing the melody of “The Battle Hymn Of The Republic.”
“What he was doing was both accessible and hysterical, and kind of revolutionary at the same time by using super well-known tunes,” says Cohen. “It immediately caught everybody’s attention: By completely rewriting the lyrics, listeners went, ‘I know what this is--but I don’t know what this is!’”
Cohen further notes how Sherman could change a song’s tone “from the somber and grim, mournful cowboy tune ‘The Streets Of Laredo’ to two feuding Jewish businessmen in ‘The Streets Of Miami’—and one shoots the other outside the Fontainebleau Hotel! Hysterical stuff.”
He notes that parodists and comedy song composers make up “a weird little comic neighborhood.”
“People like Adam Sandler did the superfamous ‘The Chanukah Song,’ and of course Mickey Katz did parodies in the ‘50s, but that was for a completely Jewish audience and was dependent on a lot of Yiddish words that weren’t accessible to non-Jews—and a lot of Jews who weren’t immigrants,” says Cohen. “But before Sherman none of them really hit the big-time.”
Sherman came from a musical family, several members of which were violinists.
“His grandfather was a folksinger in the old country who entertained at weddings and made topical songs about the bride and groom,” says Cohen, “so he was born into comic singing as his musical fate.”
Yet five decades after his heady rise to stardom, Allan Sherman’s work still resonates.
“The world he talked about in his songs, the subjects he addressed, are still with us 50 years later,” says Cohen. “'Here’s To The Crabgrass’ from My Son, The Nut , showed the war between living in the suburbs or the city. It’s completely understandable and relatable and relevant for anyone listening to it today.”
The America of today, says Cohen, “started in the post-World War II era with the arrival of television, the suburbs, corporate America, advertising--and Sherman addressed all these things: headache commericals [‘Headaches’], television addiction [‘Al ‘N’ Yetta’]), the suburbs, summer camp, kids taking lessons [‘Taking Lessons’]. Little has changed since, so you can listen to him today and not feel dated: He wasn’t like Tom Lehrer. He didn’t write about current events but American life in general.”
Of Sherman’s most famous song, Cohen relates a comment Sherman made on a radio DJ interview disc.
“He was asked what accounted for the fame of ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,’ and he says how there’s a war that goes on between parents and children at all times all over the world. That’s what makes it so great: It gets to that tension between parents and children that’s universal.”
“I’ve loved Sherman’s shtick since his first album, which came out when I was in high school,” notes Sculatti. “I can still recite the roll call of relatives who greet him on Ocean Parkway in ‘Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max.’”
For Sculatti, Sherman was “probably the most gifted parodist in popular music.”
“Tom Lehrer and Stan Freberg are terrific, but neither is as consistently hilarious,” he says. “To these ears, the run from My Son, The Folk Singer through My Son, The Celebrity and My Son, The Nut wipes out all competitors. Too often he’s credited with the singular accomplishment of plopping a buffet-sized portion of Jewishness onto the plate of ‘mainstream America.’ Sure, yeah, but that’s hardly the point.”
Likening Sherman’s plight to that of Lenny Bruce, Sculatti adds, “First and foremost, these guys were funny to almost anyone who listened, regardless of age, ethnic background or whatever. I cracked up every time we played The Folk Singer LP and heard Sherman interject ‘members of Hadassah!’ into ‘My Zelda.’ I had no idea what it meant; it was just part of the hilarious proceedings: ‘My Zelda she found her big romance/When I broke the zipper in my pants!’ You don’t have to be Jewish to like 'The Let’s All Call Up AT&T And Protest To The President March’ or even ‘Don’t Buy The Liverwurst.’ They’re simply rousing, riotously funny performances by a master American humorist.”
“As funny as I still find Sherman,” Sculatti concludes, “I listen to him now with a touch of sadness. He’s from a time gone forever, when witty, clever and smart--Steve Allen, Bob Newhart, Jack Paar, Ernie Kovacs--briefly had a seat at the table of popular culture."
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