BOBBY (BORIS) PICKETT
It's a song that can safely be referred to as one of the biggest hits of all time. When three-year-olds born 40 years after the record was first released can recite every word, you know it's an all-time monster. Literally. Not just a number one hit, but the biggest hit of an entire genre: "Monster Mash" by Bobby (Boris) Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers.
Growing up in Somerville, Massachusetts, a Boston suburb, Bobby was drawn to the Universal horror films often shown at the movie theater where his dad was manager. The spine-chilling characters so memorably portrayed by Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. would have a lasting impact on his life. After an Army stint in Korea, he returned home and found himself doing imitations of these horror actors in talent shows, walking away every time with the 25 dollar first prize. Making his way to Hollywood in 1959 with hopes of becoming an actor, Bobby found the going rough. He began singing in a doo wop quintet, The Cordials, that included Leonard and Billy Capizzi, a couple of guys from his home town (though he hadn't known them growing up). Picking up a few small-time gigs, the group would often do their act for nothing more than meals. Bobby had developed a pretty good Karloff impression and began incorporating it into the group's live performances of "Little Darlin'" (a smash hit by The Diamonds in 1957), speaking the bass part in Karloff's Thriller-host voice: 'My darling, I need you, to call my own and never do wrong...to hold in mine your little hand, I'll know too soon that all is so grand...please, hold my hand.' It was creepy, it was funny, it brought down the house very time!
Bobby and bandmate Lenny Capizzi felt the horror movie bit would translate well as a novelty record. John Zacherle ("The Cool Ghoul"), schlock horror host of Philadelphia's Shock Theater, had scored a big hit in 1958, "Dinner With Drac," so why not try the same gimmick with a sendup of the famous Frankenstein actor? Getting into a springtime Halloween mood in May 1962, Pickett and Capizzi wrote a song about a monsterific dance craze based on the current hit by Dee Dee Sharp, "Mashed Potato Time," even taping a crude demo on a portable reel-to-reel recorder. Taking it around to several L.A. labels, they met with resistance until producer Gary Paxton agreed to give it a shot. Paxton, a hitmaker himself as Flip of Skip and Flip and the lead singer of The Hollywood Argyles' 1960 number one "Alley Oop," had more faith in the hit potential of "Monster Mash" than Lenny and Bobby, still having their doubts that it would be of any more than minor interest. They were underestimating their audience, particularly the kids of the '60s who, by way of TV repeats, were discovering the same classic monster movies Bobby had loved during his childhood.
Paxton called in some top L.A. studio musicians, including pianist Leon Russell, for the session. The festivities began with impromptu sound effects: a boiling cauldron (achieved by blowing bubbles with a straw in a glass of water), a squeaky coffin door (pulling nails from wood), and rattling chains (dropping snow tire chains on the floor). Bobby put on his best caricature of Karloff, delivering lines like 'from my laboratory in the castle east, to the master bedroom where the vampires feast...the ghouls all came from their humble abodes to get a jolt from my electrodes..they did the mash, they did the monster mash...' and he even threw in a Dracula impression a la Bela Lugosi: 'Whatever happened to my Transylvania twist?" Adding Boris as Bobby's professional middle name, the record was released in August on Paxton's Garpax label with backup by studio singers christened The Crypt-Kickers, and the timing couldn't have been better. The record hit number one on the charts the final two weeks in October...just in time for Halloween!
An across-the-board million-selling smash, it could have stopped there. But this three minute slab of silliness was destined for a long shelf life. The Original Monster Mash album debuted on the charts right at the end of October, selling so well it hit the top 20, introducing more dances derived from current hits: "Monster Motion," inspired by "The Loco-Motion" by Little Eva ('zombies dig it, ghouls dig it...you'll dig it too!') and the inevitable "Transylvania Twist." Then there was the follow-up single, arguably more bizarre than the first 45. "Monsters' Holiday" was that rarest of creations, a Halloween/Christmas crossover (Tim Burton's 1995 film The Nightmare Before Christmas being the only other example that comes to mind), wherein a gang of zombies and assorted ghouls made plans to hijack Santa's sleigh! It was a hit in its own right, going top 30 in December '62.
In an effort to shake off the "Boris" typecasting and forge a career as a legitimate singer, Garpax released an end-of-the-school-year single, as Bobby Pickett, singing "Graduation Day" (previously a hit for two groups, The Rover Boys and The Four Freshmen, each with competing, and much better, renditions in 1956). The record actually spent a couple of weeks near the bottom of the charts in June 1963; it was the last "serious" record he would unleash on the world. Capitol Records then took a shot with Pickett at the height of the surf music craze, a novelty artist once again with "Simon the Sensible Surfer," eschewing the horror shtick in favor of a goofy "gremmie" voice. Back to Boris-mode, he did a rehash of Tex Williams' 1947 chart topper "Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)" on RCA Victor in 1964, followed by "Monster Swim" (with the Crypt-Kickers replaced by The Rolling Bones), a horrorized sendup of another dance craze popularized by Bobby Freeman's hit, "C'mon and Swim."
Pickett's oversized, scarred green foot firmly in the show biz door, he became a regular fixture around Los Angeles. The acting work he'd sought started to come, with a TV guest shot on NBC's The Lieutenant in March of '64, then later in the year a Saturday night radio show on KRLA gave him more cause to flaunt his imitations of Frankenstein, Dracula, Igor and others. The show also featured station deejay Sie Holliday (one of the earliest female top 40 personalities) as "Rhonda, a Vampire on a Honda." Meanwhile, how do you figure Boris Karloff felt about his image being exploited with all this monster-madness? In a demonstration of his approval, he did a Shindig gig as host of the teen-oriented music show in October '64, performing his own version of "Monster Mash" (with the assistance of Ted Cassidy as Lurch from The Addams Family). Validation from the horror master himself!
More television acting roles followed, including Twelve O'Clock High, Petticoat Junction, The Beverly Hillbillies, Bonanza and others, where he was billed as Bobby Pickett. In his film work, he chose to be credited as Bob Pickett, his main starring role coming in 1967's surf-and-songfest It's a Bikini World starring Deborah Walley and Tommy Kirk. Three's a Crowd, a 1969 made-for-TV movie starring Larry Hagman and Jessica Walter, led to several additional film appearances in the '70s and '80s. In 1967, Bobby collaborated with writer Sheldon Allman on a musical play, I'm Sorry the Bridge is Out, You'll Have to Spend the Night, another horror-related project, which after 28 years was adapted to film and retitled Monster Mash: The Movie, a straight-to-video release in 1995. Pickett had a role in this film too, as Mary Shelley's original creation, the one and only Dr. Victor Frankenstein.
Bobby and his wife, Joan Payne, performed in small clubs and resorts around the country in the late 1960s and early '70s. Still more monster novelties were released, including "Monster Man Jam," "Monster Concert" and "Me and My Mummy," some with non-novelty duet flip sides credited to Bobby and Joan Pickett or Pickett and Payne. The singles didn't spark much interest, but in 1970 the original "Monster Mash" started to pick up airplay all over again, resulting in a rerelease on the Parrot label and a brief showing on the national charts. In 1973 it was back again, the third cycle resembling its 1962 heyday, as the record returned to the top ten (in the middle of summer this time), selling another million copies. England's BBC, treating the record as offensive and banning it on first release, had no objections eleven years later. It became a smash hit there and spread around the world, finding new life as a Halloween favorite far beyond the fad of Dee Dee Sharp's initial potato-mashing dance.
Pickett toured the country in 1973, taking advantage of the renewed fame brought on by the record's revival. In one of those stranger-than-fiction occurences, his tour bus broke down about a hundred miles west of St. Louis...just outside Frankenstein, Missouri. Bobby has told the story and I'll take his word for it, but it seems a bit contrived. Nevertheless, Frankenstein the City does exist, and it wouldn't surprise me if they've built a "Monster Mash Museum" there (much as Roswell, New Mexico has capitalized on its fame as the alien invasion capital of the world with its UFO Museum and festivals). But don't take this as a true statement - I'm just throwing it out there in case someone wants to make a lot of money on the idea.
Bobby (Boris) Pickett stretched his monster moment of fame into an infamous lifelong vocation. He and Peter Ferrara made a couple of moderately successful novelty records in 1976 and '77, "King Kong (Your Song)" and "Star Drek." After more than 45 years of frightful fun, Pickett passed away in 2007. He has said that one of his greatest joys was when his father called him "The Guy Lombardo of Halloween." Just as Lombardo is famously associated with the New Year through his recording of "Auld Lang Syne," Bobby has a similar legendary standing. According to dad, "Monster Mash" is the National Anthem of Halloween. I'm sure there are few who would disagree.