Monday, February 10, 2014

The Original Weird Al

I was surprised to see there's a biography out on Allan Sherman.  He's been dead for forty years and is mostly forgotten today.  Still, he did have his moment in the sun, so I can see him being part of a wider Brandeis University Press series on American Jewish culture. In fact, it's the Jewish angle that author Mark Cohen emphasizes in Overweight Sensation: The Life And Comedy Of Allan Sherman.

Sherman was raised--if that's the proper word--by unstable parents, and attended the University of Illinois in the 40s.  There he wrote and performed comedy sketches, and showed particular skill at writing parody lyrics to other tunes.  This is how he'd find fame and fortune, but even when done well it's a pretty low level of talent.  The songwriter has already built the house, all the parodist does is rearrange the furniture.

After college Sherman moved to New York, then the headquarters of television.  He created the concept for I've Got A Secret (using his parodist skill, it's really just a slight shift of What's My Line?), sold it to Goodson and Todman Productions and was its producer throughout much of the 50s. It was a steady paycheck, but no other work he did on TV was as successful, and Sherman, now married with kids, was a spendthrift.

He moved to Los Angeles for a TV gig and found himself living next to Harpo Marx.  They got to know each other and Harpo hosted a night where Sherman sang his parodies in front of many show biz names. He was a hit, and after a few more such parties was signed by Warner Brothers for an album.  Many of his lyrics were based on hit songs of the day, and he couldn't get permission from the original composers to use them, so his first album, My Son, The Folksinger, in 1962, was based mostly on public domain material.

("My Zelda," one of my favorites, is a parody of Harry Belafonte's "Matilda."  I consider it a breakthrough.  Songwriters were stuck with a paucity of rhymes for "love"--dove, glove, above, shove, of--and Sherman came up with a new one: "Oh why did she go and fall in love/ I haven't seen her since Tisha B'Av.")

If it had sold twenty or thirty-thousand copies, that would have been fine, but to everyone's surprise it was a blockbuster, hitting #1 on the charts and ultimately selling over a million copies.  The material had a strong Jewish bent, and Cohen emphasizes that Sherman was one of the first to really bring this accent into popular entertainment.  For years, movies and Broadway shows had been created by Jews, but were rarely about explicitly Jewish subjects.  Sherman helped start a new trend where there was no need to hide one's ethnicity.

I think Cohen has a point here, but I don't how much credit Sherman deserves.  There was a new openness coming to America in the 60s, and Sherman was riding the wave as much as creating it. Still, it's true, before Sherman you rarely get such mainstream Yiddish inflection in popular entertainment.

Sherman was not a one-hit wonder.  He recorded two albums in 1963--My Son, The Celebrity and My Son, The Nut--that both went to #1.  He also moved away from explicitly Jewish material on the third album, but, as it included his most popular song of all, "Hello Muddah! Hello Fadduh," it was his most successful album yet.

Short, roly-poly and not particularly good-looking (also not much of a singer), he was as big an act as there was back then.  He appeared on numerous TV show and performed live across the country, selling out venues such as the Hollywood Bowl.

His next few albums did far less well, for a number of reasons.  First, his act was pretty basic and getting old fast.  Second, he was working too hard, and not always concentrating on the material.  Third, he was sometimes getting more serious and more sentimental, and occasionally too suggestive.  And finally, the culture was changing.  Before the Beatles came to America, Sherman was at the forefront of show biz, but within a few years he was part of the Establishment complaining about what the crazy kids were doing.

He kept working, of course.  He even created a Broadway musical, something he'd wanted to do since he moved to New York.  However, The Fig Leaves Are Falling, in 1969, ran 4 performances and hasn't been heard of since.

Along with the slowdown there were personal problems.  Never much of a husband or father, he left his wife for a younger woman. And his health was generally poor, as he over-ate, over-drank and over-smoked.  Perhaps if he'd been able to keep it together he could have maintained a decent show biz career--maybe hosting a variety show, or doing live appearances singing old hits.  But things kept spiraling downward and he died of emphysema in 1973 at the age of 48.

I'd guess most people under 40 haven't heard of him, but there was a time--during the age of vinyl--when those first three albums were the last word in comedy, found in millions of households across the world.


Anonymous Bill W said...

Don't be so sure he's unheard of today... all three of my kids LOVE Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah and have downloaded the track.

7:27 AM, February 10, 2014  
Anonymous Denver Guy said...

51, and I have those three albums (though I bought them used).

7:49 AM, February 10, 2014  
Blogger LAGuy said...

I remember hearing "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" as a kid (some years after Sherman's heyday had passed) and then running into his material at various places since so many people had his albums. I haven't seen him pop up much on TV or radio in the past couple decades (he's not getting any fiftieth anniversary tributes like the Beatles are), but it's good to know that some are still listening.

11:07 AM, February 10, 2014  

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