My childhood coincided with the peak of a unique blip in entertainment: the comedy album. In the early 60s, Bob Newhart, Jonathan Winters, and Vaughn Meader (The First Family) racked up huge sales, as did Bill Cosby a few years later. But my favorite was Allan Sherman. Sherman was a radio and television writer who started singing song parodies at parties. They were so popular that he got a recording contract, and his first album, My Son, The Folk Singer, was a big hit. He followed it up with the aptly named My Son, The Celebrity and with My Son, The Nut, which included the song he’s best remembered for, “Hello, Muddah, Hello Faddah,” otherwise known as the Camp Granada song.
Many of his songs were filled with outrageous, yet literate, puns. His song “The Ballad of Harry Lewis,” was sung to the tune of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Harry Lewis worked for textile manufacturer Irving Roth, and Sherman wrote: “Oh Harry Lewis perished/In the service of his lord/He was trampling through the warehouse/Where the drapes of Roth are stored.”
Sherman was the one who first enlightened me to the possibility of outrageous puns. Some of them my pre-adolescent mind got, some of them it didn’t. (It took me years to understand why “the drapes of Roth” was so funny). Sherman’s puns and rhymes inspired my love of words, and wordplay, and undoubtedly helped inspire me to become a writer. Of course, my 7th-grade biology teacher was not amused when I suggested that you could tell the sex of a chromosome by pulling down its genes. And my wife inserted a line into our wedding vows promising to love me “despite my puns.”
There’s another downside, which I discovered last week. My favorite classical music station was playing “Greensleeves,” and in my head, I started hearing the lyrics to Sherman’s parody, “Sir Greenbaum’s Madrigal.” Then last Sunday, during the premiere of Boardwalk Empire, the soundtrack included the song, “Fascination.” Because Sherman had used the tune for the basis of his song, “Automation,” I started hearing this while watching Steve Buscemi: “There’s an IBM 503/Sitting next to me, dear,/Where you used to be.”
I didn’t even have to replay the song to capture those lyrics. (You can if you want – Rhino Records came out with My Son, The Box a few years ago, containing CDs of all of Sherman’s recordings.) They’re stuck in my head. I have the same problem with “I See Bones” (based on “C’est Si Bon”) and a whole bunch of others from Sherman’s work. I frankly doubt I’m the only boomer with this problem. Can you listen to Rossini’s “William Tell Overture” without wanting to yell “Hi, yo, Silver, away!”?
Sadly, for all the pleasure Sherman brought me (and the cringes and winces he brought to others), his career had a fast trajectory both up and down. The albums subsequent to the My Son triad did poorly. His wife divorced him. He struggled with his weight, with drinking, and with emotional demons. He died in November 1973, just days before his 49th birthday.
Fortunately or unfortunately, he lives on in my head.