One Hit Wonders

The Monster Mash. It’s a Graveyard Smash.

The song “Monster Mash” is a hit novelty song by artist Bobby “Boris” Pickett (1938-2007) and the band, “Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers.” The single “Monster Mash” was released on Gary S. Paxton’s label, Garpax Records, in August 1962. The song, heavily influenced by the classic novel Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, narrates the experiences of a scientist whose monster develops a hit dance sensation, which becomes a “graveyard smash” when ghouls, Zombies, Dracula, and other monsters all attend his party. The song only took eight weeks to reach the Billboard Top 100 just in time for Halloween.

Pickett recorded “Monster Mash” with band “The Crypt-Kickers,” who included Gary Paxton, Leon Russell, Johnny MacRae, Ricke Page, and Terry Berg. Initially, the song was passed up by a variety of record labels, but was ultimately taken on by Gary Paxton. As the song was released many times in subsequent years and decades, the members of The Crypt-Kickers rotated and occasionally included new musicians.

Monsters and horror movies are an integral part of artist Bobby Pickett’s history. Pickett grew up in Massachusetts, and as a child, his father managed a movie theater. Naturally, Bobby Pickett became a fan of horror movies. He loved movies so much that he moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career in his early twenties. While acting never caught on for Pickett, he did fall into a career as a doo-wop musician. During performances with his band, he performed imitations of horror movies, and the song “Monster Mash” was ultimately inspired by a monologue imitating horror actor Boris Karloff. The imitation was well received by the band’s audience, and Pickett was encouraged to take it further. While the Karloff imitation was the major inspiration for “Monster Mash,” there’s also a reference to Bela Lugosi’s Dracula in the song line “Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?”

Thus, “Monster Mash” was born, taking inspiration not just from horror movies and Pickett’s Karloff imitation, but Pickett’s previous song “Alley Oop,” and the decade’s Mashed Potato dance craze as well. Originally, the song was inspired by the Twist rather than the Mashed Potato, but as the Twist phase seemed to be fading, Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers decided to base the song on the Mashed Potato instead. The song’s working title became “The Monster Mashed Potato,” but it was ultimately simplified and became “Monster Mash.” Of course, the “Monster Mash” had its own dance moves, which combined the moves of the Mashed Potato with hand motions inspired by Frankestein and Dracula.

“Monster Mash” makes use of a number of creative sound effects, such as bubbling water through a straw to create the sound of a cauldron bubbling. The chains heard rattling in the song are the actual sounds of chains dropped on the floor, and to create the effect of a coffin opening, producers used to the sound of a nail pulled from a board.

After the success of the “Monster Mash” single, a full-length LP called “The Original Monster Mash,” which contained sixteen monster-themed tunes, was released later in 1962. “The Original Monster Mash” included “Monster Mash,” as well as other tunes such as “Blood Bank Blues,” “Me and My Mummy,” and “Transylvania Twist.”

Part of the song’s success may be due to the prevalence of monsters in the movies in the preceding decades. Frankenstein, Dracula, and the Mummy were all household names as a result of  “Shock Theatre” bringing these and other movies to television in the 50s. A new generation of lovers of monsters and horror films was born, and new toys and merchandise featuring Frankenstein and other monsters became all the rage. In the early 60s, then, Pickett was able to hit the charts by combining two popular trends: monsters and the Mashed Potato dance.

In the United States, “Monster Mash” saw extreme success in 1962, and was $1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart from October 20-27, just in time for Halloween. Afterwards, the song was re-released many times, and reached the US Billboard Charts again and again. In fact, it’s one of only three songs to reach the Billboard Hot 100 three times.  Despite the song’s overwhelming success and popularity, “Monster Mash” was not without its critics, and was even banned by the BBC in 1962 for being “too morbid.”  The “Monster Mash” craze couldn’t be prevented in the UK forever, however, and in 1973 the song was re-released. It reached the #3 hit spot, kicking off a special Halloween tour for the band.

Though Pickett’s other songs did not reach such overwhelming success, other spooky releases were also popular. Later in 1962, The Crypt-Kickers released a followup, “Monster’s Holiday,”  which reached #30 on Billboard charts. As the popularity of rap music grew in the 1980s, Pickett released a new song called “Monster Rap,” a sequel to the story described in “Monster Mash.” In it, while PIckett’s scientist fails to teach his monster to talk, he’s ultimately able to teach him to rap instead.

Pickett never forgot his love of film and in 1995, Monster Mash: The Movie was released. Pickett starred as Doctor Frankenstein. Unfortunately, the movie never made it to DVD. Pickett wasn’t yet finished with his top hit, however, and  in 2005, he used “Monster Mash” to promote climate change awareness, releasing a version of the tune called “Climate Mash.”

It’s hard to resist singing along to “Monster Mash,” and the song naturally inspired a variety of covers. Among many others, the Beach Boys, Vincent Price, the Misfits, and Alvin and the Chipmunks have all covered the song. It’s also been covered in Spanish by Lost Acapulco, and a duet cover by Bobby Brown and Mike Tyson was even featured on Jimmy Kimmel. 

Though Bobby Pickett passed away in 2007 at the age of 69, and “Monster Mash” hit its 50 year anniversary in 2012, the hit song continues to be a “smash” today, and is still played widely.  It’s a perennial fan favorite, especially around Halloween, any monster’s favorite time of the year.

The video below is from Bobby Pickett’s appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

 

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