[RM contributor Paul Counelis howls the praises of "Monster Mash" in the latest installment of Monster Kid Corner.]
At first glance, it might seem strange to dedicate an entire column to what is easily the most popular genre-related song ever recorded. Horror fans the world over are well aware of the significant impact of “Monster Mash.” However, this song is still converting kids to the fantastic world of monsters; my three-year-old daughter’s favorite book is a pop-out Hallmark type that plays the song when you push the colorful buttons along the side.
It also doesn’t hurt that I have a decent-sized collection of all things “Monster Mash,” including umpteen different variations of a singing, dancing Frankie. Simply put, I adore this tune and will continue to argue for its status as one of the greatest songs ever written; after all, what song is more truly immortal than one that’s routinely played over and over at parties every single year without fail?
BTW, don’t answer that with “Happy Birthday To You.”
Still, there’s another reason. In 2007 I was writing for a (now defunct) publication and was given the green light to delve into Bobby Pickett’s wonderful ditty and find out what the singer was up to. I wrote to the e-mail address on his official page, requesting an online interview. The response was a bit cryptic, in retrospect: “Bobby prefers phone interviews. Good luck.” Included was Pickett’s home phone number. I was ecstatic.
I had a bunch of different deadlines to get to and the “Monster Mash” piece was pushed back by the editor, so a couple of months went by. One morning only a few days after I had prepared the interview questions, I woke up to the shocking news of Bobby Pickett’s passing. I hadn’t been aware of his recent illness and was floored and saddened to read the details on his website.
Ever since, I’ve felt kind of like I owed him one. After all, for all of the song’s popularity and its beloved status in the horror community (and beyond), there really aren’t a lot of features exploring the origins and history of “Monster Mash” and Pickett’s other creative ventures.
But the biggest reason is that of all the songs, images and icons of the modern era, maybe no single piece of work is more easily identified with the mainstream horror genre as Pickett’s 1962 hit. You hear it every year at Halloween parties, on movie and TV soundtracks, and in commercials. It’s even represented by toys and other memorabilia.
Bobby Pickett was a horror movie fan and nightclub performer when he co-wrote this amazingly popular monster anthem with band member Leonard Capizzi in May of 1962. Pickett had been performing a rendition of The Diamonds’ hit “Little Darling” using an impression of horror master Boris Karloff, which audiences loved. Capizzi encouraged Bobby to write a song based on the Karloff vocals, and “Monster Mash” was the result of their collaboration.
The song was a play on popular dance tunes of the era, smash hits like Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time” and Chubby Checker’s “The Twist,” the latter of which had reached No. 1 on the American charts only two years before in 1960. Even with Bobby’s uncanny impression of Uncle Boris to fuel the single, as well as a brief but excellent imitation of Bela Lugosi (“Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?”), the song was originally passed on by every major record label.
Legendary novelty producer Gary S. Paxton heard the song and decided to engineer and produce it. Paxton also played on the song, credited as a member of The Crypt-Kickers, along with Leon Russell, Johnny McCrae, Terry Berg and Rickie Page. “Monster Mash” was released as a single and became a HUGE smash just before Halloween of 1962, going all the way to No. 1 on the charts, where it remained for two weeks.
“Monster Mash” is a curious song in the annals of music history for more than one reason. First, it was actually banned by the BBC in 1962, cited as being “too morbid” for mainstream airplay. Also, the song was re-released as a single and actually re-entered the American charts in late 1962, then again in 1970 and 1973 – a very rare accomplishment, and one that helped to cement the status of the legendary monster single.
Happily, it was finally released in the UK in 1973 (in October, naturally) and this time went to No. 3 on the UK charts. In another astounding development, the song actually re-entered the UK charts 25 years later in 2008, peaking at No. 60.
Pickett, who at one point before the song’s recording was an aspiring actor, welcomed the massive success of his monstrous hit but was never able to duplicate it. He did enjoy modest success with a Christmas-tinged “sequel” of sorts, late 1962’s “Monster’s Holiday,” which charted at No. 30. He entered the charts again in 1963 with the song “Graduation Day,” peaking at No. 80 and then dropping off of the charts almost immediately.
“Monster Mash” gained popularity over the succeeding years, so much so that it inspired and spawned other original songs, cover versions (the seminal punk group The Misfits’ recording is especially beloved), and even books and films. Of course, the song has never lost its relevancy during that most ghoulish holiday celebration, Halloween. Pickett’s classic tune can be heard in multiple films and TV shows, including the polarizing sequel Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Every year “Monster Mash” is heard all throughout the month of October and is an enduring tribute to its ambitious singer and co-writer, and a testament to his love of the horror genre.
Boris Karloff himself is said to have adored the recording, so much so that he actually “sang” a version of the song during a 1965 broadcast of the show Shindig! There’s a wonderful clip from the show floating around the internet that features Karloff speaking/singing the song’s first verse and chorus.
Known as the “Guy Lombardo of Halloween,” Pickett remained prolific with his performing in the years to follow, becoming a fan favorite on Barry Hansen’s Dr. Demento radio show. He continued to perform “Monster Mash” and his other horrific hits at different venues throughout the world, even appearing live at the televised third “Horror Hall of Fame Awards” hosted by horror great Robert Englund, where Pickett sang “Monster Mash” to a delighted crowd of horror fans.
Pickett co-wrote a musical with author Sheldon Allman in 1967 with one of the greatest titles of all time, I’m Sorry the Bridge is Out, You’ll Have to Spend the Night, and another a few years later called Frankenstein Unbound. The former was developed by the co-writers of Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story as a film called Frankenstein Sings. The title was changed to Monster Mash: The Movie to reflect the enduring popularity of Pickett’s now legendary single. Pickett himself appeared in the film, along with Candace Cameron of Full House fame. Incidentally, it’s one of my ten-year-old daughter’s very favorite flicks.
Pickett wrote and released his autobiography in 2005. Monster Mash: Half Dead in Hollywood can be purchased at Pickett’s official website, along with other works and Monster Mash-related memorabilia.
Sadly, Pickett passed away in April of 2007. His legacy, however, is in absolutely no danger of fading, as generation after generation will be doing the Monster Mash for years and years to come. The song’s overwhelming universality is a lasting and immortal tribute to its creator, Bobby “Boris“ Pickett. It’s a legacy that will be celebrated by the gathering ghouls every Halloween season at party after party, with the inevitability that, yes, the scene will be rocking, and all will be digging the sound.
Paul Counelis is the author of Kendall Kingsley and the Secret of the Scarecrow, which is available for purchase here. He writes about horror for a number of publications and websites, including suite101. His latest book, 25 Underrated Horror Films (and The Exorcist), is available