Monster Mash is one of the most well-known novelty songs of all time. It seems to make its return every year shortly before Halloween to the delight of many. The song exists primarily due to the varied efforts of four men: Boris Karloff, who inspired it, Bobby Pickett, who co-wrote and sang it, Lenny Capizzi, the other co-writer, and Gary Paxton, who produced and promoted it.
Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in London in 1887 and grew up in Enfield, England. He moved to Canada in the early twentieth century, and eventually to Hollywood where he pursued an acting career, appearing in many silent films. Karloff came to be known for his roles in horror films and perhaps his most noted role in a long career was his portrayal of Frankenstein's monster in the 1931 film Frankenstein. Karloff had a soft, distinctive voice and his on-screen persona was at times ghoulish, although he played a wide variety of roles on into the 1960's. Off screen Karloff was a kind, personable man who was well known for his generosity.
Robert George Pickett was born in 1938 in Somerville, Massachusetts, where by the time the 40's had ended his father was the manager of a movie theater. Bobby Pickett spent a great deal of time at the theatre when he was growing up, and became familiar with many movies that were shown there. He took to imitating some of the actors, including the distinctive voice of Boris Karloff. In addition to acting and movies, Pickett loved rock and roll. He did a stint with the army in Korea and moved to Hollywood in the late 50's to pursue an acting career. Pickett played with a rock band called the Cordials which was led by fellow musician Leonard Capizzi. Pickett would insert his impersonations into the act at times, most notably reciting the spoken narration in the bridge of the Diamonds' Little Darlin' in his best Boris Karloff voice: My darlin', 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. The audiences liked it.
Bandmate Capizzi suggested that they work this part of their act into a song. Dance songs were very popular in the early 60's, and one that they particularly liked was Dee Dee Sharp's top ten hit Mashed Potato Time. So they mixed that, along with Capizzi's thought about adding monsters and Pickett's catchy Karloff impersonation into a spoof, using The Mean Monster Mashed Potato as a working title. When Pickett recites the line "whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?" he is imitating veteran horror film actor Bela Lugosi. They improved on the song and would perform it on stage, where it was well received. In time, the act came to the attention of a hot record producer around Los Angeles at the time named Gary Paxton.
Paxton liked the song and felt that it had hit potential. He had already had some hits of his own as a performer, first with college friend Clyde Battin as Skip and Flip, with It Was I in 1959 and Cherry Pie in 1960; and a short time later performing as the Hollywood Argyles, his recording of Dallas Frazier's Alley-Oop topped the charts in the summer of 1960. In July of 1962 Paxton assembled what would later be referred to as an "all-star band" at Homewood Studio in Hollywood to record the composition by Pickett and Capizzi, now called Monster Mash. Among those present for the recording session that day were Bobby "Boris" Pickett on vocals and bass, Rickie Page and Johnny MacRae on vocals, Gary Paxton on guitar, and Leon Russell on piano. For sound effects, made that day in the recording studio, air was blown through a straw into a glass of water to simulate boiling beacons, chains were rattled, and there was a hammer pulling a nail from a piece of wood giving the effect of a creaky crypt door being opened. In August of 1962 the song was released as Monster Mash, by Bobby "Boris" Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers, on Garpax 44167. It was Paxton who had added the "Boris" and the Crypt-Kickers.
Paxton shopped the song to some of the major record labels, but no one seemed to want it. Convinced of the song's hit potential, he pressed a number of copies of the record at his own expense and began to distribute them to radio stations along the West Coast. The song received airplay and within weeks, Monster Mash was a huge national hit, rising to number one less than two weeks before Halloween. It was a fun song, a novelty hit, and came to be closely associated with a fun holiday. The group released another song, Monsters' Holiday, that went to number 30 in December. Bobby Pickett was in demand.
Monster Mash proved to have staying power. It was re-released in 1970 and reached the bottom rungs of the top 100, and again in 1973, when it went to #10. It is one of only a very few songs to reach the top 100 on three separate occasions. And of course, it has become a favorite on oldies radio, especially in the days leading up to Halloween each year. In 1995 the movie Monster Mash (a.k.a. Monster Mash: The Movie) was issued by Prism Pictures, with Bobby Pickett providing the voice of Dr. Frankenstein.
Boris Karloff was reported to have very much enjoyed Monster Mash, performing the song himself on a 1965 edition of the television show Shindig, to the delight of Pickett. Karloff returned to England in his later years, where he contracted pneumonia and passed away in 1969. Lenny Capizzi died in 1988. Bobby "Boris" Pickett continued to perform Monster Mash throughout his lifetime, sometimes wearing a lab coat stained with fake blood and proclaiming that he would sing "a medley of my hit." He appeared on television and radio shows and in live performances, always very good-natured about the novelty song that had come to define his career. Pickett suffered from leukemia which led to his death in Los Angeles on April 25, 2007. Gary Paxton went on to a long career in the music industry, producing such hits as Tommy Roe's Sweet Pea and the Association's Along Comes Mary. In the 70's he moved to Nashville and produced Christian music. The early twenty-first century found Gary living in Branson, Missouri and still active in the music business.
And Monster Mash, one of the most popular novelty songs of all time, is still with us.
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