Boomers Did the Monster Mash

Any boomer can identify the song as soon as the Boris Karloff voice says, “I was working in the lab late one night…” It’s Monster Mash, a Halloween novelty hit that was intended to piggyback on the success of the Mashed Potato and the Twist.

Just eight weeks after its release — on October 20, 1962 — Monster Mash hit number one on the Billboard charts. Its origins came about in a fortuitous fashion for Bobby “Boris” Pickett. Bobby Pickett had aspirations beyond music, and performed his impressions in a nightclub act in Hollywood in 1959 and ’60. As a singer with The Cordials, Bobby often did impressions for the audience between songs. He was known to imitate Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, among others. At one gig, Bobby recited the monologue in The Diamonds’ Little Darling in the voice of Boris Karloff. The audience reacted in such a positive manner that fellow bandmate Lenny Capizzi suggested Bobby do more with the impression.

Together, Lenny and Bobby penned Monster Mash to showcase his Boris Karloff impersonation. Bobby slipped a Bela Lugosi line into the song, too, with “Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist.” After the song was rejected by four record companies, producer Gary Paxton’s Garpax label picked it up. Paxton had had previous luck with Alley Oop, a novelty hit in 1957. Bobby recorded the song with a group of studio musicians that some say included Leon Russell and Mel Taylor, the drummer for The Ventures. In fact, Leon was late for the recording session, so he played piano on the instrumental B-side of the 45 RPM, Monster Mash Party. Taylor is not credited on the record but rather, “Dr. Chud.” Together the group made up Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers. The album from which that 45 RPM was culled was called The Original Monster Mash, and was released in August of 1962 — eight weeks from the time the 45 RPM hit number one. For all you rock history buffs, what was the song that was number one right before Monster Mash? Sherry by The Four Seasons. And after? The Crystals’ He’s a Rebel. How’s that for being in the company of rock royalty circa 1962?

Bobby encouraged a dance along with the song, too. It was a variation on the Mashed Potato, only with outstretched “Frankenstein” arms. Ever the ham, Bobby went on TV to perform his one hit wonder. Somewhere along the way, Boris Karloff himself heard the song and loved the tribute so much that he performed “his” part on Shindig! in October 1965.

Monster Mash is the song that Bobby Pickett is remembered for, despite his long career as a songwriter, singer and playwright. But what a memory! The song is still played annually as the unofficial anthem of Halloween music. It has been recorded several times through the years, most notable by The Misfits in 1999, and mentioned in countless pop culture references, including an episode of Happy Days, in horror films, and covered by several bands, including The Beach Boys, who covered it on their Beach Boys Concert album in 1964. Perhaps one of the best ways the song has been remembered is also a blast from the past for boomers: Monster Mash has been used as an astronaut wake-up call on Halloween.

Did Monster Mash catch on in flash to become a graveyard smash for you, boomers?

Where Were You in October 1962?

Fifty years ago this month — October, 1962 — the winds of change were stirring the cultural cauldron. Teen idols, girl groups and instrumental easy listening music still dominated the airwaves, prompting some popular music critics to state that rock ‘n roll had run its course and guitar-based music would soon be a thing of the past. Into the fray the Beach Boys released Surfin’ Safari, their first album, and across the pond The Beatles’ Love Me Do, their first single, was released on the EMI Parlophone Record label. The flip side of the record was P.S. I Love You. Both songs were written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Earlier in the year Decca Records had passed on signing the group.

In that same month The Beatles were one of the opening acts for Little Richard at the Liverpool Empire Theatre, and The Motown Revue began touring, with its first stop in Washington, D.C. The Revue featured Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, the Contours, Martha and the Vandellas and Little Stevie Wonder.

Meanwhile, Elvis’ Return to Sender hit number two on the Billboard charts, and the number one soundtrack album of October and the entire year of 1962 was West Side Story.

At the movies we saw our fascination with Cold War spy thrillers blossom with the introduction of James Bond to the silver screen in Dr. No, first released in London on October 5, 1962. Also in October, The Manchurian Candidate debuted in the U.S., presenting a much darker look at the spy game.

Sean Connery, in addition to starring as James Bond, had a minor role in another motion picture that was released in October 1962: The Longest Day. The movie told episodic stories about soldiers involved in the Normandy invasion during World War II and made a huge impression on future filmmakers. Laden with high-powered stars of the time, the movie became seriously influential in a string of war movies in the decades that followed.

In theater, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf? opened on Broadway, challenging theater-goers and critics with sardonic humor and verbal abuse dished toward each other by the lead characters. At the same time Beyond the Fringe was being performed, echoing the dichotomy of all aspects of cultural history in 1962: the seriousness of Woolf was countered by the political humor of Fringe.

Television saw Johnny Carson replace Jack Paar on the Tonight Show in October of 1962. Earlier that year, we were introduced to McHale’s Navy and The Beverly Hillbillies.

October of 1962 sports headlines saw the New York Yankees in the World Series. To paraphrase Yogi Berra — the catcher for the Yankees at the time — who said years after 1962, will this year be “deja vu all over again?”

And so 1962 barreled on into the fall, presenting the public with striking contrasts that in retrospect were the harbingers of things to come:

  • While the Supreme Court ruled separate seating on public transportation was illegal, in the same year Bo Diddley had a hit with You Can’t Judge a Book by the Cover.
  • While Pope John Paul XXIII convened Vatican II, the first council to take a look at modernizing the Catholic Church in hundreds of years, the Mashed Potato was a big dance hit and the plastic wiffle ball and ball first appeared.
  • While the Space Race was heating up with the U.S. launching several successful missions orbiting the Earth, the Cold War was red hot with the Cuban Missile Crisis in October of 1962. We’ll delve further into this event next week.

What memories of October 1962 come to mind for you, boomers?