On November 20, 1973, comic songwriter and parodist Allan Sherman died at age 48. With his rotund physique and highly specialized material – much of which played on Yiddish words and an intimate familiarity with the increasingly confident culture of middle-class, mid-century American Jews – Sherman was not an obvious candidate for stardom. Nonetheless, he hit it big in 1962 with "My Son, the Folk Singer,” the fastest-selling record in history at the time. His career was supposedly given a little push by United State President John F. Kennedy, who was overheard singing Sherman’s song “Sarah Jackman,” a parody of “Frere Jacques,” in a hotel lobby.
Allan Sherman was born in Chicago on November 30, 1924, and his life was rarely easy. His parents divorced when he was a teenager, his obese father died while attempting an extreme weight-loss diet and he was expelled for misbehavior from the University of Illinois, where he wrote a humor column for the college newspaper.
Was it any surprise that such a misfit found his niche as a producer of television game shows? A show Sherman created ended up becoming the long-lived "I've Got a Secret" (1952-1967). In his spare time, he wrote songs, generally send-ups of well-known folk or pop tunes that he retooled with new, topical lyrics. American Jewish entertainer George Burns discovered Sherman at a party where he was performing at the invitation of Harpo Marx, his neighbor in Brentwood, Los Angeles. Liking what he heard, Burns recommended Sherman to an executive at Warner Bros. Records, and the result was a contract and the million-copy-selling album “My Son, the Folk Singer.”
In addition to “Sarah Jackman,” a phone conversation in song between a woman named Sarah Jackman and her friend Jerry Bachman (Q: “How’s your brother Bentley?” A: “Feeling better ment’ly”; Q: “What’s with Uncle Sidney?” A: “They took out a kidney”), the disc includes Sherman’s parody of the Harry Belafonte Calypso hit “Matilda”: “My Zelda,” which includes the memorable line “My Zelda, she found her big romance / When I broke the zipper in my pants / My Zelda, she took the money and ran with the tailor." Written by an insider, his songs gently but explicitly teased the ways of American Jews who were still in transition from their Eastern European origins to unprecedented prosperity and acceptance.
Sherman's debut album was followed in rapid succession by “My Son, the Celebrity” and My Son, the Nut” (both recorded in front of live audiences in 1963), the latter of which features the now-classic “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” a young kid’s plea to his parents written from sleep-away camp sung to the tune of the “Dance of the Hours” (from Ponchielli’s opera “La Gioconda,” but by then popularized by its inclusion in Disney’s “Fantasia”). It goes: “Take me home, I promise I will not make noise / Or mess the house with other boys / Oh please don’t make me stay / I’ve been here one whole day.”
By this album, which remained atop the Billboard Top 200 for almost two months, Sherman was making fewer explicitly Jewish jokes. But he was still very funny, as per his song about France’s Louis XVI, set to the tune of “You Came a Long Way from St. Louie,” with such lines as, “You went the wrong way, Old King Louie / You made the population cry / 'Cause all you did was sit and pet / With Marie Antoinette/ In your place at Versailles / And now the country's gone kablooie / So we are giving you the air / That oughta teach you not to / Spend all your time fooling 'round /
At the Folies Bergere.”
Whether there was a limited appetite for what Sherman had to offer or U.S. culture lost some of its sense of humor after the death of its president in November 1963, the singer’s next two albums did not sell well, and Warner Bros. dropped him from the label. He continued working on a variety of projects, including song parodies written for corporations and a Broadway musical that ran for six performances in 1969, but with limited success. His wife divorced him and he was plagued by illness. He died of emphysema just short of his 49th birthday.
Over the decades, Allan Sherman’s songs have remained popular, inspiring such successful parodists as “Weird Al” Yankovic and Adam Sandler. In recent years, nearly all of his recordings have been rereleased, both individually and together in a boxed set.
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