Just how successful were novelty hits in the early years of rock ‘n’ roll?
The answer is very.
For example, of the 23 songs that reached No. 1 in 1958, three novelties landed in the top spot: “Witch Doctor” by David Seville, “Purple People Eater” by Sheb Wooley and the “Chipmunk Song” by David Seville and the Chipmunks.
Seville got the idea for “Witch Doctor” from a library book titles “Duel with the Witch Doctor.” Anyone following music in rock’s early years remembers the key line from “Witch Doctor”: “Oo-ee, oo-ah-ah, ting-tang, walla-walla, bing-bang.”
A star in the TV series “Rawhide,” Wooley got the idea for his hit record from a friend’s child who heard a joke at school. “What has one eye, flies, has a horn and eats people?” the joker asked. The answer was “A one-eyed, one-horn, flying purple people eater.” Wooley felt the joke was an excellent idea for a hit song. Was he ever right.
Seville was riding through California when a chipmunk sitting in the middle of the road refused to move for his car. The chipmunk survived and served as the inspiration for a No. 1 hit and a long-running Saturday-morning TV cartoon series. Seville selected the names for the Chipmunks from executives at Liberty Records. Alvin was named for Al Bennett, Liberty’s president. Simon’s namesake was Si Warronker, Bennett’s partner. Theodore was named for Ted Keep, a recording engineer. Seville modeled Alvin after his mischievous son, Adam. Seville provided the chipmunks’ voices, albeit at a different speed.
Three more novelty songs — “Alley-Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles, “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” by Brian Hyland and “Mr. Custer” by Larry Verne — reached No. 1 in 1960 as the genre continued to be a major part of the rock scene. There were only 19 No. 1 hits in all of 1960.
The story behind the Hollywood Argyles is one of the strangest in rock history. Gary Paxton of Skip and Flip fame, who charted Top 15 hits with “It was I” in 1959 and “Cherry Pie” in 1960, was told by former record company Brent Records that he was still under contract. Wanting to avoid any legal entanglements when he went to California to record “Alley-Oop,” Paxton said the group’s name was the Hollywood Argyles. The only problem was there were no Hollywood Argyles, just Paxton. When the song became an instant smash in the summer of 1960, Paxton quickly had to form the Hollywood Argyles to make public appearances.
Ray Stevens’ Top 40 hits
Here’s a list of Ray Stevens’ hits that reached the Billboard Top 40. Stevens spent part of his teenage years living in Albany.
Year, Top position, Name of Song
1961: 35; Jeremiah Peabody’s Poly Unsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pills
1962: 5; Ahab the Arab
1963: 17; Harry the Hairy Ape
1968: 28; Mr. Businessman
1969: 8; Gitarzan
1969: 27; Along Came Jones
1970: 1; Everything is Beautiful
1974: 1; The Streak
1975: 14; Misty
1977: 40; *In the Mood
*Also recorded as the Henhouse Five Plus Too
“Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini” evolved from a true story. Songwriter Paul Vance saw Paula, his 2-year-old daughter, running around on the beach with a polkadot bikini and co-wrote a song about her actions. There were some concerns that the song might be too risqué, but that problem was resolved when executives realized the age of the bikini-wearer.
“Mr. Custer” focuses on the 1876 battle of Little Big Horn when 700 U.S. soldiers, under the direction of Gen. George Custer, were killed by 3,000 Sioux under the leadership of Chief Sitting Bull. The song is about a soldier’s comical plea to Custer that he didn’t want to fight and die. Remember one of the song’s early lines: “Please, Mr. Custer, I don’t want to go.”
While many of the novelty singers were one-hit wonders, one group that thrived in this genre was the Coasters, who had Top 10 novelty hits with “Searchin’” and “Young Blood” in 1957, “Yakety Yak” in 1958 and “Charlie Brown,” “Along Came Jones” and “Poison Ivy” in 1959. All of their songs were written by the tandem of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, perhaps the greatest songwriting duo in rock history.
The popularity of novelty songs propelled Ray Stevens to the forefront. Stevens, who spent several of his teen years in Albany, had his first chart hit when “Jeremiah Peabody’s Poly Unsaturated Quick Dissolving Fast Acting Pleasant Tasting Green and Yellow Pills” reached a respectable No. 35 in 1961.
The following summer, Stevens reached No. 5 with “Ahab the Arab.” He followed with chart hits “Harry, the Hairy Ape” in 1963 and “Mr. Businessman” in 1968.
He returned to the Top 10 with “Gitarzan” in the spring of 1969. Later that year, his cover of “Along Came Jones” by the Coasters climbed to 27.
After nearly 10 years of recording songs, Stevens finally scored his first No. 1 hit with “Everything is Beautiful” in 1970. Ironically, it was not a novelty song.
While on a flight from Nashville, Tenn., to Los Angeles in 1974, Stevens read a story about college students streaking. Realizing the magnitude of the fad, Stevens quickly penned “The Streak” and it soared to No. 1 and remained there for three weeks.
Ironically, the first novelty song to break into the Top 5 was “Flying Saucer” by Buchanan and Goodman, which jumped to No. 3 in August 1956. The duo developed the style of inserting brief snippets from current hits into a narrative. “Flying Saucer” was a spoof of Orson Wells’ 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “The War of the Worlds.” Snippets were used from songs by the Platters, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley & the Comets.
Among the other novelty hits from 1956 to 1964 that climbed into the Top 5 were “Pink Shoe Laces” by Dodie Stevens in 1959; “Yogi” by the Ivy Three in 1960; “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” Lonnie Donegan, 1961; “Monster Mash,” Bobby “Boris” Pickett, 1962; “Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport,” Rolf Harris, 1963; “Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh,” Allen Sherman, 1963; and “Surfin’ Bird” by the Trashmen in 1964.
The popularity of novelty songs dissipated during the mid-1960s with the rise in popularity of folk music and the beginning of the British Invasion.
Barry Levine writes about music and the movies for The Albany Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.