'Monster Mash' by Bobby 'Boris' Pickett: The making of the spooky Halloween classic
28 October 2021, 14:42
"He did the monster mash/ It was a graveyard smash/ It caught on in a flash/ He did the monster mash"
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Every year sees the release of new spooky classics, but few will every match the staying power of one of the first Halloween hits – 'Monster Mash'.
Released by Bobby 'Boris' Pickett & The Crypt Kickers almost 60 years ago, 'Monster Mash' is an ever-present on our Halloween playlists,
But who wrote the song? How did it do in the charts? And what does it have to do with mashed potato... read on to find out.
Who wrote 'Monster Mash' and who were The Crypt-Kickers?
'Monster Mash' was written and sung by Bobby 'Boris' Pickett, born Robert George Pickett, along with Leonard Capizzi.
A nightclub singer with a group called The Cordials, Pickett would do an impression of Frankenstein star and horror maestro Boris Karloff when performing The Diamonds 'Little Darlin' that went down a storm.
So when Pickett and Capizzi sat down at the piano, the idea of a monster-themed dance craze jumped out.
"The song wrote itself in a half hour and it took less than a half-hour to record it," is what Pickett told The Washington Post years later.
It was released in August 1962 on producer Gary S Paxton's Garpax Records, along with a full-length novelty album The Original Monster Mash, packed with 'Monster Mash' spinoffs and horror-themed parodies.
The song was inspired by Paxton's massive hit 'Alley Oop' and was recorded with Paxton along with pianist Leon Russell, Johnny MacRae, Rickie Page, and Terry Berg, who are credited on the label as The Crypt-Kickers.
The Ventures drummer Mel Taylor is also on the recording, according to some sources.
And those fantastic backing vocals? Darlene Love claims that she's on the recording, which makes sense given that she was an in-demand session singer at the time.
What is 'Monster Mash' actually about and what does mashed potato have to do with any of this?
When popular music burst through in the 1950s, coming along for the ride were endless dance crazes.
As well as the animal dances like The Chicken, The Pony and The Dog, there was also The Twist, The Shake, The Madison, The Frug, The Swim, The Hitch Hike, and among others, The Mashed Potato.
James Brown invented the Mashed Potato during his live shows, and in 1959 he capitalised on his own dance craze by recording '(Do the) Mashed Potatoes', releasing it under the name Nat Kendrick and the Swans the following year.
We reckon the name came from that distinctive twist-like foot motion, like you're mashing spuds with your feet.
By the time Dee Dee Sharp released 'Mashed Potato Time' in 1962 and The Countours namechecked the dance in 'Do You Love Me' the same year, it was a phenomenon.
So by the time 'Monster Mash' was released that summer, everyone knew what it was talking about.
A mad scientist on a nightshift spots his monster creation pop up and do the Monster Mash – a monsterified version of the mashed potato – before all the other local ghouls join in.
Which classic horror characters and actors does Bobby Pickett impersonate in 'Monster Mash'?
Most of 'Monster Mash' was narrated in the voice of Boris Karloff, who played the monster in Frankenstein in 1931 (and again in Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein), as well as Imhotep in 1932's version of The Mummy
In the song, Pickett also impersonates Karloff's great rival Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula, as well as fellow horror legend Peter Lorre as Igor.
Pickett didn't mind (monster) mashing up his source material, as even though he was impersonating Karloff, his narrator is actually Dr Frankenstein rather than the creature, and Lorre never actually played Igor when he was in his run of Roger Corman-directed horror flicks.
And that Karloff accent? "Although we had the same theatrical agent I never met the great man but I am in touch with his daughter Sarah and she told me that he loved the record but didn't think it sounded a bit like him," Pickett admitted.
Like the classic horror films that inspired the song, 'Monster Mash' is chock full of spooky sound effects.
So, they pulled a rusty nail out of a board to get the sound of a coffin opening. They bubbled water through a stew to get a cauldron bubbling. And dropped a load of chains on a tile floor to get that classic rattling chains effect.
How did 'Monster Mash' do in the charts?
'Monster Mash' went all the way to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on its initial release in 1962. It reached the top spot on October 20, staying there for a couple of weeks through Halloween, before it was knocked off the top by The Crystals' 'He's a Rebel'.
The song didn't have the same success in the UK, where it failed to chart altogether – being banned by the BBC for being "too morbid" probably didn't help.
On its re-release in 1973, it made up for it by reaching number 3 in the charts, and at the same time it topped the charts in Canada and got to number 10 in the US.
What other versions, covers and sequels of 'Monster Mash' are there?
One of the first people to cash in on Bobby Pickett's success was... Bobby Pickett, when he released the seasonal sequel 'Monsters' Holiday' for Christmas 1962 (as well as The Original Monster Mash album we mentioned already).
The Paul Harrison-written song reaching a respectable number 30 on the Billboard Hot 100 and in 1974, Buck Owens took the re-titled 'It's a Monsters' Holiday' to number six.
Pickett continued the theme with 'Monster Man Jam' and 'Monster Concert' in the 1970s.
And as hip-hop was beginning to go mainstream in 1985, Pickett released 'Monster Rap, which finds the mad scientist having a breakthrough in getting his monster to talk by teaching him how to rap ("Monster Mash, after all, is one of the grandparents of rap music." he said years later)
As late as the '00s, Pickett was still meddling with his 'Monster Mash', recording environmental versions 'Monster Slash' and 'Climate Mash'.
'Monster Mash' itself has been covered many times over. The Beach Boys did a version as early as 1964, and the Bonzo Dog Band covered it before the decade was out.
Horror legend Vincent Price covered 'Monster Mash' in 1977, while Bad Manners, Misfits and even Smashing Pumpkins have given it a go.
What's more, a movie musical by Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow based on the song called Monster Mash was released in 1995, which was loosely adapted from Pickett's own stage musical I'm Sorry the Bridge is Out, You'll Have to Spend the Night, written with Sheldon Allman.
What happened to 'Monster Mash' singer Bobby Pickett?
Bobby Pickett died of leukaemia in Los Angeles, California on April 25, 2007. He was only 69.
While some one-hit wonders grow tired of being associated with their most famous moment, that never seemed to be the case with Pickett.
He acknowledged that the song had paid his rent for decades and graciously said of its success: "The monster theme is eternal. It will always be with us.
"The combination of myself, Lenny and Gary was a magical one – not to mention the wonderful musicians that played on the record."