Novelty songs have always been a fixture on the popular music charts--and they probably always will be. Acoustic era recording artists such as monologist Cal Stewart and singer Billy Murray built lasting careers around the release of a steady stream of comedy material. Spike Jones raised musical cacaphony to new heights in the 1940s while helping the nation to cope with the tensions brought on by World War II. Weird Al Yankovic's satirical parodies of hit records from the 1980s and 1990s have kept the genre fresh up to the present day.
Novelty material, however, seems have been released with much greater frequency, and gone to achieve much greater commercial success, during the interregnum spanning the decline of classic rock 'n' roll in the late 1950s up through the eve of the British Invasion. The popularity of the genre during this period probably owes much to the dearth of first-rate mainstream pop material being issued. Nevertheless, the "genius factor" cannot be entirely discounted here; that is, certain individuals, by means of sheer talent, imposed their own stamp upon the era, irrespective of other existing trends or market conditions.
Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman were two such geniuses, albeit with a predisposition towards artistic dementia. In late summer of 1956, the duo hit upon the idea of splicing brief snippets of then current pop hits into a rather formless narrative which simulated onsite reporting of an alien visitation along the lines of Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds. "The Flying Saucer (Parts 1 & 2)"--accented by recognizable cameos by the likes of Fats Domino, Little Richard, the Platters, and many others--was immediately beseiged by a host of lawsuits relating to copyright infringement as it raced up the charts, eventually peaking at number three. It quickly became apparent to the music business, however, that "The Flying Saucer" had stimulated a renewed interest in the songs it had appropriated as sound bites, prompting Billboard to note, "Several publishers are [now] piqued at not being included on the disk." Thus exonerated, the twosome proceeded to satirize their predicament in "Buchanan and Goodman on Trial" (1956). By the following year, however, with the release of "Flying Saucer the 2nd" and "Santa & the Satellite (Parts 1 & 2)"--as well as the appearance of copycats (e.g., George and Louis' "The Return of Jerry Lee"; 1958)--the formula had worn thin. Buchanan worked briefly with Bob Ancell, achieving modest success with a spoof of B-grade horror/fantasy flicks, "The Creature (Parts 1 & 2)," in late 1957. Goodman continued to mine the musical "cut-in" subgenre throughout the 1960s and 1970s, although only enjoying one major hit, the million-selling "Mr. Jaws" (#4; 1975).
The speeded-up voice technique and sci-fi thematic material continued to provide inspiration in 1958, most notably in John Zacherle's "Dinner with Drac," David Seville's "The Witch Doctor," and Sheb Wooley's "The Purple People Eater." The latter songs spent many weeks in the number one position, inspiring a lifelong commitment to the novelty genre on the part of Seville and Wooley (the former, whose real name was Ross Bagdasarian, enjoyed a long string of hits as creator of the Chipmunks, while Wooley, employing the nom d'plume Ben Colder, satirized a steady succession of 1960s pop hits a la Weird Al Yankovic).
Answer songs--that is, the practice of recording a tune which either directly answered a question posed by an earlier hit or acted as a sequel (thereby capitalizing on the popularity of the original)--almost rivaled the balance of the novelty genre's output. Two rock music scholars, Dr. B. Lee Cooper and Fred Haney, have thus far produced two substantial monographs devoted entirely to this phenomenon. Two of the more popular examples of the genre have been Jeanne Black's "He'll Have to Stay" (a response to Jim Reeves' big 1959 hit, "He'll Have to Go") and Shep and the Limelites' "Daddy's Home" (1961). The latter song took the formula far beyond the follow-up stage in that it represented an ongoing installment of a series of love songs composed by James Sheppard, first as the leader of the doo-wop group, The Heartbeats (who started the cycle with "A Thousand Miles Away" in 1956), and then later as the head of the Limelites.
By the dawn of the 1960s, song parodies had become the leading form of novelty recording. Three different versions of the song immortalizing the comic strip character, Alley Oop, reached the Top 40 in the summer of 1960; the Hollywood Argyles rendition went all the way to number one. Jimmy Dean's huge hit, "Big Bad John" (#1; 1961), inspired at least five send-ups, including Phil McLean's "Small Sad Sam" (1962). Ron Dante, later the voices of the Archies ("Sugar Sugar"; #1, 1969) and the Cuff Links, reached the top twenty with the Detergents' "Leader of the Laundromat," which applied black humor to the Shangri-Las' morbid girl-group classic, "Leader of the Pack" (#1; 1954).
Well established as a music style by this time, rock 'n' roll found soon found that it was potentially lucrative to satirize itself. The Marcels' exaggeration of doo-wop conventions in "Blue Moon" (a 1934 Rodgers and Hart composition) reached number one in 1961. The rhythm and blues vocal group genre had been lampooned as early as 1957 by a Canadian pop aggregate, the Diamonds (pictured below). When the group's rather vicious send-up, "Little Darlin'" (number 2 for eight weeks in 1957) achieved success of unforseen proportions, they were consigned to mining the style well into the 1960s. Other notable doo-wop novelties included the Edsels' "Rama Lama Ding Dong" (1958; reissued in 1961), Barry Mann's "Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)" (1961), and Johnny Cymbal's "Mr. Bass Man" (1963).
Intermittant revivals of horror/science fiction themes also continued well into the sixties as exemplified by the Ran-Dells' "Martian Hop" (1963) and Bobby "Boris" Pickett's "Monster Mash," a Karloffian exploitation of the dance craze, the Mashed Potato. The latter recording not only spent five weeks perched atop the singles charts in fall 1962, but enjoyed a second top ten run in 1973. Novelty songs found countless other topics to address from a humorous perspective as well, including fashion--e.g., Edd Byrnes' "Kookie, Kookie (Lend Me Your Comb)"; Brian Hyland's "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" (#1; 1960)--and self-deprecation (e.g., Larry Verne's "Mr. Custer" and Murry Kellum's "Long Tall Texan").
The significant drop-off in novelty tunes by 1964 appears to been a direct result of the upsurge in creative output enjoyed by rock music with the onslaught of British beat imports and the ensuing American renaissance encompassing surf music, folk rock, soul, garage/punk, and an array of additional indigenous styles. Furthermore, the rise of social relevance in rock lyrics appears to have deflated rock's sense of humor. Songs like the Barbarians' "Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl" (1965) and the Fraternity of Man's "Don't Bogart Me" (1968) were undeniably funny, but possessed a hard edge (the underlying message portion) which lifted them out of the novelty category.
Top Artists and Their Hit Recordings:
Big Bopper--"Chantilly Lace" (1958); "Big Bopper's Wedding" (1958)
Black, Jeanne--"He'll Have to Stay" (1960); "Oh, How I Miss You Tonight" (1961)
Buchanan and Ancell--"The Creature (Parts 1 & 2)" (1957)
Buchanan and Goodman--"The Flying Saucer (Parts 1 & 2)" (1956); "Buchanan and Goodman on Trial" (1956); "Flying Saucer the 2nd" (1957); "Santa & the Satellite (Parts 1 & 2)" (1957)
The Cheers--"Black Denim Trousers" (1955)
The Chipmunks--"The Chipmunk Song" (#1; 1958); "Alvin's Harmonica" (1959); "Ragtime Cowboy Joe" (1959)
The Chips--"Rubber Biscuit" (1958)
The Coasters--"Charlie Brown" (1959); "Along Came Jones" (1959); "Little Egypt" (1961)
Ben Colder--"Don't Go Near the Eskimos" (1962); "Still No. 2" (1963); "Detroit City No. 2" (1963)
Cymbal, Johnny--"Mr. Bass Man" (1963)
Skeeter Davis--"(I Can't Help You) I'm Falling Too" (1960); "My Last Date (With You)" (1960/1)
The Detergents--"Leader of the Laundromat" (1964)
The Diamonds-"Little Darlin'" (1957)
Dicky Doo and the Don'ts--"Nee Nee Na Na Na Na Nu Nu" (1958)
Charlie Drake--"My Boomerang Won't Come Back" (1962)
The Edsels--"Rama Lama Ding Dong" (1958; 1961)
The Five Blobs--"The Blob" (1958)
George and Louis--"The Return of Jerry Lee" (1958)
Rolf Harris--"Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" (1963)
The Hollywood Argyles--"Alley-Oop" (1960)
Hyland, Brain--"Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polkadot Bikini" (1960)
The Ivy 3--"Yogi" (1960)
Kellum, Murry--"Long Tall Texan" (1963)
Barry Mann--"Who Put the Bomp (In the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp)" (1961)
Nervous Norvus--"Transfusion" (1956); "Ape Call" (1956)
Bill Parsons--"The All American Boy" (1959)
Bobby "Boris" Pickett--"Monster Mash" (1962)
The Playmates--"Beep Beep" (1958)
The Ran-Dells--"Martian Hop" (1963)
The Royal Teens--"Short Shorts" (1957)
David Seville--"Witch Doctor" (1958)
Dodie Stevens--"Yes, I'm Lonesome Tonight" (1960)
Ray Stevens--"Ahab, the Arab" (1962); "Harry the Hairy Ape" (1963)
Verne, Larry--"Mr. Custer" (1960)
Sheb Wooley--"The Purple People Eater" (1958)