A Graveyard Smash: Bobby Pickett, The Man Behind the 'Monster Mash'
Although these days we think of Bobby "Boris" Pickett as a one-hit wonder, had you referred to him as one while he was alive, he would have corrected you. "Since I had two hits and a hit album, I exclude myself from that club," Pickett fired back at a Washington Post reader when asked if he'd ever been to a "one-hit wonder party."
The brains behind "Monster Mash," which he wrote when he was just 24, Pickett would spend much of his music career at odds with the Halloween tune's popularity. Even after recording a handful of chart-topping follow-up singles, raking in 22 acting credits and a feature film writing credit (which, granted, was for a small part of 1995's Monster Mash: The Movie), he'd still be memorialized as the "Guy Lombardo of Halloween."
It was an unlikely career trajectory for Pickett, whose real passion had always been acting. Pickett grew up in Somerville, Massachusetts, and as a young boy, he spent much of his time seeing horror movies at the local theater his father managed. After graduating from high school, he served three years in Korea in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Upon his return, Pickett finally made the westbound trek to Hollywood, where he performed in a band called The Cordials and would, from time to time, break into impersonations of famous movie actors. His impersonation of Frankenstein actor Boris Karloff was reportedly a major hit with audiences—and a turning point for Pickett's career.
That audience response set the events that would lead to "Monster Mash" in motion during the summer of 1962. Cheesy monster movies were all the rage, and bandmate Lenny Capizzi encouraged Pickett to use his Karloff voice to mock them in a new novelty song. Capizzi joined him in the studio and together the two decided to send up yet another red-hot fad: The Mashed Potato dance move (see: Dee Dee Sharp's chart-topping hit "Mashed Potato Time" from the debut album "It's Mashed Potato Time").
The eternal novelty tune took no time at all to create. "The song wrote itself in a half hour and it took less than a half hour to record it," Pickett told The Washington Post. The accompanying album—simply titled The Original Monster Mash—contained 15 tracks in total and was released through the short-lived label Garpax, named after its producer and musician, Gary S. Paxton.
Though valiant in his efforts, Paxton was turned down by every major label he brought the tracks to. Pickett told Jan Alan Henderson that after this discouraging turn of events, Paxton drove around handing out copies of "Monster Mash" to radio DJs in Ventura and Fresno counties. That's when things really started to turn around. "By the time Gary got back to Southern California, his phone had been lighting up like a Christmas tree," Pickett said.
London Records, which had originally shot down Paxton's guerrilla marketing efforts, eventually helped distribute the album when "Monster Mash" became a ubiquitous force on popular radio. By October 30, The Original Monster Mash had climbed the charts to become the number one hit record in the U.S., where it sold 1 million copies. A happy Halloween treat, indeed.
The rest of Pickett's music career wouldn't be quite as fruitful. While quick on his feet to leverage his cultural relevance with the "Monster Mash" follow-ups "Monster's Holiday" and its B-side, "Monster Motion"—not to mention a couple of appearances on American Bandstand —he remained largely off the grid. He appeared in a slew of television commercials including ads for Lipton Tea, Schlitz beer, and "all the cigarette commercials (which hadn't been banned yet)," according to Pickett. He also took small acting roles in television shows, including The Beverly Hillbillies (as a lieutenant) in 1967, Bonanza in 1969, and in a little-seen film called Deathmaster—about a vampire who lures in a devout following of hippies—in 1972. He popped up on the music scene again in 1975 with a Star Trek parody called "Star Drek" and, 10 years later, released yet another spin on his debut classic called "Monster Rap." Neither song would measure up to Pickett's much-buzzed-about debut hit.
All was not lost, though. Just like the Halloween monsters Pickett lampooned in his songs, "Monster Mash" never truly died. Year after year, that goofy Boris Karloff impression has come back to haunt the world with a new vigor. Nearly a decade after its release, the song inexplicably crept up the charts to the Top 10 (in August, no less). Three years later, in May 1973, it charted again. More recently, Paste reported that, in 2008, it climbed as high as No. 60 on the British charts. To date, the tune has been listened to over a combined 5 million times on Spotify.
"Let's just say that it has paid the rent for 43 years," Pickett told The Washington Post when asked whether the royalties from his single would be enough even if he never worked another day in his life. It wasn't until 1989, under the direction of his longtime manager Stuart Hersh, that Pickett finally licensed the song for film and television use.
As for the secret to the tune's longevity? The jury's still out. "What fascinates me about 'Monster Mash' is the fact that this record, created to cash in on not one but two then-current fads, managed to transcend them both to stand on its own as a classic of sorts, even as those two fads evaporated into the mists of cultural obscurity," Grammy-winning producer Steve Greenberg wrote in a Billboard tribute to the Halloween hit.
"There's nothing in the song itself that's dated; funny is funny," Hersh says. "In my opinion, the song was so cute—it wasn't like [Senator Bobby's] novelty record, 'Wild Thing,' which has been forgotten. It was utilizing Boris Karloff and monsters. The longevity of monster movies and actors like Karloff have helped sustain it."
Hersh adds that "everyone growing up" goes back to those original movie references, discovers "Monster Mash," and, in turn, keeps the hit alive.
Which is not to say that the earworm has been met with universal praise. Pickett once said that Dick Clark didn't particularly enjoy his music. "As much as he was amiable and friendly, [he] was not a big fan of the record. He thought it was kind of silly I think," Pickett said. On several occasions—including during live performances—Pickett also made mention of his most high-profile nemesis: Elvis Presley. According to Pickett, The King called "Monster Mash" "the dumbest thing he'd ever heard."
Apart from its ubiquity in pop culture (see: Parks and Recreation, Hotel Transylvania 2, Silver Linings Playbook, True Blood, The Office, etc.), "Monster Mash" found new life in the 2000s as political protest. In 2004, Pickett spoke out against President George W. Bush's environmental policies, renaming the track "Monster Slash." He gave the lyrics a good retooling, too: "They did the forest slash / (He did the slash)/ It was brutally brash." His 2005 rendering, "Climate Mash," was an effort to combat global warming; it was downloaded almost 500,000 times during Halloween 2005 alone, according to The Guardian.
Pickett never stopped performing. His last performance on record was in November 2006, five months before he died of leukemia. But as long as that graveyard smash gets play around Halloween, Pickett's memory will live on.