Bobby “Boris” Pickett was a monster in the “one-hit wonder” kingdom. His Halloween-themed “Monster Mash” is rolled out annually and rightly so. It is a novelty record that still rocks, 50 years after its inception. Whether it’s the song’s ingenious lyrics, its wonderfully infectious beat, or Pickett’s dead-on Boris Karloff imitation, the song takes you somewhere fun for 3 minutes and eleven seconds.
Robert George Pickett was born in 1938 in Somerville, Massachusetts. His father managed a movie theatre in town where horror movies would frequently be shown. Little Bobby became enthralled with the horror flicks and even developed a flair for imitating some of the actors of the day. Obviously, this would turn into a very lucrative “sideline” later in his life. After a stint in Korea in the Army, he devised his own stand-up comedy act, which included impersonations. Shortly thereafter in 1959 he decided to go to Hollywood to break into show business.
He knocked around Hollywood for a while with the hopes of becoming an actor. But in the interim, he joined friends in a singing group called The Cordials. The group would play local clubs and restaurants covering popular songs. One of the songs, the doo-wop “Little Darlin'” (by the Diamonds), had a spoken part in the middle where Pickett would do it in a Boris Karloff voice. The Karloff rendition became a very popular part of their act. So popular that the leader of the Cordials, Lenny Capizzi, told Pickett that they should somehow incorporate that imitation into a song of their own.
It was 1962 and novelty songs were quite the rage-as were songs about dances. DeeDee Sharp had introduced the world to the Mashed Potato earlier in the year-so the two budding songwriters followed her lead to come up with the Karloff version of the dance. “Monster Mash” about a mad scientist whose monster starts a dance craze was written in an inspired hour and a half.
After making a rather primitive recording on their tape recorder, they took their new song to record producer/singer Gary S. Paxton. Paxton previously had some major success stories with “Alley Oop” (performing under the name “The Hollywood Argyles”) and “Cherry Pie” (as “Skip & Flip”). Paxton immediately loved the song. But it was much harder trying to convince a record company. After 4 unsuccessful attempts at selling the song, Paxton decided to produce it himself under his own Garpax record label.
The song was recorded with Pickett in the lead doing his best Boris imitation (and even a Bela Lugosi turn-“Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?”) to a rocking dance beat. The crude sound effects even worked–the bubbling cauldron was Bobby blowing bubbles in a glass of water; the creaking crypt door was a nail being pulled out of a piece of wood. The “novelty song” needed a “novelty sounding group name,” so they recorded under the title of Bobby “Boris” Pickett & the Crypt-Kickers. The Crypt-Kickers were Paxton, Johnnie McCrae, Rickie Page, and a young Leon Russell on piano.
Producer Paxton initially delivered the records himself to the radio stations. The gimmick worked and the song “caught on in a flash!” 8 weeks after it had been recorded and 2 weeks before Halloween 1962 the song was “a graveyard smash!” The obligatory American Bandstand appearance followed-“Monster Mash” became the #1 song across the country for two weeks.
“The Original Monster Mash” album followed, hitting the Top 20 Album Chart with such cuts as “Blood Bank Blues,” “Skully Gully,” and “Irresistible Igor.” Also on the album was Pickett’s other hit, technically taking him off the list of one-hit wonders (though his trademark song overshadows anything else). The Christmas-themed “Monster’s Holiday” was released in December and climbed up as far as #30. Pickett even got a third song on the charts. Trying to tie into another “holiday,” a non-parodied “Graduation Day” was released in June 1963, peaking at #80.
Pickett next turned his sights back to his original objective-acting. He began to appear in episodic TV. His first gig was in an episode of the Gary Lockwood drama “The Lieutenant.” Other roles followed in “Petticoat Junction,” “The Beverly Hillbillies,” and “Twelve O’Clock High.” His movie debut was in the 1967 beach picture, “It’s a Bikini World.” Unfortunately this was not Frankie and Annette’s beach, but a more low budget affair with Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley. However, he had a substantial part as Tommy Kirk’s sidekick. Other films include “The Baby Maker” with Barbara Hershey and the forgettable exploitation flick “Chrome and Hot Leather.”
But “Monster Mash” was never far away. Every Halloween, the song was faithfully played on the radio and Pickett himself was in demand as a Halloween attraction. When he would make an appearance, it was always in his traditional white blood-stained lab coat. Halloween 1964 brought Pickett back to “American Bandstand” again singing the perennial hit. Shindig’s 1965 Halloween show even had Boris Karloff himself singing the song. There was no doubt; “Monster Mash” was now a part of Halloween in America.
Pickett did try again to duplicate his musical success in the 60s. Novelty songs, again blending a popular dance with the monster theme, “The Werewolf Watusi” and “The Monster Swim” did not catch on.
However, “Monster Mash” was not finished. It was released two more times and charted! It joins an elite club (along with Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas” and Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”) of recordings to chart three separate times. In 1970, the song hung in at #91 and in 1973 it reached an amazing #10. Bobby triumphantly went on American Bandstand for the third time singing the same hit. (Oddly enough, in both years the song became popular nowhere near Halloween!)
Halloween 1973 did mark another peak in the song’s long history. The U.K. had banned the song originally for objectionable lyrics back in the 60s. Finally a decade later (!) the ban was lifted and the song raced up the English charts to #3 in October.
Cult radio host Dr. Demento took an interest in Pickett in the mid-70s. His popular syndicated radio show made Pickett’s and co-writer Peter Ferrara’s “Star Drek” a big hit among “demented” fans. “Space! The Final Frontier! These are the voyages of the Starship Booby Prize! Its five year mission – to sell T-shirts, toy phasers, plastic communicators, and anything else we can think of. To seek out new life in old plots and complications. To boldly go where everyone has gone before…” You get the idea…
Bobby continued to pursue his acting career, but his novelty recordings overshadowed anything else. He specialized in horror pictures with small parts in “Sister, Sister,” “Strange Invaders,” and “Lobster Man from Mars” which shockingly starred Tony Curtis. In 1995, he became Dr. Frankenstein in a film he co-wrote entitled “Monster Mash: The Movie.” The movie befittingly had Bobby Pickett finally portraying the character that his idol (Karloff) had crafted years before and Pickett had built a career on himself.
“Monster Mash” has become a marketing bonanza. Not only did the record itself sell over 4 million copies, but it has been sampled and covered by everyone from The Beach Boys to Sha Na Na to The Misfits. And the original version has been used in a myriad of movies and TV shows. In 2005, Pickett used his song for protest. The animated video and song, “Climate Mash,” (recorded to the same tune and keeping the monster slant as “Monster Mash” but with different lyrics) was a send-up of the government’s inaction regarding Global Warming.
Meanwhile, Pickett would be “dug up” every Halloween for personal appearances and short concerts. One of his favorite lines before he would break into “Monster Mash” was “I will now perform a medley of my hit!” “The Guy Lombardo of Halloween” kept appearing nearly every October up until his death of leukemia in 2007. It is without a doubt that Bobby “Boris” Pickett will live on at least one day of every year. Christmas has “White Christmas,” but Halloween has “Monster Mash”-arguably the most popular and enduring novelty song ever.