Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bobby Pickett: The Double Edged Sword of Fame

 Robert George Pickett was born on February 11, 1938 in Somerville, Massachusetts. Better known as Bobby Pickett, I would venture to say that most of you have no clue who he is. If I mentioned his one claim to fame, you probably would. 

  "Somerville was an industrial city about 75,000 people. You had two choices as a young man, you could either be a gangster when you grew up or an athlete. So, most people were either jocks or gangsters, and in between of course were the nerds. But there weren't many of these. Somerville was a tough, tough place to live, but it was a place where you could leave your door open and no one would rob you. Everyone knew everyone, even through it was a city three miles long. Jack Derek, the famous beat generation author, once described Somerville, Massachusetts as "three miles long, three miles wide with three family houses, three feet apart." That's pretty much it, but it was a wonderful place to grow up, I thought. I grew up in the 1940s there and it was an innocent time. It was nice."

-Bobby Pickett

 Bobby's father was a theater manager, and as a nine-year-old he watched many horror films. including all of the films of Boris Karloff (who despite his name was an Englishman, born William Henry Pratt).

That would become significant later when he reached adulthood and decided to become a professional singer and recording artist.

 "The first time I went on stage in Everett to do a five minute stand-up comedy spoof of monsters, which I had kind of ripped off from a guy I had seen do it on a boat when I was returning from Korea, in 1958, he did a spoof of monsters. I just watched him and thought that's a great act. He was doing Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi impressions. I said, 'You wrote the act?" He said, "No, I stole it from Jack Carter. I saw it on TV" I said, "Oh, ok. Then you won't mind if I use it." He said "No." So of course I was in the Irish American Club in Everett, Massachusetts in 1959, after I'd gotten out of the army. They were having these talent contests every week where you could win $25, which was a lot of money in those days for an un-employed ex-G.I. So, I did have a couple of drinks. Maybe you've heard about (actor) Charles Laughton, he used to have a bucket in which to vomit before he went on-stage. I don't know if frightened is the word as much as excited and not quite sure if it could be pulled off or whatever. One or two drinks does wonders in releasing inhibitions and relaxing you. I guess I was a little excited about it and the drinks did help give me courage and as time went on, I did get over it. The second and third time I did the act, it wasn't necessary for me to take a drink. These days I can actually do it without taking a drink."

After serving three years in Korea for the war, in 1960, at the age of 22, Pickett made his way to Los Angeles. Originally, he intended on being an actor, not a singer. But fate had other plans.

  "I came to Los Angeles in 1960 to study acting and work in television and films. I got an agent after many, many months and after 2 weeks of being with him he died of a heart attack. So I was in trouble as an actor. I wasn't getting out there. What was going on was that Larry Capizzi and his brother Billy had grown up in Somerville, Masachusetts in the same neighborhood as me, and they had shown up in Hollywood at this time with two other Italian boys Ronnie Deltorto and Lou Toscano.
They were gonna start a singing group called The Cordials and they asked me if I wanted to join. We started singing around Los Angeles, literally for our supper. There was an Italian restaurant called Alvu Turnos and we sang for spaghetti dinners on Friday Nights. This is how 'Monster Mash' came about."

 A 15-track LP, "The Original Monster Mash", full of vampire stories and spooky dances ("Skully Gully", "Transsylvania Twist", "Sinister Stomp"), was rushed out and sold well, peaking at # 19 on the album charts. The follow-up single was "Monster's Holiday", a Christmas novelty from the pen of Charles Underwood, of "Ubangi Stomp" fame. It peaked at # 30 on the Billboard charts and was followed by one other chart entry, "Graduation Day" (# 88) in 1963. This was sung in his normal voice and without the middle name of 'Boris', which Bobby only used in connection with "Monster Mash". But it would remain his only "serious" record. "Blood Bank Blues", the next single (taken from the LP), flopped and was his last 45 on Garpax. Next he recorded unsuccessfully for RCA ("The Monster Swim", "Smoke Smoke Smoke That Cigarette" and others).

In 1967, Pickett and television author Sheldon Allman wrote the musical I'm Sorry the Bridge Is Out, You'll Have to Spend the Night. It has been produced by local theatres around the USA. They followed it up later with another musical, Frankenstein Unbound. In 1995 the co-writers of Disney's Toy Story, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow, produced a movie of it, originally entitled Frankenstein Sings, but later released in the US under Monster Mash: The Movie. Pickett starred in it with Candace Cameron, Jimmie Walker, Mink Stole, John Kassir, Sarah Douglas, Anthony Crivello, Adam Shankman and Carrie Ann Inaba. On ABC-TV, he appeared on the guest segment of "The Long Hot Summer," with Roy Thinnes and Nancy Malone, in August 1967.

Pretty much everything Pickett did after Monster Mash became a huge hit in some way involved or drew on the success that it was.  Some say that it haunted his career, while others could argue that he made that happen himself. He was the one who billed himself as Bobby "Boris" Pickett, thereby labeling himself.

In a 1996 interview with People magazine, Pickett said he never grew tired of it: "When I hear it, I hear a cash register ringing."

In 1964 Los Angeles radio station KRLA hired Bobby to host a "monster" show on Saturday nights, from 9 p.m. to midnight. He played a number of characters in the show including Dracula, Karloff, Igor and Zombie the Surfer.

 His acting career started to take off and during the 1964-72 period he played in many TV series, including Bonanza, The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction and a few feature films.

 In 1975 Pickett recorded a novelty spoof on Star Trek called "Star Drek" with Peter Ferrara, followed in 1976 by another duet with Ferrara, "King Kong (Your Song)", spoofing the King Kong movie remake of that year. "The Monster Rap" from 1985 was a sort of sequel to "Monster Mash". It describes the scientist's frustration at being unable to teach the monster how to talk. The problem is solved when he teaches the creature to rap. A movie musical based on "Monster Mash", starring Pickett in the role of Dr. Frankenstein, was released in 1995.

 "It's certainly the biggest Halloween song of all time," said Demento. The DJ, who interviewed Pickett last year, said he maintained a sense of humor about his singular success: "As he loved to say at oldies shows, `And now I'm going to do a medley of my hit.'"
Bobby Pickett has aspirations of being more than just a singer, or a one hit wonder. Sadly,  he never became more than that.  In many ways, he made that happen himself as he kept leaning on that one big splash he made early in his life.
He died at the age of 69 on April 25, 2007, in Los Angeles, due to complications from leukemia. He now will forever be known for that one big hit, whether he wants to or not.
The old saying goes:

"Better to be a one hit wonder than to be a no hit nobody"

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