One of the more powerful human drives is to leave a legacy, a way to live forever through the work we leave behind. It drives the most dedicated, who can take an entire lifetime to create that which will forever define them.
This is the Forgotten History of the Immortal Song.
Growing up in the sleepy Boston suburb of Somerville, Massachusetts, young Bobby dreamed of the bright lights of Hollywood. His father managed a movie theater, and the boy spent every moment he could watching his idols and plotting his future on the silver screen.
They were larger than life, immortal, and he wanted to be just like them—especially the stars of his very favorite films—the Universal Monsters. Bobby had a knack for impressions and delighted his parents and friends with sendups of Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi, and his personal favorite, Boris Karloff. That was his best, nearly pitch-perfect, and it got huge laughs every time he did it.
He used it to win nearly every local talent show he entered, and he was convinced that his acting would get him to Hollywood in no time. But first, his country needed him, and at 18 he was drafted into the Army to serve in the Korean War. To pass the long hours on base, he took up singing and found he had a knack for it. Still, his dream was to act, and the second his enlistment was up, he made his way to Hollywood.
He found an agent who promised to get him steady work in films, but just two weeks after Bobby signed with him, the agent died of a heart attack. That might have been the end of his Hollywood career, but by chance Bobby met a few guys from Somerville who were starting a singing group called the Cordials. They asked Bobby if he wanted to join and Bobby, figuring it would be a way to make a few bucks while he waited for his acting career to take off, agreed.
The Cordials had talent and played regularly but lacked that imperceptible something that separates the very good from the stars. Then Bobby had an idea: The group did a cover of the Diamonds’ “Little Darlin,’” which had a spoken word monologue in the middle. What if Bobby did it as Boris Karloff? The Cordials’ bandleader, Lenny Capizzi, laughed, and said “Why not?”
It brought the house down every time. Audiences howled with laughter, and Lenny thought Bobby’s Boris Karloff impression would be great in a new novelty song—something like Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater,” which had been a number one hit three years earlier. Bobby was intrigued, but politely declined. He was an actor, and he wanted to focus on his film career instead of music.
Bobby left the group a short time later to go on auditions, but he couldn’t seem to land a part. Nothing in film. Nothing in television. Not even commercials. After a year, Bobby was on the verge of giving up on his dream of Hollywood immortality. He just couldn’t make it as an actor. The only success he had ever had in show business was as a singer, and even that was because of a stupid Boris Karloff impression.
But at that moment, inspiration struck. He called up Lenny and said he was ready to write that parody song, and he had a great idea for it. He would be Boris Karloff as a mad scientist who had invented a new dance like the ultra-popular mashed potato. Lenny loved the idea and helped flesh it out over the next few hours. The two drew on their shared love of the old Universal Monsters and even included a line where Bobby could use his Bela Lugosi Dracula impression.
Lenny called his friend Gary Paxton, who had scored a number one hit singing “Alley Oop” with the Hollywood Argyles in 1960. Paxton thought the song was hilarious and signed on as producer. He assembled a few session musicians to record it and within two days, they had a finished song. But they soon found out that record companies didn’t think it was nearly as funny as they did. Four different record companies passed on it.
Eventually Gary decided to simply release the song himself in late August 1962. It flopped. His dreams again dashed; Bobby was more convinced than ever that he would never be a Hollywood immortal. But that October, something incredible happened.
Radio stations began playing the song as Halloween approached. And every time they did, they got call after call after call asking to hear it again. By mid-October, record stores could barely keep the album in stock. It was a bona fide phenomenon, and the week before Halloween 1962, “The Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett hit number one on the Billboard charts.
Bobby was finally a star, but his attempts at a follow-up like “The Monster Swim,” “Werewolf Watusi,” and the Christmas song “Monster’s Holiday” failed to make much of an impact. But “The Monster Mash” was one of only three songs ever to hit number one in three different years, topping the charts at Halloween in both 1970 and 1973 and making the Billboard Hot 100 almost every Halloween since.
Bobby was a one-hit wonder, but he had achieved the Hollywood immortality he dreamed of as a young boy in Somerset. He performed regularly for the rest of his life and was always in high demand each October, and after his death from leukemia in 2007, he rises from the grave every Halloween for a new generation to do the “Monster Mash.”