What A Novelty (Song)

Roger Clark


We appreciate a wide variety of music in our home, from the concertos of J.S. Bach to new age of John Tesh, and classic country to rock & roll. For me, it started as a five-year-old, curled up in front of the family’s floor model Philco radio. For Susan, it began at about the same age with hymns from the Mennonite church. It continues today, sixty years later, with a collection of 2000 purchased, burned, borrowed, and stolen recordings.

Every genre has novelty tunes, ranging from fifty-cent albums recorded in the garage, to millionaire recording artists backed up by full blown orchestras. Every novelty song has one thing in common, and that’s a sense of humor.

My first ever novelty song recollection was “It’s In The Book” from 1952. Written and recorded by Johnny Standley, it was part preaching, part singing, and part lamenting, taking up over six minutes of air time. Although quite out of sync with music of the day, it still managed to become a number one record selling over a two million copies for Capitol Records.

The very next year, Stan Freberg recorded “St. George And The Dragonet”, a satire of the TV show Dragnet, starring Jack Webb and Harry Morgan. As the light-hearted lyrics suggest, devouring maidens out of season was a serious offense, because his maiden-devouring license was revoked. The funniest line, though, was how the dragon was captured.

Charlie Ryan wrote and recorded “Hot Rod Lincoln” in 1955 for the Souvenir Record label. Johnny Bond also did a cover of it, but it was Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen that made it famous in 1971. Son, you’re gonna drive me to drink’n if ya don’t stop drive’n that Hot…….Rod…….Lincoln!

Sheb Wooley was a part-time Hollywood actor who came to prominence on the MGM label with a 1958 hit called “Purple People Eater” about a little monster who was not a purple people eater, but an eater of purple people. (You had to listen close to get that, of course). Wooley also recorded under the name Ben Colder, after spending time in Alaska. (You have to think that one through, too).

Three novelty songs punctuated the 1960’s for me, beginning with “Alley Oop” by the Hollywood Argyles. Written by Dallas Frazier, who later became a major Nashville songwriter, it was recorded with Gary Paxton doing lead vocals. The Argyles never really existed, and the studio was a Hollywood garage on Argyle Street, but “Alley Oop” still went to #1 in July of 1960.

Larry Verne was a little-known singer on the Era label when he recorded a ballad about a cowardly soldier at Little Big Horn. “Mr. Custer” became a one-hit wonder just 84 years, 3 months, and 15 days after the epic battle took place. Turned down by every label in California, the song became a #1 hit in October of 1960.

Barbara Streisand is one of those million-dollar artists with a full-blown orchestra, well worth the cost of cashing in your food stamps, and she’s no stranger to novelty. My favorite is her version of “Jingle Bells”, the lead-off single on her 1967 Christmas album. With the help of iconic arranger Marty Paich, and an orchestra that is clearly having a good time, Streisand brings a breathtaking joy to this holiday classic.

Novelty tunes keep us listening, laughing, saving, and sharing. They help us stay sane in a crazy world, giving people a way up when the f-bombs are dropping. It may even be what drives my wife’s passion for classical music!

Roger Clarkroger clark

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Slice of life observations of the human condition from 2,000,000 miles of crisscrossing North America. Always entertaining, usually engaging, often humorous, and mostly true, my articles have a lot of NO. No anger, no profanity, no politics, and no exhortations.

Valley Center, KS

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