'Overweight Sensation': The late, great Allan Sherman
He's not just the one-hit wonder of 'Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.' A graceful biography shows the cultural importance of Sherman's fame.
June 29, 2013 4:00 AM
Mark Cohen's biography "provides a psychological evaluation of Sherman and his relationship to the Jewish world: 'What was new about all of this was Sherman's sense of ease, his frank pleasure in his Jewish identity that he learned from his grandparents.' "
By Larry Roberts Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Many, many years ago, in the late 1970s, I took a turn at working as a stand-up comedian while starting my career in news photography. My inspirations were Robert Klein, Lenny Bruce and Allan Sherman. One of the reporters with whom I worked thought of himself as a diehard Frank Sinatra-style singer, even though the 1970s were not kind to crooners.
Often we found ourselves driving throughout New York state singing -- one Allan Sherman song and one Sinatra song, and so on and so on.
He would do "Strangers in the Night," and I would respond with "Seltzer Boy," sung to Odetta's "Water Boy."
Where are you hiding?
If you don't come right now
I'm gonn' tell you boss on you
We often thought we should do this on stage, but I left the paper and continued my singing of Allan Sherman songs, and the audience was my children. I loved his work. Read his autobiography. And somehow never realized that he had died back in 1973 -- lost perhaps in my mind because it coincided with the Yom Kippur War.
If Allan Sherman, the late creator of parodies, is remembered in the 21st century, it will be like he was remembered in the late 20th during the summer when, at least once, a radio disc jockey will play "Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah," Sherman's musical ode to the trials and tribulations of summer camp.
Sherman defined a small window in the 1960s when Jews were fast becoming part of mainstream America, and mainstream America was moving from a tight urban existence to a spreading suburban one. And according to his biographer Mark Cohen, Sherman reveled in being Jewish albeit in a secular cultural milieu rather than in manner a religious one. According to Mr. Cohen, who provides a psychological evaluation of Sherman and his relationship to the Jewish world, "What was new about all of this was Sherman's sense of ease, his frank pleasure in his Jewish identity that he learned from his grandparents."
Sherman's Jewish persona was contemporary, not yet ready for nostalgia's rose-colored glasses, and one snubbed by the Jewish elite that preferred to wrap itself in the "Jewish cultural spirit" of destroyed East European Jewry than "forge any connection to the Jewish community as it really existed."
One would think that someone who sold millions of records, produced television shows and appeared on others would be remembered. But according to Mr. Cohen's painstaking research, Sherman has been pushed aside in the minds of music lovers because the parodies he wrote touched on the Jewish experience of immigrants who became assimilated. They turned away from the much more Jewish- and Yiddish-oriented songs by parodists such as Mickey Katz, an early influence of Sherman's, that have been touted as authentically Jewish by those leading the klezmer music revival that started in the late 1980s.
Mr. Cohen's interviews and analysis of Sherman's lifetime musical production define the singer/songwriter/parodist as a true genius, but one driven and eventually destroyed by his abilities and his demons. Much of his view of the world, Mr. Cohen constantly discovers, was shaped by an unhappy childhood and his desire to try to experience all that he missed while being shuttled across the country from relative to relative because his mother was unable to maintain a stable life.
Sherman's 1964 autobiography, "The Gift of Laughter," hints at the forces that drove the artist. But Mr. Cohen, through his extensive interviews with members of Sherman's family and friends, draws the reader into Sherman's imperfect childhood -- an absent father, a criminal stepfather, a conniving mother. Sherman attempted to define who he was, changing his name from Copelon (his father) to Segal (his stepfather) and finally settling on Sherman, the family name of his grandparents, a couple who implanted in the young Allan a love of things Jewish.
Especially important, Mr. Cohen unearthed those factors that aided the development of the Allan Sherman persona while he was a student at the University of Illinois. He did not graduate, having been ejected from it more than once. But it was the lifestyle of the student and his overwhelming interest in sex and the ability to project his personality ahead of his appearance that laid the groundwork for his early work as a television producer and writer of parodies and satire. It led to the eventual self-created implosion of his career, his family and his health.
Mr. Cohen defines that America in which Allan Sherman grew up as one where, in the 1940s, a large portion of the country was fearful of Jews, but by the 1960s, this figure had dropped to about 1 percent, making the country ready to listen to and buy a record, "My Son, the Folk Singer," that poked fun at the folk revival by wrapping it in the Jewish-American experience.
And although Mr. Cohen details the "folk" parodies that made Sherman a star, he does not neglect and in fact provides every possible detail of Sherman's original songbook: the Broadway musical. Those songwriters, however, denied him the permission to parody their work on his records, and they were never released. (Mr. Cohen posts many of the "lost parodies" on his website, allanshermanbiography.com.) Here's just one example -- "There is Nothing Like a Lox," set to the tune of "There Is Nothing Like a Dame" from "South Pacific":
We got herring sweet and sour,
We got pickles old and young,
We got corned beef and pastrami and a lot of tasty tongue
We got Philadelphia Cream Cheese in a little wooden box,
What ain't we got?
We ain't got lox!
With all of the detail about Sherman's life that Mr. Cohen has mined, for those who remember and treasure the works of this parody maven, he has provided a tricky minefield that must be navigated. If you love Allan Sherman, you will revel once again in the telling of the tale that President John F. Kennedy was reported to have been singing "Sarah Jackman," as he walked through the Carlyle Hotel, and the lesser-known story about a 1963 meeting between the president and the parodist at a dinner for the Department of Labor when JFK said, "I have your record and I like it very much."
And you will possibly be disturbed reading about Sherman's girlfriends, the treatment of his children and his custom-rolled joints made from pink paper with gold tips.
But trickiest of all is reading the song lyrics without having to sing verses or entire songs to yourself. It can turn a couple of days reading into a week of pleasurable memories.