How Bobby 'Boris' Pickett Turned 'Monster Mash' Into a Graveyard Smash

Bobby Pickett
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Bobby Pickett

A big fan of Elvis Presley, Bobby Pickett was thrilled when a friend of his who knew the King told him that Elvis had heard his single “Monster Mash.” Pickett asked his pal Melody what Elvis thought of his novelty song. “Well,” she told him, “he hates your record, Bobby. He thinks it’s the stupidest thing he ever heard.” Pickett could only sputter, “Whoever liked Elvis anyway?!” Looking back on it, Pickett told Billboard in 1984, “I don’t think he knew who Boris Karloff was, to tell the truth.”

Born Feb. 11, 1938 in Somerville, Mass., Pickett was a big movie fan as a child and first became aware of Karloff when he saw the actor’s films. Later, after a stint in Korea as a member of the Signal Corps, Pickett returned home to Somerville. “I would enter these talent contests. I did this shtick about Boris Karloff…and every time I’d do it, I’d win.” After a year in Somerville, Pickett moved to Hollywood to pursue an acting career. Soon after, his friend Lenny Capizzi also moved to California with three friends. They formed a singing group, the Cordials, and asked Bobby to join.

“I asked Lenny if it would be OK if during the monologue on ‘Little Darlin’’ I would do Boris Karloff. That inspired Lenny to say that would be a great voice for a novelty record.” But Pickett was thinking about his acting career, not making records. He quit the Cordials and signed with an agent. Two weeks later, the agent died of a heart attack.

That prompted Pickett to call Capizzi and suggest they do that novelty song after all. They had a writing session and Pickett came up with the title “Monster Twist,” but Capizzi preferred “Monster Mashed Potato” as a more au courant choice. “In less than two hours we had the whole thing,” Pickett recalled. “We did it on a Wollensak tape recorder.”

Capizzi took the recording to record producer Gary S. Paxton, who agreed to helm the studio session. He created the sound of a coffin opening by putting a rusty nail in a 2x4 and pulling it out slowly with a hammer. The bubbling sounds came from blowing into a straw in a glass of water. The chains were dropped onto plywood planks on the floor. “When I reached the studio on the corner of Highland and Franklin, we were booked right after a guy named Herb Alpert,” Pickett told Billboard. “The Crypt-Kickers were Gary S. Paxton, a writing partner of his named Johnny McCrae, and Ricky Page, who was a session singer.” The song was recorded in one take. “I was very prepared for it,” Pickett said. “I’d gone over it in my head. I guess I’d done it out loud in front of a mirror a couple of times. I walked in and felt real comfortable and Leon Russell was playing piano.”

Paxton took the recording to four major labels and was turned down by all of them. “I had no idea it would ever get played on the radio or be a hit,” Pickett confessed. Paxton pressed a thousand copies on his own Garpax label and drove all over Southern California, dropping off copies at radio stations. “By the time he drove back, they had played it. The phones lit up and he knew he had a hit. One of the labels that turned him down, London Records, called and said, ‘We made a mistake.’ And he made a deal with London.”

“Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett and the Crypt-Kickers debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 the week of Sept. 8, 1962. Six weeks later, the single knocked the Four Seasons’ “Sherry” from the top spot to begin a two-week reign that ended four days before Halloween. The single returned to the Hot 100 in August 1970, peaking at No. 91. In 1973, “Monster Mash” made its third appearance on the Hot 100, this time scaring its way up to No. 10. On the Digital Song Sales chart, the track charted in 2005, 2007-2011 and 2013-2017, with a peak position of No. 27 on the tally dated Nov. 18, 2017.

No wonder that Lou Simon, senior director of music programming at SiriusXM Radio, says, “‘Monster Mash’ has timeless appeal. The generations who grew up with it have fond memories of the song from the ’60s and again from its ’70s renaissance. The familiar arrangement is uncomplicated and delightful. It’s just one of those records that wears well and makes people happy.”

Simon notes that “Monster Mash” is played on SiriusXM’s ’60s on 6 channel all year round. “The week leading up to Halloween, we increase the plays to give it more exposure. The children – and grandchildren – of our ’60s listeners love the song. We get requests for it all year long. Unlike other novelty records that are a bit dated in arrangement and production, like ‘The Battle of New Orleans,’ ‘Mr. Custer’ and ‘They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,’ ‘Monster Mash’ still sounds fresh. If someone made it today, I believe it would sound pretty much the same.”