Steve Greenberg (
The Twist was an even bigger hit the second time around, as it spread to every corner of the popular culture. At this point, a full-fledged dance-craze gold rush was on, with the Peppermint Lounge’s house band, Joey Dee and the Starlighters, immediately following Checker to No. 1 on Billboard with their “Peppermint Twist.” Immediately thereafter, the floodgates opened: “Sam Cooke’s Twistin’ the Night Away,” King Curtis” “Soul Twist,” the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” Gary U.S. Bonds’ 1-2 punch of “Dear Lady Twist” and “Twist, Twist Senora” and Checker’s own slew of follow-ups (notably “Let’s Twist Again”) all rocketed to the upper reaches of the charts. It was an incredible onslaught, all the more remarkable considering that the Twist didn’t spawn anything like this type of cultural response during its first visit to No. 1.
The Twist was suddenly everywhere, featured on TV shows (everything from Ozzie and Harriet to The Flintstones), in all sorts of advertisements, in glossy magazines, on the network news, etc. A quickie movie, “Twist Around The Clock,” even made it to cinemas, starring Chubby Checker himself. And it wasn’t long before the dance began to mutate, giving way to seemingly endless variations: the Hully Gully, the Monkey, the Watusi, and, notably, for our purposes, the Mashed Potatoes.
The first verse of Dee Dee Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time” opens with the line “The Mashed Potatoes started a long time ago/With a guy named Sloppy Joe.” But this is not actually true. As far as anyone can tell, the dance was originated in the late 50’s by James Brown, who danced it as part of his live stage shows. Brown even released a song called “Do the Mashed Potatoes” in early 1960. Credited to Nat Kendrick & the Swans (due to a contractual dispute), Brown’s instrumental recording was a Top 10 R&B hit, but barely dented the pop chart in an America that was still several months pre-Twist and hardly ready, stalling at No. 84.
With dance-craze fever in high gear in 1962, the folks at Cameo/Parkway, looking for their next hit, resurrected Brown’s original dance, tweaking the moves so that it would more closely resemble the Twist. Musically, the song owed a lot to the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman,” which had hit No. 1 late in 1961, just before “The Twist” began its second stay at the chart summit. “Please Mr. Postman” was, in fact, Motown’s attempt to produce a record you could Twist to, as was the Marvelettes’ follow-up single, “Twistin’ Postman.”
“Mashed Potato Time” was so similar in melody to “Please Mr. Postman” that Cameo/Parkway lyricist Kal Mann was ultimately forced to share writing credit with the five creators of “Postman.” Making the connection even more explicit, Dee Dee Sharp sang in “Mashed Potato Time” of how kids “discovered it’s the most, man/The day they did it to ‘Please Mr. Postman.'” Leaving no musical base uncovered, Sharp went on to instruct her audience that you could dance the Mashed Potatoes to the Tokens’ No. 1 hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and that “They even do it to ‘Dear Lady Twist.'”
It wouldn’t be long, though, before other records began to name-check the Mashed Potato. Sharp’s “Mashed Potato Time” was released in March, 1962, hot on the heels of her hit duet with Chubby Checker, “Slow Twistin’.” It shot to No. 2 on the Billboard pop chart and went all the way to No. 1 on the R&B chart. James Brown quickly responded to this usurping of hs creation by releasing “Mashed Potatoes U.S.A,” this time under his own name, but saw limited success. Chris Montez’ ” Let’s Dance,” The Contours’ “Do You Love Me,” Chris Kenner’s “Land of A Thousand Dances,” Connie Francis’ “V-A-C-A-T-I-O-N” and Sam Cooke’s “Having A Party” subsequently had greater success than Brown in jumping on the Mashed Potato bandwagon.. (Sam Cooke is an interesting figure in the context of this story: An astute student of pop culture, he not only singled out the Mashed Potatoes and “Soul Twist” in “Having A Party”, but his song “Twistin’ the Night Away” documented the scene at the Peppermint Lounge in early ’62. Cooke even managed to work “a cat named Frankenstein” into his 1963 hit “Another Saturday Night.”)
By the time Bobby Pickett decided to make a record about movie monsters in the summer of 1962, not only had “Mashed Potato Time” saturated the airwaves, but so had its Top 10 follow up “Gravy (For My Mashed Potatoes),” co-written by Kal Mann and Dave Appell. The record Pickett came up with, “Monster Mash,” is a parody of both Dee Dee Sharp hits, although since her pair are pretty much interchangeable, you’re free to imagine he’s parodying either one. The chords, melody, piano part (supposedly played by Leon Russell, although some sources say he was late for the session and only played on the record’s b-side, “Monster Mash Party”) and lyrical structure in “Monster Mash” are clearly taken from “Mashed Potato Time” and the “wah-ooo” female background vocals are a direct lift of the exact same vocal part that can be found in both Sharp Records.
The magic of “Monster Mash,” what makes it entertaining, is that Bobby Pickett’s record parodies “Mashed Potato Time” by turning it into a song about the movie monsters craze. The monsters in question have all gotten together to party at Dr. Frankenstein’s place and learn a new dance called the Monster Mash. Pickett does most of the record in his Boris Karloff voice, except for one line, which is the record’s most brilliant moment: At the end of the fourth verse, in the exact same spot where Dee Dee Sharp had exclaimed “They even do it to ‘Dear Lady Twist,'” Picket suddenly stops imitating Karloff and takes on the persona of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula, asking “Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?” What gives this line a certain poignancy (for the pop culture enthusiast, at least) is that Pickett was consciously commenting on the fact that the Twist had already become passé. By the time “Monster Mash” hit No. 1 in late October, all the aforementioned Twist records were gone from the charts, the kids were on to other dances like the Swim or the Loco-Motion, and Chubby Checker would never have another Top 10 record, after a 2-year run in which he’d had eight of them.
A year later, the Twist-inspired dance-craze fever itself would disappear just as quickly as it came, replaced by Beatlemania and all that followed in its wake. And though the Beatles did have early hits with their covers of “Twist and Shout” and “Please Mr. Postman,” they soon led the culture in another direction entirely, leaving the dance craze era a quaint but fading memory.
As for the movie monster craze, it too finally passed its expiration date, with parody at the end becoming its main form of expression: “The Munsters,” which aired on television from 1964 through 1966; 1967’s “Mad Monster Party” a Rankin-Bass production which featured animated monster puppets a la Davey and Goliath and the voice of Boris Karloff himself; Wolfman Jack’s jive-talking mid-60’s radio persona; and various Saturday morning cartoons produced by Hanna-Barbera, including “Frankenstein Jr.” (1966), and the Gruesome family’s arrival on the “The Flintstones” (1964). The classic monsters-Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, et. al.-would of course live on, but not many remember that there was a time when cultural references to Frankenstein reflexively meant the Boris Karloff version from Shock Theatre. Horror films themselves would soon enter a new era, as Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Exorcist (1973) and all that followed would scare audiences without featuring Dracula or the Wolf Man.
Before retiring at the end of the 60’s and selling their company to Nabisco, the founders of Aurora had a few more flush years creating movie monsters under license from Universal Pictures. The Mummy model kit came out in 1963 to great success, followed by the Creature, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and Godzilla. Aurora released their final monster model kits in 1966, this time in collaboration with Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which by this point was also running on fumes.
And yet despite the demise of its twin inspirations, “Monster Mash” managed to live on, to embed itself in the culture as a thing unto itself. Halloween comes every year, after all, and there are no other classic Halloween songs, to the best of my knowledge, so I suppose it had no competition. And kids still do think it’s funny. As I write this the day before Halloween, “Monster Mash” by Bobby “Boris” Pickett sits at No. 25 on the iTunes pop singles chart. Click over to Spotify and you’ll find over 50 versions of the song to choose from-one of them by John “The Cool Ghoul” Zacherle, even.
I can’t think of another example in pop culture of a parody so outliving and outshining its inspiration(s) that people no longer even remember it was ever intended as a parody. And that has got to bring a (fiendish) smile to the face of Bobby Pickett.