Novelty Songs & Their “Serious” Connections

We recently published an article on the oft-maligned work of Bob Merrill, who somehow managed to compose a slew of number one hits with no musical knowledge. To add insult to injury, Merrill’s composition tool of choice was a toy xylophone, supposedly the only instrument he could play. His story is so fascinating that we elected to focus this month’s feature on novelty songs, for which Merrill is wrongfully accused of championing.

One of Merrill’s oft-maligned novelty numbers was his reworking of an Italian folk song into “Mambo Italiano.” This became a huge hit for Rosemary Clooney, who considered herself worthy of more serious tunes. She was right, of course, but her fight was hardly worth the cost. Rather than enjoy these goofy hits with a modicum of dignity, Clooney was a manic-depressive, and she let the novelty songs get the best of her.

The one that best defined her career in the 1950s was “Come On-A My House,” which topped the charts during the summer of 1951. This song had an odd history; it was written in 1939 and languished for a dozen years.

This novelty song was written by the rather novel combination of Ross Bagdasarian and William Saroyan. The men were cousins, and although “Come On-A My House” is solidly ensconsed in the canon of American popular song, it is actually an interpretation of a song from Saroyan and Bagdasarian’s Armenian heritage. Saroyan is of course better remembered for his Pulitzer Prize winning work as an author and playwright.

Bagdasarian, on the other hand, would give himself the stage name David Seville and record a massive novelty hit called “The Witch Doctor.” Lyrics like “oo-ee-oo-ah-ah, ting-tang, walla-walla bing-bang” make Bob Merrill’s songs seem downright highbrow. Bagdasarian’s biggest contribution to the American songbook and American culture is certainly his development of Alvin and the Chipmunks. His accelerated vocals warm the airwaves each December as the Chipmunks plead “please Christmas don’t be late.”

Just Plain Fun

Who can explain the appeal of novelty songs? Country artist Ray Stevens topped the pop charts in the early 1970s with “The Streak.” Like “Mambo Italiano” years before, “The Streak” was a simple tune musically that managed to take a light-hearted look at a currently popular cultural diversion. Mambo dancing in the 1950s, streaking in the 1970s…the subject hardly matters; the songs are just fun.

Unlike Rosemary, Dean Martin recognized that “Mambo Italiano” was just plain fun, and embraced the song and made it his own. To be fair, Clooney eventually came to terms with her past, and sang the songs proudly near the end of her life — but only amidst other, more “serious” offerings.

Martin was of course willing to sing almost anything, and usually managed to enjoy it. Although most of his material shouldn’t be considered “novelty” songs, Dino ultimately kind of parodied himself, and his presentation of material like “That’s Amore” was a mix of fun performance and thoroughly professional singing.

“That’s Amore” was easily Dean’s signature song until he recorded “Everybody Loves Somebody Sometime.” Over the passing of time, “That’s Amore” has been used more in TV and film soundtracks, so it is once again more closely associated with Martin. But in the mid 1960s, he hit the top of the charts with “Everybody Loves Somebody,” on Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label. The lyrics for the song were penned by Irving Taylor, who had a couple of novelty hits to his credit. “Kookie, Kookie,” from the 1950s, and “Caramba, it’s the Samba” during the 1940s. Taylor went on to compose the theme from the F Troop TV show; he also composed theme music for Dean Martin’s show.

Martin for his part patterned his vocal styles after his musical heroes, the Mills Brothers. The Mills Brothers recorded their share of what could be considered novelty songs, such as “Yellow Bird” and “Across the Alley from the Alamo.” These are, of course, a lot more dignified than most novelty records, so we admit this is a bit of a stretch. The point is that like the Mills Brothers, Martin took his performances and his audience seriously, but he understood that he shouldn’t take himself too seriously. It made him very likable, and enabled him to strike gold with marginal material.

“Everybody Loves Somebody” had been recorded a few months earlier by the chairman of the label, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra as you can imagine did take himself seriously; he never forgave Mitch Miller for making him record a novelty song on the Columbia label. Long story short, Sinatra’s rendition of “Everybody Loves Somebody” stiffed. But Martin rolled with it, recorded an over-the-top vocal, and went to the top of the charts. Legend has it that he sent his boss at Reprise a telegram…Frank: That’s how it’s done. Dean.

Photo above: Rosemary Clooney, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis circa 1952. Rosemary despised novelty songs while Dean embraced them. As for Jerry, it’s little remembered that he had a top ten record in 1956 with “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody,” originally a 1918 hit for Al Jolson.

Photo by NBC, Public Domain,