Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: The Moment

Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Stay Tuned By Stan Cornyn: The Moment

Every Tuesday and Thursday, former Warner Bros. Records executive and industry insider Stan Cornyn ruminates on the past, present, and future of the music business.

After Peter, Paul & Mary’s explosion on the record market, 1962 clearly felt like Burbank sat in a land of gold. Warner employees felt good. Even cuddly. Their neighbors had even heard of Warner’s records, and now were buying them.

Then, as often is the case, the phone rang.

Calling WBR in Burbank was Hollywood comedian George Burns, of the George Burns and Gracie Allen shows, a radio super-couple. Burns had met Mike Maitland at Jim Conkling’s stag farewell dinner months earlier. Now, Burns asked WBR’s president to sign a contract, not with him, but with another, “in” Hollywood comedy singer. His name: Allan Sherman.

“Just give him a listen.” Urged Burns, and Maitland said “sure.”

His name was little-known outside the broadcast business. It labeled a pudgy-bodied writer-developer who lived next door to Harpo Marx over in Brentwood. For fun, Sherman would sing his parody songs at parties. He’d even sung his parody of “Big Bad John” at the Conkling party rewritten as “Big Bad Jim.”

Burns said Sherman’s repertoire was ready for records. Plenty of laughers. Satires on songs everybody knew the words of. Like from My Fair Lady:

A piece of rye bread isn’t very tasty.
A slice of onion isn’t such a treat.
A slab of cream cheese tastes a little pasty, but…
With a little bit of lox, with a little bit of lox,
You get something very good to eat!

So Maitland thought “Why not. Sure.”

Sherman was on the unemployment line, but if Warner was warm... Hearing “sure,” Sherman quick-called agent Bullets Durgom to make a deal. “Bullets” phoned Mike.

Maitland said he was willing, but wanted Sherman to sing parodies of out-of-copyright songs, avoiding, as good presidents must, copyright infringement. Composers, Mike knew, loved to sue.

Sherman agreed; so it’ll be do-overs of old folk songs, yeah.

The deal was light: $1500 as the advance for Sherman, minus $150 for Bullets’ agent fee. But Sherman needed work, and immediately started re-composing folk songs: night and day, wherever, writing in his shower, even on the road to the Unemployment Office, wherever.

Lou Busch, a reliable arranger for WBR albums, was hired to provide the songs’ orchestrations.

On August 6, the album – My Son, the Folk Singer - was made in one, fast session in Hollywood at an indy recording studio. Exec Joe Smith supervised the set up. About a hundred guest chairs for the invitees, whose laughs would help the soundtrack. Add hors d’oeuvres and a bar to keep it bubbly. And most crucially: the fat fellow up on a podium, singing his stomach off.

At seven that evening, the session started. Folk songs with Jewish humor, as if from some deli menu. Harry Belafonte’s “Matilda” turned into “My Zelda.” “The Streets of Loredo” moved to “The Streets of Miami.” France’s “Frere Jacques” got renamed “Sarah Jackman.” “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” became the tale of a garment salesman: “The Ballad of Harry Lewis.”

The session took under one hour, straight through. The audience roared. And screamed and howled. Reported incident: Audience-member and TV comedienne Pat Carroll laughed so hard she had to hit the ladies’ room four times during the 45-minute session.

How Songs Got Remade

Based on the opera, La Gioconda:

Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh,
Here I am at Camp Grenada
Camp is very entertaining
and they say we'll have some fun if it stops raining.

I went hiking with Joe Spivy
He developed poison ivy
You remember Leonard Skinner
He got ptomaine poisoning last night after dinner.

All the counselors hate the waiters
And the lake has alligators
And the head coach wants no sissies
So he reads to us from something called Ulysses.

Now I don't want this should scare ya
But my bunkmate has malaria
You remember Jeffrey Hardy
They're about to organize a searching party...

Based on “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”:

I’m singing you the ballad of a great man of the cloth,
His name was Harry Lewis and he worked for Irving Roth,
He died while cutting velvet on a hot July the Fourth,
But his cloth goes shining!

Glory Glory Harry Lewis….

October 4, 1962

The day My Son, the Folk Singer ships into the market. Above that title on the cover appear the words “Allan Sherman’s mother presents…”

Out the album ships. And who’d’ve guessed. Radio play! Immediate! All over the country!

Even better!

One Warner sales guy, going on his weekly rounds to record stores like at the White Front store in the “valley” (the San Fernando Valley), has his bunch of Folk Singer LPs with him. He puts them on the buyer’s counter. The buyer brushes it away; “never heard of it.”

Then, this saliva-dripping customer rushes up to them, panting “Just heard something on my car radio. Something about Harry Lewis and the Drapes of Roth. I gotta have that record… I mean I was laughing so hard, I thought I’d have an accident.”

Warner’s sales rep (Reggie Tobin) pointed to his album, there on the counter. “That’s what I’ve been telling you. Glory, Glory Harry Lewis. See, it’s in this album.”

So the buyer answers, “OK, I’ll take ten.”

The Allen Sherman debut album took off across Radio America. Stores ran out. Burbank could not print enough record jackets. At Wallich’s Music City, Sunset and Vine, Allan Sherman albums got sold semi-naked, just in paper innersleeves, with an IOU to come back later and pick up your album’s jacket.

Within three weeks, chaos throughout the market. 390,000 sold in three weeks. Heading for over a million. And a gold record.

By December 1, 1962, My Son, the Folk Singer reaches #1 on the Billboard album chart. And sticks up there, too.

Quickly, let’s rush out album #2: My Son, The Celebrity. Six hundred thousand copies of that one sell.

Then (August 1963) album three: My Son the Nut. “Hello Muddah” ships as a single. It sells 300,000 in two weeks. It too goes up to #1, with all three Sherman albums now in the Top 100. Plus a Grammy coming the next May.

1962 – The Year Warner Had Waited For

Wait, let’s back up one year to that first album: the Folk Singer. December, now, and Warner Bros. Records feels... they’ve made it. 1962 became the year of the Everlys, Bob Newhart, Peter, Paul & Mary, and now the fattest of them all, Allan Sherman. Plus soundtracks (The Music Man and Gypsy) all out on Jack Warner’s own label. Singles, too.

Sales totaled $4.2 million and, would you believe, the company’s net profits were now green. All in all, a plus $505,000 at year’s end.

Warner accounting head Ed West, whom Jack Warner’d put beside Jim Conkling four years earlier mostly to watch Jack’s cash, Ed West now felt pride. He’d stayed inside the label, even back when the studio heads had decided to flush it.

On a day in December, with 1962’s year-end profits report just in, Ed West felt like taking a stroll. From one end of the narrow, shoddy hallway, he strolled west on WBR’s linoleum floors, over to Mike Maitland’s office. West told Maitland, “You’ll be glad to know, I just sent the Studio a statement. We’ve totally repaid its $3,000,000.” We are profitable. West and Maitland were not born-to-hug, but it felt good. They did.

Mike Maitland hurried across to his boss’ office, taking the news to the Chief. Even Jack Warner sounded softer now. “You know, kid,” he told Maitland, “it always bothered me about that record company, that it hadn’t been doing well. It’s got my name on it. I don’t like anything with my name on it that isn’t doing well.”

In that conversation, the studio execs that Jack Warner had sick’d on Conkling and Maitland (the Starr-Kalmenson team), now even they stopped sic’ing. Maitland was now a profits guy. Mike even got invited over to the Chief Jack’s house on weekends to play tennis. Mike went, and was savvy enough not to win.

What Jack Warner did not mention was this another big deal he was in the middle of making. That deal he was about to make, it would totally flip-flop Warner Bros. Records in 1963.

But for now -- Stay Tuned.

Where Is He Now

Allan Sherman – After soaring, Sherman’s career un-soared, starting down hill in 1965. But those first two or three years, Allan Sherman later got summed up by Joe Smith as “he was The Moment. Even more than Peter, Paul & Mary, at that time, Allan Sherman was The Moment. You’re The Moment for a very short time; then you’re not The Moment anymore.”

By 1966, Warners dropped Sherman from its artist roster. Poor sales did it. 1966 also revealed real downs in Sherman’s own behavior. He ate and drank heavily. His Broadway musical failed. He tried to sing “well.” His wife sued for divorce and child custody. As Lou Busch recalled, “If ever I saw success ruin a guy, it was Allan. He blew the wife, the kids, and eventually, the money, too. He got difficult.”

Sherman began living on unemployment benefits again, staying in the Motion Picture Home in Calabasas, California. Feeling the hurt, Joe Smith in 1973 offered Sherman $5000 in advance for an album of golf routines.

76 Saul Cohens in the country club,
And a hundred and ten nice men named Levine!
And there’s more than a thousand Finks
Who parade around the links –
It’s a sight that really must be seen!

On November 20, 1973, WBR engineer Rudy Hill got a call. Sherman wanted a copy of what he’d recorded so far. Rudy took a copy up to Allen’s house in West L.A.

There, as Sherman began to eat some cabbage soup, he suffered a massive heart attack, caved to the floor, his head hitting with a clunk. Rudy Hill, alone with him, called the doctor. Hill tried giving Sherman mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, ‘til Sherman regurgitated in Hill’s mouth. Paramedics came and began pumping Sherman’s heart. Twenty minutes. Then one of them said, “Let him go.”

“It was so cold,” Hill remembered. “I’d never seen anything so cold. I felt that I was in this other world. But there he was, that fat, obese man who’d made so many people happy, lying there on a cold floor.”

Allan Sherman died in West Hollywood in November, 1973, at age 49.