The concept and popularity of novelty songs began in the 1920s and 1930s, and they are generally funny, well-crafted pieces of music, often applying to a holiday, a dance or a current event.
Novelty and comedy songs have many of the same characteristics, but so-called comedy songs are comical and/or nonsensical, almost always performed by an actual comedian, and a recent column took up the subject of comedy hits. To view that column, click here.
On the other hand, novelty songs are written and/or performed as a novelty, or it becomes a novelty when removed from its original context. Such songs contain comical or nonsensical lyrics written with the intent to humor the listeners.
Novelty records have played a significant role in the history of rock-pop music, and there are many such records that have made an impact on the Billboard Magazine’s pop music charts throughout the decades.
This column puts the focus on the highest-charting novelty songs — those that reached the very top of the Billboard pop listings in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. Following are capsule summaries and links to those No. 1 singles, and to hear any of them, simply click on the title.
- “THE PURPLE PEOPLE EATER” (Sheb Wooley, 1958): Among all novelty songs, this is arguably No. 1, because it’s the only such recording that topped the Billboard pop charts for six consecutive weeks. Born Shelby Wooley in Erick, Okla., he had a key acting role in the classic Western film “High Noon” and he also was on the cast of the “Rawhide” TV series. He wrote this song, which sold more than 3 million copies, and he used the same audio track speed-up tactics as David Seville utilized in the next two songs on this list.
- “WITCH DOCTOR” (David Seville, 1958): Ross Bagdasarian — a native of Fresno, Calif., who moved to Los Angeles in 1950 — took this recording to the No. 1 position on Billboard for three weeks, and the single remained in the Hot 100 for 18 weeks under his David Seville stage name. This was his first experiment with speeding up an audio track to get a distinctive, squeaky, high-pitched voice.
- “THE CHIPMUNK SONG” (The Chipmunks, 1958): This well-known tune has been a holiday mainstay, ever since it topped the national music charts for four straight weeks in 1958. The animated characters and voices were created by the same entertainer who recorded “Witch Doctor.” On the original recording, Bagdasarian did all of the voices. A follow-up song by The Chipmunks (“Alvin’s Harmonica”) charted at No. 3 on Billboard, and The Chipmunks had their own animated TV show in the early ’60s.
- “THE STREAK” (Ray Stevens, 1974): No recording artist has charted more novelty records than the singer-comedian born Harold Ray Ragsdale in Clarkdale, Ga. He had 25 novelty songs reach the Billboard Hot 100, but this was the only chart-topper, although he did also hit No. 1 with the non-novelty “Everything Is Beautiful” in 1970.
- “I SAW MOMMY KISSING SANTA CLAUS” (Jimmy Boyd, 1952): The young singer from McComb, Miss., recorded this holiday classic at the age of 13, and it went to No. 1 on both the Billboard and Cash Box magazine pop music listings. The song was commissioned by Saks Fifth Avenue to promote the store’s Christmas card for the year, which featured an original sketch by Perry Barlow, who drew for The New Yorker for many decades.
- “MONSTER MASH” (Bobby “Boris” Pickett, 1962): This familiar classic hit hit the charts on three occasions: No. 1 for two weeks in late 1962, No. 91 in 1970 and No. 10 in 1973. The singer from Somerville, Mass., an aspiring actor who became more famous as a vocalist, co-wrote this hit with Len Capizzi. The back-up Crypt-Kickers included pianist Leon Russell, Johnny McCrae of Ronny & The Daytonas, and Gary Paxton of Skip & Flip and The Hollywood Argyles.
- “MY DING-A-LING” (Chuck Berry, 1972): The legendary singer-guitarist — a native of San Jose, Calif., who later relocated to St. Louis — had numerous hit singles, but this was his only chart-topper. He was one of the true pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll, with such legendary hits as “Maybelline” (1955), “Rock and Roll Music” (1957) and “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958). With different lyrics, this song was originally recorded by Berry as “My Tambourine” in 1968.
- “DISCO DUCK” (Rick Dees & His Cast Of Idiots, 1976): Rigdon Osmond Dees III was a longtime radio disc jockey in his hometown of Memphis and elsewhere. And while a DJ at WMPS, he came up with the idea for this big novelty hit, which was first released on the Fretone label before becoming a nationwide smash on RSO Records.
- “ITSY BITSY TEENIE WEENIE YELLOW POLKA DOT BIKINI” (Brian Hyland, 1960): The vocalist was a 16-year-old high school sophomore in Queens, N.Y., at the time of this hit, which spent 13 weeks on the Billboard Top 40. This was first recorded on the tiny Leader label, but it was released to Kapp for national distribution, and it was one of 21 Billboard Hot 100 for the singer. The female voice on the single was that of Trudy Packer.
- “ALLEY OOP” (Hollywood Argyles, 1960): This song, written by Dallas Frazier, was based on the comic-strip character, and the recording artists were a group of studio musicians headed by Gary Paxton, who was the “Flip” in the duo Skip & Flip. After the record became a big hit, a different touring group was formed to promote the single. Another rendition of the song, by Dante & The Evergreens, charted at No. 15 nationally.
- “MOTHER-IN-LAW” (Ernie K-Doe, 1961): Early on, Ernest Kador Jr. of New Orleans sang in gospel groups, but he reached the pinnacle of both the pop and R&B charts with this well-known single, which also featured backup bass vocals by Benny Spellman. The singer had four other Billboard Hot 100 recordings, but none of them reached the Top 40.
- “CONVOY” (C.W. McCall, 1976): Iowa native William Fries sold more than 2 million copies of this jargon-laced CB radio conversation at the peak of the CB fad. In addition to topping the Billboard pop charts, it also was the No. 1 C&W song for six weeks. He can’t be considered a one-hit wonder because his “Wolf Creek Pass” charted at No. 40 in 1975, and after his music career, he was elected mayor of Ouray, Colo., in 1986.
- “MR. CUSTER” (Larry Verne, 1960): Born Larry Vern Erickson in Minneapolis, he went from a photographer’s assistant to novelty recording artist. Three songwriters — Fred Darian, Al DeLory and Joe Van Winkle — who worked in same building picked Larry to sing this novelty song because of his Southern drawl. The lyrics were a spoof on Gen. Custer and Little Big Horn.
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