Posted by Richard Harland Smith on January 13, 2009
Maybe it’s the passing of the holidays into the unexciting gray zone of January (mind you, January in Los Angeles this year means 85 degree temperatures and abundant sunshine) but I’ve had monsters on the brain lately. And not just monsters for their own sake, but monsters who sing and (presumably) dance and caper most un-Gothically (some twisting, some fruging, and all having an horrifically good time). Needing some driving music the other day, I threw a digital copy of THEMES FROM HORROR MOVIES by Dick Jacobs and His Orchestra into my car’s CD player and I’m still spinning it. I played it on the drive to drop off my kids at school this morning and my 3 year-old daughter knew instantly it was something quite special.
My daughter’s preferences run towards fairies and princesses these days but she likes monsters, too, and will often ask for “scary music” when we’re out driving. I only recently aquired a copy of this 1959 novelty album but I used to see it for sale all the time in the back pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland and I coveted it, I coveted it hard. I’m sure it sold back then for a princely $4 or something, way out of my league, but I spent hours staring at the representation of its dust jacket, all those posters for horror and science fiction movies I was only just discovering via late night television and occasional afternoon “creature features.” This was 1969 or ’70. A decade earlier (in August of 1957 to be exact), Universal Studios had released over 500 films from its vaults for TV broadcasts, 52 of which were reserved for a special package titled “Shock!” Later commonly referred to as “Shock Theater,” these films fed the collective imagination of a new generation of horror fans, baby boomers heading into the Cold War era with all the expected anxiety and dread. Whether these classic horror movies (among those included were DRACULA, DRACULA’S DAUGHTER, SON OF DRACULA, FRANKENSTEIN, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN, WEREWOLF OF LONDON, THE WOLFMAN, SHE-WOLF OF LONDON, THE MUMMY, THE MUMMY’S HAND, THE MUMMY’S TOMB, THE MUMMY’S GHOST, THE MUMMY’S CURSE, THE BLACK CAT, THE RAVEN, THE INVISIBLE MAN, THE INVISIBLE MAN RETURNS, THE INVISIBLE RAY, MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, the Inner Sanctum thrillers CALLING DR. DEATH, DEAD MAN’S EYES, PILLOW FEATH, THE FROZEN GHOST, WEIRD WOMAN and a few non-horror titles, such as NIGHT KEY with Boris Karloff and THE MYSTERY OF EDWIN DROOD) provided escape from the dread du jour or helped Eisenhower era youngsters concretize the barely-understood terror of atomic annihilation, the end result was a veritable craze, a monster madness, that found an outlet on television (with countless fright flick double and triple features hosted by the grave likes of Ghoulardi, Zacherley or Svengoolie), in print (after the debut of Famous Monsters in 1959, Castle of Frankenstein followed in 1962 and many shorter-lived copycats and immitators) and made-to-order for your home hi-fi system. Those of you for whom “The Monster Mash” is the alpha and omega of horror rock-n-roll, you’re in for a big surprise.
THEMES FROM HORROR MOVIES was put out by Coral Records, a subsidiary of Decca Records founded in 1949 and a label for such performers as Debbie Reynolds (“Tammy”), Patsy Cline (“Turn the Cards Slowly”), Mel Torme (“Goody, Goody”) and Buddy Holly and the Crickets (“Not Fade Away”). The novelty album was the brainchild of Dick Jacobs, a veteran arranger, conductor and musical director (for the TV show YOUR HIT PARADE) who was (you should pardon the pun) instrumental in the early successes of Holly, Jackie Wilson and Bobby Darin. (Jacobs even had a hit of sorts with the theme to the 1958 movie KATHY ‘O, performed by The Diamonds.) A lifelong monster fan (born in 1918, Jacobs would have been an impressionable 13 when Tod Browning’s DRACULA created the horror genre in the spring of 1931), Jacobs probably had no idea how well this offering would be remembered fifty years later. Back when one’s favorite horror and sci-fi films were entirely in the possession of television stations, an album comprised of a dozen or so horror movie themes was a prize, a Holy Grail, a must-have… even when Jacobs and his narrator, Bob McFadden, camped up the material with jokey intros (“See THE MOLE PEOPLE… You’ll dig it the most”) and haunted house sound effects (but really, wolf howls during the theme to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON?). The album is infectious fun from start to finish, with McFadden (who enjoyed a kind of fame as the voice of the cartoon heroes of MILTON THE MONSTER and COOL MCCOOL and as Frankenberry in TV ads for that popular General Mills breakfast cereal) proving himself a skill imitator of Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre. The copy McFadden reads is pretty bad, seemingly scribbled down on the fly, but the music itself is muscular and played (sound effect layovers notwithstanding) straight. This album is available as a free download from various sites on the World Wide Web, including this one.
Bob McFadden got a lot of mileage out of lampooning Universal’s classic monsters and his partner in crime was none other than poet Rod McKuen, a decade away from his tenure as a Vietnam era poet laureate. (In an odd bit of synchronicity, I’ve been singing McKuen’s “Love’s Been Good to Me” for several days without knowing that it was his work.) The pair had released a comic beatnik album, BEATSVILLE, in 1959 which ribbed the then-current fascination with angel-headed hipsters and the black turtleneck set. (Those Brylcreamed rock-and-roll hellraisers Bill Haley and the Comets are purported to have contributed vocalese to this studio production.) With SONGS OUR MUMMY TAUGHT US (Brunswick Records), the mimetic McFadden and “Dor” (as McKuen credited himself) drew a bead on the graveyard set with such dire ditties as “The Shriek of Araby,” “Frankie and Igor at an R&R Party” and “The Mummy,” which enjoyed 8 weeks of radio play as a Top 50 single. Recorded in stereo, the album’s surprise success prompted an EP follow-up, DRACULA CHA-CHA, which also hoped to capitalize on that exotic dance craze. Lightning did not strike twice, however, and this endeavor was a failure. Still, the sleeve for the record (which borrows and makes improvements to imagery from the movie THE BRIDES OF DRACULA) is a beaut and I wish I had it in my collection.
One album I did have and played with insanity-inducing regularity was FAMOUS MONSTERS SPEAK (Wonderland/AA Records, 1963) a non-humorous pair of stories devoted to the reigning kings of horrordom: Count Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster. Both tales of terror are surprising for their grim sobriety and downbeat endings – the Dracula story anticipates the sting in the tail of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire by many years. The scripts were written by Cherney Berg (a former TV producer who turned scary long-playing records into a cottage industry) and performed by Gabriel Dell. If the actor’s name rings a tiny bell, it’s probably because Dell had been one of the original Dead End kids, later the East Side Kids, the West Side Kids and the Bowery Boys depending on where they were shooting. After a short-lived nightclub partnership with Huntz Hall, Dell studied at the Actor’s Studio in New York and became one of the stock players on THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW, where he patented a killer Bela Lugosi impersonation. I knew of Dell primarily as the permitee of THE CORNER BAR, a short-lived sitcom that ran for a season on ABC, and he also played stunt cyclist Richard Roundtree’s manager in EARTHQUAKE (1974). Dell really tears into these pieces, especially “The Thoughts of Franenstein’s Monster,” whole passages from which I commited to memory as if they were Hamlet’s soliloquies.
Gabe Dell (far left) vamping it up on THE STEVE ALLEN SHOW.
Although I missed out on a lot of these recordings when I was a kid, I’m catching up with them now via various music sharing programs on the Internet and blogs devoted to curios like the above-mentioned. If not quite catapulting me backwards towards a second childhood, they are at least reminding me of why proudly identify myself, at the ripe old age of 47, as a MonsterKid.
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