After MANY years of planning and preparation, Rhino's Allan Sherman box set finally came out yesterday. (My Son The Box, Rhino Handmade RHM2 7891, limited to 4000 copies) For Allan's hard core fans, it is a virtual cornucopia.
It has nearly everything he recorded for Warner Brothers in the 1960s, which constitutes most of his catalog. For those who are interested, I'll run through some of the stuff, but if you want to wait until you get your copy before hearing about the new items, beware of SPOILERS AHEAD!
Disc One opens with the special introduction that Jack Benny recorded for him to use at the beginning of his early live shows. It's funny, and a great way to start the set.
This is followed by all 10 tracks from his first (and arguably best) album, My Son, The Folk Singer. Most people contemplating buying this set are probably very familiar with this album, as it's one of the easiest comedy LPs to find used. However, this marks its CD debut. Only four of its tracks have appeared on CD before, and amazingly the hilarious opening track "The Ballad Of Harry Lewis" is not one of those four. The audience reaction to this song is half of the fun. Allan can barely get through some of the lines without them cracking up. I don't know for sure if this was also the first song recorded at the session, but it's quite possible.
It's hard to understand today just how outrageous Allan's songs were at the time, but listening to the roars of laughter from his first album should give somewhat of a glimpse into the 1962 mindset. As with the first track, the audience really makes the whole album work. Even though Allan often had stage fright, there's no doubt that he did his best work when in front of an audience. He definitely had them on his side and they stuck right with him through the whole session. (Of course, it didn't hurt that they were mostly friends he had invited, but their laughter is genuine.)
The outstanding tracks, in my opinion, are "The Ballad Of Harry Lewis", "Sir Greenbaum's Madrigal", "Sarah Jackman", "Oh Boy", and "Shticks And Stones" (a wonderful medley of short parodies, perhaps the inspiration for "Weird Al"'s food medleys), but really the whole album is solid and very enjoyable.
Next is a great treat - Allan's previously unreleased Jewish version of "My Fair Lady", including the story and five song parodies. He performed this at his audition for Warner Brothers in 1962. It has been in circulation among collectors for years, but now it is available in quite good sound from a restored acetate. (Unfortunately they did not locate the tape in time to use it on this set.)
Disc two has all 11 tracks from My Son, The Celebrity, which is another stupendous work which most people will be familiar with. It has many outstanding tracks such as "Al 'N Yetta" (providing a snapshot of prime time TV from the early 1960s), "Get On The Garden Freeway", "Harvey And Sheila", "When I Was A Lad", and "Shticks Of One And Half A Dozen Of The Other" (another great medley of short parodies). [Younger listeners may be mystified by "The Let's All Call Up A.T.&T. And Protest To The President March", which refers to "all-digit dialing". That is what we use today, as opposed to named telephone exchanges had been in use for several decades. Phone numbers in the old format in other popular songs include Beechwood 4-5789 (BE4-5789 -> 234-5789) and Tidewater 4-1009 (TI4-1009 -> 844-1009).]
Next up are two unreleased outtakes from the sessions for the second album. It's obvious why "Chopped Liver" (a parody of "Moon River") did not make the cut, since Allan could not remember the words. It might be possible to edit together a halfway usable version, but here it is unedited and complete with someone else coming up to the mic and singing his own parody called "Yom Kippur". It doesn't stand up well to repeated listenings, but it's interesting to heard something of this nature. It's followed by the setup for "Won't You Come Home, Disraeli" which leads into a brief but funny parody of "Heartaches" called "Smart Ass". (Allan would parody this song fully on his next album as "Headaches".)
Disc two concludes with the first side of My Son, The Nut, which was his third album, and really gives My Son, The Folk Singer a run for its money. This was the peak of Allan's career, and his third #1 album in a row. Again, there's nary a bad track, but among the best on side one are "You Went The Wrong Way, Old King Louie", "Hungarian Goulash No. 5", and "Here's To The Crabgrass".
Disc three (the only one with no previously unreleased material) features side two of My Son, The Nut, starting off with his biggest hit single and a perennial summertime favorite, "Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh! (A Letter From Camp)". This is the first of five versions which are heard on the set. Everyone reading this knows this song, so there is no point in me saying any more about it. Other great tracks here are "Eight Foot Two, Solid Blue" and "Hail To Thee, Fat Person".
Next up is "Sue Me" which features Debbie Reynolds and is from the Reprise Musical Repertory Theatre recording of "Guys And Dolls". That album has been available off and on over the years, but this is the song's first appearance on an Allan Sherman compilation.
This is followed by the single version of "The Twelve Gifts Of Christmas" (mono, not remixed to stereo), which features the original line "statue of a naked lady with a clock where her stomach ought to be". The word "naked" was edited out when this was put on an album a year later.
Then we have Allan's fourth album, Allan In Wonderland. At this point, Allan's popularity was starting to decline, but not the quality of his material. This is still a great album, with tracks such as "Lotsa Luck", "Little Butterball", and the epic "Good Advice". The latter may be Allan's most energetic performance, and is perhaps my favorite track in his whole catalog. His delivery on this is absolutely superb. It goes on for 8 1/2 minutes without losing steam.
Disc three closes with another rare track from a single, "My Son, The Vampire", the theme from a movie that was re-released and retitled in 1964. This track has been available on Dr. Demento Presents Spooky Tunes & Scary Melodies for the past decade, but now is available on an Allan Sherman compilation.
Disc four also opens with a version of "Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh!", this time the equally funny follow-up from 1964 that was recorded on "The Tonight Show" and released as a single. Then come his fifth and sixth Warner Brothers albums. For Swingin' Livers Only is still prime Sherman, with hilarious tracks like "Grow, Mrs. Goldfarb", "Shine On, Harvey Bloom", "J. C. Cohen", "Pop Hates The Beatles", and "Bye Bye Blumberg" (as well as the edited version of Christmas single from the previous year). This is the last album on which the full genius of Lou Busch is heard. I'm not sure why a different arranger/conductor was used on the next album, but for the first five albums, the combination of Allan's delivery and Lou's arrangements really transformed the songs from funny parodies you might laugh at once or twice into exciting records you can listen to again and again.
My Name Is Allan was his sixth Warner Brothers album, and has a bit of a different feel without Lou Busch. It's also the first time one of Allan's albums contained a track recorded without an audience. "The Laarge Daark Aardvark Song" had to involve overdubbing due to the sped up voice, but as is often the case, the extra work put into it brings the listener a less rewarding experience than the rest of the album which was recorded with a studio audience as usual. This album seems a bit sub-par compared to previous ones, but Allan's delivery is still good, and there are still fun songs like "It's A Most Unusual Play", "Peyton Place, U.S.A.", "The Drinking Man's Diet", and "Chim Chim Cheree" (a snapshot of 1960s advertising).
Disc four closes with two unreleased items from the My Name Is Allan sessions. First is "When I'm In The Mood For Love (You're In The Mood For Herring)", which also appears on the next album, but the version here continues for another verse. I'm not sure why that was not used on the next album. Following this is the previously unreleased "Over The Rainbow" parody "Overweight People", whose lyrics were first seen in Allan's autobiography. Now we actually get to hear him sing this little gem, which had actually been in his act for two or three years by the time it was finally recorded.
Disc five starts off with the great Petula Clark parody "Crazy Downtown", using the extended stereo mix that was on My Son, The Greatest, rather than the single version which fades early. This is followed by four previously unheard studio tracks, slightly out of chronological order. First is a studio recording of the 1964 lyrics for "Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh!" I believe this was recorded shortly before it was performed on "The Tonight Show", but then they realized that the latter performance was better and used it for the single, despite the lower sound quality since it came from TV. The studio recording is well arranged but a bit sterile compared to the familiar recording. Still, it's nice to have this previously unknown item.
Next are two unreleased tracks from the "Crazy Downtown" session. Presumably the plan was to use one of them on the B-side of that single, and it's not clear why that didn't happen. First is "Where Do You Come From Tex", which is mostly a collection of cities which contain people's names ("Phil's from Philadelphia...Louie is from Louisville..."), but surprisingly this seems to get funnier the more I listen to it. It's Allan's delivery, plus the voice of Tex, that make it a good listen. This is followed by a cookin' rendition of "Between 18th & 19th On Chestnut Street" (a hit for Bob Crosby and others a quarter century earlier), with updated lyrics for the 1960s. (Interestingly, he mentions The Beatles in a more favorable light here than in "Pop Hates The Beatles" from less than a year earlier.)
These are followed by one of the most puzzling tracks on the collection, the scrapped 1965 single "Christmas '65 (Draft Cards)". It's a parody of "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)", starting out "Draft cards burning on an open fire..." I assume it was intended to be funny, but parts of it have more of an air of sadness by expressing the turmoil that was brewing 40 years ago.
Things pick back up with the next album, which is preceded by a brief promo spot. Allan Sherman - Live!!! (Hoping You Are The Same) is Allan's only album that was recorded in concert, before a paying crowd (as opposed to guests invited to the recording studio for previous albums). It includes audience banter, which is absent from other albums, giving this a bit of a different feel. Even though his popularity was sharply declining by this point, the audience seemed very receptive, and he interacted with them well. Some of the best songs are "Taking Lessons", "A Waste Of Money", "Mononeucleosis", "The Rebel", and "Son Of Peyton Place" (which outshines the original version from the previous album).
Disc five concludes with a song recorded the same day as the live album, but left off the original LP since it was not a comedy song. This version of "His Own Little Island" uses the closing verse that he used on his "Funnyland" TV show as opposed to the one used on the single.
Disc six opens with the aforementioned single, "Odd Ball" and "His Own Little Island". The former was written by Allan for his wife, Dee, and the latter was from a musical. It was Allan's attempt at a serious single, and it seriously flopped. Straight actors and singers don't often have a difficult time doing comedy once in a while, but the reverse is not true. Once you are known as a comic, it's often hard to get people to take you seriously, and this was definitely the case with Allan. I'm sure it was frustrating for him. His fans who haven't been able to find this rare single will be delighted to find it here, and even those who already had it should be pleased to find it in stereo for the first time on this box set. It's not a coupling of songs, just not what people wanted to hear from Allan Sherman at the time.
After this comes one of the best rare Sherman items, the promo LP Music To Dispense With Created By Allan Sherman For The Container Division Of Scott Paper Company. This was made just for the amusement of people at that company, but it turns out to have wide appeal as well. It's really a gem, with some great parodies showcasing Allan's knack for in-jokes. The best tracks are "Makin' Coffee" (parody of "Makin' Whoopee", which he also parodied on his album that year as "Taking Lessons"), "Vending Machines", and "Scott Cups". The tapes of this album could not be located, so a mint condition LP was used instead. Also, the spoken intro from the single was omitted for some reason.
Next we have his last and rarest Warner Brothers album, Togetherness. Have you ever wondered what Allan would sound like in a recording studio in 1967, with no audience to encourage him? You'll find out if you listen to this album, which has some parodies and originals, including songs from the musical he was working on with Albert Hague. Most of the tracks aren't particularly exciting on first listen, but may grow on you after a while. "Strange Things In My Soup", "Spanish Flea", "My Aunt Minnie", and "There's No Governor Like Our New Governor" are fun. The latter is one of the earliest songs about Ronald Reagan's political career.
Then we have two unreleased outtakes from Togetherness, which might be better than some of the things that ended up on the album. "Dum Dum Song (Somewhere)" is kind of funny by being sly with rhythmic words in the chorus that imply things about the verses. "Somewhere" is an intentional series of false start attempts at a recording, with David Brenner playing the part of the engineer. It's fun to see how many ways they can ruin a take, especially the soprano who lets out a burp way out of her vocal range.
Following this are alternate takes of most of the songs from Togetherness. Many of these are incomplete takes, and while as a recording engineer myself I like to hear things progress in the studio, I'm not sure that these will be tracks that bear repeated listening for most people. Among the complete songs is "Westchester Hadassah" which has some alternate lyrics, but unfortunately was mixed with two vocals running simultaneously, sometimes singing different lyrics or out of sync. I assume the two vocals are just two separate takes, not intended to be heard together, so why it wasn't mixed with just the alternate vocal, I don't know. Also of note in the mixing category is that the outtakes are mixed with very little stereo separation, instead of the wide separation that is on the album and was standard at that time. Another complete alternate is "Spanish Flea" which also has two simultaneous vocals that are sometimes not in perfect sync, so again I wonder if there was ever an intention to have these heard together or if they were just two takes of the lead vocal.
[editor's note: I was later informed that these strange mixes on the Togetherness outtakes were done at the time, not recently.]
Similar to the Scott Paper album earlier on the disc, we now have Allan Sherman Pours It On For Carpets Made With Encron Polyester. This is a series of brief parodies done as carpet commercials. It's not as great as the Scott Paper album, but still fun, and much rarer. It is also sourced from disc.
The set closes with a live version of "Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh!" from the fall of 1967. This was after the last album, after Allan's divorce, and probably not at a great time in his life. He was also probably sick of performing this song for the past four years. This recording shows how he was slipping downhill, and is sort of a sad closing, which is ironic since it's the song of his which has brought the most happiness to the world.
If you are a serious fan of Allan's (no, that's not a contradiction in terms), you will no doubt enjoy this set. If you have not read his autobiography A Gift Of Laughter, it is highly recommended, especially to get a sense of the cultural impact of his enormous popularity from 1962-1964. It also contains lyrics for some unreleased songs, including his original "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!" follow-up from the fall of 1963 which he sung at the University Of Illinois: "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh, Here I am at Alma Mater..." It's really marvelous, and it's a shame there's no recording of it (or if there is, that it's not on this set).
His autobiography was published in 1965, and as such does not cover the remaining years of his life up to 1973. Mark Cohen, who wrote the liner notes for the box set, is doing research and may one day publish a biography which fills in some gaps and gives us another perspective on Allan's life.
The box will probably satisfy nearly anyone who wants a thorough collection of Allan's work. Anyone who enjoys this should also get the Peter And The Commissar CD from Collectors' Choice Music, which is his 1964 collaboration with Arthur Fiedler & The Boston Pops Orchestra. For the hard core fan, there are still items we've heard about that are not on CD, including the 1951 Jubilee single, the promo interview for Commissar, the rest of his Warner Brothers audition, material from "The Fig Leaves Are Falling", and the golf album which he was working on in 1973 but which was never completed...not to mention innumerable TV appearances. It's questionable whether there will ever be demand to release any of this material, but we can now rest assured that all of his best material has been digitally preserved for posterity.