The Monster Mash: 3 Interesting Facts About the Halloween Classic

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The Monster Mash. It was a graveyard smash.

Monster Mash was released in 1962. Written by Bobby Pickett and Leonard Capizzi and recorded by Pickett and “the Crypt-Kickers.,” the single hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart from October 20-27, 1962 and has been a Halloween favorite ever since. Here are a few fun facts about this Halloween classic.

  1. The song features Pickett doing an impression of Boris Karloff, a famed horror movie actor. He also does a Dracula impression for one line in the song.
  2. The song was inspired by and danced to the Mashed Potato dance craze of the era. Monster Mash was danced like the Mashed Potato except with Frankenstein monster arm and hand movements.
  3. Interestingly the sound effects in the song were very low budget. The coffin sound was created by removing a nail from a piece of wood; the cauldron bubbling was simply a straw bubbling water; and the chains rattling were just chains being dropped on a tile floor.

The song tells a story loosely similar to Frankenstein but with a fun, dance twist. A mad scientist’s monster comes to life and performs a new dance which became very popular and led to a party with other monsters.

Below is the video from Bobby Pickett performing the song on American Bandstand October 13, 1964.

“I Put a Spell on You:” From Radio Ban to Disney Movie Favorite

The origins of a popular song that has become a Halloween Disney movie favorite? A drunken recording session, a blues singer with an amazing voice, a breakup, and a spooky production.

A song many know because of its numerous cover versions, “I Put a Spell on You” is now included on Halloween playlists, owing partly to its inclusion in the movie Hocus Pocus. However, even before its more overt connection to the Halloween holiday, the song was thought of as shocking, demented, and dark, but not solely for the lyrics which suggest witchcraft or voodoo. Originally written and performed  by Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins,”I Put a Spell on You” was released in 1956 and is the song that earned Jalacy the “Screamin’ Jay” nickname. It was Hawkins’ screaming delivery of the song and his resulting performance style that really gave the song its powerful yet outrageous and slightly sinister tone. The song transformed Hawkins’ career and he became the pioneer of the subgenre of “shock rock,” a genre later popularized by artists including Alice Cooper, KISS, Ozzy Osborne, and Marilyn Manson.

“I Put a Spell on You” was not originally intended to be associated with Halloween at all. It was Hawkins’ delivery of the song in the 1956 recording and the resulting live performances that would change everything for the song and for Hawkins. Hawkins, who had operatic dreams, but was working as a traditional blues singer, originally wrote the song as a traditional blues love ballad with lyrics about getting a lover back after a breakup, influenced by his own personal life. He recorded it as such in 1955 but the track didn’t go anywhere. However, the story goes that a year later when he decided to try rerecording it, the producer brought in food and large quantities of alcohol to the recording session and got everyone drunk resulting in the most well-known version of the song.

However, the resulting version of the song also got it banned from radio. In 1956, Hawkins’ singing, screaming, and grunting, complete with animal noises, sounded overtly sexual to mainstream audiences. The fact that Hawkins was African American likely contributed to this take on the song. Even a toned down version wasn’t played on most radio stations. Despite the radio ban, the song was Hawkins’ most commercially successful one, though it never made the top charts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Hawkins’ live performances of the song did little to allay the concerns of many groups. He took to appearing on stage in a coffin, rising out dressed in a “screaming wardrobe”  including zebra stripes, bright colors, sometimes a loin cloth, with a spear or a skull on a stick that would sometimes smoke his cigarette while he sang, and with tusks in his nose and a turban on his head.

The NAACP denounced his act with concerns that he was propagating stereotypes of African Americans as cannibals or witch doctors. Some African American newspapers and magazines ignored Hawkins, not wanting to promote his music. The song was released in the era of Jim Crow and segregation and understandably there were concerns about the act being consumed by white audiences for which it upheld dangerous and negative images of black people.

Despite all of this, the song was Hawkins’ biggest hit, with Hawkins being featured in DJ Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Revue and has gone on to be covered by numerous artists. Some of the most well-received covers include those of Nina Simone, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Marilyn Manson, Bette Midler (in Hocus Pocus), and Annie Lennox, but there have been many more.

Nina Simone’s cover was especially well done with the song taking on a whole new meaning when sung with her amazing voice. Simone slowed the track down more to the ballad tempo it was originally meant to be, but with powerhouse vocals and jazz style scatting. The track became so much a part of Simone’s body of work that she titled her autobiography “I Put a Spell on You.”

Bette Midler’s rendition in Hocus Pocus has become particularly popular at Halloween owing to the movie’s rising popularity as a cult classic. It seems to be more popular as it ages with references to it on signs, t-shirts, and more as Halloween approaches. Midler as Winifred Sanderson changes many of the lyrics to fit the spell she was casting while singing but hers is one of the more well known uses of the song, though it has appeared in several other movies and in commercials.

Jalacy Hawkins’ song had a long life after him as artists continue to cover it. However, the song and its influence on his stage persona changed his career trajectory so much that he had difficulty getting other records taken seriously and many shied away from playing his records because of fear of associating with him, even when records were more traditional. He didn’t really benefit financially from the song despite the fact that many covers of it happened in his lifetime.

Read more about Jalacy “Screamin’ Jay” Hawkins, who had an interesting life with a difficult childhood, served in the armed forces, and had a relatively successful boxing career, all before the release of “I Put a Spell on You.” Links to further reading below.

Links:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/WPcap/2000-02/15/004r-021500-idx.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/local/2000/02/13/blues-musician-screamin-jay-hawkins-70/73db046b-1556-46aa-b2c5-bb571d94c577/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.f7901799d72b

These first two links are obituaries for Jay Hawkins.

https://www.biography.com/news/screamin-jay-hawkins-i-put-a-spell-on-you-biography

Biography of Jay Hawkins.

The Curious History of “I Put a Spell On You”

This is an especially interesting article that follows the trajectory of the song over time and speaks to the likelihood that Hawkins’ version was unsuccessful because of racial biases of the time, while later white performers’ versions of the song were more commercially successful and bigger hits on radio charts. It also suggests that Hawkins’ performance style confronted white audiences’ desire to appropriate black music while society still maintained segregation and oppression of African Americans.

#PlayLikeAGirl: 5 Pioneering Female Drummers

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The US National Archives’ #19forthe19th Instagram Challenge is highlighting women’s history for 19 weeks in celebration of the centennial of the 19th amendment which gave women the right to vote.

This week’s theme? #PlayLikeAGirl

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I decided to take a look at pioneering female musicians who play instruments specifically female drummers, who continue to remain a minority in the music world.

Here are 5 pioneering female drummers:

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Karen Carpenter was part of the duo, the Carpenters, with her brother Richard. The sibling duo wrote and performed soft rock/pop from 1969-1983. Karen started drumming in high school and quickly learned more and more complex skills. She played as part of a trio with her brother, the Richard Carpenter trio, for a while, while simultaneously developing her singing voice. It was Karen’s singing that originally caught the ear of a label who signed her and brought Richard along to compose music. The two performed in a number of different band iterations until they finally, formally became the duo, the Carpenters. Karen soon eclipsed her brother and became the face of the band, moving out from behind the drum kit in live performances to sing with another drummer stepping in. She always considered herself a drummer first and singer second though. Sadly, Karen suffered from anorexia nervosa at a time when it was less understood. She passed away at the age of 32 because of complications and strain on her heart from the disease.

 

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Bobbye Hall is a noted and prolific percussionist playing bongos, congas, and other percussion as well as full drum kits. She has recorded and performed with many leading artists and got her start by playing on Motown recordings. She was a session musician at a time when that field was dominated by men. She has recorded and played with a wide variety of artists including The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Bill Withers, James Taylor, Stevie Wonder, Janis Joplin, the Doobie Brothers, the Mamas and the Papas, and Tracy Chapman. She went on a world tour with Bob Dylan in 1978 which brought her global exposure.

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Sandy West was the drummer for the first all-girl teenage hard rock band, the Runaways, with Joan Jett, Cherie Currie, Lita Ford, and Micki Steele (original lineup), from 1975-1979. Sandy started playing drums when she was 9 years old and as a teenage was the only girl playing in local bands at parties. Sandy sought out opportunities to play professionally which led her to Joan Jett and the Runaways. After they disbanded though she struggled to find success in the music industry.

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Sheila E. (Escovedo) is another prolific and talented percussionist. She got her start drumming and singing in the George Duke Band but went on to have a very successful solo career and to collaborate with some of the biggest names in music, namely Prince. She recorded on several tracks on Purple Rain. She has also performed or collaborated with Beyonce, Pharell, Marc Anthony, and Juan Luis Guerra. She regularly performs with other musicians in her family, including her father who was also a percussionist. Fun fact: the Latin jazz legend Tito Puente was Sheila’s godfather.

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Suzette Quintanilla is the often overlooked sister of Selena Quintanilla Perez, the young Tejano superstar who died tragically at the age of 23. Suzette played drums in their family’s band, Selena y los Dinos, which Selena fronted. Suzette was originally reluctant to play the drums as she felt as a young girl that it was not an instrument usually played by girls. She was in fact one of very few female drummers, especially in Tejano music, which was dominated by men in most respects. There were some female Tejano singers but few musicians in the bands. Despite her reluctance, she played, and Selena y los Dinos rose to fame before Selena embarked on a solo career. Suzette still performs sometimes with her brother AB Quintanilla.

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#MusicMonday: The 1992 Los Angeles Riots

On this day in 1992 the Los Angeles riots broke out in response to two specific incidents in the city and general mounting racial tensions. Just over a year prior an African American man, Rodney King, was beaten and tasered by police during a traffic stop/chase resulting in the officers involved being charged with excessive force.

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Also around the same time a teenage African American girl, Latasha Harlins, was shot in a convenience store when the Korean-American shopkeeper accused the girl of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. The shopkeeper grabbed the girl who hit the woman in order to break free. As the girl walked away the shopkeeper shot her in the back of the head. The girl was holding 2 dollars in one hand when her body was found by investigators. The 51-year-old woman who shot her was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and only ordered to pay a $500 fine and served no prison time.

On April 29, 1992 the officers in the Rodney King trial were acquitted of excessive force and assault charges based on blurry footage at the beginning of a tape showing the beating in which King tried to run away toward an officer.

The acquittal of these officers on top of the light sentencing of the shopkeeper in the death of Latasha Harlins caused many in the black community to further increase their distrust of the criminal justice system after years of accusations of excessive force by the LAPD against African Americans.

The racial tension between blacks and Koreans in LA had also long been brewing due to perceived slights on both sides. Many African Americans viewed the migrants as newcomers who were profiting off of the black community while simultaneously mistreating, stereotyping, and disrespecting them. Cultural differences and language barriers exacerbated the problem as well as economic difficulties facing the area.

All of these tensions came to a head when news of the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King reached South Central Los Angeles. Riots and looting broke out that lasted for days and resulted in 55 deaths, over 2,000 injuries, and more than $1 billion of damage. The National Guard was called in and the riots lasted for 6 days. More than 12,000 people were arrested. 65% of looted stores were Korean owned, but black and Latino-owned stores were also looted.

The events leading up to the riots, the riots themselves, and the aftermath all inspired and prompted responses from musicians of many genres, especially hip hop and rap artists. Here are 5 songs that came out of the Los Angeles riots.

  • “Hellrazor” – Tupac, 1997 (posthumous release)tupac

Lyrics that reference Latasha Harlins’ death: “Dear Lord if ya hear me, tell me why
Little girl like LaTasha, had to die
She never got to see the bullet, just heard the shot
Her little body couldn’t take it, it shook and dropped”

Tupac also made mention of Latasha in several of his other songs including “Something 2 Die 4,” “Thugz Mansion,” and “I Wonder if Heaven Got a Ghetto,” in which he raps, “Tell me what’s a black life worth/A bottle of juice is no excuse, the truth hurts.” He also dedicated “Keep Ya Head Up” to Latasha.

  • “Black Korea” – Ice Cube, 1991

Released after Latasha Harlins’ death but before the riots, this song was accused of inciting violence against Asian Americans and encouraging racism against them by African Americans. The song sheds light on the tensions between the two groups in South Central Los Angeles.

“Thinkin’ every brother in the world’s out to take
So they watch every damn move that I make
They hope I don’t pull out a gat and try to rob
They funky little store, but, b****, I got a job.”

  • “Livin’ on the Edge”- Aerosmith, 1993

Aerosmith has said that this song was inspired by the LA riots, but the lyrics do not specifically state anything that directly links back to the riots. Critics of the song argued it was a half-hearted attempt at social commentary.

“There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes
We’re seein’ things in a different way
And God knows it ain’t his
It sure ain’t no surprise”
  • “Free Your Mind” – En Vogue, 1992freeyourmind
The female group took a more positive approach and encouraged unity and discouraged stereotyping, prejudice, and racism.
“Why oh why must it be this way
Before you can read me you gotta learn how to see me, I said
Free your mind and the rest will follow
Be colour blind, don’t be so shallow.”
  • “Black Tie, White Noise” – David Bowie, 1993
In Los Angeles with his new wife, model Iman, Bowie witnessed the riots firsthand. This experience inspired “Black Tie, White Noise.” Bowie said of the riots: “It was awesome and numbing and it was the most apocalyptic experience I’ve been through in my life. It was a feeling of the irreconcilable differences that seem to have been fabricated in America and how hard it will be to reconcile those differences, to heal the wound, which is quite gaping.”
“Getting my facts from a Benneton ad
I’m lookin’ through African eyes
Lit by the glare of an L.A. fire
I’ve got a face, not just my race.”

#MusicMonday: “Auld Lang Syne” by Robert Burns

“Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and auld lang syne? For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll take a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

This is the classic song sung on New Year’s Eve after the ball drops in Times Square each year, and all around the world as well, to usher in the new year and mark the ending of the old. Most would recognize it when they hear it, but what does it mean and where did the tradition of singing it at New Year’s celebrations come from?

Let’s start with what the title of the song literally means. “Auld lang syne” is Scots for “old long since” or “long long ago” or “old times.” “For auld lang syne”, as the words appear in the chorus of the song, could be translated as for the sake of old times. The song poses the question of whether old times should be forgotten and then answers that old friendships should be remembered.

The song was written as a poem by Robert Burns in 1788. The words are set to the tune of a traditional folk song. It has been used to mark the end of the year, but also other sorts of endings including funerals, farewells, and the ends of parties. The song also takes words from an earlier song by James Watson (1711). Used commonly in Scotland for Hogmanay (New Year’s) celebrations, the popularity and use of the song has spread far and wide around the world.

Guy Lombardo is credited with popularizing the use of the song at New Year’s Eve celebrations, at least in the United States. He and his band (His Royal Canadians) played the song live every year on his New York City radio (and later TV) New Year’s Eve concert from 1929 to 1977. This concert was the popular precursor to Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin Eve. Originally from a part of Ontario that had a large Scots population, Lombardo and his band were accustomed to bands ending their shows with the Scottish standard. It is Lombardo’s version that is played in Times Square every New Year’s right after the ball drop. But the song has been covered extensively and is considered a musical standard.

Happy New Year everyone! May it bring new adventures, new memories, and joy to you all.

#MusicMonday: Victorian Ghost Story Traditions in “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” by Andy Williams

A Christmas classic, this 1963 song by Andy Williams describes Christmas traditions, including some we no longer practice.

Have you ever been singing along and gotten to this line and wondered what it was all about?

“There’ll be parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting, and caroling out in the snow (all familiar to us now)
There’ll be scary ghost stories, and tales of the glories of, Christmases long, long ago (not so much).”

What do scary ghost stories have to do with Christmas? Isn’t that more for Halloween? Not so much during the Victorian era–an era that has inspired many of our modern Christmas traditions.

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“It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” was written by Edward Pola and George Wyle in 1963 and recorded by Andy Williams that same year for his first Christmas album. It’s an up tempo celebration of all things Christmas, particularly spending time with family and friends and general merriment of the season. But that one line about scary ghost stories has always made me curious. The answer can be found in the Victorian Era.

It was during the Victorian Era (1837-1901; the reign of Queen Victoria) that Christmas became more widespread and popularly celebrated in England and the United States. Queen Victoria’s marriage to German Prince Albert brought many Germanic Christmas traditions to Britain, which also trickled over to the United States. One of the most noteworthy was that of decorating the Christmas tree.

Other modern Christmas traditions with roots in Victorian England include sending Christmas cards, caroling, and Christmas crackers (cookies/sweets). And the telling of ghost stories on Christmas eve, such as A Christmas Carol, in which Scrooge is visited by 3 spirits.

It was during the Victorian era that Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, which also helped to popularize Christmas celebrations as well as notions that the holiday should be associated with family, gathering together, goodwill, and charity.

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A Christmas Carol’s continued popularity is actually one of the few ways our modern society continues to include those “scary ghost stories” of the Victorian era. In Victorian England, families and friends would gather around on Christmas eve and tell each other spooky stories of ghosts and the supernatural. The tradition had roots even older stretching back hundreds of years to folk traditions of telling ghost stories in the winter as a way to pass the evenings. It was thought that winter, being dark and cold, was the best season for ghost stories.

It’s not surprising that Victorians would include the practice of ghost stories in their Christmas celebrations given that era’s fascination with and culture surrounding darker topics such as death, including elaborate mourning etiquette, death photography, and more. (A topic for another day, perhaps, but you can read more here.)

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Why the writers of the 1963 song decided to include the then relatively defunct tradition is uncertain. But the song itself has become a traditional part of Christmas and can be heard throughout the season, both the original and its many cover versions. The song’s original version is regularly included in top 10 lists of the most popular Christmas songs.

Read more about Victorian Christmas traditions below:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/victorianchristmas/history.shtml

https://listverse.com/2016/12/23/10-strange-christmas-traditions-from-the-victorian-era/

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/plea-resurrect-christmas-tradition-telling-ghost-stories-180967553/

#MusicMonday: “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Frank Loesser

By now, you’ve likely heard about the controversy over a radio station’s decision to ban “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” this holiday season. Written in 1944 by Frank Loesser for him and his wife to sing together at parties, the song’s lyrics are a call and response between a man and a woman discussing whether or not a woman should stay or leave the man’s house on a cold winter night. While not necessarily Christmas specific, the song is usually played in rotation with Christmas music over the winter holiday season.

For today’s listeners, in an era of the #MeToo movement, high-profile sexual assault cases, and ongoing dialogue about consent and how often women face sexual harassment, some of the song’s lyrics sound a bit alarming, most notably when the female voice asks “What’s in this drink?” or when her clear “the answer is no” is met with the man’s continued encouragement to stay.

Most women can imagine what that feels like or can remember a time when their “no” was ignored by a man–from requests as simple as a drink at a bar, their phone number, or a dance, to situations much more serious and violent.

In today’s society where dialogue about consent, the #MeToo movement, and other efforts are helping to give women more of a voice, the lyrics to the song can sound a bit coercive at best and like ignoring lack of consent or date rape at worst.

However, there are several other lines in the song that demonstrate the woman’s actual desire to stay at the man’s house, especially when the lyrics are read in the historical context in which they were written.

The female voice expresses her desire to stay several times–first when she says, “Maybe just a half a drink more” and later when she says “maybe just a cigarette more” as well as the ending of the song where the male and female voices sing in unison that it’s cold outside. While none of these lines are a clear yes, they can be interpreted as deciding to use that “excuse” for her staying.

But why did she need an excuse? For the same reason that none of her indications that she wants to stay are terribly clear or explicit–Because of societal expectations in that time period (1940s-1950s). Women faced much more scrutiny about their relationships and sexual behavior than they do now (when they still face more scrutiny than their male counterparts). Women with “good reputations” were expected to turn down a man’s advances even if they actually wanted to stay the night, meaning men did not expect or try to get clear consent.

The woman’s lines in the song also speak much more to her concern about what her family and neighbors would think about her staying than they do to her not wanting to stay. She names a number of family members that would be concerned or suspicious if she didn’t return home including her mother, brother, father, sister, and aunt and also wondered what the neighbors would think.

“At least I’m going to say that I tried.” This line really speaks to the heart of the issue–“good” girls had to at least say they tried to turn a man down. And she could say that given her many “attempts” to leave.

Today’s conversations about consent are important. Historically, men didn’t wait to get consent since they expected a woman to say no. Women in that time period did not have as much of a voice in their personal relationships because of those societal expectations. This song actually shines a light on why consent is so important–clarity is needed rather than trying to read body language and clues while men and women juggle society’s expectations of them versus their own desires.

I can understand why some are uncomfortable hearing this song in today’s society in which the man’s lines sound coercive and pushy but with the historical context in mind I hear the song as the woman wanting to stay and ultimately deciding to do so–society’s opinion on her decision be damned. Though I also see the problematic societal standards that put the woman in a position in which a real no could have easily been ignored or misinterpreted as the “no” that she was supposed to give even when her answer was yes.

In recent years, some artists have attempted to address issues with the song heard with a modern ear.

The song has been recorded by so many artists and there are so many versions. Some reverse the gender roles in the song such as She & Him’s version (the video for which also addresses the “creepy” factor) or a live version performed by Lady Gaga and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Do those versions change any of the meaning for you?

Finally, a songwriting duo changed the lyrics to reflect conversations about consent. Take a listen and let me know if you think this song needs such an update.

Do you think the song should be taken out of radio rotation? Does it sound creepy to you? Does knowing the historical context change your take on it?