The summertime novelty tune "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh" has been pouring out of radios for 50 years now. In late July of 1963, Billboard magazine reported that fans were "actually breaking down doors" of record stores to buy the song about the pains of summer camp.
The man behind the sensation was a short, plump guy with a crew cut and big glasses. Allan Sherman had been a TV producer who'd entertained his friends with song parodies for years. He collected them on an LP called My Son, The Folk Singer — old favorites rewritten with a contemporary suburban Jewish audience in mind. It was never expected to appeal to the general public.
To everyone's surprise, Sherman's humor did translate. By August 1963, three Sherman albums were on Billboard's Top 100 chart. Writer Mark Cohen has written a book about the short-lived success of the musical satirist. It's called, somewhat cruelly, Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman.
"I think Sherman was a very interesting pop-culture figure, at a moment when ethnic identity was first blossoming in America in the postwar period," Cohen tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "We had had a long period of Americanization, and Sherman appeared just at the moment when that was beginning to end."
That moment in the "blossoming" of American Jewish identity included the success of such luminaries as Leonard Bernstein and Saul Bellow. But for Sherman, Cohen says, success was an uneasy fit.
"The year of extraordinary fame that he enjoyed from the fall of '62 to the fall of '63, when his three My Son albums all went gold, was an extraordinary moment that made his life a success — for him, at any rate — before things went fatally wrong," Cohen says. "Sherman was an extraordinarily hungry man, for all sorts of experiences. And that included drink, lots of food, lots of women, lots of gambling. I'm forgetting all the vices, 'cause he covered them all."
The irony, Cohen says, is that Sherman was born to a home that shunned its own Jewishness. His mother, Rose Sherman, and father, Percy Copelon, both came to the country as children and were respectively raised in Chicago and Birmingham, Ala.
"They were very unstable people who were really not capable of raising a child," Cohen says. "His mother had to send him to her parents, and in his grandparents' home, he discovered the world that his mother left behind. And he decided, 'This is what I want in life.' "
Other Jewish figures from Sherman's era, like Mel Brooks, went on to lasting fame and far greater mainstream appeal. Cohen says that Sherman — who died at 48 in 1973 — was ultimately limited by the very thing that brought him joy.
"Sherman was much more greatly damaged," Cohen says. "I often think about [a] wonderful little poem I discovered that he wrote when he was in junior high school: 'Humpty Dumpty sat on a train / singing "Bei Mir Bistu Shein.' He was a damaged, fragile Humpty Dumpty, who could be made happy by singing Jewish-oriented songs."