How did it feel to be Bobby Pickett whenever October rolled around? The 11-month wait for the coffin lid of your career to creak open and release your one cobwebbed hit. A hit resistant to each decade's trends, whether Bee Gees or Nirvana or Coldplay. A hit that sold over 4 million copies. That must've felt pretty good, royalty check-wise.
But year after year, to be onstage wearing a blood-smeared lab coat and singing in a hammy Karloff accent about "Dracula and his son?" That must've gotten old.
Pickett kept a good sense of humor about it, though. He called himself "the Guy Lombardo of Halloween." He welcomed visitors to his website with: "Bobby 'Boris' Pickett is available year round and can be dug up to appear and sing a medley of his hit."
Pickett never wanted to be a singer. When he moved to Hollywood in the early 1960s, it was to become an actor. His résumé included a knack for impersonations — the best of which was horrormeister Karloff.
As Bobby hustled for acting jobs, he picked up extra cash on weekends singing at an Italian restaurant with a group called the Cordials. One of the tunes they covered was "Little Darlin'" by the Diamonds. For a lark, in the middle of the song, Pickett recited a monologue in the Karloff voice. Audiences loved it. So much so that fellow bandmember Lenny Capizzi convinced Bobby that they should write a rock 'n' roll song about monsters.
Recalled Pickett: "We wrote about a monster who gets up off his gurney and does the latest dance craze, which I thought was the Twist. Lenny said, 'The Mashed Potato' is number one.' So we called it 'The Monster Mashed Potato.' We shortened it later, but that was the original title."
Pickett and Capizzi finished the song in two hours, then cut it with producer Gary Paxton — of Alley-Oop fame — and a backing band, dubbed the Crypt Kickers, that included a young pianist named Leon Russell. Eight weeks later, the song was No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart. It was October 1962, the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. "It relieved people of the tension," Pickett reckoned.
The spooky smash proved a perennial, charting again in 1970 and 1973, and getting steady airplay every October. Pickett had a No. 29 hit with the Christmas follow-up, "Monsters' Holiday," but later singles like "Monster Swim," "It's Alive," and "Monster Rap" failed to scare up any action. As for his acting career, it peaked with a low-budget cult film called, appropriately, "Frankenstein Sings!"
Pickett died in April 2007 at the age of 69, but he stayed active until his final months. An environmentalist, he even wrote two spinoff tunes — "Monster Slash," protesting against the exploitation of the rainforests, and the global warming-related "Climate Mash," which envisioned Bush and Cheney getting down with zombies and vampires at a party thrown by Exxon Mobil.
Pickett's official website still peddles souvenirs, including a posthumous autobiography called "Monster Mash: Half Dead in Hollywood." His MySpace page boasts friends from Weird Al to Rob Zombie to Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.
In the end, his song was the trick that kept treating. As Pickett said in 2006, "'Monster Mash' paid my rent for 44 years."
- Bobby Pickett