Allan Sherman Was Once Bigger Than the Beatles

Comic Singer Was Far More Than a One-Hit Wonder

My Son, the Folk Singer: Approximately fifty years ago, Allan Sherman had three consecutive No. 1 comedy albums, selling more than Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley ever sold out in such a short span of time.
Courtesy of Mark Cohen
My Son, the Folk Singer: Approximately fifty years ago, Allan Sherman had three consecutive No. 1 comedy albums, selling more than Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley ever sold out in such a short span of time.

By Seth Rogovoy

Published July 22, 2013, issue of July 26, 2013.
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● Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman
By Mark Cohen
Brandeis University Press, 320 pages, $29.95

I loved visiting my maternal grandparents in the Elmhurst section of Queens. Although they lived in a modest, two-bedroom apartment on a side street tucked between Broadway and Roosevelt avenues, the place seemed exotic, as I was coming from suburban Long Island.

I loved sitting in the living-room window overlooking 77th Street; there I could see all the way down to the corner of Broadway, where the action was, all the way to where my grandfather used to run the soda fountain store. My grandmother would typically and lovingly insist I “come down from the window” and sit in a chair, a perch from where I would be safer, as in her mind the whole world conspired to do harm to her beloved children and grandchildren (understandable, as the world had seen fit to destroy virtually her entire extended family, almost all of whom had remained in Europe, during “the war”).

But what I really loved about visiting my grandparents was that it meant I got to listen to their copy of Allan Sherman’s LP, “My Son, the Folk Singer.” And listen to it I did, every time I visited, so much so that to this day, nearly 50 years later, I still remember most of the lyrics to Sherman’s Jewish-inflected parodies of classic folk songs: parodies that served both to satirize the folk revival itself and to poke gentle fun at postwar American Jewish life — the very life my family was living.

Sherman’s songs on that record album — “The Ballad of Harry Lewis,” “Sir Greenbaum’s Madrigal,” “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max” — captured an entire culture, an entire way of life.

His songs were populated with iconic ethnic markers: the post-Yiddish English dialect my grandparents and even many first- and second-generation American Jews spoke in expressions like “How’s by you?” — a homophonic translation of the Yiddish greeting “Vos makhstu?”; the seltzer they drank; the matzo balls and chicken soup they ate; their professions as tailors, doctors, lawyers and accountants, and their favorite recreational pursuits: “The Catskill ladies sing this song / Hoo-hah, Hoo-hah / Sitting on the front porch playing mahjong / All hoo-hah day,” Sherman sang, to the tune of “Camptown Races.”


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