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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

I was too young to understand at the time, but Sherman was radically tweaking postwar American Jewish life while paving the way for a whole slew of Jewish-flavored American comedy — from Mel Brooks to Woody Allen to Robert Klein and David Brenner, all the way through to Jerry Seinfeld and the Larry David of “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” as Mark Cohen convincingly argues in his exhaustive and gripping new biography, “Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman.”

I was also too young to appreciate that for one brief year or so, Sherman was a huge star. In 1963 he was a pop sensation with three No. 1 consecutive comedy albums selling millions apiece — more than even Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley ever sold in such a short span of time. He was a guest on all the major TV talk and entertainment shows; he sold out concerts around the country, and he even counted among his fans President John F. Kennedy, who was known to break out into a verse of “Sarah Jackman,” Sherman’s parody of “Frere Jacques.”

And then, like everyone else who was popular before 1964, Sherman got swept aside by the Beatles, who utterly changed the notion of what was cool and hip. Instantly Sherman became something of a square, and weakly aimed his satirical muscles against the youth culture of the 1960s — even the Beatles themselves in “Pop Hates the Beatles.”

To many today, Sherman may seem like a novelty act, a one-hit wonder (for his Grammy Award-winning single, “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!”) or a pop-culture footnote. But as Cohen makes clear, it’s too easy to overlook the subversive nature of his work: He was a kind of precursor to the radical Jewish culture of Heeb magazine or the music of John Zorn. Parody was Sherman’s form.

He took the products of mainstream American culture — folk songs, Broadway show tunes, pop music — and mined or reimagined them for their latent or possible Jewish content. In this manner, he was doing something very traditional, and very Jewish, engaging in a kind of pop-culture version of midrash, filling the gaps in the story (particularly the Jewish gaps) that were only hinted at in their original versions.

Cohen quotes Sherman asking the rhetorical question, “What would have happened, how would it have been, if all of the great Broadway hits of the great Broadway shows had been written by Jewish people?” Of course they were, and he knew it. Just asking the question itself was his most provocative, radical act.

Seth Rogovoy is the author of “Bob Dylan: Prophet, Mystic, Poet” (Scribner, 2009) and is a frequent contributor to the Forward’s arts and culture section.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "I thought I was the only Jew on a Harley Davidson, but I was wrong." — Gil Paul, member of the Hillel's Angels. http://jd.fo/g4cjH
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.