Every Halloween, Robert George Pickett rises from the grave. (Figuratively.)
The song that made Pickett famous (three times over), “Monster Mash,” spikes to 40 times its regular view and search volume on YouTube every Halloween, and with good reason. It is a uniquely ripe piece of American cheese, a novelty hit that stands among the best of a decade packed with them, and Pickett’s life — and dogged attempts to keep grabbing the brass ring he glimpsed with the song — represent a uniquely American story.
Pickett was in born in Somerville, Massachusetts, in 1938, right in the middle of Universal Studios’ reign atop the horror movie industry. In Somerville, Pickett explained to Gary James, “You had two choices as a young man, you could either be a gangster when you grew up or an athlete.” His father managed a movie theater, and Pickett grew up watching Universal stars like Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney, Jr. stalk the screen in iconic films like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy and The Wolf Man.
After a year-and-a-half tour in the Army (during which he served in Korea), Pickett returned home in 1958. He honed a Karloff impression in local talent shows at places like the Irish-American Club in Everett, Massachusetts. “I’d win all the time,” he told PEOPLE in 1996. “I knew I was going to Hollywood.”
Pickett moved to Los Angeles in 1960. He finally got an agent, who died of a heart attack two weeks after Pickett signed with him, an example of the kind of morbidly humorous incidents that seemed to surround Pickett his whole life. Then, “Ironically,” he told Linda Janus-Napier in 1991, “I ran into four guys from my hometown in Massachusetts.”
“They were forming a singing group and I said I had experience,” he continued. “I started singing with them and one of the tunes we did was ‘Little Darlin.’ In the middle of that is a monologue, so I asked the leader if I could do it as Boris Karloff. Every time, the audience cracked up.”
Lenny Capizzi, Pickett’s bandmate in The Cordials, as the group called themselves, suggested they put the impression to work in a novelty hit, something on the order of Sheb Wooley’s “Purple People Eater.”
“I said I wasn’t interested,” Pickett recalled. “I was leaving the group to pursue my acting career. A year went by and nothing happened in terms of that, so I called him and said I wanted to write that song.”
The pair sat down on Saturday in May 1962 (on the same day Herb Alpert was in the same studio cutting “Brave Bull,” and Jimmy Rogers was recording his hit, “Honeycomb”) and knocked out the song in two or three hours. Pickett and Capizzi had one music industry contact: Gary Paxton, who’d sang lead on the Hollywood Argyles’ hit “Alley Ooop.” Paxton produced the song for the pair; the initial sessions took two hours, and the entire song was completed in two days.
Leon Russell, then a hustling young session piano player, is behind the keyboards for the single’s B-side, and another possibly apocryphal bit of L.A. musician lore has Ventures drummer Mel Taylor playing on it as well. The song’s sound effects were typically low-budget bits of studio improvisation: The “coffin door” sound is a rusty nail being pulled out of a board with a hammer and the noise of the cauldron is water bubbled through a straw.
Four labels passed on the song before Paxton released it on his own on Aug. 25, 1962. The song reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart the week of Oct. 20, just before Halloween that year. Interestingly, in an example of how mercenary the music industry has always been, a copycat named John Zacherle actually beat Pickett and Capizzi to a full-length album called Monster Mash by two or three weeks, putting it out on on Cameo Parkway Records, though the pair’s own full-length; The Original Monster Mash, eventually outsold his.
Not everyone was a fan of the song: Pickett recalled Dick Clark being reticent to have him perform the song on American Bandstand, and Elvis Presley called “Monster Mash” “the dumbest thing I ever heard.” (For years afterward, after Presley’s death, Pickett would tell that story as part of his act and say, “If you’re still out there listening, Elvis, I’m still here.”)
Pickett immediately attempted to capitalize on the record’s success with “Monster’s Holiday,” in time for Christmas, but that song only climbed to 30 on the charts. Pickett’s next biggest single, “Graduation Day” (a saccharine tune he later described as “an embarrassment”) only reached No. 80 in June 1963, and he was absent on the pop charts for much of the rest of the decade, though he worked steadily in commercials, B-movies and episodic television at his first love, acting. (Capizzi, for his part, fared much more poorly; Pickett recalled in 1994 that his co-writer on “Mash” eventually developed a heroin addiction and overdosed in 1989.)
But “Monster Mash,” like one of its subjects, continued to rise again. It re-entered U.S. charts twice, in August 1970 and in May 1973, while Pickett was driving a cab in New York to make ends meet. (It’s one of only three songs to achieve such a hat trick on the U.S. charts.) Also in 1973, it peaked at No. 3 on the U.K. singles chart in October. Pickett’s other stabs at musical success in the ’70s were novelty hits on the order of “Mash:” A Star Trek parody called “Star Drek” (which found a second life on The Dr. Demento Show) and “King Kong (Your Song)” in 1976, which attempted to capitalize on the remake that hit theaters that year.
Pickett remained genial about his success as a one-hit wonder, even as his years out of the spotlight saw a divorce and the death of his 3-year-old son from drowning. “Bobby wouldn’t ask for a quarter,” his friend, actor Alex Rocco, told PEOPLE in 1996.
And Pickett never truly let his signature song rest in peace. He released “Monster Rap” in 1985, a stab at updating the tune with the then-novel sounds of hip hop …
… and twenty years after that, made an admirably political move, recording “Climate Mash,” a song critical of the U.S. government’s inaction towards climate change. (Whether Pickett’s motivations were genuinely altruistic or simply opportunistic is unclear — climate change was a hot-button issue during that time, with An Inconvenient Truth being released in 2006.)
Pickett acted in off-Broadway plays during the ’80s and toured consistently (at one point with Tiny Tim of “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” fame) — in between putting in work on local theater stages in Boston, as a DJ and writer — relegated to appearances at theme parks and state fairs, usually around Halloween. (He did work steadily through the ’90s at Spooky World, a seasonal theme park touted as “America’s Horror Theme Park.”) Pickett continued pounding the pavement on behalf of the “Mash;” he was still touring as of November 2006, just five months before his death from leukemia. (In another cosmically funny coincidence, his tour bus once broke down outside Frankenstein, Missouri.) “I’d like to perform a medley of my hit,” went the introduction he’d use when performing the song in later years.
Still, he told PEOPLE in 1996, “I’m glad I did the song, because some people never get to do anything.”
Pickett died on April 25, 2007. His website remains charmingly low-key, and according to the equally morbidly and low-fi website FindAGrave.com, he was cremated upon his death, and a portion of his ashes were made into a diamond ring, given to his daughter. Can you think of anything more fitting?