When my niece got married recently, the first dance song played at her wedding reception was “Harvey and Sheila,” Allan Sherman’s parody of “Hava Nagilah.” We all danced in intertwining circles, as the band played “Harvey and Sheila/Moved to West L.A./They bought a house one day/Financed by FHA…”
The song was her choice, for its connection to American Jewish history, specifically New York history, and the familiarity of the lyrics that reminded her of family history. And it was homage to the grandfather who first introduced her to Allan Sherman, with a homemade tape of “My Son the Folksinger.” Even though she was born decades after Sherman recorded songs like “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” and “There is Nothing Like a Lox” (to the tune of “There is Nothing Like a Dame” from “South Pacific”), she grew up listening to his tapes again and again. And still, Sherman’s songs make her smile.
Mark Cohen has written a most comprehensive and accessible biography, “Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman” (Brandeis University Press), complete with lyrics of songs recorded and others that were never released. Cohen succeeds in presenting the fullness of Sherman’s larger-than-life personality, the family background that led to his original take on Jewish life and the connection of his life’s work to the world of American Jewish humor.
The book — the first biography of the comic artist who predated Woody Allen and Larry David — was written with the cooperation of Sherman’s family, which granted him exclusive access to his papers and recordings. In extensive research, Cohen tracked down Sherman’s contributions to student publications in the 1930s that show the roots of his distinctive take on Jewish life. This summer marks the 50th anniversary of Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” which won a Grammy Award and was the peak of his fame.
Cohen’s account is admiring and appreciative yet frank. In an interview with The Jewish Week, the author points out that Sherman, who died in 1973 at age 48, delivered breakthrough ethnic Jewish song comedy in the 1950s, as sociologists like Nathan Glazer were theorizing about connections between assimilation and ethnicity, religion and education. “Sherman intuited this,” he says, with “just the right cocktail mixture” of Americanness and authentic Jewish vocabulary. With feet in both worlds, he understood the lifestyles and concerns of the American-born generation that grew up in immigrant households.
“He told a story that was personal for him and also resonated for millions,” Cohen explains.
Sherman, a short, round man with horned-rim glasses, played at Carnegie Hall and the National Press Club; his friends included Harpo Marx and Bill Cosby; he created the television game show “I’ve Got A Secret.” In 1962 and 1963, he released three albums, “My Son, The Folk Singer,” “My Son, The Celebrity” and “My Son, The Nut,” which sold a total of three million copies. He even received kudos from President Kennedy in March 1963, when Sherman sang at the Department of Labor’s 50th Anniversary Dinner. President Kennedy told Sherman he was a fan. “I have your record and like it very much,” he said.
In 1963, Nora Ephron interviewed Sherman for a profile in the New York Post, and he told her, “My parents divorced when I was 6 and I spent the rest of my life at Fred Astaire and Dick Powell movies. This caused me to lose my grip on reality.”
To describe Sherman’s childhood as troubled is an understatement. After his parents split up, his mother had two more husbands, the last one a Jewish con man and gangster. Cohen writes that “in reaction to his parents’ madness he took refuge in a character finely tuned to a child’s world and its wish for family love that resulted in some of his greatest creations, including the ‘Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh’ song that made enduring comedy out of a child’s fear of parental abandonment.”
Growing up, Sherman lived in two worlds, in Los Angeles with his mother, who was racing to assimilate, and in Chicago with his Jewish grandparents, who were immigrants. He would later write a story about his grandmother’s kindness to him, describing how he once presented her with a football. He had thought that was what she wanted, when she was asking for a fruit bowl. So she then put the new football into a fruit bowl, on display. Cohen writes that Sherman’s lifelong goal was to bridge the Jewish gap that divided his mother from her childhood world, and from him.
At the University of Illinois, he wrote columns, songs, and parodies — and he married a college girl friend soon after leaving. His first Jewish song parodies were send-ups of Broadway musicals, which grew out of his deep knowledge of the American songbook. He later wrote for others, like the cabaret singer Frances Faye (whose records sat next to Sherman’s in my parents’ collection).
Cohen writes that when Broadway’s Jewish creators hid their origins, “Sherman called them on it, and when explicitly Jewish works slipped in to the sentimental, he delivered the comic slap needed to being them to their senses.”
Parodying E.H. “Yip” Harburg’s “How Are Things in Glocca Morra” from Finian’s Rainbow, a song pining for a lost childhood world in Ireland imagined by a Jewish composer, Sherman wrote “How Are Things with Uncle Morris?” For Cohen, that song was a “comic valentine” to the world his mother ran away from, and that he ran toward. “Is Aunt Bea with Uncle Morris?/Do they still live on the second floor?/Do they still live in the same old flat?/Is he still fat?/And does he walk around in his gatkes [long underwear] there?”
Long before Philip Roth was writing about his ambivalence to Jewish life in the suburbs, Sherman was poking fun at upward mobility (“Seventy-six Sol Cohens in the country club!/And a hundred and ten nice men named Levine” to the tune of “Seventy-Six Trombones” from “The Music Man.”) He adds that Sherman shouted out Jewish names, Jewish habits, breaking any spell of shame or discomfort.
As the folk music movement was gaining momentum in the 1950s, with Harry Belafonte recording “Hava Nagila” in 1959, Sherman turned his comic lens to folk songs, turning the French “Frere Jacques” to “Sarah Jackman, Sarah Jackman/How’s by you?” That song and others, including his rendition of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” as “The Ballad of Harry Lewis” are recorded on the 1962 album “My Son, The Folk Singer.” In a touch of brilliance among many, Sherman writes that Harry Lewis, who worked in a garment shop owned by Irving Roth, was killed in a fire in a warehouse “where the drapes of Roth are stored.”
“Sherman’s album hijacked a collection of folk songs, took them on a joyride through his Jewish imagination,” Cohen writes.
Theodor Bikel, whose songs were parodied, appreciated Sherman’s “Jewish sense of the absurd.”
If you grew up on Long Island or in Westchester, or Shaker Heights or Squirrel Hill, to hear “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max,” with his breathless chant of “Meet Meyerowitz Berowitz Handleman, Shandleman/Sperber and Gerber and Steiner and Stone/Moskowitz Lupowitz Aaronson Berenson Fineman…” is to find yourself on familiar and funny terrain; a wink is made into a grand gesture.
Cohen, an author, editor and journalist who lives near San Francisco, grew up in Kew Gardens, Queens, listening to Allan Sherman records in the basement of his family’s home; he turned them over and replayed them as soon as one side finished. He says that he didn’t know the original songs that Sherman was parodying, but “there was something about the joy of the delivery, the joy in the audience reaction and the cleverness of the word play” that hooked him in the late ’60s.
For Cohen, Sherman’s role in Jewish culture has been underrated and underappreciated. The author of “Missing a Beat: The Rants and Regrets of Seymour Krim” and “Last Century of a Sephardic Community,” Cohen also wrote the liner notes for “My Son, The Box,” the six-CD collection of Sherman’s songs and parodies. He points out that while Sherman’s songs are full of compassion and joy, his life was not.
Sherman loved to entertain, loved an audience. Laughter is heard in the background of his recordings. When the “evergreen funnyman” died of a heart attack in 1973, most of his albums were out of print, his marriage was over, and he was, in Cohen’s words, self-destructive. His death brought the kind of press attention he would have enjoyed.
Mark Cohen will be speaking about “Overweight Sensation: The Life and Comedy of Allan Sherman” at the 92nd St Y on Tuesday, Dec. 10, at 2 p.m. 92y.org.