Bobby "Boris" Pickett, whose Boris Karloff impression propelled his Halloween anthem Monster Mash to the top of the charts in 1962, died of leukemia Wednesday night at the age of 69.
Pickett was one of pop music's most enduring one-hit wonders, and has been called "The Guy Lombardo of Halloween" because of his brief annual bursts of fame.
Monster Mash hit the Billboard chart three times: when it debuted in 1962, selling a million copies and reaching No. 1 the week before Halloween; again in August 1970, and for a third time in May 1973. The resurrections were appropriate for a song where Pickett gravely intoned the forever-stuck-in-your-head chorus: "He did the monster mash. ... It was a graveyard smash."
The novelty hit's fans included Bob Dylan, who played the single on his XM Satellite Radio program last October. "Our next artist is considered a one-hit wonder, but his one hit comes back year after year," Dylan noted.
The hit single ensured Pickett's place in the pantheon of pop music obscurities, said syndicated radio host Dr. Demento, whose long-running program celebrates offbeat tunes.
"It's certainly the biggest Halloween song of all time," said Demento. The DJ, who interviewed Pickett last year, said he maintained a sense of humor about his singular success: "As he loved to say at oldies shows, `And now I'm going to do a medley of my hit.'"
Pickett's impression of Karloff (who despite his name was an Englishman, born William Henry Pratt) was forged in Somerville, Mass., where the boy watched horror films in a theater managed by his father.
Pickett used the impersonation in a nightclub act and when performing with his band the Cordials. A bandmate convinced Pickett they needed to do a song to showcase the Karloff voice, and "Monster Mash" was born, "written in about a half-hour," said Dr. Demento. The song also includes a line that Pickett delivered in a Bela Lugosi voice: "Whatever happened to my Transylvania Twist?"
The recording, done in a couple of hours, featured a then-unknown piano player named Leon Russell and a backing band christened The Crypt-Kickers. It was rejected by four major labels before Gary Paxton, lead singer on the Hollywood Argyles' novelty hit Alley Oop, released Monster Mash on his own label.
The instant smash became a sort-of Christmas carol for the pumpkin and ghoul set, with spurts in air play and record sales every fall. In a 1996 interview with People magazine, Pickett said he never grew tired of the song: "When I hear it, I hear a cash register ringing."
While Pickett never re-created its success, his Monster's Holiday, a Christmas follow-up, reached No. 30 in December 1962. And Graduation Day hit No. 80 in June 1963. In October 2005, Pickett protested inaction on global warming by releasing Climate Mash, a new version of his hit single. Pickett also recorded a novelty spoof on "Star Trek" called Star Drek, again performing the various voices, which has been played on Dr. Demento's radio show.
He continued performing through his final gig in November. He remained in demand for Halloween performances, including a memorable 1973 show where his bus broke down outside Frankenstein, Mo. (info from The Assocated Press & Wikipedia; photo from richardandtheyounglions.com)