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Allan Sherman 

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Harry Lewis perished
In the service of his lord
He was trampling through the warehouse
Where the drapes of Roth are stored
 

Allan Sherman, down-on-his-luck producer, was about to become My Son The, repackaging the American Jew in his own five-foot-six, 225-pound image.

By the end of the following year he was performing before record-sized concert audiences and subbing for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” His albums of song parodies – “My Son, The Folk Singer” was followed by “My Son, The Celebrity” was followed by “My Son, The Nut” – were selling like no records before them. President Kennedy was heard singing “Sarah Jackman,” Sherman’s send-up of “Frere Jacques.” Allan Sherman had the nation by the ear, Jews and gentiles both. My Son The was a brand he could take to the bank.

A decade later he was dead of emphysema, felled by high blood pressure, drink and unslain demons – he soothed the terror of fame with Scotch; his anger went to his waist. The subject of a recent Where Are They Now? column in Newsweek, My Son The was 10 days short of his 49th birthday.

A college friend and fellow comedy writer described Allan Sherman as “the most self-destructive person I’ve ever known.”

More than 45 years after he became My Son The, Sherman’s song parodies endure in some niche that transcends his blip of a career and his out-of-print oeuvre of nine albums. Even those who can’t place his name have a vague familiarity of his most famous song, “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” which captures the terrors of a child at sleep away camp. Sung to the “Dance of Hours” by Amilcare Ponchielli – a melody now immortalized by its association with Sherman –“Hello Muddah” won the Grammy for comedy in 1963.

For others, Sherman’s songs are a reminder of childhood, an artifact from a time when the Jewish immigrant generation was giving way to the new American-born Jewish middle class. “He sang in a way that wasn’t threatening, but also wasn’t apologetic,” says Mark Cohen, a writer who is working on the first full-girth biography of Sherman.

Lacking Tom Lehrer’s subversive bite, Woody Allen’s twisted abstractions, Mel Brooks’s anarchy, Lenny Bruce’s hopped-up riffing, Sherman’s humor was benign like the average Jew. My Son The was the zhlob who monopolized the whitefish at the synagogue’s kiddush lunch.
 

 


In his coarse voice Sherman sang of an equally unrefined Jewish petite bourgeoisie. The lyrics were an incongruous shidduch with familiar melodies that had not a whit of Jewish connotation.

“Sherman was saying that ultimately there was a very Jewish way of looking at things,” says Moshe Waldoks, co-editor of  “The Big Book of Jewish Humor.

That was something entirely new in American culture, Cohen says. “It’s hard for us to realize that today. But this was before there was widespread ethnic identity. Sherman injected an authentically Jewish voice into American pop culture. And he made a case for a Jewish-American identity before Jews were really comfortable with it.”

“My Son, The Folk Singer” took all that was gentile and retuned it to fit the Jewish ear. At the same time, Sherman took the familiar trappings of the formerly self-contained Jewish world and turned them into punch lines.

 

Oh, boy – Sophia Loren
Oh, boy – Chief Justice Warren
Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner Smith
And the whole B’nai B’rith


Sherman turned the heroic, mythic and gentile into the mundane, prosaic and petite bourgeois – fulfilling the jester’s mandate of deflating pomposity, but also pointing Jews to the doors leading to the American mainstream. To the tune of “Green Sleeves,” he sang of the knight Sir Greenbaum, who is given to smoting dragons but longs to “kick the habit and give up smoting for good” so he can go into the dry goods business in a Jewish suburb of Cleveland.

“The lyrics were clever. They were intelligent. They were literate,” Cohen says.

The pathos of a Western shootout is reduced to a petty business quarrel between two Yiddish-accented business partners, as Sherman sings of their final confrontation on “The Streets of Miami”:


I took careful aim
With mine trusty revolva
I shot and Sam crumbled
Just like a piece halva.


America ate it up. It wasn’t only Jews who made “My Son, The Folk Singer” the fastest-selling album until that time – snapping up 1.5 million copies. What Sherman did, Waldoks says, is admit gentiles into the exotic Jewish world.

Sherman “gave Americans the chance to express their secret wish to be Jewish,” Newsweek wrote in 1965.
Fame gave Sherman the chance to become more than a member of the tribe. He rejected the notion that his songs were in-jokes for Jews.
 

“They want me to be a professional Jew, an inside Jew,” he complained, “and they want to sit there and laugh their version of the hipster’s laugh – ‘I dig you but the Goys don’t’ and I can’t give them that – that’s too much Jewish.”

After the first album the hipsters had fewer smug moments. The parodies became less wry, more white bread, as Sherman began to train his sights on predictable middle-class targets: television and popular culture. The 1960s grew turbulent and Sherman took his stand on the other side of the generation gap, with the cloth cutters and salesmen who had worked their way up to the house with a yard and were loathe to kick the foundations. My Son The slammed youth culture, lampooning the innocuous Petula Clark and even Pop-Goes-The-Weaseled the Fab Four:


My daughter needs a new phonograph
She wore out all the needles
Besides, I broke the old one in half
I hate the Beatles.
 



 


Don’t bring me water
I’d rather have seltzer
Cause water don’t bubble
And water don’t fizz
Water I hate it
Cause it ain’t
Carbonated
But a glass of seltzer
On the other hand
Is
 

The quintessential American Jew he was not.

Allan Sherman was born in Chicago on November, 30, 1924, attended, he said, 21 public schools (Cohen believes this is an exaggeration), dropped out of college to enlist in the army only to be discharged five months later for allergies, returned to university and with his future wife was expelled for crashing a sorority house closed for the summer.

And how did his mother – to whom My Son The refers – feel about these shenanigans? Was she, in her shame, ready -- to borrow from Woody Allen –  to take an overdose of mah jongg tiles?

According to Her Son The’s autobiography, Rose Sherman married at 15, divorced a year later, then married Allan’s father, “and later she had two more husbands and I don’t know how many boyfriends.

“When she was between husbands she would park me with a relative or with her parents until she made a connection. She was frequently between husbands.”

Then there was Papa. Percy Copelon “was a reckless, free-spending, high-living, dangerous-living man. He flew airplanes at a time when only lion-hearted lunatics flew planes. He flew a pursuit plane in WWI.”

Rose and Percy separated when Allan was 6. “‘Allan,’ she said, ‘you have to choose. Which of us do you want to live with?’ “   Page 3 »