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Frank King gives novelty song lesson

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By James Kinneen
Hometown Weekly Reporter

On Thursday afternoon, Frank King, who holds a Masters in Broadcasting from Boston University and a BA from Princeton, gave the Tolles Parsons Center a musical presentation of novelty songs, specifically the novelty hits of the 1950s.

But while novelty songs get a bit of a bad rap, King pointed out that these songs were both well-made, clever, and huge hits on the charts.

King began by talking about Jimmy Durante, noting that the novelty singer is the only person to ever put his noseprint into the famous concrete at Grauman’s Chinese Theater. Then, he spoke of Joan and Alex Kramer and their hit, “Never Get Away,” before asking the crowd to sing along with the song, the chorus of which gets incredibly fast as the song goes on.

Frank King talks about Allan Sherman’s famed novelty songs and unfortunately early death.

Frank King talks about Allan Sherman’s famed novelty songs and unfortunately early death.

King talked about how much country music gave way to novelty music, even among its biggest stars. Dale Evans, for example had a big novelty hit with “What Fer Didgee” and wrote “Happy Trails to You” for Roy Rogers when they were married. These fun songs belied the hard life that Evans endured, including a couple of failed marriages and a child she had at fifteen, who record executives forced her to pretend was her brother. Even with Rogers, life was not easy, as the two had a child with Down Syndrome. Although the child died young, the little girl was never institutionalized, an act which radically altered the way people viewed raising mentally disabled children.

The novelty song that the crowd seemed most interested in was “The Lake Song,” performed by Ethel Merman and Ray Bolger. King noted that Ray Bolger was a terrible singer and Merman “had two singing styles, loud and louder,” before adding “my apologies to Native Americans everywhere” before he played the stereotypical song.

Based on the real Lake Chaubunagungamaug in Webster MA, the song speaks of Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, which is supposedly a Native American word that translates to “you fish on your side, I’ll fish on my side, and nobody fishes in the middle.” To the disappointment of the crowd that was very familiar with his story, King regretted to inform them that this funny translation was made up by a newspaper reporter and that the actual translation was closer to “English knifemen and Nipmuc Indians at the boundary or neutral fishing place.” That translation would be tough to work into a novelty hit.

Finally, King spoke of Allan Sherman, who rose to fame after performing in Harpo Marx’s living room when George Burns called a record executive and demanded he sign Sherman to a deal. King played “Shake Hands With Your Uncle Max” a Jewish parody of the Irish classic “Dear Old Donegal.”

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