Folk Singer and Satirist Allan Sherman Was Bigger Than The Beatles

Allan Sherman
Allan Sherman starred in CBS’s “The Loner” for one episode in 1965. He is known best for his 1932 song “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah.”
CBS Television
Does the name Allan Sherman sound familiar? Every summer, after school lets out, hordes of kids leave home for sleep-away camp. For many children, it’s their first time away from home, and they go through periods of homesickness and conflicting emotions trying to adjust to unfamiliar faces and surroundings, often begging to go back home.

These sometimes uncomfortable reactions to camp have been immortalized in song by Sherman — who was just 38 when he wrote his ode to homesick campers — ”Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh (A Letter from Camp),” became a surprise success that hit No. 2 on Billboard’s national Hot 100 chart in 1963.

A pudgy parodist who honed his comedic skills performing in friends’ homes and backyards in Great Neck on Long Island, his satirical lyrics set to familiar melodies made him a star. He was described in a headline in The Forward as “Bigger than The Beatles,” and was so popular that even then-President John F. Kennedy was heard singing his songs. 

Sherman’s talent for making people laugh created the hit based on his own childhood experiences and those of his son Robbie Sherman, who expressed the misery he found at camp in letters to his parents. Robbie’s observations inspired the novelty number written by his satirist father and music arranger Lou Busch, which delivered such lines as:

Hello Muddah, hello Fadduh,

Here I am at Camp Granada ….

All the counselors hate the waiters

And the lake has alligators …. 

Now I don’t want this should scare ya

But my bunkmate has malaria ….

As the Los Angeles Times’ Paul Lieberman put it, Sherman tapped not only his son Robbie’s experience but “the overwhelming emotion of his own early life, the terror of a child separated from his parents.”

Allan Sherman attended 21 schools as a child

Sherman looked to his past for performance material, but his upbringing was anything but funny. Born in Chicago in 1924, he became a child of divorce when he was 6.

His mother had four husbands, and she moved her young son often to many places, including Jackson Heights, Queens, and New Rochelle in New York. Sherman later recalled attending classes at 21 different schools all over the country. 

The New York Times reported that he would later tell an interviewer, “I must have secretly wanted to be a performer for 18 years.” In college, he wrote songs and parodies and a humor column for the school newspaper. After two months in the U.S. Army — he was discharged because of allergies — he found success as a gag writer for TV shows.

In 1951, when his first parody was recorded, he discovered that he could amuse his family and friends with clever lyrics, according to the Illinois Music Archives. His career first took off in 1952 with his co-creation of the popular long-running television game show I’ve Got a Secret

Performing parodies at Long Island pool parties

Throughout the late 1950s, Sherman performed parodies at friends’ homes. According to The Hollywood Reporter, by the time he began working professionally, he had more than 20 parodies that turned the lyrics of familiar Broadway tunes into Jewish-themed numbers such as South Pacific’s “There Is Nothing Like A Lox,” or Carousel’s “When You Walk Through the Bronx.”

He became a frequent guest at weekly summer pool parties at drummer-bandleader Bobby Rosengarden’s Great Neck home on Long Island’s North Shore. As reported in Newsday, Sherman’s laugh fests that entertained dozens — including Sid Caesar and other popular comedians — were captured on reel-to-reel audio tape recordings.

After moving to Los Angeles in 1961, he met legendary comics Harpo Marx and George Burns, who became fans. Within a year, Sherman had a contract with Warner Bros. Records. His first album, My Son, The Folk Singer, consisting of Jewish-themed parody songs, was released in 1962. Although it wasn’t expected to do well, it sold more than a million copies in several months. 

The next year, the label released My Son, the Nut, featuring “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah,” which won a Grammy Award, the first of three. The same year, he filled in as the host on The Tonight Show when Johnny Carson was away.

More than just a one-hit wonder, Sherman came along at the right time, as The Hollywood Reporter observed: “It turned out after the conformist 1950s, there was a huge untapped appetite for more colorful ethnic entertainment, especially Jewish lore — and not just among Jews. Sherman was the first to tap into it.”

Sherman inspired other nonconformist comedians such as Mel Brooks, Jerry Seinfeld, and especially Weird Al Yankovic.

Sherman’s Final Act

After a few years, Sherman destroyed his career trajectory with too much money, too much fame, and being overly dependent on unhealthy food and sex.

The addictions exacerbated his emphysema, asthma, and obesity. As recounted in The Hollywood Reporter, his music arranger Lou Busch observed, “If ever I saw success ruin a guy, it was Allan. “He blew the wife, the kids and eventually the money, too.”

Sherman died of respiratory failure at 48 in 1973, just 10 years after winning his first Grammy.