Top 40 Smash Taps: “Crazy Downtown”

These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.

Allan Sherman’s recording career came about because of a performance at a testimonial dinner for an outgoing label president. Jim Conkling was stepping down as the top man at Warner Bros. records in 1961, when the label was still something a fledgling upstart, largely getting by with comedy albums. Sherman worked in broadcasting at the time, most notably as the creator of the game show I’ve Got a Secret. He took the microphone and performed a parody version of the hit song “Big Bad John” that reworked it with the first name Jim instead. It was the clear highlight of the evening and resulted in the incoming president of the label to offer Sherman a contract.

Basing major business decisions on what was amusing on a night when there was undoubtedly copious consumption of stiff cocktails may seem suspect, but the results prove a surprising wisdom in it. Sherman’s debut LP, My Son, the Folk Singer, was an enormous success, reaching the top of the Billboard album charts and becoming of the fastest-selling records up to that point. in 1963, Sherman’s third album, My Son, the Nut yielded a Top 40 hit when the tale of summer camp woe “Hello Muddah, Hello Faddah” climbed all the way to #2. It was even big enough that foreign language covers cropped up, including efforts in Norwegian and Swedish.

Sherman continued to sell lots of records and play sold-out shows in locales of unlikely prestige (during his peak, he played Carnegie Hall and had a noted collaboration with the Boston Pops Orchestra). He didn’t get enough radio play or sell enough 45s to become a regular visitor to the Top 40. In fact, he only gained entry to that club on one other occasion, with a spoof of the song “Downtown,” which Petula Clark took to the top of the singles chart in early 1965. Later that same year, Sherman released his comedic version, taking the original’s celebration of the freedom of heading into the heart of the big city and turning it on its head to imagine the parental worry that results from seeing kids go bounding into the spooky, urban night. When he sings, “But every time we ask you what you’re doing after dark there/ You just say that you were frugging to Petula Clark there,” he’s speaking for every fuddy-duddy who doesn’t understand why the girls are screaming their heads off about all those floppy-haired Brits (the week that Sherman’s song peaked at #40, the Top 10 included efforts from The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders, Freddie and the Dreamers and two different tracks from Herman’s Hermits). Hard to believe the song didn’t get more traction with the kids.

“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
“Angel in Blue” by J. Geils Band

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