c. Martin Limon 2004
What ever happened to the Novelty Record?
(first published by Down Your Way, October 2004)
Whether you consider them to be a legacy of the Music Hall or a phenomenon in their own right there is no denying that many of the most memorable songs from the history of pop are novelty items……….
Martin Limon takes up the story………..
Those with long memories will recall that in the days before BBC radio re-branded itself as Radios One, Two, Three and Four in 1967, a more genteel structure of the "wireless" was dominated by the Home Service and the Light Programme. A firm favourite of the latter's schedules was the Saturday Morning "Children's Favourites" programme which ran from 1954-1967 before mainstream "pop" become the dominant force with the arrival of Radio One.
An important part of the diet of Children's Favourites was the novelty record. In many ways these were the direct descendents of the songs of the Music Hall where crooner comedians sang songs about everyday life. Marie Lloyd's hit song My Old Man said follow the van and don't dilly dally on the way (about a hurried departure to avoid paying the rent) was as much a "novelty" item for its time as Bryan Hyland's Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini (1960).
In many ways the heyday of 'novelty singles' was in the 1950s and 1960s although some would argue that the 1980s produced some fine examples too - like Black Lace's Agadoo (1984). Novelty tracks from the earlier period ranged from sentimental stories….like 'Nellie the Elephant' recorded by Mandy Miller in 1956…. to the humorous 'Beep Beep' of the Playmates (1958)…. to the thoroughly irritating Burl Ives record: "There was an old lady who swallowed a fly" with its endless repetition of lyrics. Ives was an American folk singer, author and actor who in the 1960s successfully made the transition from country singer into mainstream pop with songs like A Little Bitty Tear and Funny Way of Laughing.
Novelty records were a major feature of the popular music charts on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1950s and 1960s. Before the arrival of the "Liverpool Sound" in the mid 60s the market for these was dominated by the Americans. The most memorable of novelty records were those involving humour and even "serious" artists were not averse to including novelty items in their act. Pat Boone's recording career may have begun with mainstream rhythm and blues hits like "Ain't that a Shame" but in August 1962 he had a hit too with Speedy Gonzales. Similarly, a mainstay of British television's light entertainment schedules in the sixties and seventies was the Irish singer, Val Doonican. Well known for his sweaters, rocking chair and easy-going style, Doonican produced a string of chart entries beginning with Walk Tall in 1964. His novelty songs such as O'Rafferty's Motor Car and Paddy McGinty's Goat were equally as popular.
A more consistent output of comic songs came from the pen of the brilliant Alan Sherman. Although Sherman aimed to be a serious songwriter his attempts to get his ballads published, in 1945, ended in failure. After a career as a television writer in the 1950s Sherman's talent