ORIGINS OF HALLOWEEN MUSIC
I’ve always wondered how many of the tunes we hear at Halloween time came into being. Or even how people were inspired to write or perform spooky and horror music. I hope that what I have included within this article will add to a memorable Halloween as well as shedding a little light on such a spooky form of music.
Some may debate whether Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash” or the beginning of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D minor” was the first music to unequivocally be associated with Halloween, while others insist that nothing truly scary made an impact on the national consciousness until the Starland Vocal Band released “Afternoon Delight”.
No matter what you associate musically with Halloween, the songs and themes that seem to pop up year after year around October 31st have certainly made an impact. Unlike Christmas Music, which has a rich tradition (aside from the deplorable “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer”), Halloween music is almost exclusively a product of the 20th century.
The number of purely musical releases are few and far between. Most recognizable Halloween themes were a byproduct from the film and television industry. Consider Ray Parker Jr’s “Ghostbusters”, which was originally titled “I Want a New Drug” and performed by Huey Lewis and the News. It not only rose to the top of the charts, but has also enjoyed many subsequent years of airplay because of the Halloween season, much to the chagrin of anyone who can’t appreciate the beauty of rhyming “dose” with “ghost”.
Even more popular are the sound bites from various horror franchises. Who can forget the busy yet astonishingly creepy theme to John Carpenter’s “Halloween” or the scary, slow building strings that John Williams wrote for Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws”? And dare we not include Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie Titanic. I would also include all of the music from the Harry Potter series of films (written in part by the legendary John Williams). Talk about frightening! Indeed, movie and TV themes such as “The Twilight Zone”, written and performed by Neil Norman & His Cosmic Orchestra, seem to resonate with more appeal than novelty songs written with monster mayhem in mind.
No matter what music puts you in the mood for frightening fun this Halloween season, it’s almost a given that you’ll hear it somewhere. Whether it comes from the television, the radio, or via the humming of that co-worker in the cubical next to you, who you never were all that sure about, Halloween music is indeed here to stay. Halloween theme music can include a wide variety of genres, from children’s songs to movie themes to rock and roll tunes. Halloween music can add life to a party, or become part of your trick-or-treat home ambiance on Halloween night.
Whether you like rock and roll, oldies, classical, or a little bit from many genres, Halloween theme music is a great deal of fun to pick out. A playlist filled with music and Halloween sound effects can be just the thing for a party, or even if you’re simply getting in the mood to greet ghosts and goblins trick-or-treating at your door. Great music makes the fun of Halloween even more enjoyable.
What makes a Halloween song a hit? Most folks agree that a great Halloween song is one that you can sing along with. Songs that you find yourself humming as you decorate or prepare for Halloween. Many of these songs can be found easily and are considered common favorites among fans of the holiday. So why are some Halloween songs destined to live in obscurity?
Growing up I loved to see cartoons that brought together the familiar musical sounds with Halloween flair. A perfect match one might think. Also big were old movies. The Louis Armstrong version of the Arthur Johnson/Johnny Burke tune, The Skeleton in the Closet recorded with Jimmy Dorsey and His Orchestra in Los Angeles, The song is featured in a creepy nightclub sequence complete with a dancing skeleton. Who can resist Armstrong’s gravelly voice and legendary trumpet style especially when it’s put to good use on a Halloween tune!
No list of Halloween songs from this era would be complete without mentioning The Headless Horseman by Don Raye and Gene De Paul. The song is featured in the “Legend Of Sleepy Hollow,” a portion of the 1947 animated Walt Disney film The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad. Bing Crosby played the role of Brom Bones and the song follows the Washington Irving tale of a headless man who cannot be reasoned, who is intent on scaring poor Ichabod Crane witless on Halloween night.
The 50s and 60s gave real life to Halloween music. Rockabilly and rock-n-roll songs are most easily identified with Halloween and put music into the celebration of Halloween. The Purple People Eater, The Monster Mash and I Put A Spell On You are all products of this era. Monster magazines and movies influenced musicians to join the ranks of those who create media for the holiday. There are so many great songs from this era, many completely unknown and little is known about the artists who recorded some of these excellent yet obscure songs.
Calypso and Reggae also have some excellent seasonal representatives. Zombie Jamboree is a funny story about zombies from across the land celebrating at a cemetery on Long Island and is said to have won an extemporaneous composition contest for Lord Invader and his Twelve Penetrators at Trinidad’s Calypso Carnival in 1955.
What classifies a song as a Halloween song? It is words. It is a feeling and is unmistakable. Almost every genre of music has a Halloween representative, although I am not sure about Gospel or Christian Halloween songs. Much of this music must be sought out since it will never make it onto a Halloween compilation CD or onto commercial radio. As Halloween approaches, my never-ending search for new Halloween sounds reaches a higher level while stores stock current offerings. Each year I find something new. Each year I find more of the same old usual suspects.
I have learned that in the span of an hour and a half, Lenny Capizi and Bobby Pickett worked out The Monster Mash. Halloween music was forever changed. These two members of the singing group the Cordials decided to take advantage of the novelty song craze happening in the early sixties. They brought the song to producer Gary Paxton. Afterwards the band was dubbed “Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett and the Cryptkickers.” On October 20, 1962, after eight weeks on the charts, the record hit Number 1 just in time for Halloween. It re-entered the Billboard Hot 100 on August 29, 1970 peaking at Number 91 and again on May 5, 1972 when it went all the way to Number 10. Over the years, The Monster Mash has sold over four million copies, received three gold records, and is easily one of the most popular novelty records of all time.
Many years ago Screamin’ Jay Hawkins at performed at a small nightclub in San Francisco. The show was weird, and excellent—but weird. I Put A Spell on You was THE signature song. Hawkins crept around the stage in a cape; brandishing the smoking skull on a stick he named ‘Henry.’ He was a crazed cannibal, a voodoo jive master. The song was inspired by being dumped by a girlfriend after she caught him cheating, Screamin’ Jay cut the original version of I Put A Spell On You for Grand Records in 1949, but the record failed to make an impact. Recorded with producer Arnold Maxon for Okeh (Epic) in 1956, the song soon became his signature hit. I Put A Spell on You was banned from radio airplay across the country due to his “cannibalistic” delivery. It was eventually edited for radio with moans, grunts and groans removed. I Put A Spell On You was Screamin’ Jay’s only big single, selling over a million copies, but it never made the charts. There are over three dozen versions of I PUT A SPELL ON YOU, but the version that many might be more familiar to most listeners is by Bette Midler in the movie Hocus Pocus.
In 1964 Vic Mizzy gave us one of the best known pieces of music, The Addams Family Theme, but this legendary theme might not have happened at all. David Levy, a close friend of Mizzy’s and an executive with Filmways Studio asked him to patch in some stock music for the soundtrack of a pilot for a series based on the Charles Addams cartoons in the New Yorker. Vic offered to write a score for free so long as he could keep the publishing rights. Levy agreed and Mizzy wrote the theme. Not only did he write the title theme, but he also composed themes for most of the main characters, played the harpsichord, and directed the opening sequence. Vic was the vocalist on the track and his voice was overdubbed three times. Whenever you hear Lurch playing the harpsichord, it’s actually Vic. From 1964—1966 Mizzy composed themes and weekly scores for the TV show. His 1965 Ghost and Mr. Chicken soundtrack has some of his best work. He is known best in Hollywood for being an excellent source for silly and fun music and has composed for films, radio and television.
In the early 70s Warren Zevon played with the Everly Brothers and by 1975, he and his wife were living in Phil Everly’s guesthouse. Phil asked Warren and songwriting partner Leroy “Roy” Marinell to write a song for his upcoming solo album. He asked them to write him a dance song. “Something like ‘Werewolves of London’” is what Phil said. Later, at Roy’s house as they began writing, guitarist Robert ‘Wadded’ Wachtel joined them to add the “Aah-Ooh Werewolves of London”. The three finished the song in 20 minutes. The track was recorded with Waddy, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie (of Fleetwood Mac fame) and produced by friend Jackson Browne. Werewolves of London hit Number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Number 15 on the Cashbox charts in April 1978. The song eventually reached Number 8 and went gold.