By Cait Brennan
Ever since the creeping dawn of that undead-zombification machine known as television, monster movies and horror hosts have been joined at the hip, like a mad scientist and his freakishly deformed sidekick, like Jan and her pan, like Rosie Grier and Ray Milland’s racist head. From Vampira and Ghoulardi to Dr. San Guinary and Morgus the Magnificent, horror hosts were an indelible part of pop culture in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
But nowhere is there a horror host whose career—and life—has lasted as long as John Zacherle. The rockingest of horror icons, Zach got his start as Roland (pronounced “Roland“) on Philadelphia’s WCAU before pulling up stakes to New York and becoming “Zacherley” (same ghoul, different name). Now 94, the eternal Cool Ghoul is almost certainly the last survivor of the golden age of horror hosts, and he still looks as good . . . he still looks as . . . he still looks like Zacherle, and he’s still out there making convention appearances and delighting generations of horror fans.
Now, just in time for Halloween, Real Gone Music has reissued two of Zacherle’s horrifically hip early ’60s LPs. It’s a classic time capsule of horror host comedy with some great (and familiar) Philly dance-craze R&B grooves to boot.
Originally issued on the Cameo/Parkway label, the albums—Monster Mash and Scary Tales—feature clever horror-themed send-ups of contemporary hits, some of which feature the actual big-beat backing tracks of the real Cameo/Parkway hits the Cool Ghoul was spoofing. Case in point, Zacherle’s “Let’s Twist Again (Mummy Time Is Here)” (from Chubby Checker’s “Let’s Twist Again”) and “Limb From Limbo Rock” (from Checker’s “Limbo Rock”). Years ahead of the Beastie Boys, Zacherle busts some mad rhymes over the records of the day, with screwy, hilarious horror-centric lyrics and some high-energy ad-libbing that captures his horror-host persona for posterity in a way that, sadly, video recording of the time never did.
The highlight, of course, is Zach’s hit single “Dinner With Drac Part 1,” a 1958 top 10 hit that is, if I may say so, a hell of a lot funnier than Bobby “Boris” Pickett’s “Monster Mash.” The tune was co-written by producer/writer team Kal Mann and Dave Appell; Appell had previously worked with the great Ernie Kovacs, and must have brought some of Ernie’s anarchic energy with him to the session. The success of the record led to Zacherle hosting his own teen dance-craze TV show—in character! Zacherley’s Disco Teen was, in the host’s own words, “sort of a Transylvanian Bandstand.” It was truly a better, weirder world.
For sheer fun it’s hard to top the gut-bustingly silly spoof of Claude King’s hillbilly classic “Wolverton Mountain” (“I’m The Ghoul From Wolverton Mountain”, itself a send-up of Jo Ann Campbell’s “answer song” “I’m The Girl From Wolverton Mountain” using Campbell’s actual backing track. It gets meta in Zacherle land, people.) Another super-cool bonus is “Scary Tales (from Mother Goose)”, a song that appears here in three versions. The original LP version was cut with three separate grooves, and the listener would hear a different version of the song depending on where the needle caught the groove—a technique ’70s and ’80s kids may recall from various MAD magazine flexidiscs and other novelty tunes. All the versions are included here, as well as “Igor,” the original UK B-side of “Dinner With Drac,” which was apparently dropped from the single in the US because it was “too gory.” Sort of the point, wasn’t it?
Records like this were typically recorded in a hurry, meant to capitalize on Zach’s fame and make a quick buck for all involved. They were probably never intended for the ages, but a half-century later, Monster Mash and Scary Tales are great fun, with 27 tracks that capture that perfect circa-1960 moment when there was nothing cooler and more revolutionary than a swingin’ ghoul with hip, ironic jokes and biting commentary. And whether it’s “Weird Watusi,” “Surfboard 1-0-9,” or the Bagdasarian-esque “Spider and the Fly,” Monster Mash and Scary Tales are beautifully of their time, which makes them that much more fun for ours.
Longtime Zach fan John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful writes the reissue’s loving liner notes, framing the story of Zacherle’s career with his own firsthand perspective of growing up with the groovy Ghoul on the tube.
John Zacherle himself was and is, of course, much more than his horror persona; he had a long and successful career as a radio broadcaster and even played a (decidedly non-spooky) wizard in the later years of Captain Kangaroo. But he’ll always be loved best for the ghoulish delights he inflicted on a willing army of young rock and roll troublemakers. Real Gone’s Monster Mash and Scary Tales compilation is a hilarious and nostalgic tribute to a guy who is truly a national treasure. Rock on, Zach.
Monster Mash/Scary Tales was reissued on October 2 through Real Gone Music and is available to order from their website.