Stone Age Woo: The Zorch Sounds of Nervous Norvus
The Many Mysteries Of Nervous Norvusby Phil Milstein
I'm a twin-pipe papa and I'm feelin' fine
Hey man, dig that -- was that a red stop sign?
[squeeeeeeeal ... kee-RASH!]
Using just a crudely-strummed "king-sized uke," the heartbeat-like sound of his foot tapping the base of the mic stand, and his wilted rose of a voice, in the course of a 15-year career Drake recorded countless demos, commissioned by America's most hopeless songwriters. On those that bore any identification at all, he was usually called Singing Jimmy Drake. But the vast majority were made as acetates, hand-cut in quantities of just one or two, whose typewritten labels offered no hint to later yard-sale finders that the singer of this song had once enjoyed a Top 10 smash.
Drake maintained split musical identities, his Singing Jimmy Drake discs being quickly-made and generally uninspired affairs, while his Nervous Norvus recordings enjoyed the greater bulk of his attention and imagination. As a result, the latter still sound great today. Drake's six Nervous Norvus sides on Dot, released in a meteoric burst during the middle of 1956, form the cornerstones of his legitimate career. Add in some excellent unreleased demos and a small handful of other Nervous Norvus records, and you have one of the richest bodies of novelty work ever made, as inventive, as timelessly fresh and as purely musical as any since Spike Jones. His songs zip and bounce along in jittery rhythms perfectly suited to the "nervous" quality of his delivery; the lyrics cleverly written in accord with conventional craft, yet informed by a unique middle-aged hepcat persona; his cutting-edge sound effects (most of them created by his mentor, radio host Red Blanchard) integrally woven so that music and effects are inseparable.
But the promise of Drake's early success soon faded. His precipitous disappearance from the charts was inevitable, as the public quickly tires of a novelty act. But the quality of his work suffered with his commercial slide; indeed, after 1956 there appear just a few top-notch recordings, and some of those were on songs submitted by other writers. What was probably the key factor in Drake's decline was that he was an alcoholic -- a severe one, according to Blanchard. "One of his songs was about a poor bum standing on the corner," Blanchard said in a recent interview. "'I'm Only A Lonely Wino,' that was. It was about himself, I think."
The early life of James William Drake was a knockabout one. He was born in 1912 in Memphis, and lived for a few years in Ripley, Tennessee, near the Arkansas border. (Other legendary recording artists who spent their early years in Ripley include Peetie Wheatstraw, aka The Devil's Son-In-Law, The High Sheriff Of Hell, and Tina Turner.) A chronic asthma condition led Drake's family to move him to California when he was seven, first to the Bay Area, then soon afterwards settling in Los Angeles. Like everyone else, the Drakes suffered hard through the Depression. In an article published in the Oakland Tribune at the peak of his success, Drake said that his mother bought him a tenor banjo while he was in high school in 1936, but was forced to sell it a year later "along with a great many other family possessions to raise funds for the necessities of life." The inexplicable part of this piece of his chronology is that by 1936, Drake was already 24 years old, an age at which he should have long been out of high school and capable of buying and selling his own musical instruments.
He served a year-long hitch with the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal program charged with make-work tasks such as forest maintenance, then spent the pre-War years hoboing around the country. He moved back to the Bay Area in 1941, settling, finally, in Oakland, in a modest house on West Grand which he would occupy for the rest of his life. (See brief description in Lynn Peril's "Best Of The Bay" column.) He got married the following year, although little is known about his wife. A heart condition kept Drake out of the military; he spent the War years working in shipyards instead. At some point after the War he took a job as a truck driver, the occupation that would sustain him until the success of "Transfusion."
Zorch, Man It's Nervous
Blanchard's show became a huge hit in the Bay Area, peaking in the summer of 1953. Its popularity prompted him to cut a series of novelty records of his own. Backed by Paul Weston & His Orchestra, Blanchard's biggest hit was a 1955 Columbia release entitled "Captain Hideous," with the title character a kind of clueless Flash Gordon. Its B-side was "Zorch!," whose lyrics demonstrated one of the lynchpins of Blanchard's radio show. Zorch was a mock-jive lingo created by his writers, inspired in part by Slim Gaillard, whose patois Blanchard had absorbed when their bands shared bills in the 1940s:
Zorch means it's edgar
Zorch, man it's nervous
Zorch, oh it's threatened
Zorch, ain't it nervous
By 1953, the 41-year-old truck-driver was fishing around for a way to get off the roads, and set his sights on a career as a songwriter. His first move was to buy a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a cheap second-hand piano. Next, he signed up for a correspondence course in musical notation. "There were 96 lessons," he said in the Tribune interview. "I learned to read music in the first ten and quit. I haven't looked at the other 86." He then bought his king-sized uke, more properly known as a baritone ukulele.
Also in 1953 Drake wrote "The Bully Bully Man," based on one of Blanchard's characters. The song would eventually be recorded by The Paris Sisters (from San Francisco, and later of Phil Spector/"I Love How You Love Me" fame) and released on the Cavalier label as the flip side to another Blanchard-associated number, "Zorch Boogie" (not to be confused with the aforementioned "Zorch!"). The release date of this record remains unknown, and thus it can't yet be placed chronologically amid "Transfusion" and the other Dot releases. Until such information comes to light, this item must remain apart as an interesting asterisk to Drake's early career.
Drake purchased a half-page ad in a 1953 issue of the amateur tipsheet Songwriter's Review, announcing himself as a songwriter by including the entire lead sheet for "Little Cowboy." The ad had an unintended effect: instead of garnering responses from music industry professionals, it was answered by his fellow amateur songwriters, who offered to pay him to record demos of their material. He accepted, and began supplementing his truck driving income with these demo recordings. He set up a recording studio in his kitchen but, with the tape deck squeezed onto a countertop and hovering half-over the sink, it proved a bit intrusive and was moved into a spare bedroom instead. Capitalizing on some successful song placements, as well as on his low fee structure (one song for $7, two for $11), Drake's demo business grew in prominence within the lower rungs of the songwriting industry. By April 1956 he claimed, in another tipsheet ad, to have recorded some 3000 of the suckers. He was just getting started.
I Listen To Red In Bed
In 1955 Blanchard left KCBS for a morning show on KPOP in Los Angeles, this one a regular record-spinning gig. It was some months before Drake was able to learn of his idol's new whereabouts. Once he did, he sent Blanchard a demo tape of a new song he'd written. In the wake of its success, Drake would give varying accounts of the inspiration for "Transfusion." To the Oakland Tribune, he said the idea was sparked by an article he'd read in the Oakland Tribune, about a bad car accident. To Time, he gave an account that sounded more like something out of a Chuck Berry song: "I was driving, see, cool like down the freeway. A young kid in a twin pipe job come up on me fast on the right. He was a goner. He cockeyed near cooled me, man. So I said, 'Jimmy, let's write a song about this cool cat.' I don't even know the name of the guy. But I got even. Man, I got even!"
Jimmy Drake aspired strictly to songwriting success, and had no inclination to be a performer himself. Rather, he hoped that Blanchard would record his own version of "Transfusion." But Blanchard was so struck by the uniqueness of Drake's voice that he could hear no one but Drake doing it. "He had that very unusual voice," Blanchard said. "So, egad, there was nothing I could do with those demo records except put 'em on the air, instead of trying to sing 'em myself."
Ah, there was but one thing Blanchard thought to add to Drake's demo, one extra shot of hot sauce that became "Transfusion"'s defining touch. Working on a whim, he pulled a 78 from the Standard Sound Effects series out of KPOP's record library, cued it to "Auto Skids And Crashes," and played the brief track repeatedly to punctuate each mini-tale of wreckless driving that form the song's verses. "That was just a natural to add the crashes," says Blanchard. "It's almost like there was a pause there just right for it." He added the effect on the fly, manually cueing and recueing while Drake's demo played from another tape deck. "I did the whole thing in one afternoon."
Blanchard put the pastiched "Transfusion" on the air, where it was an immediate hit with his listeners. Before long, Randy Wood, president of Dot Records, called to see if the recording was still available for release. After making the deal, "I gave him the tape I had," says Blanchard, "and that's what they made the record out of, just that demo tape with the sound effects added."
Suddenly finding himself a performing artist, Drake chose to shield his identity behind a character name, and so arrived at one of his masterstrokes. "I invented Nervous," he told Time. "I'm the cat that invented that." The name held alternate meanings for him. Most immediately, it was adapted from Blanchard's Zorch tongue, where it meant "wonderful" or, more precisely, "cool." But it could also be taken literally, as Drake was a pathologically timid man. "One time," Blanchard said, "he came over to my program, and he was hiding behind the door. He was afraid to even walk in the studio, he was so bashful." His shyness would soon hasten the downfall of his career.
The Norvus part Drake came up with on his own. "He just thought of a word to be alliterative with Nervous," says Blanchard. And so Nervous Norvus it was -- double-meaning, alliterative, and vastly cool.
Dot released "Transfusion" in May 1956, flipped with another brilliant novelty, the jaunty and equally hep "Dig" (Dot 15470). The record was unlike anything America had ever heard, and the country responded by making it an out-of-the-box sensation, reportedly snapping up a half-million copies within two weeks of its release, and going on to double that number before its run was through. Drake would earn the bulk of the artist royalties, of course, but Blanchard's share of one cent per copy was overshadowed by an unexpected third party -- the creators of the sound effects. "It turned out to be one of these commercial sound effect records. They recognized their crash and we had to pay them three cents a record." Blanchard, by the way, says he was paid royalties on sales of only 300,000 copies; most likely, his royalty statements were underreported while the press claims of a million copies were exaggerated.
Turning Down The "Really Big Shew"
But the dénouement still remained. "Ape Call" was the follow-up, released in June, right on the heels of "Transfusion." Its storyline surrealistically mingles extinct species with contemporary jungle creatures, all looking for just one thing. The yells of a horny Tarzan, unleashed by Blanchard himself (keeping those extra royalty pennies in the family this time), made clear what that thing was. Once again, Drake was able to take his basic sound, combine it with threads gleaned from Blanchard's show (one line, for instance, begins, "When they dug a nervous chick ..."), and produce an ingenious two-and-a-half minutes of novelty music. Backed with the chilling hillbilly tale "The Wild Dogs Of Kentucky" (mislabeled in the singular), featuring the looped yelps of Drake as a mad hound, "Ape Call" peaked at #24 during its 10-week Billboard run (Dot 15485). In one of his ads, Drake boasted sales of a half-million copies.
In September Dot released its third and final Nervous Norvus single, "The Fang" b/w "Bullfrog Hop" (Dot 15500). The top side, about a jive-boppin' Martian teen fallen to Earth, employed spaceship sound effects on the intro and outro that anticipated industrial music by a few decades (and Joe Meek's "Telstar" by a few years). The record might be Drake's most invigorating concoction, yet the durn thing failed to chart at all, and with that the Nervous Norvus part of Jimmy Drake's music career was all but over.
With the success of "Transfusion," Drake was able to quit his trucking job and turn to making music full-time. His demo orders continued to roll in, but they would have to wait, as he spent the latter half of 1956 traveling frequently between Oakland and Hollywood, where Dot had recently relocated from their own Tennessee origins. Soon enough, of course, he would return to grinding out cheap demos for amateur songwriters. Alas, if only they had been half as good as his Nervous Norvus recordings. Most, instead, are meager, joyless affairs, with no sound effects, no embellishments, and none of the verve, wit and imagination that sparked his best stuff.
In a 1959 ad promoting his demo service in Vellez Music News, Drake wrote that he "dramatizes novelty numbers with amazing little touches of pure showmanship." But most of those touches he reserved for Nervous Norvus, and thus the few post-Dot records he made under that name are of far greater interest to us than those he did as Singing Jimmy Drake. "Stoneage Woo," "I Like Girls," and "Does A Chinese Chicken Have A Pigtail" (the latter mislabeled minus the "Chicken," thus accentuating the ethnic slur), recorded for a couple of barely-existent San Francisco labels, are up to the standards of Drake's best work. Another excellent track, "Noon Balloon To Rangoon," was apparently intended as his fourth single for Dot, but was never released and is known today only by the fact that Dr. Demento has played an acetate of it on his own comedy radio show. Another of Drake's demos, "Kibble Kobble (The Flying Saucer Song)," commissioned by the Vellez label of Lomita, California (affiliated with the aforementioned magazine), is especially strong. It is highlighted by a ghostly vocal, Drake's best on any record.
Details of Drake's waning years are murky, and at present can be but speculated about. It is not known, for instance, for how long he continued his demo business, but a clue is that by the early '60s his once-frequent ads in the tipsheets had gradually wound to a halt. Rumors then began circulating that depicted a pathetic soul, who'd never had a girlfriend, let alone a wife; who'd never lived apart from his mother; who took his own life when he found his mother dead. The few shreds of documentation that exist contradict these stories, but corroborate with one more, that Drake drank himself to death. On July 24, 1968, Jimmy Drake died, age 56, in an Alameda County hospital, of cirrhosis of the liver. His body was donated to the University of California Anatomy Department.
In his interview in Time magazine back when things were still swell, Nervous Norvus, aka Jimmy Drake, had spoken of his songwriting method. The words seem equally suitable as his epitaph: "All I do is just take it easy. I sit in my own backyard, and I got dark glasses on. ... I take it cool, and there's nobody irritating me in my own backyard."
Thanks to Terry Adams, Tom Ardolino, Don Bolles, Ernie Clark, Andy Gallagher, Brian Gordon, Dana Hatch, Erik Lindgren, Jamie Meltzer, Billy Miller, Buddy Nelson, Bob Purse, Wayno and Red Blanchard.
Yet another version of the story, Milstein's "Nervous Norvus and the Afterlife of the One-Hit Wonder," is a bit of a downer, emphasizing the downside of Drake's life and career. Originally written for a ukulele specialty magazine, its butchering there has prompted us to reprint it in full on this site.
Bonk, Bonk, Bonk