as/pma logo

Nervous Norvus and the Afterlife of the One-Hit Wonder

by Phil Milstein

Where does a rock 'n' roll singer go
When his record's off the chart?
What does a rock 'n' roll singer do
When times get mighty hard?

Does he sell aye-aye ice cream
With a dip-di-di dip of a peppermint twist?
Does he just sit back in his Cadillac
When his bills are overdue?

Can our teen heartthrob get a regular job
When singin's all he ever knew?
Can he tune a car just like his guitar
Is he a mechanic now?

Or does he teach school with his golden rule
Papa oo-papa oo-mow-mow
Does he sell aye-aye ice cream
With a dip-di-di dip of a peppermint twist?

"Where Does A Rock 'N' Roll Singer Go?," by Artie Wayne
(© Hill and Range Music, 1963)

One of the more woeful sights afforded the student of show business is that of the one-hit wonder as he totters, career in hand, down the hillside of fame.

While American culture has always provided a forum for the trade of faded celebrity -- think Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta at the end of Raging Bull -- there have never been as many outlets for this unique form of public debasement as exist today. The Singing Nun, for instance, had no lucrative oldies circuit on which she could warble "Dominique" nightly to adoring but aging fans; Norma Tanega had no QVC on which she could hawk handmade "Cat Named Dog" plush toys; Edd "Kookie" Byrnes had no Celebrity Fear Factor on which he could trade a few minutes' national face-time for a few minutes in a pit of tarantulas with his face slathered in peanut butter. Prior to the establishment of the new post-celebrity economy, ex-stars wishing to remain in show business had to survive on their wits -- in other words, on the extra-creative use of their creative skills.

Jimmy Drake was one such creative has-been. Under the nom de disc Nervous Norvus, in the summer of 1956 the singer/songwriter/ukulelist experienced great and sudden celebrity with "Transfusion," a jittery, jive-patter meditation on the gory effects of wreckless driving. Sparked by bilabial fricatives and punctuated with skid-and-crash sound effects, the peculiar blend of rocknroll, hillbilly and vaudeville ingredients was unlike anything ever heard before. Released in late May, "Transfusion" took America by storm, selling a reported half-million copies in its first two weeks, a cool million all-told.

But the career truck driver was already 44 years old, and plumb-tired of the grind of the road. Having more than paid his dues to the workin' life, Drake understandably -- if perhaps a bit rashly -- chucked in the trucking gig to cast his lot with music.

The afterlife of the one-hit wonder can be a grim, Sisyphean chore. Until its recent closure under threat of bankruptcy, Bobby "Boris" Pickett spent each weekend in October back in his native Massachusetts performing "Monster Mash" over and over at Spookyworld, a Halloween-themed amusement park. According to his website, Pickett is currently available to be "dug up to appear and sing a medley of his hit."

"Transfusion"'s success was a complete lark. Not only had Drake not expected his version of it to be a hit, he hadn't even intended it to be released. Working out of a jerrybuilt studio in the kitchen of his modest Oakland, California, house, he'd recorded it as a songwriting demo, which he sent to his idol and mentor, San Francisco radio humorist Red Blanchard, in the hope that Blanchard would cut it under his contract as novelty artist for Columbia Records. Blanchard indeed liked the song, but realized there was little he could do to improve Drake's masterful original. The only change he made was to dub in (on the fly!) a sound library skid-and-crash effect, which gave the song its memorable finishing touch. (Only four seconds long, the identical cut would be recalled to active death-disc duty in over half a dozen later pop psychodramas, including The Cadets' "Car Crash," Jan & Dean's "Dead Man's Curve" and "Bucket T," and The Shangri-Las' "Leader Of The Pack.")

Blanchard immediately aired the pastiched track on his show. Dot Records president Randy Wood heard it, loved it, and phoned Blanchard to propose putting it out as is. When "Transfusion" suddenly took off on its wild ride up the Top 40 charts, Drake found himself a star.

Photo by Carl Bigelow, from the July 14, 1956 issue of the Oakland Tribune.

Well, sort of a star. Although he'd chosen the name Nervous Norvus partly in tribute to Blanchard, in whose "Zorch" tongue nervous was synonymous with cool, it was equally meant as a reference to his own dreadful shyness, a phobia so severe he refused to appear on Blanchard's radio program, and even declined the breakthrough national exposure of The Ed Sullivan Show.

The career trajectory of the one-hit wonder is so predictable that the artist himself, blinded by wishful thinking, is usually the last to foresee the inevitable descent. Within six years of his massive hit "You Can't Touch This," fellow Oaklander M.C. Hammer had run up a personal debt of $13.7 million. He has since turned his life over to Jesus, and currently hosts a talk show on a Christian cable network.

With "Transfusion" still hot, in late June Dot released "Ape Call," an inspired, Beat-inflected thumper about libidinous creatures both of the jungle and of prehistory. Blanchard again provided aural illustrations, in this case his own Tarzanish screeches. Another half-million more Nervous Norvus records passed across store counters.

By now Drake could see nothing but smooth pavement ahead. Although his boss had left the door open for him to return to his trucking job should the music thing bottom out, in his own mind he was now officially and permanently off the road. The legendarily fickle American public, however, had a different plan in store. In September the third Nervous Norvus single appeared. Although "The Fang," a futuristic outing about a horny hepcat from Mars (told in the first-person!), was his most ambitious construction yet, it altogether failed to chart. Drake's rig had stalled out, mere weeks from when he'd first busted it into gear.

After the follow-up to their multiplatinum-selling debut album stiffed, Edie Brickell broke up The New Bohemians, married Paul Simon, and traded life as a working musician for life as a working musician's wife. Volcano, her 2003 comeback attempt, would only brush the belly of Billboard's Top 200 albums chart.

Since 1953, Drake had been developing a sideline business recording inexpensive demos for the hapless hopefuls of America's amateur songwriting underground. Once "Transfusion" hit, his market value among this music biz Bizarro World shot up substantially. His success not only enhanced his name recognition within this twilit milieu, but also provided a ray of hope to its striving inhabitants. During his peak weeks he'd kept his demo customers idling as he hustled between his home in Oakland and Dot's headquarters in L.A., but it wouldn't be long before he'd come to view them as his bread-and-butter. In the October 1957 issue of Songwriter's Review, the amateur songwriting world's Billboard, Drake reported that Dot had renewed his contract for another year, adding, with hope of his own, "I'm gonna try and produce another hit." A fourth single was planned, and beyond that perhaps an album, but neither ever came to pass. In fact his three singles on Dot would be the only records Drake would ever place with an important label.

At what point does even the most optimistic of stars realize that the wheat of her career is over, and that only the chaff remains? What sort of deliberations, for instance, coursed through the mind of '80s bubblegum princess Tiffany as she considered an offer to pose nude for a 2002 issue of Playboy? And, after the layout failed to boost sales of her latest album, The Color Of Silence, did she still believe she'd made the right decision?

Back in April 1956, on the cusp of his "Transfusion" breakout, Drake had promoted the completion of his 3000th amateur demo. Now, on the flipside of his brief fillip of fame, he resumed churning out the custom work. Meanwhile, he'd occasionally eke out another quasi-legit release on such fly-by-night labels as Bluemoon, Embee, Rally, Vellez and Big Ben. While a few of these later recordings are quite nearly as strong as his Dot sides, the majority are tough sledding, the enthusiasm clearly drained out of the man.

Where did it all go wrong?, he must have wondered. And how did it go so quickly? In the January 1957 issue of Songwriter's Review, still flush with success, Drake bought a 1/4-page ad to graciously thank his customers "for being so nice"; less than five years later, his ad in the summer 1961 issue of Vellez Music News (the underground Cash Box) was one-fourth the size, leaving just enough space to fit four perfunctory lines of text, counting his name and address.

Was it too late to take his old boss up on his offer? If the thought of returning to his trucking job still crossed Drake's mind from time to time, it was a good thing he didn't follow through on it, for he spent much of the 1960s with a serious and worsening booze habit. Had he gone back out behind the wheel, he'd likely have ended up like one of the victims in "Transfusion": "Slip the blood to me, Bud." Drake's death, in July, 1968, came instead of cirrhosis of the liver.

[A definitive Nervous Norvus compilation, Stoneage Woo, is out now on Norton Records.]