The piano man arrives early for the afternoon show but some in his audience are already snoring.
“Who wants music? ” Jerry Samuels asks in a tone that camp counselors save for rainy days. “You’ll find this very interesting.”
“Prove it!” barks a white-haired man in horn-rims.
Samuels smiles. Once called the Rembrandt of the novelty song by no less an authority than Dr. Demento, he can handle a crowd.
“I have a program for you that I call Verses. Verses are the unsung gems of American popular music. ” And in a mellow baritone, he begins one of the thousands of classic songs in his repertoire.
“Who’s that coming down the street?
“Who’s that looking so petite? ”
For the next 45 minutes, the audience in this Willow Grove nursing home belongs to the barrel-shaped piano man with a salt-and-pepper brush cut and full beard who mixes standards and patriotic tunes.
No one would think of requesting the song Samuels is most famous for.
He performed it only once, back in the summer of 1966, when Samuels, then a 28-year-old recording engineer from Queens, had the No. 1 song in the country. It was a manic rant that stormed AM radio and sold nearly a million copies in less than two weeks, then disappeared overnight.
He recorded it under the pseudonym Napoleon XIV.
“They’re coming to take me away, ha-haaa!
They’re coming to take me away, ho-ho, he-he, ha-haa.
To the funny farm, where life is beautiful all the time,
And I’ll be happy to see those nice
young men in their clean white coats.
And they’re coming to take me away.
He sits on the back deck of his rowhouse in Oxford Circle, where he’s lived anonymously for the last 21 years. Neighbors know him as Jerry the piano player and owner of a business that books acts into senior centers. The Jerry Samuels Agency represents 250 performers: accordionists, troubadours, strolling violinists, Mummers, Elvis impersonators, an Appalachian dulcimer and spoon player, a Norman Rockwell lecturer.
He doesn’t court publicity. He won’t even be photographed. “I want a little privacy,” says Samuels, 60.
He’s wearing a headset that’s plugged into a phone tucked into his breast pocket and it’s never clear exactly whom he is addressing. He works out of his home and has a bed in his office. His clients have no clue he might be doing business in his underwear. He has an understanding wife named Bobbie.
“As we sit here, I’m going to make you something out of a hanger,” he says. For the next 15 minutes, as he twists and shapes the wire, he works so furiously his face flushes and he becomes short of breath.
When he’s done, he has turned a coat hanger into an elegant gun whose hammer clicks forward when the trigger is squeezed.
“I also made the world’s best roach clips,” he says, disappearing for a moment before returning with precise steel instruments shaped like a G clef, a lightning bolt, a beer stein.
“I am,” he says, “who I am.”
He never sought stardom. He just had an original idea: making a record where the pitch changed, but the tempo didn’t. For nine months he worked on the words and technology. He knew the theme would be manic. He’d spent some voluntary time as a teenager in a mental institution and was confident that the patients he knew would think the record was funny.
He and his partner Nat Schnapf recorded a drummer who played poorly, then looped 10 seconds of his chink-a-chink beat nonstop throughout the record. Three people provided percussion by slapping bare thighs. Samuels added five police sirens.
When Samuels played the song over the phone for a talent man he knew at Columbia Records, he was offered $25,000 and a 7 percent cut on the spot. Samuels held out for 10 percent, signing with Warner Bros. for a $500 advance. By the time they cut the check, Warners had added another zero because “They’re Coming to Take Me Away. Ha-Haaa!” had become a monster hit. Dr. Demento, the syndicated radio-show host, called it “the most sensational novelty record in American history. ”
Samuels had hoped to hide behind the name Napoleon XIV, but the DJ Cousin Brucie ended that, announcing to his radio audience that the artist was really this guy in Queens.
“Being in the limelight is fun for about five minutes. I don’t think people realize how valuable privacy is until you lose it. People would go, `Are you Napoleon?’ `There goes Napoleon. ‘ The constant phone-ringing and barrage of people in your face – that’s not something I’d like to do again. ”
That summer, he went out on stage in Lake George, N.Y., dressed as Napoleon and wearing a Lone Ranger mask. “I faced 2,000 leering teenagers. My wife was in the crowd and heard someone say, `Look at the yo-yo. ‘ I felt ridiculous. ” He performed his one song, then walked off and refused to do any more appearances.
With two hired hands, he wrote such songs as “Photogenic, Schizophrenic You” and “The Place Where the Nuts Hunt the Squirrels” to pad out an album. But by then, pressure from mental health groups had ended his frantic ride.
Samuels returned to the control room. After traveling around the country in a VW bug, and singing in bars and on cruise ships, he settled in Philadelphia, where he had friends, in 1973.
He’d written songs for ’50s pop idol Johnnie Ray, LaVerne Baker and Ivory Joe Hunter, and had a hit with Sammy Davis Jr. But Samuels says he never felt as much a success as when he played his first gig in a nursing home.
“Did you like it?” he asks the 45 seniors gathered in the social room of the Willow Lakes Assisted Living Center.
Yes, yes, they say.
Samuels calls it an honor to play for people who may be suffering. Told that Details magazine once scoffed that the one-hit wonder was reduced to playing the seniors circuit, he laughs.
“I don’t care what anyone says – I was born to do this. I’ve met important people. I’ve written songs for famous people. I’ve had a No. 1 record around the world. And I’ve never done anything as satisfying as this. ”
As he packs his amplifier and microphone, Samuels tells his audience that he is responsible for booking many of the entertainers who visit there.
“You’re the best,” a man says. “Have you been playing on the outside?”
By Daniel Rubin, Inquirer Staff Writer, POSTED July 14, 1998