Color lithograph titled Banana Man by Jacob Kainen, 1937
"Surfin' USSR", "Hart Brake Motel", "All About the Pentiums"... America's history of song parodies is truly a rich tapestry, but I think we can all agree that Motown Records' forays into the genre were nothing short of disastrous. The best of the lot was a song called "It" by Ron & Bill (actually Smoky Robinson and some other dude) - a harmless folky parody of "The Purple People Eater". But even that song raises the important question, "Why would you feel the need to make a parody of 'The Purple People Eater'?" On the other hand, the worst novelty song from Motown's early days is clearly "Custer's Last Man" by Popcorn & the Mohawks.
The intro is almost identical note-for-note to the intro of Larry Verne's "Mr. Custer" (also known as "Please Mr. Custer"), a comic song that was a number one hit in October of 1960. But where that song found laughs in the story of a soldier begging not to be sent to the disastrous battle at Little Big Horn (not necessarily an inherently hilarious premise), "Custer's Last Man" takes a more adventurous route. In one of the most confusing narratives in any song I've ever heard, the song apparently involves a group of modern-day soldiers who go to Little Big Horn River and find a very, very old soldier digging in a hole ("On the double to that hole over there!" yells the soldiers' sergeant, in one of the song's many awkward lyrical turns). They try to pull the soldier out of the hole, but he fears that his saviors are actually Native American braves in disguise, come to kill him.
The ancient cavalryman goes on to describe how he cried when the Lakota defeated his regiment and tied General Custer up in an anachronistic manner (using an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini). The next day, the soldier came out of hiding and killed an enemy straggler who had stayed behind with Custer. For some reason, the dying warrior asked he soldier to "Tell-um Laura I love-um her," before expiring. The soldier freed Custer, who subsequently ran around, repeating a nonsensical phrase about being a "yogi". The soldier was then captured by the Lakota and told that he would only be set loose if he could perform a series of impossible tasks.
As it turns out, the song's "storyline" is a thinly veiled excuse to make references to a series of other contemporary hit songs, all of which are wince-inducingly terrible and awkward. So who perpetrated this offensive song on the helpless public? Popcorn is actually Richard Wylie, one of the original Funk Brothers ensemble at Motown - an accomplished keyboard player, Wylie was a respected musician who probably recorded this lame cash-in attempt at the request of Barry Gordy who, at the time, was struggling to find a way to make Motown a successful venture. Did he really think that this was the way to go? Within a few months of this single bombing, Motown put out Mary Wells' "Bye Bye Baby" and the Miracles' "Shop Around" - amazingly, those songs were better-received than "Custer's Last Man".
"Custer's Last Man" by Popcorn and the Mohawks