december 2011

Lee Pockriss: A song ‘that just never dies’

An 'Itsy Bitsy' Money Machine

Lee Pockriss

January 24, 1924-November 14, 2011

Songwriter Lee Pockriss, co-writer (with Paul Vance) of the 1960 novelty hit "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini," a #1 hit for 16-year-old Brian Hyland that is credited with helping the navel-baring swimwear gain acceptance on these shores, died on November 14 at his home in Connecticut, following a long illness. He was 87.

“Bikini” was inspired by the experience of Vance’s two-year-old daughter on a family outing to a Long Island, NY, beach, where she wore a white bikini with yellow polka dots. Recalling that beach visit, Vance said his daughter Paula "looked cute as a button,” but when the little girl walked out of the locker room, the reaction of two young boys sent her scurrying back inside. She finally made it onto the beach and then into the ocean, only to have her bikini bottom slip off in a wave.

"Lee always said 'Itsy' enabled us to live in the lifestyle that we lived," said Pockriss's wife Sonja. "It's a song that just never dies."

‘Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini,’ by Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance, recorded by Brian Hyland. #1, 1960.

"Bikini" was one of about 100 songs Pockriss and Vance wrote together, including "Catch a Falling Star," a 1957 #1 hit for Perry Como that received the first gold record from the Recording Industry Assn. of America; "Leader of the Laundromat," a 1964 spoof of the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" by the Detergents; "Tracy" by the Cuff Links, "I Haven't Got Anything Better to Do" for Astrud Gilberto and "Playground in My Mind" for Clint Holmes (a #2 single for two weeks in 1973). In the ‘80s he also wrote songs for Sesame Street, including Kermit the Frog’s popular “My Polliwog Ways.”

One of Pockriss’s biggest hits—bigger than “Bikini,” in fact--was 1962’s swooning teen love classic, “Johnny Angel” (a co-write with Lyn Duddy) introduced by Shelley Fabares when she was part of the cast of the hit family sitcom The Donna Reed Show in 1962. “Johnny Angel” was #1 for two weeks on the Billboard singles chart and instantly solidified Fabares among the all-time cool girls on TV, along with Annette Funicello and Patty Duke.

Shelley Fabares, ‘Johnny Angel,’ her two-week #1 single from 1962, written by Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance.

Born in Brooklyn and graduating from Erasmus Hall High School, Pockriss's education at Brooklyn College was interrupted by World War II, where he served as a cryptographer for the US Air Force in the South Pacific. Upon his return he studied English and music at Brooklyn College, and later attended graduate school in musicology at New York University. In 1950 The Times reported the presentation of an American Federation of Music Clubs award. The $100 first prize in composing went to a young graduate student, Lee Pockriss, of 325 Ocean Avenue, Brooklyn.

In addition to his pop hits, Pockriss also worked extensively in musical theater, writing the music (with lyricist Anne Croswell) for the 1963 Broadway show, Tovarich, which earned Vivien Leigh a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical; Pockriss and Croswell also collaborated on the frequently produced Ernest in Love (based on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest) and Conrack, based on Pat Conroy’s book, which had an Off Broadway production in 1987; and Bodo, about a 12th-century goatherd, produced at the Promenade Theater in 1983. Pockriss also wrote the music for the musicals Wonderful Olly, Dolley Madison, and Divorce Of Course, and co-created (with lyricist Carolyn Leigh and Hugh Wheeler) the 1969 unproduced musical, Gatsby, based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's classic novel. UnsungMusicalsCo. Inc. presented Gatsby's world premiere in concert form as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival in September 2011.

Perry Como, ‘Catch a Falling Star,’ a 1957 #1 single written by Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance that received the first gold record from the Recording Industry Assn. of America (RIAA)

The pop culture craze ignited by the success of “Bikini” (a top 10 hit in countries around the world, it was translated into languages such as Japanese, Hebrew and Swahili) inspired director Billy Wilder to lampoon the song in his film One, Two, Three (1961), with a scene in which East German soldiers tortured a character (played by Horst Bucholz) by forcing him to listen to "Bikini" repeatedly.

In a 2006 interview, Paul Vance called "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" a "money machine," saying it earned him--and, presumably, Pockriss--several million dollars.

Lee Pockriss is survived by his wife, Sonja, and a brother, Harold.


James and Bobby Purify, 1966

Pull The Strings!

Robert Dickey (aka Bobby Purify)

September 2, 1939-December 29, 2011

Guitarist and singer Robert Dickey, who as Bobby Purify joined with his cousin James Lee Purify to form the duo James & Bobby Purify and promptly scored a #6 single in 1966 with the Dan Penn-Spooner Oldham-penned “I’m Your Puppet,” died in his home town of Tallahassee, FL, on December 29. No cause was given. He was 72.

Dickey began his musical career in the 1960s, touring with Otis Redding and other soul and R&B singers. After working as a guitarist with the Dothan Sextet, Dickey teamed up with and adopted his cousin’s surname in forming James & Bobby Purify. They immediately experienced success after being signed to Bell Records and cutting the sensuously grooving “I’m Your Puppet.” The duo had three more Top 40 hits in 1967, the highest charting being “Let Love Come Between Us” at #23, slightly better than the single that preceded it, a lively remake of “Shake a Tail Feather” that blended elements of Archie Bell and Mitch Ryder in its driving, tension-filled arrangement.

James & Bobby Purify, ‘I’m Your Puppet’ (1966), written by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham.

In a 2000 interview with The Tallahassee Democrat Dickey said he never liked "I'm Your Puppet," even if it did come from Penn and Oldham
"I hated it," Dickey said. "It was originally intended to be the B-side. But things got changed. I sang it for 23 hours straight (in the studio), that's why I hate it."

Citing health reasons, in 1972 Dickey retired from the music business and returned to Tallahassee. He became a city maintenance supervisor but continued to sing and play guitar in his church and as a member of the Bethlehem Male Singers.

James & Bobby Purify, ‘Shake a Tail Feather’ (1967), a lively remake of the party tune originally cut in 1963 by the Chicago-based Five Du-Tones.

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