Jerry Samuels, who under the name Napoleon XIV recorded one of the 1960s’ strangest and most successful novelty songs, “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” died on March 10 in Phoenixville, Pa. He was 84.
His son Jason said the cause was complications of dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
Mr. Samuels had had modest success as a songwriter and was working as an engineer at Associated Recording Studios in New York when, in 1966, he and a fellow engineer, Nat Schnapf, set a bit of doggerel that Mr. Samuels had written to — well, “music” may not be quite the right word, since the song consists of Mr. Samuels rhythmically talking over a backing of tambourine, snare and bass drums, and clapping.
The narrator laments that he has been left by a loved one and has been driven insane as a result:
They’re coming to take me away, ha-haaa
They’re coming to take me away
Ho-ho, hee-hee, ha-ha, 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, ha-ha.
Only in the last verse does the listener learn that it wasn’t a woman who left the now crazed gent, but a dog.
Through recording studio manipulation that was innovative for the time, Mr. Samuels’s voice morphed into high-pitched lunacy as the choruses went along.
In a memoir, Mr. Samuels wrote that he wanted to use a stage name for the record and a drummer friend suggested Napoleon. Someone else suggested adding some kind of appendage.
“I picked XIV strictly because I liked how it looked next to Napoleon,” Mr. Samuels wrote. “Rumors were rampant about hidden meanings, but there were none, at least not consciously.”
The record was released by Warner Bros. in July 1966 (the flip side was the song played backward), but no station would play it until WABC in New York, one of the nation’s leading Top 40 stations, broadcast an excerpt as a gag, Mr. Samuels wrote. Listeners began calling in wanting to hear the whole thing.
After that, stations everywhere picked up on it; news accounts of the day said it sold half a million copies in five days. Britain caught the fever, too.
“The Beatles don’t usually find it hard work hanging on to the top spot,” The Derby Evening Telegraph of England wrote in August 1966, when “Yellow Submarine” was No. 1 on the newspaper’s record chart, “but in Derby’s Top Twenty this week they face tough competition from the Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ and Napoleon XIV’s incredibly sick ‘They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!’”
The record was too sick for some: The influential Detroit-area station CKLW, among others, stopped playing it after receiving many complaints that it mocked mental illness.
“Those naysayers kept it up,” Mr. Samuels wrote, “and the record rapidly spiraled off the charts.”
But not before peaking at No. 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100. The song has been covered by various artists, and in the 1980s Mr. Samuels recorded a follow-up, “They’re Coming to Get Me Again, Ha-Haaa!” It drew little attention, but it did yield a funny story that Mr. Samuels recounted in the memoir.
When he recorded the original, he had asked friends to show up at the studio to do the clapping part, but only two did. Wanting a bigger clapping sound, he suggested that they drop their pants and slap their thighs, to double the noise. They declined, and he and Mr. Schnapf ended up using overdubbing to beef up the sound. But when he recorded the sequel, a dozen clappers turned out.
“Some were in shorts,” he wrote, “others lowered their trousers, but the whole group was slapping their tender thighs in that little studio.”
Jerrold Laurence Samuels was born on May 3, 1938, in Manhattan to Joseph and Lillian (Wandler) Samuels. He grew up in the Bronx.
His parents had bought a piano for his older brother.
“He never took to it, but I did,” Mr. Samuels wrote. “My parents said that I began playing recognizable tunes at around 3 years old.”
By his teenage years he had begun writing songs and shopping them to publishers. One in particular had potential, especially after the lyricist Sol Parker helped him polish it: “To Ev’ry Girl — To Ev’ry Boy.” It was recorded in 1954 by Johnnie Ray, a teenage-idol singer.
Another of his songs, “The Shelter of Your Arms,” was recorded by Sammy Davis Jr., who made it the title track of a 1964 album.
In an interview quoted on Wayne Jancik’s website about one-hit wonders, Mr. Samuels said that nine years before recording “They’re Coming to Take Me Away,” he spent eight months in a psychiatric hospital.
“When I did the record, I knew it wouldn’t offend mental patients,” he said. “I would have laughed at it if I had heard it when I was in the hospital.”
His first marriage, to Rosemary Djivre, ended in divorce in 1968. He had a relationship with Petra Vesters from 1973 to 1987. In addition to his son Jason, from his relationship with Ms. Vesters (now Petra DeWall), he is survived by his second wife, Bobbie (Simon) Samuels, whom he married in 1996; a son from his first marriage, Scott; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Another son, Eric, died in 1991.
Mr. Samuels, who lived in King of Prussia, Pa., outside Philadelphia, said he made one public appearance costumed as Napoleon XIV but found the experience humiliating and didn’t repeat it. He had a long history of playing piano in bars and other venues, his son Jason said, including senior centers.
“He knew all the old standards from George Gershwin and Irving Berlin,” Jason Samuels said in a phone interview. “They loved him.”
He was getting so many bookings that he saw a business opportunity. In 1984, he formed the Jerry Samuels Agency to book other acts into retirement communities and other small venues. Bobbie Samuels joined him in the enterprise, which, Jason Samuels said, had booked some 30,000 shows in the Philadelphia area by the time they retired in 2021.