One-hit Wonders: Napoleon XIV

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Introduction

American singer-songwriter Jerry Samuels turned himself into a one hit wonder as Napoleon XIV, who made a big hit with a novelty single “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” during the 60s music era. Hardly an “oldies music” in the true sense of the word but a nostalgic piece nonetheless. As a songwriter, one of Samuels’ credits include the Sammy Davis Jr. hit “The Shelter of Your Arms.”

Early life and career

Jerry Samuels aka Napoloeon XIV was born Jerrold Samuels in New York City, New York on May 3, 1938.

He began his show business career during the mid-1950s when he recorded and released “Puppy Love” (b/w “The Chosen Few”) on RCA Victor’s subsidiary label Vik Records.

As Napoleon XIV and the hit “They’re Coming to Take You Away, Ha-Haaa!”

In 1966 Samuels wrote “They’re Coming to Take You Away. The subject of this song is an individual who is on the brink of a mental madness after being left by his lover. He recorded the song while working as a studio engineer at Associated Recording Studios in New York.

The rhythm of the song was quite sparse — just a snare drum, a tambourine and thigh-slapping — and this percussion pattern was created by looping a ten-second tape. In order to create varying pitches in his voice while keeping up with the song’s background tempo, Samuels used a variable-frequency oscillator where he spoke the lyrics rhythmically rather than singing them.

Samuels released “They’re Coming to Take Me Away Ha-Haaa!” as Napoleon XIV, on Warner Bros label. In the songwriting credits he was billed as “N. Bonaparte.” It became an unexpected big hit not just in the United States but also in Britiain. It peaked at #3 on the Billboard pop chart while it was #4 in the UK, both occurring in 1966. It sold over a million records and became certified gold.

“They’re Coming to Take You Away Ha-Haaa!” emerged as one of the weirdest hit singles in music history. Even more bizarre is its B-side, “!Aaah-ah, Yawa Em Ekat ot Gnimoc Er’yeht,” which, as you guess it, the backward recording of the A-side. It definitely joins the ranks as one of the most unlistenable things you can find on vinyl!

Not quite surprisingly, “They’re Coming to Take You Away Ha-Haaa!” eventually received a backlash, mostly from radio disc jockeys who feared it was making fun of the mentally ill. As a result, a lot of radio stations (most especially in New York) ultimately banned the single.

However, the success of the song prodded Warner to release the album also titled They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-haaa! Most of its tracks continued with the “mentally ill” theme.

Jerry Samuels after the hit, and as a songwriter

Samuels, still as Napoleon XIV, also released a couple of more singles which went unnoticed.

He is still active in the music business both as a singer and booking agent.

As a songwriter, Samuels has written several songs not just for “Napoleon XIV” but for other artists as well. Among his songwriting credits include the Adam Wade top 10 pop hit “As If I Didn’t Know” (co-written with Larry Kusik) back in 1961 and the Sammy Davis Jr.’s “The Shelter of Your Arms” which became a Top 20 pop and Top 10 R&B hit back in 1964.

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