Surprise! Songs that — ready or not — pack a last-minute surprise

A surprise topic this week — songs with surprise endings.

Of course, they’re only a surprise the first time you hear them. After that, though, when you hear the song again, it can be fun to see how cleverly the composer handles the set-up.

The surprises, too, come in many moods — from humorous (many of them) to horrific (one of the most controversial songs of its era — and a frequently banned song). We’ll save the horrific one for last.

And, of course, this is only a sampling of surprise songs, so please add some of your nominees in the Comment section below.

The humorous ones, it seems, often have the cleverest set-up. Here are three of them:

• The Ames Brothers’ “The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane,” a masterpiece of clever word play with the twist occurring in the final five words.

• Jim Stafford’s “My Girl Bill” — what a difference a missing pause can make.

• Master parodist Allan Sherman’s “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh! (A Letter From Camp)” offers a nostalgic trip through  a kid’s “whinery” and quick change of emotions.

And how about two take-offs on the Jimmy Dean classic, “Big Bad John”?

• Phil McLean’s “Small Sad Sam,” with the unfolding tragedy set in a high-rise elevator.

• Frank Gallop’s “The Ballad of Irving.” There does seem to be a (tiny) disagreement over whether this is a parody of Dean’s song or Lorne Greene’s “Ringo” or just Western ballads in general. At any rate, the deep-voiced, longtime TV announcer tells of the sad fate of a Jewish cowboy known as “the 142nd-fastest gun in the West.” As Gallop notes:

         “141 could draw faster than he,

         but Irving was looking for 143.”

Uppers and Downers
Let’s divide the rest up into two categories: pleasant surprises (Uppers) and unpleasant surprises (Downers). Again, we’ll save the downers for last.

Uppers
• Johnny Cash’s “A Boy Named Sue” — who’da thunk a wronged son could be so forgiving? Particularly after a street fight with the great line:

Kicking and a-gouging in the mud and the blood and the beer.

• A classic Kingston Trio story song, “Reverend Mr. Black,” comes complete with a trick ending.

• Liza Minnelli’s clever “Ring Them Bells,” which reveals the main plot twist up front but then drives the point home with a gangbusters ending.

• Rupert Holmes’ “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” — one of the most illogical — but listenable — hit records ever. In all of the couple’s l-on-n-n-g time together, apparently she never ordered a pina colada and he never suggested champagne? Hmmm. Some pretty big communication problems here.

Downers
• Bobby Goldsboro’s “See the Funny Little Clown,” another of the heartbroken-funnyman songs — a lot like this one.

•Tom Jones’ “Green, Green Grass of Home” — one of the bigger out-of-left-field surprise endings.

• Dickey Lee’s “Laurie (Strange Things Happen)” — my nominee for the eeriest surprise ending. I’m still surprised it was never turned into a cheapo movie — a perfect drive-in second (or third) feature.

• Bread’s “The Diary” — talk about a big letdown.

• The Buoys’ “Timothy.” And what can you say about a disturbing — and often banned — song (another Rupert Holmes creation) that made it to No. 17 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in 1971?

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Steve Sundberg on 08/12/2011 - 10:27 am.

    Add this one, too, to your list, Don: “Silhouettes,” by The Rays and, later, Herman’s Hermits: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Silhouettes_%28song%29.

    Film clip: http://youtu.be/_E2wBksA7l4

  2. Submitted by William Levin on 08/12/2011 - 12:25 pm.

    Like the list but please also credit the multi-talented Shel Silverstein for “A Boy Named Sue.”

  3. Submitted by Ann Long on 08/12/2011 - 01:03 pm.

    Hi, Don.
    I kind of hate to mention this one, because, once remembered, it rattles around in your head endlessly, but how about “Beep Beep (The Little Nash Rambler Song)”? Ugh! Make it go away.

    Best,
    Ann

  4. Submitted by Hal Davis on 08/12/2011 - 01:54 pm.

    This is definitely a downer.

    Rod McKuen’s “Doesn`t Anybody Know My Name” has an alternate title “2:10, 6:18, 10:44.”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfKJOesKuiw&feature=related

  5. Submitted by Candace Kragthorpe on 08/12/2011 - 08:36 pm.

    The ending of Johnny Rivers’ Memphis always holds a sweet surprise for me!

  6. Submitted by Dan Gjelten on 09/12/2011 - 03:23 pm.

    What about Long Black Veil?

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