(Music: "Mr. Custer" by Larry Verne)
October 10, 1960 - October 7, 1960
On Sunday, June 25, 1876, thirty years of warfare between the white man and the red man came to an end. The climactic battle was fought at Little Big Horn, where 700 U.S. Cavalry troops under the command of General George Custer fought 3,000 Sioux Indians loyal to Chief Sitting Bull. Within a half-hour of Custer's attack, he and all of his troops lay dead.
Eighty-four years, three months and 15 days later, Larry Verne's novelty song, about a soldier's comical plea to Mr. Custer that he didn't want to fight, was the number one song in America.
The song was developed by three friends who worked in the music industry in Hollywood. Fred Darian, Al de Lory, and Joe Van Winkle were dubbing a song at Gold Star studios one night when de Lory came up with, "Mr. Custer, I don't want to go" and "Forward, ho!" and someone else made the sound effect of an arrow piercing the air. "'Mr. Custer was not a song you just sat down and wrote," explains Darian. "It was a succession of incidents that brought it about. It just developed as we were going along. We came up with a phrase we thought was funny, we rolled over and slapped each other on the back, and as time went on the thought provoked us to try and do something with the idea."
The three writers first met at Coffee Dan's, a Hollywood hang-out that was close to Wallich's Music City at Sunset and Vine. They formed a vocal group, the Balladeers, and had a small office on Sunset, for which they paid $40 a month rent. Down the hall was a photographer's studio, where a young man named Larry Verne worked in the darkroom developing pictures. He spoke with a drawl, and Van Winkle asked him to sing lead vocal on a demo of "Mr. Custer." Did he know Verne could sing? No, but they required an actor, not a singer.
The song was only in outline form until they took Verne into the studio, where a two-hour session with guitar, bass, drums, background vocals and noises by the three writer/producers resulted in a four-and-a-half minute track.
"Everybody turned it down," Van Winkle reveals. "I mean everybody. I don't think we missed any of the majors. Then we hit the independents. The crowning disappointment came when we went into a storefront that someone had taken over to make a record company. We went in the back and there was an old woman and a thirtyish guy. They had a little record player sitting on a table. They put 'Mr. Custer' on and listened. They never smiled, never said a word. When it was over they gave the record back and she said, 'That's the most horrible thing I ever heard in my life.'"
Finally, Bob Keene of Del-Fi Records gave them a $300 advance so he could release the record. After waiting an interminable amount of time, Darian called and asked when it would be coming out. "He said, 'You know, I don't think it's so funny anymore.'"
The original dub was wearing out from airplay, so they went back to Gold Star to cut a new one. Herb Newman, owner of Era Records, listened in the hallway and asked if they wanted him to put it out. Ten months after it was recorded, a shortened version of "Mr. Custer" was released. Darian credits the late Bob Crane, a Los Angeles DJ at the time, with being the first to play the song on the radio.
Reprinted from The Billboard Book of Number 1 Hits, copyright © 2003 by Fred Bronson.