What’s the backstory of ‘Crabs for Christmas’?
In the late ’70, real early ’80s, I was, aside from being a stage actor and doing freelance stuff—voiceovers, on-camera training videos, that kind of stuff—I would do some jingles, although I always got cast doing character-type jingles. Like, I would be a singing cow or some kind of a nerdy office worker, you know? I don’t really have a beautiful singing voice, but they liked the character stuff that I would do. So I really liked the idea of singing, so I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be neat to maybe record a song that would play on the radio?’ And I thought, ‘Well, people buy songs around Christmastime, so maybe I could record a Christmas song.’ And then I thought, ‘If I made it really local, then maybe people at least locally would buy it, and there’s nothing more local than crabs.’ And literally, I had the title ‘Crabs for Christmas’ before I ever had the song. And then I wrote the story after that, and got some good musician friends of mine together, and some friends of mine who sang, as well, and went into the recording studio, and in about eight hours we finished recording and mixing. And then we duplicated it on 45s—that’s how it was first sold in 1981. That first year, we sold about 10,000 of them, which surprised me.
Wow, that’s a lot!
I had to talk the distributor into taking a couple hundred, and then I just knocked on all the radio stations—back in the days when all the radio stations were owned by local people—and got people to play it. And they said, ‘Well, that’s kind of silly. We’ll try that.’ People liked it, and the rest is sort of a very strange history.
I didn’t realize it was pretty much an immediate hit.
It was, surprisingly, an immediate hit. I had to go back and get some more 45s made because I think I had 7,000 or so made, just in case, and we actually ran through our first printing. So I had to real quickly, get some more made. So, yeah, it was surprising how well it did.
Do you remember the moment when you realized it was taking off?
I do remember one lady who called me up back in the days before cell phones and the Internet, she tracked me down and said, ‘I have a record store in Glen Burnie and I want to get some of your records tonight.’ And I said, ‘Well, you know, I distribute them through the distributorship.’ And she said [affects heavy Baltimore accent], ‘You don’t understand, hon. I’m in Glen Burnie, and I got some people screaming at me for some “Crabs for Christmas.” I’ll meet you in any parking lot in any part of the state to get your record.’ So I drove out and met her in some parking lot somewhere in Glen Burnie and dropped off these records to her. So that made me realize that people were really liking it.
What do you think it is that people connected to?
I think, first of all, it has the Bawlmerese accent, which you didn’t hear a lot of on the air. There were a couple of folks who sort of used it on the air in those days. And actually, there were a couple radio stations that wouldn’t play it because they were afraid of offending Baltimore people with the accent. I just remember some programming director saying, ‘I can’t play this. People will be picketing my radio station.’ And then I found out later that just about everybody was playing the record because they started to get requests for it. People were calling in from work saying, ‘Will you play this silly song for me?’ So I think it’s that. I also think—obviously—the crab connection and people’s affinity with crabs. I think that was always something that struck a note with most people in Baltimore. And, what I also found out, was that people were literally sending the record in those days—and eventually the cassettes and CDs in later years—to their friends and family out of town who couldn’t get “Crabs for Christmas.” And that I never considered. I mean, I knew when we went out of town, we couldn’t get crabs, but I never thought, ‘Oh, I’ll make this and people will buy it as presents to send out of town.’ And that was a source of sales that I just never considered.
So you’re from Baltimore yourself, right?
I am. Born and bred. Yes, ma’am.
I was raised in Arbutus and lived there for most of my childhood and then we moved to Woodlawn. As an adult, off of Belair Road was the first place I lived when I got out of college. And I’ve lived in Hampden, and I’ve lived in Roland Park. So I’ve sort of been a city-dweller for a lot of years as well.
So you come by your Bawlmerese accent naturally.
I do. In fact, I had to lose it before I could learn how to do it. When I started doing theater in high school, the drama teacher and the folks who directed me in community plays would say “It’s not ‘hend’, it’s ‘haaand,’” and “It’s not ‘paymen,’ it’s ‘pavement.’” So it made me start to listen to what I was saying, especially the “oh” sound. I started to learn how to deal with that. And then, after I lost it, I would play with it with my friends just for fun, and that became a real focal point of the song. And I think, the sad part is, with the homogenization of our whole country, that accent is just sort of going by the wayside. It’s slowly disappearing. So hopefully, we’re sort of keeping some of that legacy of the sound of Baltimore alive.
Since 1981, the song has been a treasured part of Baltimore Christmases, what the most incredible thing the song has allowed you to do as a performer?
Well golly. It’s put me in a position where people sing the song back to me, which is just an unbelievable feeling when something you’ve created is embedded in somebody’s hearts and they sing along with you and they know the words. It’s about the best compliment a creative person could ever get.
Has anyone ever sung it to you at an awkward time?
Oh sure, funerals parlors, traffic court, you never know.
Well, Baltimoreans are a friendly bunch.
They ain’t shy, hon.
Nope, they sure ain’t. They don’t stand on ceremony, either.
No they don’t, which is why I love them.
You’re also an actor and motivational speaker. I read on your website that you have been in every movie or TV show filmed in Baltimore.
I wouldn’t say every. It took me a while to learn how to do feature films and network TV in this market. I had done training videos, and commercials, and stage work, and I was a very successful actor here for years, and I could never get the feature films and the network TV shows because I had to learn how to pull back my performance level. I finally learned that from some very good actor friends of mine when I started to say, ‘How come you’re booking all these feature films?’ and they said, “Well, I don’t do any kind of acting at all. I just say the words.’ My wife says now, when I go to an audition nowadays, ‘Give ’em nothing!’ And once I learned how to give ’em nothing, I was fairly successful and was able to start booking things. So I was able to start booking Homicide, The Wire, VEEP, House of Cards, the film that Chris Rock directed, and when Renee Zellweger came to town.
What are some of your favorite memories from those experiences?
I gotta say, my favorite memory of that kind of scene is working with Renee Zellweger in a scene where she is flirting with me. And, as she was flirting with me in the scene, there was a little voice in my head that said, ‘I’m flirting with Renee Zellweger!’ And then there was another voice in my head that said, ‘No dummy, she’s acting!’ And that other voice in my head was my wife’s voice.
Ha! Well, for the time between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ it’s real.
It is real. It’s also about the scariest stuff that I do. When you work on a feature film set, when you’re there for a day, it’s sort of like being a newcomer to a frat party. Everybody else knows each other, and you’re just there for a day. So you’re first instinct as a professional actor is to say, ‘Dear god, don’t let me screw up,’ because you’ve got like 200 people looking at you while you do it. So that’s your first job, just to do it professionally and do it right. And then when you get past that, you can have some fun pretending that you’re a movie star. I remember hearing a quote by Eddie Murphy and somebody said to him, ‘Boy you must have so much fun on movie sets.’ And he said, ‘Are you crazy? It’s the hardest work I do.’ And it’s true because it’s so technical. You have to figure out where your head is, where the light is, so you’re not in the shadow of the star, how much volume you’re doing, how fast you’re talking, where the movement is if you have to move while the camera is moving. There’s a million technical things that you have to keep in mind while you’re doing that, as well, so it’s really hard work, but it’s a great challenge and great honor to be in a film or network TV show that will be around for a long, long time.
Do you have a favorite role?
Well, I really like the role that I did in the Renee Zellweger movie because that was just a great scene. It was just a lot of fun. I guess I’m just proud that I’m able to do the work. I’m proud that I’m cast and that people trust me. First of all, I’m thrilled that the casting people call me in to audition, because that means they trust me. And I’m thrilled when I get the role because that means that people who direct feature films, and network TV, and big stars go, ‘Well, this guy will be alright.’
You’re doing your annual holiday performance at Germano’s in Little Italy on December 7. Tell us about that.
We’ve been doing it for the last, golly, seven or eight years now. We do our Crabs for Christmas Crabaret, and my two backups singers, Karen Fitze and Wendy Savelle, are the two hons who back me up, and David Zee is our musical director, pianist extraordinaire, and he sort of helps us stay on key as we go through my silly songs. There’s a lot of audience participation. We do a lot of Bawlmerese trivia. We give away prizes. We do a mind-reading routine. We do every funny little song that I’ve ever written. This year, we’ll be playing the washboard so . . . you just never know what’s going to happen when I’m on stage.
That sounds fun!
It is fun. And I think that’s the whole point. It’s one of the funnest things I get to do. Most of the stuff that I do, there’s a client involved, or a scriptwriter involved, or a screenwriter, or somebody else is in charge of the project. And I’m involved in it, and I help bring it to fruition, whether it’s a commercial or a training video or a promotional video or whatever, but this show is sort of mine. And it’s about one of the few things I do that I really sort of have control over. And we celebrate Baltimore, and we celebrate the holidays, and we celebrate the hons, and we have a lot of fun.