Born James William Drake, 24 March 1912, Memphis, Tennessee
Nervous Norvus (real name Jimmy Drake) was already 44 when he suddenly rose to fame in 1956 with “Transfusion”. His moment in the sun lasted less than six months, but his best novelty recordings (the “Dot Six”) still raise a chuckle after 60 years. They were inventive, with a truly “nervous” quality, the sound effects integrally woven into the music.
Jimmy Drake was born in Memphis, but a chronic asthma condition led his family to move him to California when he was seven. In 1941 he settled in Oakland where he would stay for the rest of his life. Not much is known about his early years. He had no musical education, but was self-taught on ukelele. A heart condition kept him out of the military ; he spent the war working in shipyards. Soon after WWII he took a job as a truck driver. In 1951, Drake began to write novelty songs, inspired by the jive talk of radio person- ality Red Blanchard on his KCBS show in San Francisco, a comedy programme aimed at teenagers. By 1953 Jimmy had set his sights on a career in songwriting, signing up for a correspondence course in music notation. In 1953, he wrote “The Bully Bully Man”, based on one of Red Blanchard’s characters. It would become his first recorded composition, as it was cut later that year by the Paris Sisters (yes, the same group of Phil Spector / I Love How You Love Me 1961 fame) for the Cavalier label.
Next Drake set up a demo business and started sending several of his own demos to Blanchard in 1955. One of the songs on the tapes was “Transfusion”, a gruesome, but hilarious novelty about a driver who is in need of blood transfusions after a series of car crashes (“Slip the blood to me, Bud”, “Slip the crimson to me, Jimson”). At the end, there was a positive message : “Remember to slow down today”. Drake hoped that Red Blanchard would record the song himself, as he had no wish to be a performer. But Blanchard was so struck by the uniqueness of Drake’s voice that he could hear no one but Drake doing it. Blanchard added car crash sound effects to the demo and offered the finished product to Dot Records. Suddenly finding himself a performing artist, Drake chose to hide his identity behind a character name. The moniker “Nervous Norvus” was his own invention.
“Transfusion” was unlike anything America had ever heard. Though it was banned by many radio stations, the record sold 500,000 copies in a few weeks time and peaked at # 8 on the Billboard charts on June 23, 1956. The song was quickly covered by the Four Jokers on the Diamond label. Billboard claimed in its review that this was the original version, which has caused some confusion, but the allegation seems to be incorrect. Drake was very shy and even turned down an invitation to perform his hit on the Ed Sullivan Show.
The follow-up single, “Ape Call” (featuring Tarzan yells by Red Blanchard), also did well, reaching # 24. But, inevitably for a novelty artist, the popularity run of Nervous Norvus was short and after a third single, “The Fang”/“Bullfrog Hop" flopped, Dot was no longer interested. The six Dot sides form the cornerstone of his musical career, though. The quality of his work suffered with his commercial slide. Later singles on tiny San Francisco labels like Embee, Neale and Big Ben were not quite as funny and failed to sell. Some of these later recordings were credited to “Singing Jimmy Drake”.
The British public did not get to hear “Transfusion” at the time, as London Records refused its release, but the other two Dot singles did get a UK release. Surprisingly, the Nervous Norvus single “Does A Chinese Chicken Have A Pigtail” (1960) was belatedly issued in the UK on the short-lived Salvo label in 1962.
Drake continued with his demo business, recording countless demos by himself and others, but it is not exactly known for how long. His former boss had left the door open for him to return to his trucking job, but it was a good thing he didn’t take him up on the offer, for he spent much of the 1960s with a serious and worsening alcohol habit. Had he gone back behind the wheel, he’d likely have ended up like one of the victims in “Transfusion” : “Put a gallon in me, Allan”. Jimmy Drake died in an Oakland hospital on July 24, 1968, of cirrhosis of the liver.
More info :
CD : Stone Age Woo : The Zorch Sounds of Nervous Norvus (Norton, 2004). 33 tracks. Extensive liner notes by Dave Henderson. Additional info at
Acknowledgements : Phil Milstein, Heather Phares, Wikipedia.
Dik, June 2016
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