In their 1963 single ‘Surfin’ Bird’, the surf-rock garage band The Trashmen sang:
“A well a don’t you know about the bird?
Well, everybody knows that the bird is the word!
A well a bird, bird, b-bird’s the word.”
The song was inspired by two contemporary songs by the doo-wop group The Rivingtons, those being ‘Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow’ and ‘Bird is the Word’. The bird refers to a dance craze in the 1960s. To do the bird you face your partner. Place your feet together with knees slightly bent, and your body slightly forward, and your arms (become your wings) stretched out horizontally with your elbows bent. Flap your wings while you are pushing your hands down and your elbows up at the same time, then do this in reverse. Meanwhile you raise your heels alternately and in rapid motion, then you occasionally hop forward (girls hop backwards while you are going forward) and then this is done in reverse. Clap your hands, kick your right foot out with your heel touching the floor while you are pivoting your left foot a quarter turn to the left, all the time keeping your wings flapping. Repeat this three times, then return to your original direction. (Girls do same, but kick their left foot, pivot their right foot and do their quarter turn to the right. Hey, nobody ever said that this dance was easy!
The Minneapolis group known as The Trashmen noticed that these two songs sounded alike, so they mashed them together in a live performance. A DJ at the show brought them into the studio to record the mashup under the title ‘Surfin’ Bird’. The Rivingtons sued the Trashmen for plagiarism and now they are credited as the writers of this song. While The Trashmen’s inspiration for ‘Surfin’ Bird’ is well-documented, the exact origin and meaning of the saying bird is the word is less clear. Bird has carried many slang connotations throughout its history, from “prostitute” to “the middle finger”. In the context of the song, “the word” meant the best, something that is cool, or hip, and later on this phrase evolved into meaning, “I really agree with what you just said”. “Bird is the word” may characterize something that is good, cool, or new, but to me, it always makes me think about turkey.
The Rivingtons formed in the early 60s in Los Angeles, California, and this doo-wop group is mostly known for these two hits. The group consisted of lead vocalist Carl White, Al Frazier, Sonny Harris and Rocky Wilson Jnr all of whom had previously worked as backing vocalists on recordings by Paul Anka, Duane Eddy and Thurston Harris, as the Sharps. The song ‘Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow’ is composed of primarily of nonsense syllables and it features a deep bass voice which is accompanied by the rest of the group’s divine vocal harmonies. The phrase “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow” reportedly came to Wilson while he was in jail, following a fight a fellow inmate supposedly whispered this in his ear. This song reached #48 in 1962 and it was later covered by the Beach Boys.
The Trashmen were made up of lead guitarist Tony Andreason, guitarist and vocalist Dan Winslow, bassist Bob Reed and drummer Steve Wahrer. The Trashmen’s ‘Surfin’ Bird’ peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts, later inspiring fun or ironic covers by popular performers from The Ramones to Pee-wee Herman.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone, don’t eat too much turkey and try to stay safe.