Jerry Samuels, 84, a longtime Philadelphia resident and former record producer, songwriter and talent agent, who was best known for his 1966 hit song “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa ! “, died on Friday, March 10. , at Phoenixville Hospital following complications from dementia and Parkinson’s disease.
Mr Samuels, who had lived in northeast Philadelphia for decades with his family after buying an Oxford Circle townhouse in 1977, recently lived in King of Prussia.
His hit was unlikely. The song sounds more like spoken prose than singing, sometimes in the style of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and the only instruments behind Mr. Samuels’ words are drums, tambourine and rhythmic slaps. His comedic lyrics are written from the perspective of someone losing his mind, upset that someone left him. And yet, the song became incredibly popular, peaking at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100.
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Mr. Samuels was born and raised in the Bronx and started playing the piano when he was 3 years old. Years later, he would tell people he couldn’t remember a time when he couldn’t perform or sing.
At the age of 15, he wrote and sold his first song, “To Ev’ry Girl – To Ev’ry Boy”, to his childhood idol, Johnnie Ray. After graduating from high school, Mr. Samuels began singing and playing the piano in bars around New York. In his twenties, he worked as a sound engineer and songwriter at Associated Recording Studios, one of the major independent studios in town at the time. There he worked with artists like Carole King and Dionne Warwick.
He wrote and sold the Sammy Davis Jr. hit song “The Shelter of Your Arms”, which became the title track of Davis’ 1964 album.
Then, in 1965, Mr. Samuels began work on “They’re Coming to Take Me Away”, wanting to experiment with a new editing technology that would allow him to edit an audio track without changing a song’s tempo. Mr Samuels told The Inquirer in 1998 that some of the inspiration for the lyrics came from his own experience, when he voluntarily visited a mental health facility.
Mr Samuels’ wife, Bobbie, said that after he finished the track, he performed it for fellow Associated Recording and legendary composer Burt Bacharach. “He said, ‘It’s a good song, but it’s a show tune. It won’t be a success. But when it was a hit, he sheepishly walked into Jerry’s studio and said, ‘I guess I was wrong,'” she recounted.
Once the song was ready to be released, Mr. Samuels decided to choose the stage name Napoleon XIV – the name of the French general at the suggestion of a friend, and XIV because he liked the way he looked. But his anonymity was short-lived and he found himself bombarded with fans.
“He was a genius when it came to writing music,” his wife said.
The song fell off the charts almost as quickly as it rose, as some objected to the lyrics – arguing that it made fun of the mentally ill. And in the years since, there has been speculation that the song was about the singer’s dog leaving him, not a person. “It’s really nothing,” Bobbie Samuels said.
Mr Samuels’ first marriage ended and he toured the country in the early 70s on what he called his “Vagabound Troubadour” excursion. Ever since he was a boy, he had a unique skill – fashioning wires and coat hangers into useful items – he briefly turned into a business where he sold cockroach tongs.
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Then Mr. Samuels stumbled upon the next arc of his career – playing in nursing homes. He had had enough of the bar scene and felt renewed playing and singing for the elderly. “He would go to these old age facilities and the people who are coming [with] the wheelchairs were getting up and dancing and just beaming and worshiping her,” her son Jason said.
“He liked it and they liked it.”
After years of performing in the senior installation circuit, Mr. Samuels met other artists and opened a talent agency in 1984. He has since booked tens of thousands of performances like his. The same year his agency opened, he and Bobbie met through one of Mr. Samuels’ artists. She had never heard of “They’re coming to take me away” before the introduction.
“I went, ‘Who?'” she recalled. “Well, I can tell you that as soon as we met, that was it.”
Mr Samuels and his wife retired in 2021 and moved to an assisted living facility in King of Prussia. The agency is still operational, under new management.
“He told me countless times that life is too short to work on everything you hate, find something you love, and then find a way to make a living doing it. He modeled creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, and preached that integrity is your most valuable asset,” Jason Samuels wrote of his father on Facebook last year.
“He was one of a kind,” he said on Saturday. “I don’t think there will ever be another like him.”
In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Samuels is survived by another son, Scott; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His son Eric died earlier.
His family plan to hold a private funeral at King of Prussia next month.