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Jerry Samuels, the Northeast Philly artist behind the 1966 hit novelty song ‘They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,’ has died at 84

He performed the unusual song under the stage name Napoleon XIV. It peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100

Jerry Samuels and granddaughter Marie Neveaux-Samuels sit at the piano together in 2021.
Jerry Samuels and granddaughter Marie Neveaux-Samuels sit at the piano together in 2021.Read moreCourtesy of Jason Samuels

Jerry Samuels, 84, a longtime Philadelphia resident and a former record producer, songwriter, and talent agent who was most famous for his 1966 hit song “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!,” died March 10, at Phoenixville Hospital from complications related to dementia and Parkinson’s disease.

Mr. Samuels, who had lived in Northeast Philadelphia for decades with his family after buying an Oxford Circle rowhouse in 1977, most recently lived in King of Prussia.

His hit was an unlikely one. The song is more like spoken prose than singing, occasionally pitched up Alvin and the Chipmunks style, and the only instruments behind Mr. Samuels’ words are drums, tambourine, and rhythmic slaps. Its comedic lyrics are written from the perspective of someone losing sanity, upset that someone has left them. 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 began playing the piano when he was about 3 years old. Years later, he would tell people he couldn’t remember a time when he couldn’t play it or sing.

When he was 15, he wrote and sold his first song, “To Ev’ry Girl — To Ev’ry Boy,” to his boyhood idol, Johnnie Ray. After he finished high school, Mr. Samuels started singing and playing piano at bars in New York City. In his 20s, he worked as a recording engineer and songwriter at Associated Recording Studios, one of the city’s major independent studios at the time. There, he worked with such artists as Carole King and Dionne Warwick.

He wrote and sold Sammy Davis Jr.’s hit song ”The Shelter of Your Arms,” which became the title track for Davis’ 1964 album.

Mr. Samuels’ wife, Bobbie, said that after he finished the track, he played it for his Associated Recording colleague and legendary composer Burt Bacharach. “He said: ‘It’s a good song, but it’s a show tune. It won’t be a hit.’ But when it was a hit, he sheepishly walked into Jerry’s studio and said, ‘I guess I was wrong,’” she recounted.

Then, in 1965 Mr. Samuels began working on “They’re Coming to Take Me Away,” wanting to experiment with new editing technology that would let him pitch up an audio track without changing the tempo of a song. Mr. Samuels told The Inquirer in 1998 that some of the inspiration for the lyrics came from his own experience, when he voluntarily checked into a mental health institution.

Once the song was ready to release, Mr. Samuels decided he would choose the stage name Napoleon XIV — the French general’s name at the suggestion of a friend, and XIV because he liked how it looked. But his anonymity was short-lived, and he found himself bombarded by fans.

“He was a genius when it came to writing music,” his wife said.

The song fell off the charts nearly as quickly as it rose, as some objected to the lyrics — arguing that it mocked 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 about nothing,” Bobbie Samuels said.

Mr. Samuels’ first marriage ended, and he toured the country through the early ‘70s on what he called his “Vagabound Troubadour” excursion. Ever since he was a boy, he had a unique skill: shaping wire and coat hangers into useful objects, which briefly turned into a business that had him selling roach clips.

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Then, Mr. Samuels stumbled into the next arc of his career: playing at senior living facilities. He had grown tired of the bar scene, and felt renewed by playing and singing for the elderly. “He’d go into these senior facilities and people who roll in [with] wheelchairs would get up and dance and would just beam and adulate over him,” said son Jason.

“He loved it and they loved him.”

After years of performing the senior facilities circuit, Mr. Samuels met other performers and opened a talent agency in 1984. Ever since, he booked tens of thousands of performances just like his. The year that his agency opened, he and Bobbie met through one of Mr. Samuels’ performers. She had never heard of “They’re Coming to Take Me Away” before the introduction.

“I went, ‘Who?’” she remembered. “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 lectured me countless times that life is too short to work at anything you hate, find something you love then find a way to make a living doing it. He modeled creativity and entrepreneurship, and preached that integrity is your most valuable asset,” Jason Samuels wrote about his father on Facebook last year.

“He was a one-of-a-kind,” he said Saturday. “I don’t think there’ll ever be another one like him.”

In addition to his wife and son, Mr. Samuels is survived by another son, Scott; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. Son Eric died previously.

His family plans to hold a private funeral in King of Prussia next month.

This article was changed to reflect that it was “The Shelter of Your Arms” that Burt Bacharach critiqued.