In early 2004, singer/songwriter Merle Kilgore received a phone call from a TV production company in Florida wanting his input on an idea for an advertisement: Wouldn’t it be funny if Johnny Cash’s "Ring of Fire" was used in a commercial for hemorrhoid ointment?
Here's how the Ottawa Citizendescribed the concept for the commercial:
"Ring of Fire" plays in the background as the camera pans an apartment, with a briefcase and shoes scattered on the floor. Suddenly, the bathroom door opens and a relieved woman in a business suit walks out, leaving a tube of Preparation H lying on the countertop. The commercial ends with a closeup of the tube.
Kilgore, who co-wrote the 1963 hit song with Johnny's wife June Carter Cash, chuckled at the idea. Of course he found the idea funny, he told them. In fact, he had been telling that joke for years! Every time Kilgore played the tune for an audience, he introduced it with a short comedy routine: “Ladies and gentlemen, I want to give credit where credit is due,” he’d say. “I dedicate this song to the makers of Preparation H.”
And then he’d begin to sing: “And it burns burns burns, that ring of fire, that ring of fire …”
When Cash’s family found out that Kilgore was thinking about giving the production company permission to use "Ring of Fire" in a hemorrhoid cream advertisement, they were not amused. Previously, the song had been used in a commercial for Levi's and a rumored ad in Britain for spicy foods, but this one walked (off) the line. And since the song had been co-written by June Carter Cash, the family had the right to veto the decision.
"[Kilgore] started talking about this moronic tie-in without talking to any of us," Rosanne Cash, Johnny's eldest daughter, told The Tennessean. "We would never allow the song to be demeaned like that.”
When Kilgore heard the Cash family was unhappy, he nixed the idea and acted contrite. “I certainly didn’t want to upset the Cash family because I love them,” he said. “I just thought it was kind of funny.”
Sometimes, people just don't like being the butt of a joke.
Everyone loves Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. He’s got the whole underdog thing going for him, and when the fog is thick on Christmas Eve, he’s definitely the creature you want guiding Santa’s sleigh. But what happens when Saint Nick reaches Italy, and he’s faced with steep hills that no reindeer—magical or otherwise—can climb?
That’s when Santa apparently calls upon Dominick the Donkey, the holiday hero immortalized in the 1960 song of the same name. Recorded by Lou Monte, “Dominick The Donkey” is a novelty song even by Christmas music standards. The opening line finds Monte—or someone else, or heck, maybe a real donkey—singing “hee-haw, hee-haw” as sleigh bells jingle in the background. A mere 12 seconds into the tune, it’s clear you’re in for a wild ride.
Over the next two minutes and 30 seconds, Monte shares some fun facts about Dominick: He’s a nice donkey who never kicks but loves to dance. When ol’ Dom starts shaking his tail, the old folks—cummares and cumpares, or godmothers and godfathers—join the fun and "dance a tarentell," an abbreviation of la tarantella, a traditional Italian folk dance. Most importantly, Dominick negotiates Italy’s hills on Christmas Eve, helping Santa distribute presents to boys and girls across the country.
And not just any presents: Dominick delivers shoes and dresses “made in Brook-a-lyn,” which Monte somehow rhymes with “Josephine.” Oh yeah, and while the donkey’s doing all this, he’s wearing the mayor’s derby hat, because you’ve got to look sharp. It’s a silly story made even sillier by that incessant “hee-haw, hee-haw,” which cuts in every 30 seconds like a squeaky door hinge.
There may have actually been some historical basis for “Dominick.”
“Travelling by donkey was universal in southern Italy, as it was in Greece,” Dominic DiFrisco, president emeritus of the joint Civic Committee of Italian Americans, said in a 2012 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “[Monte’s] playing easy with history, but it’s a cute song, and Monte was at that time one of the hottest singers in America.”
Rumored to have been financed by the Gambino crime family, “Dominick the Donkey” somehow failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960. But it’s become a cult classic in the nearly 70 years since, especially in Italian American households. In 2014, the song reached #69 on Billboard’s Holiday 100 and #23 on the Holiday Digital Song Sales chart. In 2018, “Dominick” hit #1 on the Comedy Digital Track Sales tally. As of December 2019, the Christmas curio had surpassed 21 million Spotify streams.
“Dominick the Donkey” made international headlines in 2011, when popular BBC DJ Chris Moyles launched a campaign to push the song onto the UK singles chart. “If we leave Britain one thing, it would be that each Christmas kids would listen to 'Dominick the Donkey,’” Moyles said. While his noble efforts didn’t yield a coveted Christmas #1, “Dominick” peaked at a very respectable #3.
As with a lot of Christmas songs, there’s a certain kitschy, ironic appeal to “Dominick the Donkey.” Many listeners enjoy the song because, on some level, they’re amazed it exists. But there’s a deeper meaning that becomes apparent the more you know about Lou Monte.
Born Luigi Scaglione in New York City, Monte began his career as a singer and comedian shortly before he served in World War II. Based in New Jersey, Monte subsequently became known as “The Godfather of Italian Humor” and “The King of Italian-American Music.” His specialty was Italian-themed novelty songs like “Pepino the Italian Mouse,” his first and only Top 10 hit. “Pepino” reached #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, the year before The Beatles broke America.
“Pepino” was penned by Ray Allen and Wandra Merrell, the duo that teamed up with Sam Saltzberg to write “Dominick the Donkey.” That same trio of songwriters was also responsible for “What Did Washington Say (When He Crossed the Delaware),” the B-side of “Pepino.” In that song, George Washington declares, “Fa un’fridd,” or ‘It’s cold!” while making his famous 1776 boat ride.
With his mix of English and Italian dialect, Monte made inside jokes for Italian Americans while sharing their culture with the rest of the country. His riffs on American history (“What Did Washington Say,” “Paul Revere’s Horse (Ba-cha-ca-loop),” “Please, Mr. Columbus”) gave the nation’s foundational stories a dash of Italian flavor. This was important at a time when Italians were still considered outsiders.
According to the 1993 book Italian Americans and Their Public and Private Life, Monte’s songs appealed to “a broad spectrum ranging from working class to professional middle-class Italian Americans.” Monte sold millions of records, played nightclubs across America, and appeared on TV programs like The Perry Como Show and The Ernie Kovacs Show. He died in Pompano Beach, Florida, in 1989. He was 72.
Monte lives on thanks to Dominick—a character too iconic to die. In 2016, author Shirley Alarie released A New Home for Dominick and A New Family for Dominick, a two-part children’s book series about the beloved jackass. In 2018, Jersey native Joe Baccan dropped “Dominooch,” a sequel to “Dominick.” The song tells the tale of how Dominick’s son takes over for his aging padre. Fittingly, “Dominooch” was written by composer Nancy Triggiani, who worked with Monte’s son, Ray, at her recording studio.
Speaking with NorthJersey.com in 2016, Ray Monte had a simple explanation for why Dominick’s hee-haw has echoed through the generations. “It was a funny novelty song,” he said, noting that his father “had a niche for novelty.”
Alvin, Simon, and Theodore in Alvin and the Chipmunks (2007).
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment
Christmas is a time for joy, thankfulness, love … and, when it comes to Christmas carols, the occasional bout of cringe. There are songs that are perfect, classic, and timeless—like Bing Crosby's "White Christmas" or Mariah Carey's “All I Want for Christmas Is You”—and then there are these 10 holiday horrors.
1. "Dominick the Donkey" // Lou Monte
Reindeer aren't the only animals on Santa's payroll. "When Santa visits his paisans," Italian-American songster Lou Monte tells us, he takes his donkey Dominick along, "because the reindeer cannot climb the hills of Italy." The song was considered a novelty track when it was released in 1960, but the Italian communities of New Jersey (where Monte grew up) loved it. The constant braying throughout the song is grating, though we're sure children find it hilarious.
2. "The Christmas Shoes" // NewSong
"The Christmas Shoes" is more depressing than annoying, which is in itself obnoxious when you're trying to get into the joyfulness and cheer of the holiday season. A mawkish Christmas song about a poor boy who wants to buy a pair of shoes for his sick mother so she'll "look beautiful if [she] meets Jesus tonight"? No thanks. And then there was a made-for-TV moviebased on said song? We'd prefer coal in our stockings.
3. "All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" // Spike Jones & His City Slickers
Its insta-earworm hook is enough to make this 1940s song a base level of annoying, but its cloying, cutesy lyrics and the lisp that's often incorporated into recordings take "All I Want For Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth)" to the next level. Your baby teeth will be replaced! That's what teeth do! Ask Santa for a PlayStation!
4. "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" // The Chipmunks
"Christmas Don't Be Late" needs no additional explanation as to why it's annoying other than "the Chipmunks sang it." Ross Bagdasarian Sr. wrote the song, which was released in 1958, and it was enormously successful—reaching the top of the Billboard Hot 100 Pop Singles chart and netting three wins at the first annual Grammy Awards. For those keeping score, that's three more Grammys than Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" received.
5. "Wiggly Wiggly Christmas" // The Wiggles
It feels weird to pick on The Wiggles, an Aussie children's group who are supposed to be high-energy and wacky. But if the repeated refrain of "wiggly wiggly Christmas" doesn't make you want to tell your kids that Santa has the flu and cancel the holiday altogether, we're not sure what will.
6. "Do They Know It's Christmas" // Band-Aid
"Do They Know It's Christmas" was written as a response to the Ethiopian famine of the mid-1980s. Singer Bob Geldof, determined to funnel money to a higher cause by way of a charity song, enlisted Bono, Boy George, George Michael, Phil Collins, Sting, and many others to form a supergroup known as Band Aid that would record the vocal track for the song in one marathon 24-hour session. The song was out days later, and—heavily publicized—proceeded to raise tens of millions of dollars for Ethiopian famine relief. Which is all very noble and great. But the song itself is condescending, patronizing, and imperialistic, on top just plain being awful. Geldof himself admitted that he was "responsible for two of the worst songs in history. One is 'Do They Know It's Christmas?' and the other one is 'We Are the World.'"
7. "Gott nytt jul" // Sean Banan
Even if you don't speak Swedish, the obnoxiousness of 2013 Eurovision contestant Sean Banan's "Gott nytt jul" comes through at the seven-second mark with its fart sound effect. If you do speak Swedish, you get the added benefit of Sean telling Santa to "come and bring your ho ho hoes." As for the music video … well, a man in a Santa fat suit twerking is the universal language.
8. "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" // William Hung
Failed American Idol wannabe William Hung, who quickly became famous for his tone-deaf rendition of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs," managed to put out a holiday album. It was called Hung for the Holidays. Even in 2004, the world was a cruel and unusual place.
9. "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas" // Gayla Peevey
Long before the Cincinnati Zoo's Fiona the hippo became an internet celebrity, 10-year-old Gayla Peevey sang a novelty song about wanting a hippopotamus for Christmas. It was an instant hit in 1953, and Peevey even performed it on The Ed Sullivan Show. A promoter decided to do a fundraiser to buy Peevey a hippo (which was promptly donated to her hometown's Oklahoma City Zoo), and Matilda the hippo became a popular OKC resident until she died in 1998. But the song? It's not even accurate. To dissuade her delusional daughter, Peevey sings that her mom said a hippo would eat her up, but then "teacher says the hippo is a vegetarian." Hippos are generally omnivorous, but they do have carnivorous tendencies. We can abide the fantasy of a pet hippo, but not disinformation!
10. "Shake Up Christmas" // Train
The "Drops of Jupiter" rockers tried to get into the holiday spirit in 2010, but with lyrics that rhyme "smile" with, er, "smile," and "Before I get too old and don't remember it, so let's December it and reassemble it," we want to hide behind the Christmas tree, not rock around it.