Kal Mann, 84; wrote 'Bristol Stomp' and other '50s dance hits

Posted: November 30, 2001

Kal Mann, 84, a Philadelphian who wrote the words to songs that formed the foundation of a golden era in Philadelphia music, died Wednesday of Alzheimer's disease at his home in Pompano Beach, Fla.

In collaboration with composer Dave Appell, Mr. Mann wrote such songs as "South Street," "Let's Twist Again," "Bristol Stomp," "Wild One" and "Wah-Watusi" for legendary Cameo-Parkway Records in South Philadelphia, cofounded in 1956 by Mr. Mann and Bernie Lowe.

Those songs were recorded by entertainers who became household names in no small part because of them: the Orlons, Dee Dee Sharp, and Bobby Rydell, to name a few.

"Kal Mann was responsible for the dance crazes of the late '50s and early '60s" that swept the Philadelphia region and wound up becoming the rage nationally through Dick Clark and American Bandstand, said Philadelphia disc jockey Jerry Blavat.

Mr. Mann, a native of West Philadelphia whose real name was Kalman Cohen, began writing lyrics at a time when baby boomers were buying their first tubes of Clearasil. They formed a huge market, and they loved rock and roll.

"Kal Mann was in the right place at the right time with the right talent," said Kal Rudman, publisher of the Cherry Hill-based radio- and record-industry publication Friday Morning Quarterback. "He is an absolute icon of the industry. He had a run of hit songs equal to anybody's."

He began his career in the 1940s as a comedy writer for Danny Thomas, Red Buttons and Jack Leonard. In the late 1950s, Lowe convinced Mr. Mann that if he could write comic parodies, he could write lyrics.

So he did, and among the early words he put down were to a song scored by Lowe called "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear." It was recorded by Elvis Presley.

Other hits followed. One of them was the Dovells' 1961 monster "Bristol Stomp." There wasn't a teenager from Bristol to Long Beach, Calif., who didn't try to look sharp as a pistol while heel-slamming on a hardwood dance floor.

Mr. Mann dashed off the lyrics to that hit in 45 minutes, after watching teenagers stomping at former Eagle Steve Van Buren's dance hall on Wood Street in Bristol, he said in a 1997 Inquirer interview.

Another was the Orlons' smash "South Street," a top-50 tune for 10 weeks in 1963.

Mr. Mann all but invented the word hippie in his lyrics, and "he immortalized South Street," said Hy Lit, a disc jockey at the old Philadelphia powerhouse WIBG-AM who still spins records for WOGL-FM (98.1). "Kal Mann's music was fun, happy-go-lucky. It was dance music."

Mr. Mann's dance songs went national through American Bandstand. An example was the "Wah-Watusi," recorded by the Orlons in 1962.

"Dick Clark wanted dance music because he had a visual TV show," Lit said in a 1994 Inquirer interview. "Everybody was watching this great show out of Philly to learn the fancy steps. Once on American Bandstand, it was an automatic hit."

There were many hits, recorded by many artists, but Mr. Mann always will be associated with South Street and Bristol, places he made famous.

"Philadelphia," said Lit, "is a little emptier now."

Mr. Mann, who graduated from Overbrook High School, lived in Birchrunville, Chester County, for 25 years and in Center City for the last three years with his wife, Esther. The couple also had a home in Florida, where they lived every winter. Tomorrow would have been their 55th wedding anniversary.

In addition to his wife, Mr. Mann is survived by a daughter, Betsy C. Bacon; a son, Jon S. Cohen; one sister; and three grandchildren.

Services will be at 1 p.m. Sunday at Goldsteins' Rosenberg's Raphael-Sacks, 6410 N. Broad St. Burial will be in Montefiore Cemetery, Rockledge.

Memorial donations may be made to the NARM Scholarship Fund, 9 Eves Drive, Suite 120, Marlton, N.J. 08053.

Rusty Pray's e-mail address is rpray@phillynews.com.

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