Barret Hanson's music roots run deep. He learned the piano at an early age and found himself gravitating to the family phonograph. He began collecting 78s at the age of 12 and by 1957 was DJing for high-school sock hops. Graduating with a major in classical music from UCLA, he wrote his thesis on the evolution of r&b in the 1940s and 1950s.
He has written countless articles and liner notes, worked as a roadie for Canned Heat, and helped compile upwards of 35 reissue albums for the legendary Specialty Records label. The cat really digs music.
When Hanson started spinning oldies and the occasional novelty platter in 1970 at KPPC in Pasadena, California, fate came into rotation. The kids tuning in dug the rock 'n' roll, but they really, really dug the loony tunes. Dr. Demento was born.
"I was playing the song 'Transfusion' by Nervous Norvus --- a novelty record from 1957," Demento says from his home in LA. "And one of the secretaries came into the room and said --- her exact words --- 'you've gotta be demented to play shit like that on the radio.'" Another jock overheard.
"The next week when I came in he just decided to introduce me as Dr. Demento --- without warning or anything --- and the name stuck. It had more of a ring to it than Barret Hanson."
But Demento hadn't set out to go strictly oddball. He sites old blues cats like Charlie Patton and Robert Johnson as favorites.
"At first I'd play one or two novelty records on each show," he says. "But mostly I'd play old blues that, say, The Rolling Stones had covered. I'd play the original versions. Or early records by people who had become stars more recently like, say, Sly Stone.
"But I opened the phone to requests and I found more and more I was getting requests for things like 'The Purple People Eater,' 'The Monster Mash,' 'They're Coming To Take Me Away,' and 'Beep Beep,' the little Nash Rambler song," he says.
By 1980 Dr. Demento was heard on over 200 radio stations nationwide. He played wacky tunes and musical parodies from legends like Spike Jones and Monty Python to fledgling weirdos like Weird Al Yankovic, who owes it all to the Doctor.
"When he did his song 'Another One Rides The Bus' live on my show in 1980, that was a big bump in his career," Demento says. "But also the song became so popular, the stations started calling and asking for a copy of it. And then quite a few of them picked up my show in the process."
Slowly but surely Barret Hanson the musicologist became eclipsed by the Doctor. It doesn't really bug him.
"Oh, not a lot," he says, before quickly adding, "once in a while."
"Another side of me is in a book I wrote a couple of years ago called Rhino's Cruise Through The Blues and that's under my real name," he says. "People might want to look for that to see the other side of me, the somewhat more scholarly side."
And sure, he's recorded "Shaving Cream" (twice) and championed tunes like "Fish Heads," but Demento also appeared on two non-novelty records "of not too much fame" in the 1960s. Avant-guitarist John Fahey's "Requiem For Molly" (1967) and r&b singer Jay Jay Cameron's "Short Dresses" (1964) both feature a young Barret Hanson on piano. The Fahey cut can be found on the album Requia.
"One night we were both drinking and I sat down at the piano and attempted to play 'My Blue Heaven' à la Fats Domino," Demento says. "John heard that. That very night he broke up with his girlfriend. So he wrote a guitar piece about the breakup and decided to include, as sound effects, a few bars of my playing 'My Blue Heaven.' So he brought me into the studio where he was recording, gave me some liquor, and told me to get about as drunk as I was that night and play."
Wading through all the submissions by would-be musical lunatics eats up the Doctor's leisure listening time.
"I don't actually have a whole lot of time for listening to serious music," he says. He guesstimates his record collection has "upwards of a quarter million counting all the trash and treasures" --- vinyl gems he doesn't have time for.
"Operating my empire of dementia takes a lot of time," he says.
Dr. Demento receives roughly 20 demos a week and gives them all a listen, at least.
"It ranges from total pros like say a Christine Lavin to total amateurs, some 12-year-old who just got a new CD burner," he says.
The Dr. Demento Show can be heard on about 50 stations and satellite radio across the US. If you join his fan club of several thousand Dementites, you might find a Demento classic reverberating in your skull.
The Doctor's got a cure.
"I try to end the evening with music that's pleasant but not especially hooky," he says, "something that doesn't have a whole lot of melody to it. Terry Riley's A Rainbow In Curved Air is something I sometimes play for that reason."
This from a guy who promises to finish his Rochester appearance with a "Shaving Cream" sing-a-long.
Dr. Demento performs with guest The Worm Quartet Friday, August 13, at The Montage Grille, 50 Chestnut Street, at 8 p.m. Tix: $12-$15. 232-8380