Each month in “The Story Behind,” I’ll look at the history of a well-known Top 40 hit based on interviews I’ve conducted with individuals who performed some of the most familiar pop hits of the 1960s and ’70s. This month, I’ll look at Brenton Wood’s “The Oogum Boogum Song.”
Brenton Wood was born Alfred Jesse Smith in Shreveport, Louisiana, before his family moved to California, where, after high school, he attended Compton College. An accomplished piano player, he had already dabbled in singing as a member of the Dootones under his real name.
He soon changed his name to Brenton Wood and sang under that for the first time as a member of the Quotations at Compton and next as a member of Little Freddy & the Rockets, who recorded “All My Love” on the Chief label in 1958.
Over the next few years, he cut a number of singles on different labels, including “The Kangaroo” (1960), “Mr. Schemer” (1963), and others.
In 1967, Wood signed a deal with Double Shot Records, and while his first recording for the label would become “The Oogum Boogum Song,” it took some work to get it where it ended up. Wood said that initially the song had a very different sound and feel — and didn’t have the “Oogum Boogum” hook.
“The record company gave me a song one day called ‘Casting My Spell on You,'” he said, “I didn’t like it very much, so I took the song and rewrote it and added the hook ‘oogum boogum,’ which is another word for abracadabra.”
The song is now known for a couple of reasons: one that was intentional and one that was not. The song often references ’60s fashion, which Wood did by design. “Miniskirts and bellbottom pants were all the new fashions of the Sixties,” he told me.
He said wanted to write a song about the things you saw on the street every day that young people could relate to, and as a result, the lyrics reference “high heeled boots,” a “hip hugger suit,” “that cute mini skirt,” “your brother’s sloppy shirt,” “big earrings, long hair, and things,” and that “cute trench coat.” Those references no doubt helped the song become popular, as it went to #34 on the pop charts in 1967.
But another factor that resulted in the song’s being memorable was not intentional, and has become one of the best-known mondegreens in ’60s music. In the closing refrain, Wood seems to sing “Stick out your poo-say” or “check out the poo-say” (which is a nice way of writing a derogatory term for a part of the female anatomy), but despite what many listeners thought they heard, Wood disputes that.
“No,” Wood told me. “It’s, ‘Check out the boots, hey!’ in keeping with the topic of ’60s style.” Oddly enough, he told another interviewer a few years earlier that he was saying “ooga-ga-oosay,” which he said was simply another made up word as was “oogum boogum.”
So what did he really say? We may never know, and it’s certainly possible that he was just having fun with listeners (and interviewers) alike. He certainly enjoyed writing the song, and as he told me, “It took me six weeks, but I laughed all through it. It was a joy.”
As memorable as “The Oogum Boogum Song” was, his follow-up, “Gimme Little Sign,” was even better. Wood said, “‘Gimme Little Sign’ came to me after a few breakups with my girlfriend” and is his plaintive plea for his girl to give him some sign that things weren’t as they should be.
The catchy tune, which at no point in its lyrics ever actually says “gimme little sign” — it’s always “gimme some kind of sign” — raced to #9 on the Billboard charts and #19 on the R&B charts in 1967 and was his biggest hit.
After two big hits, it looked like Brenton Wood was well on his way. His next 1967 release, “Baby You Got It,” peaked at #34 in November, but his next single, “Lovey Dovey Kinda Lovin’,” failed to make the Top 40, peaking at #99 in March 1968.
This was the beginning of a trend, as none of his future releases even made the Top 100. He continued to record throughout the ’70s on a variety of labels, but other than his 1977 cover of the Fleetwoods’ 1959 hit “Come Softly to Me,” which barely entered the bottom of the R&B charts, he never charted after 1969.
Nevertheless, his memorable “The Oogum Boogum Song” remains a snapshot of popular ’60s fashion, and has a controversial mondegreen as well.