In the summer of 1979, Al Yankovic remembers, the song “My Sharona” by the Knack was in regular rotation at KCPR, the Cal Poly radio station where he volunteered as a DJ.
“The amount of requests for ‘My Sharona’ was more than all the other songs combined,” Yankovic remembered. “It was insanely popular.”
Yankovic wasn’t known to spin the hits on his radio show. But he knew the most popular songs made for great parodies. And Yankovic was always down for a good parody.
“So I thought, ‘My Sharona, My Bologna — all right, let me get the accordion,” he said.
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Yankovic’s latest parody work, “Mandatory Fun,” is currently the No. 1 album in the nation — the first comedy record to have that distinction since 1963. Now 54, his first No. 1 record marks the culmination of a career that began 35 years ago, when he recorded “My Bologna” in the men’s room across from the KCPR studio. But the zany “Weird Al” who appears in videos with his comedian friends today was much different when he came to San Luis Obispo to study architecture.
“He was a bit of a nerd,” said Tom Walters, a friend, who occasionally performed with Yankovic. “He was kind of awkward at that age, I thought.”
“I don’t think he had his first girlfriend until he was almost a senior,” recalled another friend, Joel Miller. “He was a very shy guy who women felt was just too bizarre for them.”
An early start
Raised in Lynwood, Calif., Yankovic’s parents bought him an accordion from a door-to-door salesman. While it wasn’t the most hip instrument, he took to it quickly. And by the time he was in high school, some of his novelty songs were getting airplay on “Dr. Demento,” a nationally syndicated radio show that specialized in novelty songs.
While he wanted to be a “Mad” magazine writer, a high school counselor persuaded him to study architecture. His school’s valedictorian, he entered Cal Poly in 1976 at age 16, when he moved into the Sierra Madre dormitory.
“We didn’t really even speak to him for the first two quarters of school,” said Miller, another Sierra Madre resident. “He always seemed very introverted and intense.”
Once, while Yankovic was showering at the dorm, bullies stole his clothes, forcing him to tear down the shower curtain and wear it back to his room. Miller confronted the pranksters and returned Yankovic’s clothes.
“I felt bad that they were doing crap like that,” Miller said. “So the next time we went on a Taco Bell run, I knocked on his door to ask if he wanted something.”
Yankovic’s room, he said, was a mess.
“It was like a 747 had crashed in his room,” Miller said. “It was clothes and garbage and papers and school stuff. And there was a little path to his accordion in the room.”
“Can you play that thing?” Miller asked.
“Yeah,” Yankovic said. “What do you want to hear?”
Miller requested Elton John’s musically complex “Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding.”
“And he goes, ‘OK.’ And he brings out his accordion to our little lobby and starts playing,” Miller said. “He blew everybody away.”
Someone suggested Miller fetch his bongos and play along, so he did. A friendship formed, and Miller invited Yankovic into his circle of friends.
A clean lifestyle
A reflection of his religious parents, Yankovic didn’t swear, drink or do drugs.
“We were all stoned, but he never was,” Miller said.
For Yankovic, music was a drug. And soon he and Miller played his first gig at Cal Poly. The Coffee House, now the site of a pizza place in the student union, would bring in featured acts, said Walters, of Morro Bay, who opened the shop, but it also welcomed amateurs.
The first time Yankovic and Miller played there, David West, co-founder of the Cache Valley Drifters, was the featured act.
“I don’t think he was pleased at all,” said Miller, who now lives in Southern California. “It was, like, ‘I’ve got to follow this?’”
“Back then there was always one joker who would get up and write his own lyrics to some popular song that were kind of funny,” West said. “So it was a novelty thing, but it wasn’t all that novel at the time.”
Eventually, he’d view Yankovic as a comic genius. “At the time,” West said, “it didn’t have a big impression on me.”
Miller and Yankovic continued to perform. While Miller had to fight anxiety before each show, Yankovic couldn’t get enough.
“I’d played my accordion in front of audiences before in junior high and grade school talent shows,” he said. “I was the entertainment at my cousin’s wedding when I was 10 years old. But that was the first experience where I was performing the kind of stuff that I wanted to do, and I was getting laughs and huge reactions from people.”
Origin of ‘Weird’
Around that time, he began working at KCPR, first with the midnight to 3 a.m. graveyard shift. A friend of Miller’s had referred to Yankovic as “That f------ weird Al,” a name he embraced.
“Al thought that was OK because people finally realized that he existed,” Miller said.
As Yankovic gained confidence, “The Weird Al Show” eventually found a better 9-to-midnight time slot. Leslie Ridgeway, a San Luis Obispo native, was on the air before him.
“It didn’t take too long when I got into broadcast journalism to see that Al was the king of the radio station,” she said.
Yankovic’s shows featured zany characters, some supplied by Miller. Sometimes Yankovic and fellow DJ Jon Iverson would read the soft comic “Nancy” over the air. Yankovic ignored the popular songs the DJs were supposed to spin.
“He was big into Frank Zappa and the Kinks, Barnes & Barnes and Talking Heads,” said Ridgeway, a San Luis Obispo native who now lives in Southern California. “But he did have a strange affinity for Christopher Cross.”
Since no San Luis Obispo station carried his idol, Dr. Demento, Yankovic assumed the role of parody and novelty promoter.
“I had so much fun during that three-hour show every week that the rest of the week paled in comparison,” he said. “It was a bright moment in my life. And it got me thinking, ‘Architecture isn’t really my passion.’”
Iverson, another Dr. Demento fan, saw Yankovic’s shows at the Coffee House and eventually visited Yankovic, who showed him some of his songs.
“A lot of the stuff he’d been working on was kind of Vaudeville-ish,” said Iverson of Atascadero. “He did a song called ‘Cruising Down Higuera.’”
The two started performing together in 1978, Iverson accompanying Yankovic on guitar.
“We kind of hit a stride when we started doing songs about food,” said Iverson, who once auditioned with Yankovic for a spot on “The Gong Show.” (They didn’t make the cut.)
Eventually, they got around to “My Sharona,” which was a No. 1 single for six weeks in 1979.
“We started fooling around with it,” said Iverson, later Yankovic’s roommate at the Foothill Garden Apartments. “I could play the guitar riff, and Al started scribbling down the lyrics.”
They first performed “My Bologna” at a backyard party in San Luis Obispo. Then they performed it at the World Famous Darkroom, located next to the Fremont Theatre.
Wednesday nights at the Darkroom were amateur nights, said Duane Inglish, who worked there when Yankovic and Iverson signed up to perform. Iverson, wearing a sequined jacket he still has today, played the straight man.
“And Al immediately jumped into ‘My Bologna,’” Inglish said.
As soon as the song began, Inglish said, the crowd stopped talking and watched Yankovic jump around the stage.
“It was a riot,” Inglish said. “He just totally threw himself into it.”
Iverson still has recordings from the duo’s two shows at the Darkroom, featuring frenzied food medleys and “My Bologna.”
“He was the front guy,” Iverson said. “I don’t want to give anybody the idea that it was an equal bill.”
Recorded in a restroom
Eventually, Yankovic alone took his accordion into that restroom in the graphic arts building, which still has the 229 room sign above the door, and recorded “My Bologna.” It soon became a hit on Dr. Demento.
A few months later, Yankovic would land his first record deal.
The Knack was playing at Cal Poly, and Yankovic managed to worm his way backstage.
“They knew who I was,” he said. “They’d heard ‘My Bologna,’ and Doug Fieger (the lead singer) was happy to meet me. And he turned to the guy to his right, who happened to be Rupert Perry, the vice president of Capitol Records, and he said, ‘You should sign this guy.’”
Still at Cal Poly, Yankovic’s record sold 10,000 copies in a month.
By that time he’d been let go from KCPR — his refusal to play the hits did him in. But the record deal gave him more resolve to pursue music.
In Los Angeles, guitarist Rick Derringer invited Yankovic to record his debut album, which included “My Bologna,” plus “Another One Rides the Bus” and “I Love Rocky Road.”
Ridgeway appeared with Yankovic in the “Rocky Road” video.
“He grabs an ice cream cone out of my hand and throws it against a wall,” she said. “And my hair looks like hell.”
Music fuels videos
His eponymous album had some success, but Yankovic became a household name after “Eat It,” his 1984 parody of Michael Jackson’s smash hit, “Beat It.”
“I went to visit him in L.A., and we went to an ice cream store,” Ridgeway said. “And when the guy served him, he started singing, ‘Eat it, just eat it.’ So I thought, ‘Well, OK, I guess he’s on his way now.’
After parodies of Jackson, Madonna, Dire Straits and other 1980s chartbusters, Yankovic was a staple of MTV, thanks largely to videos he wrote, directed, edited and starred in.
West remembers first seeing Yankovic on TV.
“I remember putting it together, going, ‘Oh, this is that guy,’” he said. “And thinking, ‘Great, good for him’ and thinking how weird it is that now he’s mega-famous, and I’m a nobody, and he opened for me.”
While MTV hasn’t championed music videos in years, and many of the artists Yankovic parodied have seen their careers decline, the Cal Poly architecture grad remains relevant with new parodies of Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and Lorde.
Yankovic has earned numerous Grammy awards and gold records, but he didn’t land his first top-10 album until 2006. His past three albums have now been top-10 records, thanks to clever marketing ideas, including his recent release of eight videos in eight days, and his partnership with websites such as Nerdist, College Humor and Funny or Die.
“I guess luck enters into it,” said Yankovic, who spends most of his time in rural Hawaii with his wife and 11-year-old daughter. “Persistence. I’m very tenacious. I feel like the world has changed, but my sensibilities haven’t changed all that much. I feel like I write the same kind of stuff I always did, although I like to think I get better.”
Despite his fame, friends say he’s still the same gregarious Al he was at Cal Poly.
“You can never be too serious around him, and that’s a good thing,” Ridgeway said. “Without Al to poke a hole in our balloon, we’d be in danger of terminal sadness.”