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Lee Pockriss dies at 87; songwriter

Lee Pockriss came up with the catchy tune for the best-selling 'Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.' His music career spanned TV, film and Broadway.

November 20, 2011|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • Lee Pockriss' career spanned television, film and Broadway.
Lee Pockriss' career spanned television, film and Broadway. (Associated Press )

As songwriters who began collaborating in 1957, composer Lee Pockriss and lyricist Paul Vance already had numerous hits behind them when Vance made a fateful summertime visit with his family to a beach on Long Island, N.Y.

His young daughter's experience wearing a bikini for the first time that day in 1960 would provide the inspiration for the songwriting duo's biggest-selling hit: "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."

Pockriss, whose music career spanned television, film and Broadway, died Nov. 14 at his home in Bridgewater, Conn., after a long illness, said his wife, Sonja. He was 87.

Recorded by 16-year-old Brian Hyland, "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" spent 13 weeks on Billboard's Top 40 chart in 1960, with a week at No. 1.

It was one of about 100 songs Pockriss and Vance wrote together, including "Catch a Falling Star," a 1957 hit for Perry Como that received the first gold record from the Recording Industry Assn. of America; "Leader of the Laundromat," a 1964 spoof of the Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" by the Detergents; "Tracy" for the Cuff Links, "I Haven't Got Anything Better to Do" for Astrud Gilberto and "Playground in My Mind" for Clint Holmes.

But none of their songs endured like their catchy tribute to the tiny two-piece swimsuits that were only beginning to gain popularity on American beaches in 1960.

The novelty song was a top 10 hit in countries around the world, translated into languages such as Japanese, Hebrew and Swahili.

It was featured in director Billy Wilder's 1961 movie comedy "One, Two, Three" and has turned up on television shows, commercials and in the movies "Revenge of the Nerds II" (1987) and "Sister Act 2" (1993).

Pockriss had many favorites among his songs, his wife said, but he had a special fondness for "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini."

"He always said 'Itsy' enabled us to live in the lifestyle that we lived," his wife said. "It's a song that just never dies."

Recalling that 1960 visit to the beach, Vance told The Times last week that his 2-year-old daughter Paula "looked cute as a button" in her new white bikini with yellow polka dots.

But when the little girl walked out of the locker room, the reaction of two young boys sent her scurrying back inside. She finally made it onto the beach and then into the ocean, only to have her bikini bottom slip off in a wave.

Her embarrassing experience was pure inspiration to her songwriting father, who said he wrote the lyrics to the song in about 25 minutes during the car ride home.

"She was afraid to come out of the locker

"She was as nervous as she could be

"She was afraid to come out of the locker

"She was afraid that somebody would seeā€¦"

Vance called two different composers to see if they'd write the music for his lyrics.

"One didn't have the time," he recalled. "The other said, 'No way.' He didn't think it was the song for him, thank God."

Finally, Vance called Pockriss.

"I sang the lyric on the phone and by the time he got to my office a couple of hours later, he had 90% of the tune written," said Vance, who described Pockriss as "a wonderful composer, right up there with the best."

Pockriss teamed with other lyricists over the years, including Hal David ("My Heart Is an Open Book" for Carl Dobkins Jr.), and Bob Hilliard ("In My Little Corner of the World" for Anita Bryant and "Seven Little Girls [Sitting in the Back Seat]" for Paul Evans).

He also collaborated with Lyn Duddy to write "Johnny Angel," teenage actress Shelley Fabares' 1962 debut pop single, which became a No. 1 hit.

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Jan. 20, 1924, Pockriss served as a cryptographer for the Army Air Forces in the South Pacific. After the war, he received a bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College and a master's from New York University.

During the days of live TV in the '50s, Pockriss wrote music for shows starring Martha Raye, Milton Berle and Jack Paar. He later wrote songs for "Sesame Street" and the original music for the 1968 film "The Subject Was Roses."

His many years in musical theater included teaming with lyricist Anne Croswell on the 1960 off-Broadway musical "Ernest in Love" and the 1963 Broadway musical comedy "Tovarich," which earned Vivien Leigh a Tony Award.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by his brother, Harold.

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