OWINGS MILLS – When David DeBoy set out to write a song 29 years ago, he had no idea it would become a Baltimore tradition.
He’d been acting and doing voice-overs and jingles for a few years out of college when he thought, “Wouldn’t it be neat to record a song?”
And, “What would I do a song about that people would buy?”
It didn’t take DeBoy long to settle on a winning combination: He’d write and record a Christmas song for Baltimore, and it would be about crabs.
Specifically, about a Baltimore man stuck in Houston for the holidays, and who wanted only crabs for Christmas.
DeBoy wrote the song in 1981, when he was 28, and recorded it all in one day that summer. Friends played and sang the back-up music.
This Sunday, nearly 30 years later, DeBoy will begin recording songs for his second Christmas album in a public performance at the Rolling Road Golf Club in Catonsville. “Crabs for Christmas,” now a Baltimore favorite, will be on the program.
When he first recorded the song 29 years ago, DeBoy purchased 5,000 copies of the vinyl single with royalties from a play that he had written. He shopped the song around radio stations and a record distribution company in Baltimore.
“Won’t you buy my Christmas song?” he asked radio station managers, two of whom — at WBAL and WFBR — agreed to play it, because at least it seemed funny, DeBoy said.
But when the song aired on Thanksgiving Day, it was an instant hit. The record distribution company, which originally had agreed to buy only 100 copies of the record, was soon calling DeBoy for more — 1,000 of them the day after Thanksgiving.
By the end of the year, 10,000 copies sold, and the song has been humming on Baltimore’s radio waves every Christmas season since then.
In 2001, DeBoy recorded an entire album of a dozen (mostly) Christmas songs with Baltimore themes and titles like “O’ Little Town of Baltimore” and the doo-wop-filled “Christmas on the Stoop” — all sung in Baltimorese, or — as they say in Baltimore – “Bawlamerese.”
That’s part of the songs’ charm.
DeBoy — a professional actor, playwright, motivational speaker and comedian — said the Baltimore accent has roots in the different languages spoken by the city’s immigrants.
The accent “is part Cockney, some German…a mishmash of things from different ethnic groups,” said DeBoy, who grew up speaking Bawlamerese in Arbutus in the 1950s and ’60s.
“I love it because it’s the sound of my hometown,” he said.
Outside of Baltimore, the Cockney-like accent — think Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady” — is not well-known.
As an actor, DeBoy lost the accent — it would have limited his stage career. But as a home-grown Baltimore comedian, DeBoy still speaks and sings it.
DeBoy, 57, describes himself as “an actor who sings.” He doesn’t think he has a great singing voice, but his performances are always a big hit.
He’s “really a fabulous performer,” said Cyd Wolf, executive producer of the Cabaret dinner theater at Germano’s Trattoria in Baltimore, where DeBoy has performed for the past three years. (His next Germano’s performance will be on Dec. 19 at 7 p.m.)
“He’s very funny, and his comedic timing is perfect,” she said. He has a smart sense of humor — “a little bit…like Johnny Carson.”
And DeBoy’s performances of comedy and song engage the entire audience.
“I don’t’ think there’s a moment when people are not following him because he keeps you guessing about what comes next.”
For example, during performances, DeBoy “throws out actual words …(in the Baltimore) dialect, and we have to figure out what the word really means,” said Wolf, who moved to Baltimore when she was 9.
“He takes real-life stuff and sees the humor in it, as opposed to being snooty and uppity and looking down on the particular quirkiness of a town.”
During performances, DeBoy is accompanied by David Zee, the composer behind DeBoy’s song lyrics, and a comedian in his own right, Wolf said. Singing back-up are two classic Baltimore “hons” — Darlene Smathers and Wanda Wisniekowski — with beehive hairdos, horn-rimmed glasses and voices as thick with Bawlamerese as the Chesapeake Bay used to be with crabs.
Smathers and Wisniekowski are the stage names of Wendy Savelle and Karen Fitze, who, like DeBoy, don’t have accents in real life.
They met DeBoy a few years ago at Honfest, a nearly 20-year-old Baltimore summer tradition celebrating the quintessential working-class Baltimore woman with a proclivity for “Hairspray”-style fashions and a penchant for calling others “hon” (short for “honey”). Fitze owns four beehive wigs.
Savelle and Fitze enjoy working with DeBoy, and the group’s camaraderie shines through during rehearsals and performances.
“He’s really terrific, has such a natural talent, and is very open to contributions” from the group, said Savelle, a 16-year singer with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Savelle, Fitze and Zee will perform with DeBoy on Sunday, and will be his back-up group when he records new songs in the studio for the “Crabs for Christmas” 30th anniversary album to be released next year.
Holiday performances and a new album mean extra rehearsals for the foreseeable future, but DeBoy and his family are used to that.
“Our family has really enjoyed all the performances, radio appearances and…quirky rehearsals at our home,” said his wife Joellen DeBoy. The DeBoys have three grown children — Brett and Blake DeBoy and Alison Harig.
“While it does become rather hectic” during December, “we always manage to have the gifts wrapped by midnight on Christmas Eve,” Joellen DeBoy said.
It’s a good thing the DeBoys have the schedule under control, because “Crabs for Christmas” is likely to remain a Christmas favorite in Baltimore for a long time to come.
“It’s a bit of a holiday tradition in Baltimore to hear it played on the radio a lot. … You come to expect “Crabs for Christmas” in the car during the Christmas season, Cyd Wolf said.
But David DeBoy, who keeps his two Emmy Awards for television scripting in the basement of his Owings Mills townhouse, hasn’t let it go to his head.
“I’m just so grateful that the people in Baltimore have made it a tradition — a Christmas tradition … (and that they’ve) found a place in their hearts for this silly little song” about crabs and Christmas, he said.
“This is a way for people to remember their hometown and what Christmas means to them, (and) I’m just very, very thankful.”
Up next for David DeBoy: a funny and informative guidebook to surviving prostate cancer, and possibly a Hanukah song…involving brisket.