How "Hang on Sloopy" Became an Ohio State Marching Band Tradition
How a '60s pop hit by a Dayton garage band became an OSU football anthem. And the truth about the real Sloopy.
Might as well set the record straight right up front: The song has absolutely nothing to do with a cartoon beagle. That may come as a shock to some people—especially those who have spent many a lovely autumn Saturday dressed proudly in scarlet and gray, singing joyously about Charlie Brown's dog.
The song is called “Hang on Sloopy.” No mention of Snoopy pops up anywhere. Honest.
Snoopy singers need not hang their heads in shame, though. It's a common mistake. Besides, “Hang on Sloopy” might make more sense if it were about an embraceable beagle.
Has there ever been a song so popular and yet so misunderstood? How did such a simple hit by the McCoys, a garage band of high school kids from Dayton, become arguably the best-known song in Ohio? Sure, it rose to No. 1 on the pop charts in 1965 and spent a few months in the Top 40. But so did "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" by the Ohio Express in 1968, and “Love Rollercoaster” by the Ohio Players in 1975—two equally silly songs by Buckeye natives. Yet no one programs their cellphone ring to those tunes. Why was it “Sloopy" that slipped off the charts and into the hearts of Buckeyes everywhere?
Much of the credit goes to the Ohio State Marching Band, which adopted the song shortly after it hit the charts and turned it into a scarlet and gray anthem over the past four decades. But even there, “Sloopy" stands out as an anomaly.
The Best Damn Band In The Land is one of the nation's most traditional—steeped in a crisp, military marching style. Yet here's “Sloopy," one of TBDBITL's most popular numbers, flying directly in the face of everything the OSU band stands for: a rock-and-roll tune from the 1960s, performed with a swinging-and-swaying dance step more resembling a show-style band.
The song is essentially three words and three chords. Singing “Happy Birthday" is more complicated. Yet, Ohioans are so crazy for it, the state legislature thought it was a good idea to name it our official state rock song in 1985. Ohio is the only state in the Union with an official rock song. And still no one knows what it's about. “I've been singing the song for about 20 years, but I always sang, ‘Hang on Snoopy, Snoopy hang on,' confessed then-Rep. Mike Stinziano as he introduced the "Sloopy” legislation to the House.
That should make the rest of you "Snoopy" singers feel a little better. But it's time to set the record straight. Read on, and in no time at all you'll be able to astound your friends and impress your neighbors with your “Sloopy” savvy, and just in time for football season.
Discover the real "Sloopy"—a former Bourbon Street piano player—and meet a couple of her descendants who, ironically, now live right here in Columbus. Learn how a stroll down the midway of the Ohio State Fair resulted in the writing of a "Sloopy" arrangement for the OSU Marching Band, and find out which local celebrity was banging his bass drum for TBDBITL the day "Sloopy" debuted in the Shoe. Here's the complete story of "Sloopy."
Who is Sloopy in "Hang on Sloopy"
Let's face it—as songs go, "Hang on Sloopy" is hardly a lyrical tribute, filled primarily with "Come on, come on" and "Shake it, shake it shake it."
The two lines that provide any detail at all don't really pertain to the real Sloopy. In reality, she neither lived in a bad part of town, nor could she let her hair down—she always wore it short. But, oh, that name.
Sloopy was actually Dorothy Sloop, born Sept. 26, 1913, in Steubenville. Her grandfather, Frederick Sloop, came to Ohio from Switzerland and opened a music store in Findlay. Her father, Fred Jr., was a piano prodigy who reportedly helped his boyhood friend, Tell Taylor, compose the classic standard, “Down by the Old Mill Stream." Fred Jr. later moved to Steubenville, where he organized a popular combo that occasionally featured a young singer named Dino Crocetti—better known later as Dean Martin.
Like her father before her, Dorothy learned to play at a very young age. “She was a very attractive blonde, with lots of personality," says Harry Greenberg, who played clarinet and sax in the trio. "And what a terrific piano player. She and her father were two of the best I've ever heard—in a class with the likes of Art Tatum."
Dottie, as she was called, left Steubenville to join an all-girl group called the Southland Rhythm Girls in New York City. There, she performed at some of the city's top clubs and high-society events, including a celebrity filled evening in William Randolph Hearst's Park Avenue apartment.
In the early 1940s, Dixie Fasnacht, the band's leader, decided to return to her hometown of New Orleans to open a club of her own and Dottie followed. Quickly, Dixie's Bar of Music became one of the city's most popular nightspots, through the wartime era and into the 1950s. It was Dixie who gave Dottie her now-famous nickname, and the two often performed together as “Dixie and Sloopy."
Who wrote "Hang on Sloopy"
Dorothy Sloop wrote her share of the songs over the years, but "Hang on Sloopy” wasn't one of them; Bert Russell Berns and Wes Farrell get credit for that.
Berns and Farrell were two of New York City's best known songwriters in the early 1960s. Berns had penned a number of hits, including “Twist and Shout," which reached the Top 40 for both the Isley Brothers (1962) and the Beatles (1964). Farrell, who would later become the musical brains behind the Partridge Family, was just starting out when he teamed with Berns to write "Hang on Sloopy."
Whether Berns and Farrell ever met Sloopy or only heard of her is unknown. Both have since died, as has Sloopy, in July 1998. Six years before her death, Dorothy Sloop wrote a short seven-page memoir about her life and career. However, it only briefly and vaguely mentions the night "three young fellows" stopped in at Dixie's when the bar "was really jumpin'." She sat with them between sets and "talked show business,” and a few months later, the song was released.
Fortunately, Jane Heflick—Sloopy's daughter—can provide a few more details. The story she heard was that, “The club was a little rambunctious that night," she says. Patrons were heckling a bit, and giving Sloopy a rough way to go. The musicians Sloopy had spoken to came to her defense, says Jane, shouting out their encouragement: "Hang in there, Sloopy," they'd yell. "Hang on, Sloopy."
"They thought her nickname was just so cute," says Jane.
Jane admits all the "Shake it, shake it" and the "Feels so good" references offend her slightly. “I don't like the lyrics," she says. "They're so completely different from Mother. She came from a very good Catholic family."
Yet, she also knows her mother didn't mind a bit. “She was flattered," says Jane, who lives in Biloxi, Mississippi. "She knows how musicians are, and she thought it was a hoot.” And that, in itself, is enough to make Jane like the song. "Whenever I hear it, it makes me think of Mother and how happy it made her feel. And that makes me happy. I miss her."
The Beatles-esque McCoys
Back in New York, Bert Berns had just been named by Atlantic Records as the label's resident songwriter and producer when he interested the Vibrations, a popular rhythm and blues act, in his newest song. Recorded late in 1963, the song "My Girl Sloopy" eventually reached No. 26 on Billboard's pop charts and spent five weeks in the Top 40.
The Vibrations version sounded a lot like Berns's earlier big hit, "Twist and Shout," complete with the signature "ah, AH, AHH" vocal crescendo near the end. And just like “Twist and Shout," which was an R&B hit for the Isley Brothers before the Beatles made it a rock-and-roll tune, Berns thought he could do the same with "Sloopy.” He just needed the right act. He found them in the McCoys.
Actually, it was a new group named the Strangeloves who discovered the McCoys. The Strangeloves were out on tour in support of their hit, “I Want Candy," recorded on Berns's new Bang Records label. Before they hit the road, Berns had asked the band to be on the lookout for a young, unsigned Beatlesque-looking act to record a rock version of "Sloopy.”
On the final night of their tour, in Dayton, they met Rick Zehringer and his band, Rick and the Raiders. Though Rick had just graduated from high school that spring and his drummer brother Randy and bassist Randy Jo Hobbs still had another year of high school left, the Raiders already had developed a sizable local following. Former Cleveland Plain Dealer and Columbus Citizen-Journal columnist Joe Dirck was a Dayton kid with a garage band of his own at the time, and remembers the group well. “Rick and the Raiders were always the band in Dayton," Dirck says. “Rick was an incredible guitar player-kind of who we all wanted to be." He'd later become known as Rick Derringer, one of the top rock guitarists and producers of the 1970s and '80s.
The Strangeloves asked the Zehringer boys if they wanted to be the warm-up act for their show that night. The Raiders, of course, accepted. “We didn't know anything about the Strangeloves looking for a Beatle-looking band," says Derringer. “But, of course, we all happened to be wearing our new Beatles outfits and sporting our Beatles haircuts."
After the show, the Strangeloves told them of Berns's plan, and asked the Raiders if they wanted to go to New York the following day. "We couldn't believe it," says Derringer. “We already knew the song from the Vibrations hit. And it just so happened our parents were leaving on vacation the next day. We just followed out."
Derringer says they recorded “Hang on Sloopy" within a few days, and it was released within a couple of weeks. The band was asked to change its name, to avoid confusion with Paul Revere and the Raiders, so they went back to the name they'd used originally, the McCoys. Derringer suggested changing the name from “My Girl Sloopy" to “Hang on Sloopy." "I just figured we might as well call it 'Hang on Sloopy' since that's what the song says," explains Derringer. “It would make it easier to remember. Nobody sings the words, 'my girl Sloopy in the song."
"Sloopy' raced up the charts, and on Oct. 2, 1965, it bumped Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction" out of the No. 1 slot on the Billboard pop chart. Its stay was short—the following week, “Yesterday” by the Beatles took over the top spot. The song's impact, however, would last much longer.
How "Hang on Sloopy" became an Ohio State Marching Band tradition
As the 1960s developed, “traditional" became another word for "square” among America's youth, and Charles Spohn was keen enough to sense it. Spohn had the unenviable task of replacing the venerable Jack Evans as director of the Ohio State University Marching Band in 1964. After serving more than 10 years as an assistant to Evans, Spohn was quick to tap into the new pulse of rock-and-roll.
John Tatgenhorst had been a member of OSU's marching band in the late 1950s whose interests had turned to arranging. Spohn approached his former student and asked if he could compose some contemporary arrangements for OSU's band. “I was paid 200 dollars to arrange nine tunes for the band in 1964," says Tatgenhorst. He tapped into the Billboard charts to work up arrangements that included Gershwin's Slaughter on 10th Avenue, which the Ventures had turned into a rousing guitar tune, as well as Top 40 hits that ranged from Stan Getz's jazzy "Girl from Ipanema” to the folky Serendipity Singers' “Crooked Little Man."
The arrangements went over well with Spohn, but more importantly, they went over well with the fans. Tatgenhorst was asked to do more. “We were the first band in the Big Ten to play rock-and-roll,” says Tatgenhorst. “Charlie Spohn was a bit of an innovator."
It was during a visit to the Ohio State Fair in the summer of 1965 that Tatgenhorst first heard the tune that would make him famous among Buckeyes everywhere. The McCoys version of "Hang on Sloopy” came on over the loudspeaker. "Just immediately, I heard it as an arrangement for the band," he says. “I liked its rhythmic quality. It rocked."
Tatgenhorst told Spohn about wanting to arrange "Sloopy" for the band, and took a 45 rpm record of the hit for the director to listen to. "When he heard the recorded version, he said, and I quote, ‘The Ohio State Marching Band will never play that kind of music.’ And 'music' wasn't the word he used," says Tatgenhorst.
But the young arranger kept after Spohn. “I assured him that the arrangement I heard in my head wouldn't sound like trash," Tatgenhorst says. "Finally, Charlie called me one day and said, 'Go ahead and arrange the damn thing.’ "
It was a Thursday, and Spohn wanted the arrangement the following day. “I got home that evening about 9 or 9:30," he says. “I started working on 'Sloopy’ immediately, and worked until about 1 a.m. I finished the tune in the key of F and went to bed. But as I was laying there, I couldn't sleep. I kept thinking, ‘I can make it better, I can make it better. Get out of bed!’ ”
He listened to his conscience, and got up for some more fine-tuning. “I tinkered around with it, and decided to modulate it to a G-flat," Tatgenhorst says. “That brought it up, and gave it that little extra kick. I went back to bed about an hour later. In all, it took about four and a half hours to arrange."
He presented it to Spohn the next morning, and Spohn took it from there, working up the marching routine, complete with its now-recognizable Sloopy Step.
Channel 10 news anchor Dave Kaylor was a student at Ohio State then, and played the bass drum in the marching band. “We worked on it all week, and that stupid step we had to do," he says. “It was like, 'Oh, no. The band doesn't do that.’ You know band geeks. They appreciate the music, but they don't always look at themselves as entertainers. You have to entertain. But here we had to dance. Band kids aren't comfortable when they have to shake it.”
“Sloopy" debuted at halftime of OSU's second game of the season, against Illinois. "It was raining pitchforks," says Tatgenhorst. "Everyone was holding umbrellas, not really paying attention. It didn't get much of a reaction. I thought it would die right there."
The following week, however, students started calling for it. “People kept asking for “Sloopy,' 'Sloopy,' 'Sloopy,’ ” says Kaylor. "We didn't really like it, but it was a no-win. Everyone wanted it, and we wanted to please the fans. We had to do it."
Each week, its popularity seemed to grow, and it was soon a fan favorite. “I figured if it lasted the season, I'd be happy," says Tatgenhorst. “But by the third or fourth game, I knew it was here to stay."
What started out as a break from tradition has become one of the Ohio State Marching Band's most loved traditions. “Script Ohio, the Ramp Entrance—those are probably more a reflection of what we're about,” says current OSU Marching Band director Jon Woods. “We're about marching and drill and precision, and connecting with military roots. But 'Sloopy' has become one of our best traditions because it's fun. It's active. And the band enjoys having a song that the whole stadium responds to.
"If you noticed, we played Sloopy' almost constantly through the fourth quarter of last year's Fiesta Bowl," says Woods. “It's the strongest cheer that we have to connect with the fans.”
Tatgenhorst noticed. He now lives in Chicago, arranging songs for film and television. He was cemented to his chair, watching the Fiesta Bowl on TV. "It was so impossibly close, I thought I'd have a heart attack," he says. “But I kept hearing them play 'Sloopy' over and over, and my chest swelled. It seemed to make a difference—at least I felt that way.'
Making "Hang on Sloopy" the official rock song of Ohio
Joe Dirck was a columnist for the former Columbus Citizen-Journal when a wire story caught his eye on an April afternoon in 1985. The story was headlined, “O say can you see-'Louie Louie'?" It was about a campaign taking place in the state of Washington to make the 1963 song "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen the official state rock song. A week later, Dirck wrote a column in the C-J asking, “Are we in Ohio to be left behind? No, I say!.. Together we can make 'Hang on Sloopy' the official rock song of Ohio."
"I don't even know how much thought I gave it," says Dirck now. "I remember being in the office on a Sunday writing that thing, and then, after it came out, a lot of people started to call to say it was a good idea."
Why “Sloopy”? “Sure, it was one of the more popular songs played by Ohio State's marching band," Dirck says. “But for me, it was more the fact that I knew Rick and the Raiders, and had warmed up for them a couple of times in Dayton. ‘Sloopy' captured as much a part of that baby boomer, rock-and-roll spirit as 'Louie Louie.' I decided if I was going to do this, I was going to do it right."
He called Ohio Rep. Mike Stinziano for support. “He was a little hesitant at first," says Dirck. "He wanted to know what Sloopy meant. He wanted to make sure it wasn't some old blues term for sex or something. When I assured him it wasn't, he got behind it."
Dirck says after enlisting Stinziano's support, he reached out to then-State Sen. Gene Watts. “I already had a Democrat in the House; I wanted a Republican in the Senate," Dirck says. “ 'Sloopy' had to cut across all political boundaries. My idea was to become a lobbyist of sorts to push it through. It turned out easier than I thought. Once I took the obligatory trip over to the Galleria to have a drink with Vern Riffe and got Vern's blessing, that's all I had to do."
Dirck used his column to campaign throughout the summer, providing updates and garnering more grass-roots support. In July, Dirck wrote the joint resolution that was introduced in a Statehouse ceremony in which a choir of Dirck, Watts, Stinziano, Gov. Dick Celeste and WNCI disc jockeys John Arthur and Riley O'Neil sang “Sloopy,” accompanied by the OSU pep band.
On Nov. 20, Joint Resolution No. 16 was approved by the Senate and “Hang on Sloopy" became Ohio's official rock song. A visiting delegation of Chinese engineers got an eyeful of democracy at work when the Ohio State pep band marched in blaring “Hang on Sloopy,” led by the singing of Stinziano and Watts. Watts donned an OSU football jersey and helmet to propose the vote to his fellow Senators.
The legislation in Washington for “Louie Louie" subsequently failed.
Sloopy Hangs On
Meanwhile, Margaret Ruland of Columbus was clipping Dirck's columns and other news of the "Sloopy" saga and mailing them south to her sister in St. Petersburg, Florida. She also enclosed a cassette tape of the OSU Marching Band performing "Sloopy." She knew her sister—Dottie Sloop—would be interested. “Whenever my Aunt Margie sent down a clipping, Mother would run out and make copies and send them to all her friends," says Jane Heflick. “She was so proud.” Margaret Ruland died Jan. 29, 1998, six months before her sister.
Her son Frederick Sloop Ruland had graduated from Ohio State in June of 1965—four months before “Hang on Sloopy" made its Ohio State Marching Band debut. He went on to work for OSU as a statistician in the computer research department for nearly 30 years, and is now retired and living near McConnelsville.
Two of his children—Sloopy's grandnephews—still live in Columbus. One, Brett Ruland, is a graphics designer for the Columbus Museum of Art. His brother Shane is a systems developer for OSU's psychology department. “Not many know about our connection to the song," says Shane. “I don't tell it much anymore. It's such a roundabout story, and then, when I finally get through it, everyone's reaction is always the same. They say, 'That is such total BS!"
Since its release in 1964, “Hang on Sloopy" in its various incarnations has sold more than six million copies, and been recorded by more than 100 different performers, from Jimi Hendrix to Don Ho to a Top 40 jazz version by Ramsey Lewis to a Yugoslavian version titled "Hej, o Slupi.” But only in Columbus would 545 local guitar players converge in the Newport Music Hall to play "Hang on Sloopy" and set an unofficial record (and benefit Children's Hospital in the process), as a noisy collection of pickers did on April 29, 1991.
Only in Columbus would a new radio station sign on to the air with 24 hours of nonstop “Hang on Sloopy," as WHQK did on Dec. 30, 1997.
"Our friends from out of town think it's weird that we have a marching band tune on all our jukeboxes in town," says Shane Ruland. "I tell them, 'Don't make fun of it out loud or you'll get pummeled.’”
This story originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of Columbus Monthly.