A huge hit record from 1970 that has sometimes approached earworm status for me is a skiffle song called “In The Summertime” by Mungo Jerry. But even though I’ve heard it countless times in the last forty-plus years (and it’s probably going through your head right now) it has never occurred to me to find out who — or what — is a Mungo Jerry.
To be honest, I think I just always figured it was one of two things. Either it was a guy named Jerry Mungo whose name was somehow transposed on the record label (which has happened more than you’d think) or it was a Jerry who took Mungo as a nickname because of a connection to something else, and there are a number of possibilities. There’s Mungo Lake, Mungo River, and Mungo Park. There’s even a town named Mungo in Africa, and not too far away from it is an ethnic group called the Mungo. There are a few other things around too, and Mungo is also the last name of a lot of people, but you’ll seldom see it as a first name unless you’re a fan of J.R.R. Tolkien and recall that Mungo Baggins was the grandfather of Bilbo Baggins.
Let’s take a break to listen to the song. You can keep reading below the video.
Okay, let’s get to it. Mungo Jerry wasn’t a guy, at least at first. It was the name of the band itself. And the group’s name was actually inspired by Mungojerrie, the first of a pair of characters (the other was Rumpleteazer) in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, a collection of whimsical poems by T. S. Eliot that was the basis of the long-running Broadway hit, Cats.
But here’s the kicker. Even though Mungo Jerry was not actually a guy, in a way it ended up being just that, because the familiar face (and wild hair) of Ray Dorset was front and center on just about everything the band ever did. As a result, he came to be so closely identified with the group that the story of Mungo Jerry is really that of Dorset himself.
Raymond Edward Dorset, who will turn 72 in a couple of months, was born in Ashford, a suburb of London. He was drawn to music in his teen years but had limited success with earlier bands before hitting the jackpot with Mungo Jerry and “In The Summertime”, a song he says he wrote in ten minutes. It would be the band’s biggest hit, although “Baby Jump”, “Alright, Alright, Alright”, and several others would also prove to be big sellers.
It’s a fact that just about every band goes through a number of personnel changes during its lifetime, but from its earliest days Mungo Jerry seemed destined to top them all. Dorset was the one constant in an ever-changing kaleidoscope of band members. It’s not my intent to disrespect the others but the turnover — and turmoil — was so great that it’s difficult to track after so many years. Once two members even tried to fire Dorset, never mind that he was the lead singer and had composed most of the best songs, including “In The Summertime”. Luckily the record company and music publisher management supported him, and the rebels ended up on the street themselves.
That might help explain why Dorset also maintained an independent career almost from the beginning, and in subsequent years has performed alone or in various combos, while occasionally rebooting Mungo Jerry. The proud father of six currently lives in England with his third wife and is still entertaining his fans. (As you can see below.)