David DeBoy, who wrote and recorded "Crabs for Christmas"… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
Crabs for Christmas? Yes, please.
For three decades, David DeBoy has been singing his sad tale of an expatriate Baltimorean stuck in Houston on Christmas Eve, sadly lamenting to Santa that the only present he really wants is a big bucket of steamed crustaceans. That's a sentiment any local resident should be able to appreciate, and it's made the singer-songwriter responsible for "Crabs for Christmas" something of a hometown hero.
"I'm just so incredibly touched that people like it as much as they do, that they sing it as much as they do," says DeBoy, who is celebrating the song's 30th anniversary with a new CD featuring his signature song and an 12 similarly Baltimore-centric tunes. "How many people get a chance to touch people like that?"
Not many. But "Crabs for Christmas," which includes the immortal refrain "Oh, I want crabs for Christmas/Oh, only crabs will do/Oh, ho, with crabs for Christmas/My Christmas wish'll come true," has become something of a Charm City holiday staple.
The song is played pretty consistently on the radio — maybe not as often as "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer," but chances are you'll hear it more than a few times between now and Dec. 25. Those who make it to this Thursday's Washington Monument lighting ceremony will even get to hear DeBoy sing it live.
"Just thinking about that song makes me smile," says Cyd Wolf, executive producer of Little Italy's Cabaret at Germano's, where DeBoy and his backup singers, Da Hons, perform an annual Christmas show (set this year for Dec. 4). "It's become an anthem for all of us who live in Baltimore. You know it's Christmas here when you hear 'Crabs for Christmas.'"
Baltimore native DeBoy, 58, has cobbled together a career as an actor, writer, singer and voice-over artist, compiling a resume that stretches from neighborhood dinner theater to a speaking role in the HBO series "Veep," currently being filmed in and around Baltimore. "Crabs for Christmas," he says, began as an attempt to extend his reach into yet another field of entertainment.
"I was just starting to get into electronic media — TV, training videos, radio, stuff like that," DeBoy recalls. "So I thought, 'What kind of song could I write that people would like?' At least if I wrote something about Baltimore, then maybe I can at least get Baltimore people to buy it."
His calculations, he says, continued.
"And then I thought, 'People buy things around Christmas time. Maybe if I write a song about Baltimore, and it's about Christmas as well, maybe people will buy it for presents and stuff.'"
Thus enlightened, DeBoy got to work, drawing on his 28 years of Baltimore living — as well as a Bawlamer accent he'd outgrown but never totally abandoned — for inspiration.
"The most prominent thing I could think of about Baltimore was crabs," he says. "The title actually appeared before the song appeared. And then I thought, 'It's always tough to get crabs out of town. Maybe it's about a guy who's out of town and wants to have crabs.'"
From such humble beginnings a cottage industry was born. DeBoy spent $5,000 for 10,000 copies of the resulting 45. (For those too young to remember, those are the little records with the big hole in the middle.) Then he went from radio station to radio station, looking for airplay.
"They'd play this vinyl single, look at me and say, 'You're nuts. We'll put it on the air and see what people think.'"
People thought the song was pretty funny, apparently, and certainly endearing. The initial pressing of 10,000 records sold out that first year, and DeBoy ordered another 2,500.
"And then I sort of let it go," DeBoy says. "I got busy with other things — my acting, my writing, all the other things that I do."
Baltimore, however, was not finished with its crabby holiday anthem. In 2001, with "Crabs for Christmas" celebrating its 20th anniversary, he sold another 4,000 copies.
This year, DeBoy decided it was time to expand his musical repertoire. He wrote another 12 songs, with titles like "Biggest Star in Hampden" (about a local actor — he insists it's not autobiographical — who lives for walk-ons in every film or TV show that come to Baltimore), "Baltimore Hon" (about his girlfriend with the beehive hairdo) and "Baltimore Vowels," a musical primer on how to speak Bawlamerese.
The resulting CD, "Crabs for Christmas — Live," is available on DeBoy's website, crabsforchristmas.com.
"You know, it's a very strange type of celebrity I have," reflects DeBoy. His resume includes film appearances in "My One and Only," "A Dirty Shame," "Tin Men" and "Head of State," as well as such TV shows as "The Wire" and "Homicide: Life on the Street." Still, it's a song he recorded three decades ago that people remember him for.
"At this point, I could discover the cure for all cancers," DeBoy says with a laugh, "and my obituary would still lead off with, 'The guy who wrote 'Crabs for Christmas' …"