The Life of a Song: ‘Watermelon Man’

A strong melody, blues-based structure and a catchy piano riff make this tune supremely adaptable
Herbie Hancock © FrancisWolff/Corbis

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When the American pianist Herbie Hancock was composing the soul jazz classic “Watermelon Man” for his 1962 Blue Note debut album Takin’ Off, he realised that he had presented himself with a problem.

On the one hand, the then 22-year-old wanted to mesh experiences from his own life into his work, and the rolling, rackety sound of a watermelon seller’s horse-drawn wagon doing the rounds of Hancock’s Chicago South Side 1940s childhood was a powerful memory refracted into the tune’s core.

On the other, the image of a grinning piccaninny happy with his watermelon slice was then a horribly dominant racist caricature, and in the rising civil rights temperature of the times Hancock knew the song could misfire.

“So . . . I asked myself two questions,” Hancock later recalled in his autobiography, Possibilities. “Is there anything wrong with watermelons? No. Is there anything inherently wrong with the watermelon man? No . . . By naming my song ‘Watermelon Man’, I wanted to reclaim the image.”

The album was completed in a single session after a day’s rehearsal and, unusually for a newly signed artist, each of its six instrumental compositions were originals. “The wheels of the wagon beat out the rhythm on the cobblestones,” recalled Hancock on the original album’s sleeve note. The cry of the watermelon man was carried in the melody and the wagon’s lopsided lurch was perfectly captured by interlocked piano bass and drums.

“Watermelon Man” was also released as a single but had only moderate chart success. Hancock had fine-tuned the song while working in New York with Latin-jazz bandleader and conguero Mongo Santamaria and it was a new recording by Santamaria on the Battle label that reached the Billboard top 10 in 1963. The original melody and piano riff remained intact, but a chant and clavé were added and the instrumental breaks replaced by pre-arranged brass.

The strong melody, blues-based structure and catchy piano riff make “Watermelon Man” extremely adaptable to other styles of music — Santamaria himself returned to it in 1979 with a disco-driven remake. The tune had been quickly covered by Quincy Jones and Woody Herman. Bill Haley and his Comets included it on the 1964 album Surf Surf Surf, retitling it “Surf de la Sandia”, and the American singer Gloria Lynne added innuendo-laden lyrics on a brassy 1965 soul cover.

James Brown’s backing band The JB’s and blues guitarist Buddy Guy made it funky in 1972 and British clarinettist Acker Bilk included an authentic-sounding version on the 1983 album Acker Bilk in Holland, two years after Jamaican duo Sly and Robbie ventured an unconvincing ska cover.

More significantly perhaps, vocalist Jon Hendricks added lyrics extolling the delights of the watermelon and recorded it at the 1963 Newport Jazz Festival with vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks and Bavan. This was the version covered by the British band Manfred Mann in 1965 on the EP The One in the Middle. The mix of blues, jazz and Paul Jones’ vocals encapsulated London’s club scene at a time when the boundaries between jazz, roots music and pop were all too briefly blurred.

Mongo Santamaria

None of the covers matched the original’s depth or, added lyrics apart, did more than tinker with the rhythm. For a substantial upgrade, we have to turn to the composer’s platinum-selling 1973 album Head Hunters. The new “Watermelon Man” is a far cry from the original. The melody is stretched over prowling funk rhythms and an African-inflected introductory motif is the hook. Made by percussionist Bill Summers blowing into a beer bottle, the sound imitated hindewhu, a style of vocals incorporating a reed whistle found in some pygmy music in Central Africa. Hancock’s memories of his Chicago childhood were gone.

It was this darker version that fed into contemporary pop, hip-hop and R&B. Samples of it have been used more than 50 times to date, including by Madonna, George Michael and LL Cool J. Most concern marginal existence or broken relationships, and a few, sexual predation. In 2014 the hip-hop artist Black Milk used scratchy fragments on the dystopian track “Quarter Water”, theming it on disillusion and hustling for a piece of the pie. There’s not a watermelon in sight.

For more in the series, as well as podcasts with clips from the songs, visit ft.com/life-of-a-song

Photographs: FrancisWolff/Corbis; Getty Images

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