Head Hunters

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Head Hunters
A human figure wearing a horned mask with its face resembling a reel-to-reel tape recorder playing keyboards in the foreground, while four unmasked men in the background hold instruments. The keyboardist has shades of yellow and red, while the musicians in the back blend with the blue background
Studio album by
ReleasedOctober 26, 1973 (1973-10-26)
RecordedSeptember 1973
Herbie Hancock chronology
Head Hunters
Professional ratings
Review scores
Down Beat[3]
The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings[5]
The Rolling Stone Album Guide[7]
The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide[8]
Tom HullB+[9]
Zagat Survey[10]

Head Hunters is the twelfth studio album by American pianist and composer Herbie Hancock, released October 26, 1973, on Columbia Records. Recording sessions for the album took place in the evening at Wally Heider Studios and Different Fur Trading Co. in San Francisco, California. The album was a commercial and artistic breakthrough for Hancock, crossing over to funk and rock audiences and bringing jazz-funk fusion to mainstream attention, peaking at number 13 on the Billboard 200. Hancock is featured with his ‘Mwandishi’ saxophonist Bennie Maupin and new collaborators – bassist Paul Jackson, percussionist Bill Summers and drummer Harvey Mason. All of the musicians (with the exception of Mason) play multiple instruments.

Structure and release[edit]

Head Hunters followed a series of experimental albums by Hancock's sextet: Mwandishi, Crossings, and Sextant, released between 1971 and 1973, a time when Hancock was looking for a new direction in which to take his music:

I began to feel that I had been spending so much time exploring the upper atmosphere of music and the more ethereal kind of far-out spacey stuff. Now there was this need to take some more of the earth and to feel a little more tethered; a connection to the earth. ... I was beginning to feel that we (the sextet) were playing this heavy kind of music, and I was tired of everything being heavy. I wanted to play something lighter.

— Hancock's sleeve notes: 1997 CD reissue

For the new album, Hancock assembled a new band, the Headhunters, of whom only Bennie Maupin had been a sextet member. Hancock handled all synthesizer parts himself (having previously shared these duties with Patrick Gleeson) and he decided against the use of guitar altogether, favoring instead the clavinet, one of the defining sounds on the album. The new band featured a tight rhythm and blues-oriented rhythm section composed of Paul Jackson (bass) and Harvey Mason (drums), and the album has a relaxed, funky groove that gave the album an appeal to a far wider audience. Perhaps the defining moment of the jazz-fusion movement (or perhaps even the spearhead of the Jazz-funk style of the fusion genre), the album made jazz listeners out of rhythm and blues fans, and vice versa. The album mixes funk rhythms, like the busy high hats in 16th notes on the opening track "Chameleon", with the jazz AABA form and extended soloing.

Of the four tracks on the album "Watermelon Man" was the only one not written for the album. A hit from Hancock's hard bop days, originally appearing on his first album Takin' Off (1962), it was reworked by Hancock and Mason and has an instantly recognizable intro featuring Bill Summers blowing into a beer bottle, an imitation of the hindewho, an instrument of the Mbuti Pygmies of Northeastern Zaire (this is also reprised in the outro). The track features heavy use of African percussion. "Sly" was dedicated to the pioneering funk musician Sly Stone, leader of Sly and the Family Stone. "Chameleon" (the opening track) is another track with an instantly recognizable intro, the introductory line played on an ARP Odyssey synth. "Vein Melter" is a slow-burner, predominantly featuring Hancock and Maupin, with Hancock mostly playing Fender Rhodes electric piano, but occasionally bringing in some heavily effected synth parts.

Heavily edited versions of "Chameleon" and "Vein Melter" were released as a 45 rpm single.

The album was also re-mixed for 4-channel quadraphonic sound in 1974. Columbia released it on LP record in the SQ matrix format and on 8-track tape. The quad mixes feature elements not heard in the stereo version, including an additional 2-second keyboard melody at the beginning of "Sly". Surround sound versions of the album have been released a number of times on the Super Audio CD format. All of these SACD editions use a digital transfer of the original four-channel quad mix re-purposed into 5.1 surround.

Until George Benson's Breezin' (1976), it was the largest-selling jazz album of all time.

The Headhunters band (with Mike Clark replacing Harvey Mason) worked with Hancock on a number of other albums, including Thrust (1974), Man-Child (1975), and Flood (1975), the latter of which was recorded live in Japan. The subsequent albums Secrets (1976) and Sunlight (1977), had widely diverging personnel. The Headhunters, with Hancock featured as a guest soloist, produced a series of funk albums, Survival of the Fittest (1975) and Straight from the Gate (1978), the first of which was produced by Hancock and included the big hit "God Make Me Funky".

The image on the album cover, designed by Victor Moscoso, is based on the African kple kple mask of the Baoulé tribe from Ivory Coast. The image is also based on[citation needed] tape head demagnetizers used on reel-to-reel audio tape recording equipment at the time of this recording. Hancock is represented by the man wearing said image while playing the keyboard, and positioned clockwise around him from lower left are Mason, Jackson, Maupin and Summers.


In 2005, the album was ranked number 498 in the book version of Rolling Stone magazine's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. While it was not included in Rolling Stone's original 2003 online version of the list, nor the 2012 revision, it was ranked number 254 in their 2020 reboot of the list.[11] Head Hunters was a key release in Hancock's career and a defining moment in the genre of jazz, and has been an inspiration not only for jazz musicians, but also to funk, soul music, jazz funk and hip hop artists.[2] The Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry, which collects "culturally, historically or aesthetically important" sound recordings from the 20th century.[12]

Track listing[edit]

Side one
1."Chameleon"Hancock, Jackson, Mason, Maupin15:41
2."Watermelon Man"Hancock; arranged by Mason6:29
Side two
4."Vein Melter"Hancock9:09


  • "Chameleon" (2:50)/"Vein Melter" (4:00) - Columbia 4-46002 (U.S.); released 1974

The single edit of "Chameleon" was released on the 2008 compilation Playlist: The Very Best of Herbie Hancock.[13]




  • Herbie Hancock – producer
  • David Rubinson – producer
  • Fred Catero – engineer
  • Jeremy Zatkin – engineer
  • Dane Butcher – engineer
  • John Vieira – engineer



  1. ^ a b Larson, Jeremy D. (April 5, 2020). "Herbie Hancock: Head Hunters Album Review". Pitchfork. Retrieved April 5, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c Erlewine, Stephen Thomas. Review: Head Hunters. AllMusic. Retrieved on January 7, 2010.
  3. ^ Columnist. "Review: Head Hunters Archived June 4, 2009, at the Wayback Machine". Down Beat: January 17, 1974.
  4. ^ "Herbie Hancock – Headhunters ★★★★★". Jazzwise. July 22, 2019.
  5. ^ Cook, Richard; Morton, Brian (2008). The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings (9th ed.). Penguin. p. 642. ISBN 978-0-141-03401-0.
  6. ^ Q. London: 100. February 2000.{{cite journal}}: CS1 maint: untitled periodical (link)
  7. ^ Hoard, Christian (ed.) "Review: Head Hunters". Rolling Stone. 361. November 2, 2004.
  8. ^ Swenson, J., ed. (1985). The Rolling Stone Jazz Record Guide. USA: Random House/Rolling Stone. p. 94. ISBN 0-394-72643-X.
  9. ^ "Tom Hull: Grade List: Herbie Hancock". Tom Hull. Retrieved August 12, 2020.
  10. ^ "Review: Head Hunters". Zagat Survey. 2003 – via superseventies.com.
  11. ^ The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time - Rolling Stone
  12. ^ "'Head Hunters' Found A New Direction In Jazz". NPR.org. Retrieved March 10, 2020.
  13. ^ "Playlist: The Very Best of Herbie Hancock". Discogs.com.
  14. ^ "Herbie Hancock Chart History (Billboard 200)". Billboard. Retrieved July 9, 2021.
  15. ^ "Herbie Hancock Chart History (Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums)". Billboard. Retrieved July 9, 2021.
  16. ^ "Top Billboard 200 Albums – Year-End 1974". Billboard. Retrieved July 9, 2021.
  17. ^ "Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums – Year-End 1974". Billboard. Retrieved July 9, 2021.

External links[edit]