Watermelon Man (composition)

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"Watermelon Man"
one of side-A labels by Blue Note Records
US single of the 1963 Herbie Hancock recording
Instrumental by Herbie Hancock
from the album Takin' Off
GenreHard bop
LabelBlue Note
Songwriter(s)Herbie Hancock
Producer(s)Alfred Lion

"Watermelon Man" is a jazz standard written by Herbie Hancock for his debut album, Takin' Off (1962).

Hancock's first version was released as a grooving hard bop record, and featured improvisations by Freddie Hubbard and Dexter Gordon.[1] A single reached the Top 100 of the pop chart. Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría released the tune as a Latin pop single and it became a surprise hit, reaching No. 10 on the pop chart.[2] Santamaría's recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. Hancock radically re-worked the tune, combining elements of funk, for the album Head Hunters (1973).[1]

1963 Herbie Hancock version[edit]

Hancock wrote the piece to help sell his debut album as a leader, Takin' Off (1962), on Blue Note Records; it was the first piece of music he had ever composed with a commercial goal in mind. The popularity of the piece, due primarily to Mongo Santamaría, paid Hancock's bills for five or six years. Hancock did not feel the composition was a sellout however, describing that structurally, it was one of his strongest pieces due to its almost mathematical balance.[3]

The form is a sixteen bar blues. Recalling the piece, Hancock said, "I remember the cry of the watermelon man making the rounds through the back streets and alleys of Chicago. The wheels of his wagon beat out the rhythm on the cobblestones."[4] The tune, based on a bluesy piano riff, drew on elements of R&B, soul jazz and bebop, all combined into a pop hook.[5] Hancock joined bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins in the rhythm section, with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet and Dexter Gordon on tenor saxophone.[5] Hancock's chordal work draws from the gospel tradition, while he builds his solo on repeated riffs and trilled figures.[6]

Mongo Santamaría version[edit]

"Watermelon Man"
Single by Mongo Santamaría
from the album Watermelon Man!
B-side"Don't Bother Me No More"
ReleasedFebruary 1963
Songwriter(s)Riz Ortolani and Nino Oliviero
US single of the Mongo Santamaría band recording

Hancock filled in for pianist Chick Corea in Mongo Santamaría's band one weekend at a nightclub in The Bronx when Corea gave notice that he was leaving. Hancock played the tune for Santamaría at friend Donald Byrd's urging. Santamaría started accompanying him on his congas, then his band joined in, and the small audience slowly got up from their tables and started dancing, laughing and having a great time. Santamaría later asked Hancock if he could record the tune. On December 17, 1962, Mongo Santamaría recorded a three-minute version, suitable for radio, where he joined timbalero Francisco "Kako" Baster in a cha-cha beat, while drummer Ray Lucas performed a backbeat.[7] With the enthusiasm of record producer Orrin Keepnews, the band re-recorded the song and released it as a single under Battle Records.[8][9] The single reached number 10 on Billboard in 1963.[10] Santamaría included the track on his album Watermelon Man! (1963). Santamaría's recording is sometimes considered the beginning of Latin boogaloo, a fusion of Afro-Cuban rhythms with those of R&B.[11]

Chart performance[edit]

Chart (1963) Peak
US Billboard Hot 100[12] 10

1973 Herbie Hancock version[edit]

Hancock re-recorded the tune for Head Hunters (1973), combining synthesizers with a Sly Stone and James Brown funk influence,[13] adding an eight-bar section. Hancock described his composition as the "Chameleon", also from Head Hunters, to Down Beat magazine in 1979: "In the popular forms of funk, which I've been trying to get into, the attention is on the rhythmic interplay between different instruments. The part the Clavinet plays has to fit with the part the drums plays and the line the bass plays and the line that the guitar plays. It's almost like African drummers, where seven drummers play different parts"; "Watermelon Man" shares a similar construction.[14] A live version was released on the double LP Flood (1975), recorded in Japan.

On the intro and outro of the tune, percussionist Bill Summers blows into beer bottles imitating hindewhu, a style of singing/whistle-playing found in Pygmy music of Central Africa. Hancock and Summers were struck by the sound, which they heard on the ethnomusicology album The Music of the Ba-Benzélé Pygmies (1966) by Simha Arom and Geneviève Taurelle.[15]

This version was often featured on The Weather Channel's Local on the 8s segments. It was also played in the 2018 movie mid90s.

Other versions[edit]

The tune is a jazz standard and has been recorded over two hundred times:[4]


Hancock's recording has been sampled in:


Takin' Off version:

Head Hunters version:


  1. ^ a b Brackett, Nathan (2004). The New Rolling Stone Album Guide. Simon & Schuster. p. 361. ISBN 0-7432-0169-8
  2. ^ Strong, Martin Charles (2004). The Great Rock Discography: Complete Discographies Listing Every Track. Canongate. pp. 652–653. ISBN 1-84195-615-5
  3. ^ Lyons, Len (1989). The Great Jazz Pianists: Speaking of Their Lives and Music. Da Capo Press. p. 275. ISBN 0-306-80343-7
  4. ^ a b Santoro, Gene (2004). Highway 61 revisited. Oxford University Press. p. 86. ISBN 0-19-515481-9.
  5. ^ a b Creswell, Toby (2006). 1001 Songs: The Great Songs of All Time and the Artists, Stories and Secrets Behind Them. Thunder's Mouth Press. p. 333. ISBN 1-56025-915-9
  6. ^ Doerschuk, Robert L.; & Doerschuk, Bob (2001). 88: The Giants of Jazz Piano. Backbeat Books. p. 139. ISBN 0-87930-656-4
  7. ^ Gerard, Charley (2001). Music from Cuba: Mongo Santamaria, Chocolate Armenteros, and Cuban Musicians. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 54-55. ISBN 0-275-96682-8
  8. ^ "Santamaria, Mongo". Encyclopedia.com. Retrieved 15 August 2020.
  9. ^ Edwards, David; Callahan, Mike Callahan. "J.V.B./Battle Album Discography". Both Sides Now. Retrieved 15 August 2020.
  10. ^ Trust, Gary. "Harry Styles' 'Watermelon Sugar' Surges to Top of Billboard Hot 100, Becoming His First No. 1". Billboard. Retrieved 15 August 2020.
  11. ^ Flores, Juan (2000). From Bomba to Hip-Hop: Puerto Rican Culture and Latino Identity. Columbia University Press. p. 93. ISBN 0-231-11076-6
  12. ^ "Mongo Santamaria Chart History (Hot 100)". Billboard. Retrieved 15 August 2020.
  13. ^ Vincent, Rickey (1996). Funk: The Music, The People, and The Rhythm of The One. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-13499-1
  14. ^ Kernfeld, Barry Dean (1995). The Blackwell Guide to Recorded Jazz. Blackwell Publishing. p. 488. ISBN 0-631-19552-1
  15. ^ Feld, Steven (1996). "Pygmy POP. A Genealogy of Schizophonic Mimesis. Yearbook for Traditional Music 28. p. 4-5.
  16. ^ Baba Brooks Orchestra, "Watermelon Man Ska," https://www.discogs.com/release/4519609-Baba-Brooks-Orchestra-Stranger-Cole-With-Baba-Brooks-Orchestra-Watermelon-Man-Ska-Things-Come-To-Tho
  17. ^ O'Leary, Chris (2015). Rebel Rebel All the Songs of David Bowie From '64 to '76. John Hunt Publishing.
  18. ^ Widran, Jonathan. "Right Here, Right Now". AllMusic. Retrieved 29 November 2018.
  19. ^ Thompson, Dave (2001). Funk. Backbeat Books. p. 132. ISBN 0-87930-629-7.
  20. ^ Benson, Carol; Metz, Allan (30 November 2000). The Madonna Companion. Schirmer Books. p. 23. ISBN 0-8256-7194-9.
  21. ^ "Super Cat feat. Mary J. Blige's 'Dolly My Baby (Hip Hop Mix)' - Discover the Sample Source". WhoSampled. Retrieved 2021-02-17.