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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
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 recorded in a hard bop style, featuring solos by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Dexter Gordon.[1] A single release reached the Top 100 of the Billboard pop charts. Afro-Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría subsequently released a version which 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 later recorded a funk version of "Watermelon Man" 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's version, paid Hancock's bills for five or six years. Hancock did not feel the composition was a sellout, however, describing it as one of his strongest pieces structurally.[3]

"Watermelon Man" is written in a sixteen-bar blues form. 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 drew on elements of R&B, soul jazz, and bebop.[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
US single of the Mongo Santamaría band recording

After pianist Chick Corea left Afro-Cuban jazz percussionist Mongo Santamaría's band, Hancock served as a temporary replacement for a weekend engagement at a nightclub in The Bronx. During this engagement, Hancock played "Watermelon Man" for Santamaría at Donald Byrd's urging. Santamaría started accompanying him on his congas, the rest of the band joined in, and the small audience slowly got up from their tables and started dancing. Santamaría later asked Hancock if he could record the tune. On December 17, 1962, he 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 subsequently included the track on his album Watermelon Man! (1963). Santamaría's recording is sometimes considered the beginning of the boogaloo genre, a fusion of Afro-Cuban jazz and R&B.[11]

Chart performance[edit]

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

1973 Herbie Hancock version[edit]

Hancock re-recorded "Watermelon Man" for Head Hunters (1973), combining synthesizers with a funk beat influenced by James Brown and Sly and the Family Stone,[13] adding an eight-bar section. Hancock described his approach 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".[14] A live version of this arrangement 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 in an imitation of 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 album The Music of the Ba-Benzélé Pygmies (1966) recorded 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]

"Watermelon Man" has become 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.