Watermelon Man

A young Herbie Hancock – all of twenty-two years old and fresh from Takin’ Off, his debut album on Blue Note Records – introduced his “Watermelon Man” (hear excerpt here) to the Cuban-born conguero and bandleader Mongo Santamaria one slow, fateful night in 1962. The story goes that Hancock was onstage to fill in for Santamaria’s usual working pianist (the even younger Chick Corea) for what was otherwise a routine New York City gig. Santamaria was taken with the funky, Latin-flavored riff that Hancock was stretching out on, and thusly a jazz legend was born. Not long thereafter, Santamaria’s 45 release of the number on Battle Records would reach number ten on the pop charts, it would launch what would be a very commercially successful decade for Santamaria, thine Earthly Kingdom was secured, etc.

Whether all this is anything more than apocrypha is inconsequential. Under Santamaria’s stewardship, “Watermelon Man” (hear excerpt here) took the elegantly vamping rhythm of Hancock’s Latin blues and beat it into something that would soon formalize as Nuyorican boogaloo. Though it was composed by a conservatory-trained jazz pianist, and rendered by a master Cuban percussionist a generation older than the upstart Nuyoricans who would champion the style, “Watermelon Man”‘s jazzy horn riffs, celebratory atmosphere, and catchy polyrhythms were definitive boogaloo.

Perhaps more than any other boogaloo, Santamaria’s “Watermelon Man” spawned endless permutations of itself. There were R&B; vocal versions of it. Surf and heartland instrumental guitar groups slid it to their repertoires. Jazz combos everywhere played it. Like the token Brazilian Bossa Nova “Girl From Ipanema,” it became the de facto choice amongst gigging ‘60s combo for that moment when they needed a Latin number. It united jazz idioms with the exotic rhythms of American’s Afro-Latin communities and, along with hits like “The In Crowd” (which followed it), the broader idea of “funkiness.” It was friendly to the alcohol binges of the average American’s weekend lifestyle. It represented, in other words, the best that jazz had to offer the popular tastes of the ‘60s.

1. Wendell Holmes & His Heavy Weights, Goodie Good, part 1 (Cunity)
“Goodie Good,” like all of this week’s selections, is a thinly veiled version of “Watermelon Man.” It’s also instructive of one of the qualities that makes the “Watermelon Man” riff so brilliant: its durability.

There’s little connection between the ending of “Goodie Good,” part one, and the beginning of “Goodie Good,” part two. Like Lee Morgan’s “Sidewinder,” Horace Silver’s “Song For My Father,” or Nat Adderley’s “Jive Samba,” this reading of “Watermelon Man” very much possessed its own internal momentum.

2. Wendell Holmes & His Heavy Weights, Goodie Good, part 2 (Cunity)

A guitarist might go out for a sandwich and a cold one at Kate’s Luncheonette and, twenty minutes later, fall back into place for the “Watermelon Man” refrain without anyone really taking much notice.

As far as I can tell, this is the same Wendell Holmes who, along with his bassist brother Sherman, worked New York City’s ‘60s clubs as a backing guitarist for touring R&B;, soul, and blues artists – and who, decades later, finally found some enduring success up as part of the rootsy Southern blues and gospel harmonizers The Holmes Brothers.

I’d also guess that this nugget was recorded around 1968 or ’69.

3. Chelo Vasquez, The Preacher (GC)
A Tejano unknown, Chelo Vasquez recorded “The Preacher” for the legendary San Antonio producer Manny Guerra’s GC Productions, a label which, in addition to releasing some rare and funky soul sides by Mickey & the Soul Generation, Tortilla Factory, and the Latin Breed, hosted some of the big Tejano names of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

The razor-sharp horn charts on this version of “Watermelon Man” are characteristic of Tejano music. The unstoppable boogaloo rhythms here are, of course, transcendent. As transcendent as you can get with a pair of a tinny speakers and your car’s AM radio in 1969, that is.

4. The Miles Grayson Trio, Sweet Bread (Hill)
Though Los Angeles’s Miles Grayson served as a session pianist on a few of Blue Note Records’ (somewhat ill-fated) West Coast excursions of the late ‘60s, it’s his role as a session arranger and producer for which he’s probably best remembered today. Grayson’s studio time included work with West Coast R&B; and soul musicians like Little Joe Blue, Brenda George, Little Johnny Taylor, Sonny Green and, most of all, the Texas-born, LA-based blues stylist and guitarist Z.Z. Hill.

Grayson would release a handful of obscure instrumental 45s in his spare moments as a bandleader as well. Whether or not the title here is a reference to everybody’s favorite glandular delicacy, Grayson, like so many R&B; and jazz artists, made the connection between savory food and funkiness.

Hill Records was a label that belonged to Z.Z.’s brother Matt Hill, who was that most recherché breed of record industry specialists: the independent label man. span>

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14 Responses to Watermelon Man

  1. Vincent says:

    As always, thanks for the rarities… My Nomad is working overtime.

  2. Anonymous says:

    i was expecting something darker and more psychedelic this week.

  3. Anonymous says:

    fun stuff as always the w. holmes cut has me going – a small aside – have you heard miles grayson’s “home brew”?

    a total monster (v8 engine)

    slow poke

  4. Indeed, SP, I discovered Grayson’s “Home Brew” as I was writing this week’s post. HEAVY DUTY.

  5. Anonymous says:

    life just keeps getting better and better

    hey – texas sized love for all and wide

    speedy aka slow poke aka jorge bush

  6. Anonymous says:

    That Chelo Vasquez track is setting the perfect tone this morning. Loving those crisp horns!

    – Mr. Attention

  7. mbek says:

    thanks for having the good paying job, record addiction, and inclination to blog it. perm links? awesome. -25 year old Matt from california.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the excellent post.

    It’s The Holmes Brothers (not the Wendell Brothers), and they are great.


  9. Whoops – thanks for the tip, Lyle, duly corrected.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Hey that Chelo V track later appeared on a the Return of the Latin Breed LP (?) as Latin Breed Theme or Tema de Latin Breed or something.

  11. Thanks, Anonymous, for the Latin Breed info; I wonder which version came first and what relationship, if any, Vasquez had to the Latin Breed? I’m guessing/hoping that this is the track’s first appearance, and that Guerra, in classic label honcho mode, recycled it for the Latin Breed album.

  12. Todd Lucas says:

    Very nice, wish I’d run across more stuff on the Hill label. To date, all I have are a couple of Sonny Green singles.

    Interestingly, I just picked up a version of “Watermelon Man” over the weekend, by Herrin, Illinois’ Egyptian Combo.

  13. I used to have that version, Todd! I recall the Egyptian Combo (I think I had one other 45 by them, too) with a vague sense of disappointment. Like they always should have sounded more exotic, somehow.

  14. Anonymous says:

    great stuff here,
    please visit my blog for more obscure 45s

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