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Space Age Pop Songs

The Near Eastern Number


"Misirlou"

Music by Nicholas Roubanis
English words by Fred Wise, Milton Leeds and S.K.Russell
Spanish words by J. Pina

Contrary to popular belief, Dick Dale did not write "Misirlou" (or "Miserlou," as it's also spelled). And it's not strictly a middle Eastern number, unless you stretch the definition to include southeastern Europe. "Misirlou" is, in fact, an Americanization of a traditional Greek song known as Ìéóéñëï. The dance that goes along with this song was also Americanized in "Zorba the Greek" and became the rage of parties for several years after the film's release (I can remember my parents going to a special party dedicated to mastering the dance).

"Misirlou" was published in sheet music form by Nicholas Roubanis in the mid-1930s. Roubanis was a musical scholar who published a book on the liturgy of the Greek Orthodox Church, but various sources also credit Milton Leeds, Fred Wise, Jose Rina, and others. It was a popular number for light classical pianists. Jan August had his first and biggest hit with the tune in the late 1940s, but it was also a hit for sweet band leader Wayne King.

Dick Dale adopted the tune as a virtuouso guitar piece when he began to perform for the southern California beach crowd in the late 1950s. In a later interview, he said he first played it after someone in the audience at the Balboa Ballroom challenged him to play a piece using only one string of the guitar. Dale has also said he knew the tune from growing up among Lebanese relatives and other Middle Eastern immigrant families. "Misirlou" was already well-established as an exotic standard by then, but either inspiration is credible. In any case, Dale's version brought this tune back to popularity in the late 1990s when Quentin Tarantino used it to great effect in his movie, "Pulp Fiction."

Recordings of "Misirlou"

"In a Persian Market" 1920

Music composed by Albert Ketelbey

This was among the most popular "descriptive" musical pieces of the turn of the century--another sheet music hit. The composer, Albert Ketelbey, was best known for these descriptive pieces, and it provided excellent material for pianists and pit orchestras that accompanied silent films with exotic subjects, of which Rudolph Valentino's were only the best remembered.

"Calcutta"

Original melody titled "Tivoli Melody," by Heino Gaze
English words by Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance

A middle/near eastern tune in name only--more accurately, it's actually a piece of Euro-kitsch. A light and bouncy melody, originally written to evoke the amusement park atmosphere of the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. It kicked around Germany for a few years as "Take Me Dreaming," then "Nicolette," until Werner Muller recorded it as "Kalkutta Liegt am Ganges." Randy Wood, president of Dot, played record to his leading band leader, Lawrence Welk, who Americanized it as "Calcutta." Welk's cover featured the novelty of a harpsichord playing the melody, but the song was relegated to a B-side behind the quaint folk song, "My Grandfather's Clock." Distributed to radio stations, the dusty old folk tune was ignored in favor of "Calcutta." The melody caught on and the single shot to #1 in mid-February 1961.

"Istanbul" 1953

Words by Jimmy Kennedy
Music by Nat Simon

"It's Istanbul, not Constantinople now ...." Leave it to Tin Pan Alley to turn centuries of ethnic and religious struggles into a catchy ditty. This song, although copyrighted by Kennedy and Simon, is a direct descendant of the humourous piece, "Al-Bar the Bubul Emir" that could be found in the pages of "Captain Billy's Whizbang," an early 20th century precursor to "Mad Magazine."


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