08 September 2007

Only in Oz (1) Acker Bilk - The Harem

These are records that were hits in Australia but not in Britain or the USA where they originated. They're not Australian records, but they took the fancy of someone at an Australian radio station, got some airplay, and climbed the Aussie charts while remaining obscure in their home countries. More than this, they're records that could have been hits anywhere, they were good enough, but this was not to be. See the whole series here: Only in Oz.

1. Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band - The Harem
(Dorothy Hodas-Mack Wolfson-Eddie Cooper)
UK 1963 

Columbia single (UK) #DB7129.
Columbia single (Australia)  #DO4447

Australian charts: #2 Melbourne, #4 Sydney, #3 Adelaide.

I wrote about The Harem earlier, in connection with Time-out Instrumentals. Then, I said it was a standout amongst Acker Bilk's recordings, a stirring, whirling, percussive instro that builds to a climax.

This track is a bit of a mystery, not least because it is an outstanding instrumental by a popular artist that unaccountably failed to make the same splash on the British charts as it did in Australia.

Acker Bilk had ten Top 40 hits in the UK between 1960 and 1963, but this wasn't one of them. His Stranger On The Shore was a big hit everywhere (#2 UK, #1 USA) and he was popular in the MOR instrumental market. The odd thing is, Acker Bilk's countless albums and reissues have never been hard to find in the bargain bins, but I've never found The Harem on any of them.

A 1963 single of The Harem by Don Costa and his Orchestra on US Columbia #42705 is the same work, and appears to be the original version.

The authoritative 45cat.com has Don Costa's US release at April 1963, Acker Bilk's UK release at October 1963. It is an American composition, copyrighted in the US in March 1963. [Updated 20 Dec 2016]

We do know something about the writers' other works, thanks in part to ASCAP's database:
Mack Wolfson (aka Maxwell A. Wolfson) built up a fair repertoire in the 50s and 60s. He often wrote with the prolific Tin Pan Alley composer Eddie White (Edward R. White)*, for example on Happiness Street (Corner Sunshine Square), recorded by Georgia Gibbs and Tony Bennett (both versions charted in 1956); C'est La Vie, a much-recorded song that was a #11 hit for Sarah Vaughan in 1955; Crazy Otto Rag by Johnnie 'Crazy Otto' Maddox, a co-write with the famous Hugo & Luigi that was heard in the film Reds; and Smarty Pants, on disco group First Choice's 1973 debut album.

Eddie Cooper, not so prolific, also wrote with Eddie White: of his 13 compositions at ASCAP, 6 were co-writes with White. (There are 4 additional Eddie Cooper songs listed at BMI.)

Dorothy Hodas
(full name Dorothy Gertrude Hodas) has only one other song in her ASCAP repertoire, Love Of My Life, and that was written with Mack Wolfson and, yes, Eddie White.
The Harem could be a faux-Eastern genre piece, but it sounds as if it could be based on a folk tune. I believe I hear something reminiscent of Hava Nagila.

(UPDATE: See the comment below from Anonymous who suggests the Turkish song Usku Dara as a source. Listen to Eartha Kitt's famous version at Youtube.)

ASCAP shows an alternative title, The Harem: Schoene Geschic, which may or may not be a clue. Could Geschic be a database or dialectic truncation of Geschichte? Schoene Geschichte means Beautiful Story.

There are at least two 1960s guitar versions of The Harem, by Rotterdam instrumental group The Explosions (1964), and by New Zealand guitarist Graeme Bartlett, better known as Gray Bartlett (1963 or 64).

Acker Bilk & His Paramount Jazz Band - The Harem.mp3

Chart positions from Gavin Ryan's Australian chart books.
Could this be the same Edward R. (Eddie) White (1919-1996), a New Yorker listed at IMDb in some bit parts?

Dutch sleeveshot from plaatzegel.nl.


Peter M. White said...

This is the same "Eddie White" also known as Broadway Eddie White. He owned Whiteway Music, Sally Music and Langely Music. When he retired, he went into acting, doing things with Dustin Hoffman and even had a bit part in the movie "Killer Elite" with Robert Duval. He wrote an autobiographical book called "Yesterdays Cake". He often talked of his friendship with Rocky Graziano. My father passed away in Oct, 1996.
Peter M. White
PO Box 5352
Salt Springs, FL. 32134

Lyn Nuttall said...

Yes, I have "Yesterday's Cake"! I bought it after I heard from John Sprung, whose dad knew Eddie and is mentioned in Eddie's book. I should've updated this post with a link to the follow-up, but here it is: http://poparchivesblog.blogspot.com/2007/11/yesterdays-cake-eddie-whites.html

steveo said...

Thanks for info on this obscure song..it is indeed a swirly instrumental, reminicent of some middle eastern thing...
I've only heard DOn's version..never heard Aker's, but all the things you surmise about this sounds very reasonable...

Steve "Steveo" Owen

Lyn Nuttall said...

Steve: Click on the green words "Acker Bilk & His Paramount Jazz Band - The Harem.mp3" in the post to listen to Acker's version.

rex "steveo" mojo said...

Checked out Aker's version...very nice! It "vies" with Costa's version...Costa was an expert at arraging for voices, so I like Costa's voices better...but for the all around feel, Aker's gets my vote!

Anonymous said...

It's a version of Turkish "folk" song Usku Dara, as made famous by Eartha Kitt.
NB - Acker Bilk played this on the Tommy Cooper show surrounded by harem lovelies (no date on video, sugest 1964-66)

Lyn Nuttall said...

That's really interesting, thanks for bringing it up. I know "Usku Dara" well, if only through Eartha Kitt, and I listened again yesterday. I can hear the similarities, certainly in style, but there are some marked differences too. It seems reasonable to suggest that "The Harem" was based on, or inspired by it, but it's not exactly the same melody. I have a feeling you'll disagree!

Lyn Nuttall said...

PS (to Anonymous): I've updated the main post to mention "Usku Dara".

Adam Smith said...

I came across Acker Bilk's version on a tape of a BBC radio programme: ep 1 of The Public Ear, transmitted 6 Oct 1963. It includes a profile of Mr Bilk, with interview, followed by this track. The producer, John Fawcett Wilson, was very musical(Royal College pianist)and took extreme care piecing this first edition together.