Monday, July 27, 2009

My summer in Harlem

The closest I came to Harlem growing up was the Globetrotters. Then I heard a song that transported me from my small midwestern town, deep into the dark and troubled neighborhood of New York City.

This was the Sixties, and what we had heard of Harlem in our safe, lily-white community -- stories of crime, drugs and racial unrest -- was frightening even to consider.

"Harlem Nocturne'' only added to the mystery. The song, featuring an eerie vibrato lead-in and a raucously seductive saxophone, put you on a creaky summer porch in the big city. And from that uneasy perch you were able to contemplate a world you never actually experienced or knew.

The version I owned was a 45 RPM by the Viscounts, released around 1965-66. Where it came from I can only imagine. The song was written in 1939 by Earle Hagen, who was better known as a composer of television theme songs -- including the memorable whistling tune for "The Andy Griffith Show.''

Horn players of every ilk, as well as guitarists and vibraphonists, have added their personal touches to "Harlem Nocturne'' through the years. You'll even find a ukulele version on YouTube. But none, to my untrained ear, matches the Viscounts' memorable spin. Hear it now.

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