In this episode we take a look at the history of one of the most recognized and widely covered surf songs -- Misirlou.
We trace the song from its origin as a middle eastern folk song in the 1920's through to its re-invention as a modern day surf classic from Dick Dale, to its impact on cinema goers as the theme song for Quentin Tarantino's 1994 film Pulp Fiction.
The musical history of Misirlou is really three stories rolled into one: it is a folk song from the Eastern Mediterranean region, with origins in the Ottoman Empire, A standard in modern popular song and a Surf music classic.
=============== Artist: Dick Dale and his Del Tones Song Name: Misirlou Twist Year: 1962
Note: Surfers’ Choice is the debut studio album of Dick Dale and his Del-Tones, pioneers in the surf genre. The album was released in November 1962. The recording established the conventions of surf music and brought the concept to middle America. The album was mostly recorded live at the Rendezvous Ballroom, located on the beach of Balboa Peninsula in Orange County, Southern California, between Los Angeles and San Diego,with overdubs such as the string arrangements added in the studio.
“Misirlou”, is loosely translated as “Egyptian Girl”. It was a swaying, erotic folk song performed in the rebetiko style that was popular among Greek Anatolians. What is Rebetiko? The short answer is best described as the urban popular song of the Greeks, especially the poorest, from the late 19th century onwards.
The original author of the song is not known, but Arabic, Greek and Jewish musicians were all performing the song by the 1920s. The song's Oriental melody has been so popular for such a long time, that the peoples, of Morocco to Iraq, each claim it to be a national folk song from their own country.
The earliest known recording of Misirlou is from 1927 by the rebetiko musician Theodotos ("Tetos") Demetriades. Demetriades, was an Ottoman Greek, was born in Istanbul, Ottoman Empire, in 1897, where he resided until he immigrated to the United States in 1921. His departure from Istanbul, like so many others, coincided with a period when most of the Greek speaking population fled the emerging Turkish state. Demetriades named the song "Misirlou" on this original 1927 Columbia records recording, the name which actually derives from a Greek assimilation, having borrowed the regional pronunciation of "Egyptian" in Turkish. “Misirlou”, is loosely translated as “Egyptian Girl”.
=============== Artist: Theodotos ("Tetos") Demetriades Song Name: Misirlou Year: 1927
Nikos Roubanis who worked with Demetriades on the 1927 version, later submitted a copyright claim to the music in 1934. Roubanis is credited for changing the original melody to a more Oriental tone.
Some web sites have incorrectly claimed that "Misirlou" was written in 1919 by a legendary Egyptian music composer, Sayed Darwish. The claim is based on the fact that a Darwish song title, ”Bint Misr" exists, using the Arabic for "Egyptian Girl". Apparently, because both "Bint Misr" and "Misirlou" mean "Egyptian Girl" in English, many speculated that they might be the same song.
However, the two songs are very different from each other. This performance of the song "Bint Misr" by Sayed Darwish shows that it sounds nothing like "Misirlou".
=============== Artist: Salma Sabahy Song Name: Bent Masr Year: 2015
-------------------------- While the Misirlou encapsulates an ancient melody spanning centuries, it has entered the cultural canon of popular song several times during our modern musical history.
The Big band and swing era were fertile ground for the exotic rhythms of Misirlou. Bands like Woody Herman, Arturo Arturo, Wayne King and His Orchestra, and Freddy Martin and His Orchestra all recorded versions of Misirlou in an attempt to bring the exotic sounds of far away worlds to the dance floors of America.
=============== Artist: Xavier Cugat and His Orchestra Song Name: Misirlou Year: 1943
Note: This version showcases not only the essence of his style but also the breadth of technique and creative development which drove Xavier’s success. He was a colourful, larger-than life personality, which is exemplified in his celebration of Latin exotica. In contrast to earlier versions of Misirlou, Xavier adds cuban rhythms and greater sense of drama and grandiosity.
=============== Artist: Harry James Song Name: Misirlou Year: September 8, 1941
Note: Harry James was a Big Band leader in addition to being a very competent trumpet player. He was especially known among musicians for his technical proficiency as well as his tone, and was influential on new trumpet players from the late 1930s into the 1940s. He recorded for Columbia records and this song peaked at No. 22 on the U.S. chart.
=============== Artist: Ted Heath and Edmundo Ros and His Orchestra Song Name: Misirlou Year:
Note: Heath led what is widely considered Britain's greatest post-war big band, recording more than 100 albums, which sold over 20 million copies. The most successful band in Britain during the 1950s, it remained in existence as a ghost band long after Heath died, surviving in such a form until 2000.
A very hard to find album, as are most the Phase 4 series. The Decca Phase 4 Stereo Concert Series record producers, especially in America, were eager to maximize the effects achievable with stereo sound. While RCA replaced Living Stereo with Dynagroove, Decca’s American subsidiary (London Records) initiated Phase 4 in 1962.
=============== Artist: Leon Merian and His Mood Recording Orchestra Song Name: Misirlou Year:
Note: Dizzy Gillespie described his playing as "One of the most beautiful sounds you'll ever hear." The legendary New York trumpeter and showman takes a turn at interpreting Misirlou in a style that would lay the groundwork for the over the top beautiful music versions to come. Be sure to check out his autobiography “Leon Merian, The Man Behind The Horn” --------------------------
=============== Artist: Esquivel and His Orchestra Song Name: Misirlou Year: 1959 Note: Juan García Esquivel often simply known as Esquivel!, was a Mexican band leader, pianist, and composer for television and films. He is recognized today as one of the foremost exponents of a sophisticated style of largely instrumental music that combines elements of lounge music and jazz with Latin flavors. Esquivel is considered one of the foremost exponents of a style of late 1950s-early 1960s quirky instrumental pop that became known (in retrospect) as "Space Age Bachelor Pad Music".
=============== Artist: Vince Guaraldi Song Name: Misirlou Year: 1963
Note: He was an American jazz pianist noted for his innovative compositions and arrangements as well as for composing music for animated television adaptations of the Peanuts comic strip, as well as his performances on piano as a member of Cal Tjader's 1950s ensembles and for his own solo career. Guaraldi went on to compose scores for seventeen Peanuts television specials. Misirlou was recorded for the album In Person.
=============== Artist: Connie Francis Song Name: Misirlou Year: 1965
Note: is an American pop singer, former actress, and top-charting female vocalist of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Although her chart success waned in the second half of the 1960s, Francis remained a top concert draw.
From her album “Sings The All Time International Hits” released on MGM records and reflected a trend of singing international songs which she started in 1959 when she released Connie Francis Sings Italian Favorites.
Nonetheless its current recognition as the theme song for Quinten Terratino’s motion picture Pulp Fiction, is really the song’s third time around as it were. While Dick Dale’s version of the lusty homage to a young girl’s honeyed lips begin life in 1962 as the anthem for the ‘surfers’ stomp’ movement, he may not have been the first artist of the Rock & Roll period to have reimagined it as the classic we know today. Moreover, his version, may not be the quintessential version either.
Let’s look at the moment Misirlou went Rock & Roll.
=============== Artist: Jan August and His Rhythm Stylists Song Name: Misirlou Year: 1946
Note: This was a Diamond Records 78rpm release that attained the number 7 spot on the Billboard charts that year.
=============== Artist: Johnny and the Hurricanes Song Name: Misirlou Year: March 1962
Note: Johnny and the Hurricanes were an American instrumental rock and roll band from Toledo, Ohio, United States. They specialized in adapting popular traditional melodies into the rock idiom, using organ and saxophone as their featured instruments. Between 1959 and 1961, the group had a number of hits in both the US and the UK. They specialised in versions of old tunes updated with a rock and roll beat. Their choice of material was based upon an the understanding that familiar songs would be more easily accepted when set to a Rock & Roll rhythm.
Their version of Misirlou was actually the “B” side of their first 1962 single "Salvation”.
His song “Let’s Go Trippin’,” which he started playing that summer, is now widely considered the very first surf-rock song. He recorded it in September, and it reached No. 60 on the Hot 100.
Dale’s re-imagining of Misirlou as a modern day homage to the pursuit of surfing communicates an extraordinary amount of menace. Surfing is an alluring sport in part because it combines recklessness with grace. Dick Dale attempted to bring the savagery of the Pacific Ocean to music.
As Amanda Petrusich from The New Yorker said in her 2019 article about Dick Dale:
As far as subgenres go, surf rock is fairly specialized: the term refers to instrumental rock music made in the first half of the nineteen-sixties, in southern California, in which reverb-laden guitars approximate, in some vague way, the sound of a crashing wave.
=============== Artist: Dick Dale and The Del-Tones Song Name: Misirlou Year: April 1962
Note: This version is much less orchestrated and relies more heavily upon Dale’s raging guitar work. Dick Dales approach was to use the way that the guitars are played, the technique of fast double-picking recreating a rushing water feel. On top of that, the surf guitar amplifiers created a reverb effect that mimics the sound of being underwater. The whammy bar would be used as a way to create wave-like effects to top everything all off, making the perfect surfing tunes.
Ironically, this version was originally a single release and did not appear on any of the initial studio albums by Dick Dale and The Del-Tones. Dale's version was influenced by the folk version played with an oud. The oud is a short-neck lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument with 11 or 13 strings grouped in 5 or 6 courses.
=============== Artist: Beach Boys Song Name:
Year: 1963 Note: The Beach Boys recorded a Dale-inspired "Misirlou" for the 1963 album Surfin' U.S.A., solidifying "Misirlou" as a staple of American pop culture.
=============== Artist: Bobby Fuller Four Song Name: Misirlou Year:
Note: KRLA King of the Wheels is the first album from The Bobby Fuller Four. The release was on Mustang Records in November 1965 and was sold both in stereo and mono formats. Although recorded, Misirlou didn’t appear until the 1990 re-issue of the album on CD by Ace Records. Easily the ultimate version of Dick Dale's classic, Bobby's guitar shreds like no other and trumps Dick's original. Look up the Cowabunga Surf Box Set for Bobby’s live version of Misirlou which is just as impressive.
Unfortunately, even though surf music had an easy rise to popularity, it fell hard once the British Invasion hit the shores of America in 1964. The British invasion and the rise of musicians like The Beatles took over the scene completelyrelegating surf music to a forgotten place in the musical cannon of Rock & Roll, not seeing a rediscovery and resurgence until 20 some years later.
=============== Artist: Cobra Express Song Name: Misirlou Year: 2018
Note: Powerful, surf rock from Germany!
=============== Artist: The Thurston Lava Tube Song Name: Misirlou Year: 2006
Note: a psychedelic, experimental surf instrumental band from Leicester, England. From the 2006 album The Thoughtful Sounds of Bat Smuggling --------------------------
=============== Artist: Buck-O-Nine & Agent Orange Song Name: Misirlou Year: 1996
Note: Water in My Head is a Buck-O-Nine EP released in 1996 on Taang! Records, and features a recording of the classic Greek folk song Miserlou, recorded with members of Agent Orange --------------------------
=============== Artist: Valeron Song Name: Misirlou (Derun Remix) Year: 2019
Note: Generally recognized as the top DJ on the island of Mykonos, Valeron is definitely one of the longest standing and most omnipresent figures of the ever-shifting local music scene.Soon after relocating to Mykonos, he became a producer releasing tracks that helped register his name in the Deep House and Electronic genre.
-------------------------- “Misirlou” returned to origins and its former glory when during the closing ceremony of the Athens 2004 Olympics, it was sung by Greek singer Anna Vissi.