Percussionist/ethnomusicologist Bill Summers played a key role in shaping Herbie Hancock’s 1973 groundbreaking and platinum-selling Head Hunters record. Here, he reveals how “Watermelon Man” came about.
“I found a job in 1968 at a race track so I could still play music at night. There was a guy who worked shining shoes. Employees could not bet on races, so this guy was like a bookie. One day I bet a daily double. Both horses won, I threw the dishes up in the air, quit the job on the spot, pocketed thousands of dollars, and two days later I was in California.
I went to Merritt College and from there I went to UC Berkeley. My group Bata Koto, who did diasporic stuff, opened for Herbie Hancock. I think my audition process with Herbie had to do with my knowledge of ancient sounds, which was not the norm in jazz.
Shortly thereafter he said he wanted me to be in his new band. The first recording we did was the album called Head Hunters. When I was a kid, one of my favorite songs was his “Watermelon Man,” covered by Mongo Santamaria. Harvey Mason suggested we do a new arrangement of it. We went to a place called Funky Jack’s—a 24 track studio in an apartment.
I told Herbie, ‘I want you to hear something,’ and played him some music from the pygmies, which I’d been studying. They had an instrument called the hindewhu. He said, ‘That’s the deepest shit I ever heard.’ I said, ‘I have a composition that I’ve done based on this technique.’
The pygmies had a little cane pipe that only produced one note. You blow that note, but then you create a lot of things around it with your voice. I cut bamboo to the pitch that I wanted it to be. There are five layered parts. For the main melody, I didn’t have the note I needed, so I got a beer bottle and filled it ’til it reached above middle C. That came back to haunt me, because now people think I’m doing all this with a beer bottle.
I brought something to the table that was new and fresh. I have one foot in 2,000 BC and another foot in 2,000 AD. The focus of my studies in school and before was African music. It wasn’t anything that was popular at the time. It was my love.
The song’s an important part of my history. It’s like a signature. The trick to it is do you know enough about the traditional uses of the instrument and do you know enough about new music to be able to apply these sounds? That’s the key.”
Bill Summers & Jazalsa play on Sunday, May 7 at 1:50p on the Jazz & Heritage Stage.