Watermelon Man – The Complete Guide To Herbie Hancock’s Masterpiece

Written by pianist Herbie Hancock, ‘Watermelon Man’ is one of the great ear-worms of jazz. But whilst many know it for its appearance on legendary jazz fusion album Head Hunters in the 1970s, it actually started life a decade earlier…

Watermelon Man is of those tunes that you just can’t get out of your head. A catchy melody, funky rhythm and a healthy dose of the blues with a bit of gospel thrown in; what’s not to like?

With more than 200 versions out there, it’s become something of a jazz standard whose popularity extends far beyond the realms of jazz.

Join us to discover the journey of the song…

The Origins of Watermelon Man

Written specifically as a song which could attract wider commercial interest, the origins stem from Hancocks childhood in Chicago and the sound of the watermelon seller’s cart.

As he mentioned in the book Highway 61 Revisited, “I remember the cry of the watermelon man making the rounds through the back streets and alleys of Chicago. The wheels of his wagon beat out the rhythm on the cobblestones.”

This is no mere conceptual inspiration; you can almost hear the rickety wagon through the drums.

The Anatomy of Watermelon Man

The composition Watermelon Man is essentially a sixteen-bar blues: the first 8 bars mimic a classic blues exactly, whilst the following 8 are an elongated variation of the regular final section.

With its rolling rhythm and catchy piano riff, it showcases influences of soul music, gospel and R&B. Add to that it’s melodic hook, and it’s almost impossible to forget!

Originally performed as a ‘straight-eighths’ latin-rock style groove, it was written in the key of F.

Hint: If you’re a musician looking to start playing this tune, you can find Watermelon Man sheet music via the Herbie Hancock-chaired Jazz Day website here.

Takin’ Off

Herbie Hancock was just twenty-two years old when he wrote and recorded ‘Watermelon Man’ for his debut album Takin’ Off on Blue Note records in May 1962.

The album was committed to tape in a single session, with a slightly surprise line up…

Firstly, there was Freddie Hubbard on trumpet.

Hancock had been working and recording around that time with trumpeter Donald Byrd – including for the album Free Form in 1961 – but decided not to repay the compliment, instead asking Freddie Hubbard to take on trumpet duties.

He did, however, recruit Byrd’s bassist Butch Warren and drummer Billy Higgins to play alongside him in the rhythm section.

Perhaps what raised most eyebrows, though, was the choice of veteran tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. The jazz great was just getting back into playing after a particularly difficult period in his personal life had kept him away from music.

Gordon had recently made his made his ‘comeback’ (a debut for Blue Note entitled Doin’ Allright) which demonstrated the advances he’d made.

As it turned out, Hancock’s choice of each musician was proved entirely correct from the moment they entered Rudy Van Gelder’s studio and started to record the attention-grabbing opening track.

This first recorded version of the tune also features some exceptional solos.

Hubbard’s up first with some long notes, before paraphrasing the melody. His solo combines these long notes with slurs and high note forays before easing back into the middle register and handing over to Dexter Gordon.

The saxophonist’s solo is relaxed, almost laconic, before building in intensity with some split notes and insistent phrases.

On piano, Herbie Hancock’s own solo rolls along at a gentle pace, placing its emphasis on the rhythmic element of his composition.

It is this rhythmic impetus that makes the piece and so compelling, and the misgivings that Hancock had had in advance about drummer Billy Higgins’s ability to handle such a funky tune were ill-founded.

Higgins was so highly regarded as a bebop and hard bop drummer that his versatility may have been overlooked; Hancock later recalled that on the day the drummer played the tune with perfect “funky jazz flavour”.

Blue Note were quick to pick up the potential appeal of the tune and ‘Watermelon Man’ duly became a jukebox favourite.

Birth of the Latin boogaloo

Perhaps what Blue Note hadn’t bargained for however, was that shortly after Herbie’s single of the tune was released, it would be recorded by another artist with even greater success.

Hancock played the tune for Mongo Santamaria when replacing pianist Chick Corea one weekend in the percussionist’s band. Santamaria joined in on congas, followed by the rest of the band.

The groove-laden nature of the music soon had the audience on its feet and Mongo decided to record a radio friendly three-minute version.

Such was the interest in the music that record producer was Orrin Keepnews was keen to get Santamaria and his band back into the studio to re-record the piece to releases as commercial single.

Keepnews’ judgement was sound, as Mongo’s version of ‘Watermelon Man’ reached No. 10 in the Billboard chart and, with its Afro-Cuban rhythms juxtaposed with R&B, is widely regarded as an early example of what would become known as Latin boogaloo.

Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters

Eleven years later, Herbie Hancock would record the tune again for his pioneering and influential album Head Hunters (which we reviewed here).

Recorded in September 1973 this was a very different version from the acoustic one on Takin’ Off.

The jazz rock movement was in full flow and, as a pianist, Hancock was intrigued by the possibilities of not just the electric piano but also the increasing number of synthesisers that were coming on to the market.

With its array of electric sounds, Hancock’s Head Hunters album was destined to become one of the most important jazz fusion albums of the time. The record featured all new Herbie Hancock songs apart from one: a completely rearranged version of ‘Watermelon Man’.

The basic tune remains, along with a funky groove but this time this is enhanced by bass guitar, an altogether different type of drummer in Harvey Mason, and the multiple percussion instruments of Bill Summers, that included the unlikely use of beer bottles in the opening bars.

The bass then picks up the rhythmic impetus along with drums and gradually the familiar theme is revealed by Hancock’s keyboards and the soprano saxophone of Benny Maupin.

The sound is very different from the original, drawing influences from the fusion movement along with contemporary music from the likes of James Brown and Sly Stone.

Eschewing solos as such, the theme along with variations is passed from instrument to instrument, and it is the total performance of the group as opposed to the contribution of individual soloists, that give the music such vitality.


The keyboard maestro would record ‘Watermelon Man’ on just one more occasion, for a live album titled Flood.

A double album recorded live in Tokyo in the summer of 1975, Flood features what has become universally known as The Headhunters band, comprised of Hancock, Bennie Maupin on saxophones, flute and bass clarinet, bassist Paul Jackson and Bill Summers on percussion from the original Head Hunters line-up.

By now a popular crowd-pleaser at concerts, ‘Watermelon Man’ sticks very closely to the 1973 version of the tune and receives instant applause in recognition from the Japanese audience.

The main difference in the sound of the group is the addition of a guitarist in DeWayne “Blackbyrd” McKnight, and an extended soprano solo from Maupin.

The album was originally released in Japan only and not made more readily available in 2014.

For anyone looking to get a more detailed knowledge of the song, it’s essential listening!

Notable Versions of Watermelon Man

With more than 200 covers of Watermelon Man recorded, we’re not short of other notable versions to check out.

The song has been covered by everyone from Quincy Jones and Jon Hendricks to Bill Haley and the Comets.

More recently, excerpts from Hancocks’ 1973 recording of Watermelon Man have been sampled in tracks by Madonna, George Michael, Organised Konfusion and Schoolly D among others.

Looking for more?

Check out our pick of essential Herbie Hancock songs, or check out his position on our list of best jazz piano players in history.

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