The Pop History Dig

“Harlem Nocturne”
1939-1980s

“Harlem Nocturne” sheet music cover from Shapiro Bernstein Music Publishers, Hal Leonard Corporation.
“Harlem Nocturne” sheet music cover from Shapiro Bernstein Music Publishers, Hal Leonard Corporation.
     “Harlem Nocturne” is a saxophone-saturated song born in 1939 that has had a long shelf life –a song that found pop fame 20 years, and again nearly 50 years after its first release.  Perhaps most notably the song came to wide popular notice in the early- and mid-1960s in a rendition by a group called The Viscounts.  But “Harlem Nocturne” would rise again in the 1980s, used for the TV series Mike Hammer and a related Hollywood film.  In its musical sojourn, “Harlem Nocturne” became one of those classic and timeless instrumentals that filled the airways and nightclubs over the decades in many cover versions, even to this day.  But the original “Harlem Nocturne” has its roots in late 1930s’ jazz and the big band era.  Here’s some of that lineage.

     Earle Hagen wrote and composed the song, along with Dick Richards.  Hagen played trombone with Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and the Ray Noble Orchestra, where he became an arranger in the late 1930s.  On the road with Noble, Hagen composed “Harlem Nocturne,” and the song became a jazz standard.  Initially, Hagen wrote the song as a tribute to saxophonist Johnny Hodges, known for his solo work with Duke Ellington’s band.  In writing the tune, Hagen had been inspired by Duke Ellington’s band. Johnny Hodges (1907-1970), meanwhile, became a legendary saxophonist

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“Harlem Nocturne” -1959-1966

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     Hagen also intended the piece to be used by Jack Dumont, a saxophonist then with the Ray Noble Orchestra where Hagen worked.  By 1941, “Harlem Nocturne” was also used as a theme song for the Randy Brooks Orchestra.  In 1945, Johnny Otis recorded it as an early single on the Savoy label.  In the early 1950s, saxophonist Herbie Fields released “Harlem Nocturne” as a single, then becoming one of the first popular jazz versions.  And not long after that came a raft of cover versions by virtually every sax player in the R & B business.  According to one source, there may be as many as 500 versions, making it one of the most covered songs in history.  Among the many artists who have covered the song are: Duke Ellington, Harry James, the Glenn Miller Orchestra, the Lounge Lizards, Earl Bostic, Quncy Jones, Boots Randolph, guitarist Danny Gatton, the Ventures, and others.

Cover art for 1965 LP version of “Harlem Nocturne” by The Viscounts, issued on the Amy record label.
Cover art for 1965 LP version of “Harlem Nocturne” by The Viscounts, issued on the Amy record label.
     But it was the Viscounts, a New Jersey band, that put the song on the musical map in a new way in the late 1950s and early 1960s.  The Viscounts were an instrumental quintet consisting of Harry Haller on tenor sax; Bobby Spievak, guitar; Joe Spievak, bass; Larry Vecchio on organ; and Clark Smith on drums.  The Viscounts’ recording of the song in 1959 added a new twist — an eerie guitar echo effect that’s been retained in many subsequent versions.

     The Viscounts’ version was first released on the Madison record label — a New York city label started in 1958.  The Viscounts’ “Harlem Nocturne” was recorded in 1958.  By January 1959, “Harlem Nocturne” was climbing the pop charts and had risen to No.52.  Despite the Viscounts’ mediocre showing with “Harlem Nocturne” on the music charts, it remained one of the most recognizable instrumentals of that era.  The Viscounts, meanwhile, followed with two other instrumentals on the Madison label — “Night Train” and “Wabash Blues.”  Then six or so years passed, and the same Viscounts’ version of “Harlem Nocturne” was reissued on another record label, Amy.  This time, in January of 1966, the song rose to No. 39, cracking the Top 40 for a brief one week stay.  Music critic Dave Marsh includes the Viscounts’ version of “Harlem Nocturne” in his 1999 book, The Heart of Rock & Soul: the 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made.

Screen shot from the 1980s’ TV show “Mike Hammer” with Stacy Keach in the lead role.
Screen shot from the 1980s’ TV show “Mike Hammer” with Stacy Keach in the lead role.
     Earle Hagen, meanwhile, who had written “Harlem Nocturne” in the late 1930s, became quite successful in songwriting for television.  He began writing music for TV shows in 1952 with partner Herbert W. Spencer.  In 1953 while Hagen was writing the music for the Danny Thomas show Make Room for Daddy, he met TV producer Sheldon Leonard.

     Leonard liked the idea of using original soundtracks for his shows rather than canned studio music, and soon made use of Hagen’s talents to produce music for a number of 1960s’ TV shows including: The Andy Griffith Show (1960-68), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961-66), I Spy (1965-68), and The Mod Squad (1968-1973).  But in the 1980s, Hagen returned to his 1930s tune, “Harlem Nocturne,” using it as the signature theme for the television series Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in 1984, and also for the 1986 film, The Return of Mike Hammer.  The version of “Harlem Nocturne” used for the Mike Hammer shows, however, was not the Viscounts’ version. 

One of the few photographs of The Viscounts, on a 1960s compilation album.
One of the few photographs of The Viscounts, on a 1960s compilation album.
     Hagen would later write books on music arranging and scoring, including, Scoring for Films: A Complete Text.  His autobiography, Memoirs of a Famous Composer Nobody Ever Heard Of, was published in 2000.  Hagen died of natural causes in May 2008.  He was 89.

     As for the Viscounts’s history after “Nocturne,” the Pop History Dig has not yet been able to locate more detail on the group, but will update this page as new information is found.  The Viscounts had other songs, of course, including jazzy versions of “Summertime,” “September Song,” and “Sophisti- cated Lady.”  More hard rocking versions of their tunes include “Rock,” “Dig,” “Night Train” and others.  One CD of their music, containing 30 of their songs, is reviewed song-by-song at Reverb Central.com.  For more music stories at this website, visit the “Annals of Music” category page.

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Date Posted:  27 June 2010
Last Update:  27 June 2010
Comments to:  jdoyle@pophistorydig.com

Article Citation:
Jack Doyle, “Harlem Nocturne, 1939-1980s,”
PopHistoryDig.com, June 27, 2010.

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Sources, Links & Additional Information

The Viscounts’ first version of “Harlem Nocturne” on the Madison record label, 1959-1960.
The Viscounts’ first version of “Harlem Nocturne” on the Madison record label, 1959-1960.
Dennis McLellan, Obituaries, “Earle H. Hagen, 1919-2008: Composer of TV Music Won Emmy,” Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2008.

“Earle Hagen,” Wikipedia.org.

Clinton McClung, “42 Versions of Harlem Nocturne,” Blog.WFMU.org, May 29, 2008.  Site includes various cover versions of “Harlem Nocturne” with built-in music players.

“The Man Behind The Theme,” AM, Then FM, May 28, 2008.

Joel Whitburn, The Billboard Book of Top 40 Hits, 8th edition, New York: Billboard Books, 2004, p. 662.

Dave Marsh, The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made, New York: Da Capo Press, 1999, p. 610.

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