Rudolph Valentino is not amused
If you and everyone you knew had to make a list of what you thought were the top five most covered songs, nobody would guess “The Sheik of Araby.” The song was written in 1921 by Harry Beasley Smith, Francis Wheeler, and Ted Snyder and to date has been published in over 100 recordings.
Harry Beasley Smith wrote songs recorded by legends such as Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and countless others. It initially seems mysterious why “The Sheik of Araby,” a kitschy jazz composition, caught on and continues to be recorded.”The Sheik of Araby” was popular in it’s own time, garnering a mention in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The somber, melancholy tone of the novel is a stark contrast to the upbeat song and much of the jazz music of the 1920s.
In a similar contrast, the song was written as a parody of the Rudolph Valentino silent film “The Sheik” and accompanied the 1942 Spike Jones parody. The tune is more akin to the soundtrack for a Marx Brothers film than the dramatic, tension filled notes of a silent film pianist. The actor took special care not to stereotype Arabs with the title role while Smith, Snyder and Wheeler turned him into a hepcat who snuck into a lady’s tent after dark.
The seediness of “The Sheik of Araby” was ramped up a few years after it was written in a version that was banned from radio. Don Albert recorded the song in the mid 30s with his signature addition of yelling “with no pants on” between lines. Radio not only wrote off the song, but banned the 78 that included the innocuous “You Don’t Love Me” on the reverse. The public eagerly snapped copies up. Don Albert continued his rebellion, this time against racial tensions, as an integrated nightclub owner with a victorious legal battle in 1951 upholding his right to operate.
If you’re George Harrison or Decca Records, you might think the recorded history of the song carries a Valentino curse. On the first day of 1962, The Beatles auditioned for Decca records in a recording studio. Among the 15 songs recorded that day only one was a Lennon/McCartney original. George Harrison took the lead on Billy Rose’s re-written version of “The Sheik of Araby.” Decca passed and signed The Tremelos instead. The Tremelos went on to cover other people, including The Beatles, for the rest of their career. The Beatles went on to recruit Ringo and, well, be The Beatles. Their recording of the song didn’t hear the light of day by the masses until it was released in The Beatles Anthology series in 1995.
The radical spirit of the song propelled it outside it’s time as a well known jazz standard. Harry Connick Jr. spit-shined “The Sheik of Araby” in his 2007 recording for Oh, My NOLA with some proceeds going to the post-Katrina Musician’s Village program in New Orleans. The mass appeal lies in it’s rebellion. Something as tame as singing “with no pants on” between lines would no more be banned from radio today than a version of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” with shouts of “like Pinocchio.” However, even in it’s original version, the song used a popular art form (jazz) to make fun of something that seemed out of place (earnest silent films) in the rapidly changing culture of the American Jazz Age and beyond.
Leon Redbone performing “The Shiek of Araby” in concert this year.