Whenever you think of this song, chances are you’ll be thinking Dick Dale and Pulp Fiction? But did you know just how old Misirlou is and the fascinating history behind it??..neither did I!
Misirlou has been covered many times and though it’s unmistakeable tune has reached all over the globe, its origins lie in the Eastern Mediterranean region of the Ottoman Empire. I believe it was first performed by the Michalis Patrinos rebetiko band in Athens, Greece in 1927 and, as with almost all early rebetika songs (a style that originated with the Greek refugees from Asia Minor in Turkey), the song’s actual composer has never been identified (its ownership rested with the band leader). The melody was most likely composed collaboratively by the band, as was often the case at the time; the initial lyrics were almost certainly written by Patrinos himself. Patrinos, who originally lived in Smyrna, named the song Mısırlı or Misirlou which means an Egyptian girl, as opposed to Egyptian Christians who were referred to as ‘Aigyptioi’ in Greek.
Initially, the song was composed as a Greek (Asia Minor) tsifteteli dance, in the rebetiko style of music, at a slower tempo and a different key than the orientalised performances that most are familiar with today. This was the style of the first known recording by Michalis Patrinos in Greece, circa 1930 (which was circulated in the United States by Titos Dimitriadis’ Orthophonic label); a second recording was made by Patrinos in New York, in 1931. In 1941, Nick Roubanis, a Greek-American music instructor, released a jazz instrumental arrangement of the song, crediting himself as the composer. Since his claim was never legally challenged, he is still officially credited as the composer today worldwide, except in Greece where credit is variably given to either Roubanis or Patrinos. Subsequently S. Russell, N. Wise, and M. Leeds wrote English lyrics to the song. Roubanis is also credited with fine-tuning the key and the melody, giving it the oriental sound that it is associated with today.
The song soon became an “exotica” standard among the light swing (lounge) bands of the day. In 1944 maestro Clovis el-Hajj, an Arabic Lebanese musician, performed this song and called it “amal.” This is the only Arabic version of this song. In 1945, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, women’s musical organization asked Professor Brunhilde E. Dorsch to organize an international dance group at Duquesne University to honor America’s World War II allies. She contacted Mercine Nesotas, who taught several Greek dances, including Syrtos Haniotikos (from Crete), which she called Kritikos, but for which they had no music. Because Pittsburgh’s Greek-American community did not know Cretan music, Pat Mandros Kazalas, a music student, suggested the tune Misirlou, although slower, might fit the dance. The dance was first performed at a program to honour America’s allies of World War II at Stephen Foster Memorial Hall in Pittsburgh on March 6, 1945. Thereafter, this new dance, which had been created by putting the Syrtos Kritikos to the slower Misirlou music, was known as “Misirlou” and spread among the Greek-American community, as well as among non-Greek U.S. folk-dance enthusiasts. The dance is also performed to instrumental versions of Never on Sunday by Manos Hadjidakis.
The song was rearranged as a solo instrumental guitar piece by Dick Dale in 1962. During a performance, Dale was bet by a young fan that he could not play a song on only one string of his guitar. Dale’s father and uncles were Lebanese-American musicians, and Dale remembered seeing his uncle play Misirlou on one string of the oud. He vastly increased the song’s tempo to make it into the fiery surf classic it is now!..thanks to Dick Dale’s version this song reached a far wider audience!
The song’s oriental melody has been so popular for so long that many people, from Morocco to Iraq, claim it to be a folk song from their own country. In fact, in the realm of Middle Eastern music, the song is a very simplistic one, since it is little more than going up and down the Hijaz Kar or double harmonic scale (E-F-G#-A-B-C-D#).
The Beach Boys recorded a Dale-inspired Miserlou for the 1963 album Surfin’ USA (a verson I CAN WHOLLY RECOMMEND!!!!!), Hundreds of recordings have been made to date, by performers as diverse as Agent Orange, Connie Francis (1965) and The Trashmen!
Which (eventually) brings me round to today’s version!!! This utterly enchanting rendition dates back to 1961 and was recorded by an artist named Georgia Drake….I love this!! Listen above.