Spanish Harlem

Album: Spanish Harlem (1960)
Charted: 10


  • Spanish Harlem is a section of New York City with a large Latino population and a rich cultural heritage. This song is about a rose that grows through the concrete in the city, always shaded from the sun. The singer is enchanted by this beautiful flower and dreams of taking it to his garden.

    The rose is likely a metaphor for a girl - one who is "soft and sweet and dreaming."
  • This was one of the first songs written by the legendary producer Phil Spector. He wrote it with Jerry Leiber, the lyricist of the famous songwriting team Leiber and Stoller. Spector learned his craft working with Leiber and Stoller, and quickly made a name for himself as a top producer.

    Spector was an apprentice of sorts to Leiber and Stoller, who took him on as a favor to their music publisher, Lester Still. After a few months, the duo agreed to write a song with him. According to Leiber, they decided to meet at his house at 6:30, and Spector showed up at 5:00. Stoller was having dinner with his family and running late; by the time he was ready to come over, Leiber and Spector had finished the song.
  • According to Jerry Leiber, who was the lyricist, he had the idea for this song long before Phil Spector came to his house to write it. Since the song was about a rose in Spanish Harlem, he wanted the music to have a Spanish flavor, so he played Spector some music from his collection, including works by Andrés Segovia and Maurice Ravel.

    "He started to play a melody that was like Jeff Barry rock and roll. Sort of jazzy and wrong," Leiber said in the book More Songwriters on Songwriting. "I played him two or three of those pieces. He has a good ear, and he picked up something in there. I think he even picked up a three or four-bar lick in one of the pieces that were in the strings. And we wrote it together."
  • This was the first single Ben E. King released as a solo artist - he left The Drifters after complaining of low wages. The song became the title track of his first solo album, which had a Spanish theme, with songs like "Besame Mucho" and "Perfidia."
  • King recorded this in the same sessions as "Stand By Me," which would be his next release and biggest hit.
  • This was released as a double A-side with "First Taste Of Love."
  • Aretha Franklin's version hit #2 US in 1971. Dr. John played organ on her track. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Christine - Chicago, IL
  • The Gospelaires, who were a vocal trio including a pre-fame Dionne Warwick, sang backup on this. >>
    Suggestion credit:
    Bertrand - Paris, France
  • In Hound Dog: The Leiber & Stoller Autobiography, Jerry Leiber gives a rather dark account of how Phil Spector came to work with them. Sent by their mentor Lester Sill as the new whiz-kid on the block, Leiber refers to Phil Spector as if he were a millstone hanging around their neck. Jerry Leiber says, "He wore his ambition like a topcoat; it was all over him." And, "Phil was like a puppy dog, except he wasn't especially lovable. Everywhere I went he would follow."

    In 2009 Spector was convicted of murdering the actress Lana Clarkson in 2003.

Comments: 18

  • Seventhmist from 7th HeavenFranklin's cover of this song was terrific. The one from the Mamas and the Papas was a bit too restrained, but I like it, too.
  • Cecil from CambridgeI like the Mama's and Papa's cover, though I've never heard the original
  • Kent from Pittsfield, IlThis song informed the first verse of Elton John's "Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters." Bernie Taupin's lyrics seem to answer the question of roses in NYC, "And now I know Spanish Harlem are not just pretty words to say/I thought I knew/ But now I know that rose trees never grow/ In New York City."
  • Bernard from LavalThe 1st notes to Spanish Harlem certainly are identical to part of Britten's Ceremony of Carols where they sing ''There is no rose of such virtue.'' Thanks so much to Ronald for telling us about that. Songs, and instrumentals, are sometimes taken, in whole or in part, from other pieces of music without credit given. The Star Trek theme is identical to White Goddess by Frank Hunter. You can hear it on You Tube. Why he didn't sue is a mystery. Part of Coeur blessé by Petula Clake is the same as part of High Noon. You can hear that too on You Tube.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn November 30th 1962, Ben E. King appeared at the Town Hall in New York City...
    During the calendar year of 1962 he had three Top 100 records; "Ecstasy" {#56}, "Don't Play That Song" {#11}, and "Too Bad" {#88}...
    Between 1960 and 1986, as a solo artist, he had twenty-two Top 100 records; four made the Top 10, "Spanish Harlem" {#10 on March 13th, 1961}, "Stand By Me" {#4 in 1961}, "Supernatural Thing" {#5 in 1975}, and due to the popularity of the 1986 movie 'Stand By Me', the record "Stand By Me" re-entered the Top 100 and peak at #9 {for 2 weeks} on December 14th, 1986.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyBen E. King died on May 1st, 2015 at the age of 76.
    May he R.I.P.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn April 2nd 1961, the 'Biggest Show of Stars for 1961' tour played at the Uline Arena* in Washington, DC...
    One of acts to appear was Ben E. King; and at the time his debut record, "Spanish Harlem", was at #24 on Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart, one month earlier on March 12th, 1961 it would peak at #10 {for 1 week} and spent 16 weeks on the Top 100...
    It reached #15 on Billboard's R&B Singles chart...
    Another act on the bill was his former group, The Drifters, and the group's "Some Kind of Wonderful" was at #46 on the time...
    * The Uline Arena was also the venue for the Beatles' first concert in the U.S.A.; they appeared there on February 11th, 1964 {two days after their debut appearance on the 'The Ed Sullivan Show'.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn July 25th 1971, "Spanish Harlem" by Aretha Franklin entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #69; and on September 5th, 1971 it peaked at #2 {for 2 weeks} and spent 12 weeks on the Top 100 {and for 6 of those 12 weeks it was on the Top 10}...
    And on August 22nd, 1971 it reached #1 {for 3 weeks} on Billboard's R&B Singles chart...
    The two weeks it was at #2 on the Top 100, the #1 record for both those weeks was another cover song, "Go Away Little Girl", by Donny Osmond {in January 1963 Steve Lawrence also took the original version to #1}...
    In December 1965 King Curtis' instrumental covered version entered the Top 100, it stayed on the chart for 5 weeks, peaking at #89.
  • Raunchy from Tulsa, OkA great hit for Ben E. King from 1960. I loved it, but my oldest brother bought the single & gave it to his girlfriend after a few months of playing (it was actually worn out by that time!!!). I noticed that your Billboard ranking it at #10, but in 1960 in my area a few radio stations in Tulsa had it at #5. All I recall is that it got a lot of airplay on the radios. Love that rhythm! It's co-written with the great Phil Spector too.
  • Ronald from Arnhem, NetherlandsIf you ever wondered where the writers found the inspiration for this particular song, have a listen to this: - at around 3'10". It's an old Christian poem called 'There is no rose of such virtue' set to music by the famous British composer Benjamin Britten. The resemblance in the opening line is striking; in fact, the first six notes are exactly the same in (relative) pitch and placement. That alone could pass for coincidence, but when you take the lyrics into account, things begin to look suspicious...
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyThis song entered the Billboard charts on 12-31-1960, the last day of the year. The flip-side, 'The First Taste of Love' also charted, peaking at #53!!!
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyBruce Springsteen performed this song in three concerts; 1st. 10-18-1974, Capitol Theatre, Passiac, NJ 2nd. 10-19-1974, Union College, Schenectady, NY 3rd. 10-20-1974, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA
  • Susanna from Los Angeles, Cadid you know that the song spanish harlem was bobby kennedy s favorite song, he talked about this the night he was shot in l.a. at the Ambassador hotel, i was with 2 porta ricans, and he thanked them for helping with his run for pres. i never for got this..
  • Mikael from Helsinki, FinlandIn Frederick Forsyth's novel "The Dogs of War" (1974), the main chacter, mercenary Cat Shannon, has the custom of whistling "Spanish Harlem" whenever he goes into battle or returns from battle.

    - Mikael, Helsinki, Finland
  • Mike from Knoxville, TnIf I'm not mistaken, back in 1961, there were several (if not many) pop/rock stations that refused to play this record as well as display it on their weekly printed surveys....rumored to be too racially charged for the white audience.
  • Teresa from Mechelen, BelgiumCorrection : This song is written by Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber, produced by Leiber and Stoller (Ben E. King said for 95 %, so there's still 5 % left to Phil Spector). You can find this song on Phil Spector's "Back to Mono". I have this
    cd-box and I can tell you that it's GREAT. Love you Phil Spector!
  • Teresa from Mechelen, BelgiumA very beautiful song of Phil Spector and Jerry Leiber, produced by Phil Spector, to listen to this song is a joy forever.
  • Sammy from New York, NyThis song is extremely beautiful and I like the way it is sung by Ben E. King. It's nice to have a positive song about a neighborhood that usually gets a bad reputation. This song also reminds of West Side Story, which I think was released two years afterward.
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