Day 217: “The Sheik of Araby”

When was it recorded?   Jan. 1, 1962

When was it first released, and on which album?   Nov. 21, 1995 on “Anthology 1”

Who wrote it?   Harry B. Smith, Ted Snyder, and Francis Wheeler

Have I heard this song before?   No

What my research dug up:

American composer Ted Snyder wrote the music for “The Sheik of Araby” while Harry B. Smith and Francis Wheeler wrote the lyrics. The trio wrote and published the song in 1921; according to Wikipedia, “It was composed in response to the popularity of the Rudolph Valentino feature film ‘The Sheik.’” Wikipedia also notes Clyde Doerr’s Club Royal Orchestra recorded what is probably the first widely available version on Nov. 2, 1921. It’s instrumental only, for obvious reasons.

While originally more a vaudeville/musical theatre type song, “The Sheik of Araby” became popular with American jazz bands and became a Tin Pan Alley standard. Quoth Wikipedia, “The ‘Araby’ in the title refers to Arabia or the Arabian Peninsula. The appeal to New Orleans bands may have lain in ‘Araby’ sharing the same pronunciation as Arabi, Louisiana, a town downriver from New Orleans’ 9th Ward and a center for gambling just outside city limits until the early 1950s.”

According to the Beatles Bible, the Fab Four “based their arrangement on a rock ‘n’ roll version released by Joe Brown and The Bruvvers in 1961.” Alas, I couldn’t find a version of it on any of my usual haunts.

“In those days a lot of the rock ‘n’ roll songs were actually old tunes from the Forties, Fifties or whenever, which people had rocked up. That was the thing to do if you didn’t have a tune: just rock up an oldie.” — George Harrison (Anthology)

The Beatles Bible noted, “George Harrison was a big fan of Brown, and sang lead vocals on The Beatles’ version.”

If you noticed the date this was recorded and connected some dots, you’ve already figured out this song was part of the Beatles’ failed Decca audition. The group (then with Pete Best on percussion) often performed “The Sheik of Araby” in their live shows, and Brian Epstein chose “selections from their live show of the time which he thought would be most palatable to the talent-spotters at Decca” (BB).

Quoth the Beatles Bible, “Although ‘The Sheik Of Araby’ had proved a popular number onstage in Liverpool and Hamburg, in the studio it lacked much of the character that had endeared it to audiences.”

I have to say… researching this whole post was bizarre from start to finish.  Smith and Snyder are in the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame but there’s like one site on the whole web for Wheeler?  The first definitive recorded version of “The Sheik” doesn’t use the lyrics?  The version the Beatles based their cover on can’t be found?  I swear to God every single version of this song I listened to was different.  No two bands performed it the same way, which is cool from an interpretive art perspective but not so much when I’m trying to compare versions.  That said, I think the Beatles’ version is pretty good.  It sounds rapid, kind of like “OK, let’s get this one over with” (maybe due to nerves?), but it’s not bad.




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