#498- Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters- 1973

The Artist:

Herbie Hancock was born in Chicago, Illinois in 1940.  A child prodigy on the piano, as early as 11 years old Hancock was playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

After college, Hancock played with a few jazz greats such as Coleman Hawkins, Oliver Nelson, and Phil Woods.  His work got the attention of those at the legendary jazz label, Blue Note, and in 1962 Herbie Hancock released his debut album Takin’ Off.

Takin’ Off contained Hancock’s “Watermelon Man” which became a hit for Hancock and a cover version released the same year by Mongo Santamaria made it to the top 10 on Billboard’s Hot 100.  The tune would quickly become a jazz standard and as we will see, would be re-recorded by Hancock in the future.

Takin’ Off caught the attention of a fellow Blue Note artist.  The biggest Jazz artist in the world at the time, Miles Davis.  Davis was assembling what would be called “The Second Great Quintet.”  Herbie was invited to join as the pianist.

Miles Davis: Never not cool

They recorded some of the most influential free jazz albums of the 1960’s. By 1968 the group started going their separate ways.

In 1969, Herbie Hancock left the Blue Note label and signed a deal with Warner Brothers.  He had put together a sextet for his new label and had plans to change the music he was doing into a more electric sound, adding funk and rock bits to be part of the jazz fusion movement going on at the time

His first album under the Warner Brothers contract was actually a soundtrack album, Fat Albert Rotunda. It was mostly comprised of music that was composed for the 1969 animated TV special “Hey, Hey, Hey It’s Fat Albert.”

It is a cool album, a fantastic blend of R&B, jazz, and funk.  It is definitely not what you would expect from the soundtrack a children’s animated TV special.

On a side note, the Fat Albert special, seems to be completely unavailable to watch anywhere. Supposedly, it is an animated retelling of some of Bill Cosby’s standup comedy which used actual filmed footage of Philadelphia as the animation background with the animation drawn over it.  It sounds as though it was vastly different from the later TV series as the special focused mostly on the characters of Bill and his brother and apparently Fat Albert’s face was never shown.

There is no justice that the TV special is unavailable while this crap abides.

Hancock trekked further in jazz-fusion with Mwandishi from 1971.

It is more jazz based than Fat Albert Rotunda.  While still a great album, in my opinion, it doesn’t quite live up to the prior album and Hancock would improve upon the fusion of jazz and rock after this album.

The albums released in 1971 and 1972 are usually referred to as Hancock’s Mwandishi Period.  Mwandishi was the Swahili name that Hancock had called himself beginning in the late sixties.

Recorded in 1972,  Crossings upped the ante with the electronic music playing an even bigger part in this recording.  All three tracks are breathtaking and allow every member of the band a chance to shine.

During the sessions for Crossings, Dr. Patrick Gleeson came in to the studio to program the Moog synthesizer for Herbie.  During his setup, Hancock heard Gleeson playing it and instead decided that Gleeson should be the one playing the synthesizer on the record.  With the addition of Gleeson, the sextet became a septet.

Hancock then took his septet and left Warner Brothers and signed with Columbia.  The first album on Columbia was an almost avant-garde work titled Sextant.

Released in 1973, it was almost totally comprised of electronic music and the jazz part was almost nonexistent.  The album bombed with many of his fans thinking he had gone too far in the electronic experimentation, and had forgotten all of his jazz roots.  The biggest problem with the album was that it really was too ahead of its time, for example, the opening track “Rain Dance” sounds almost like the great 8-bit video game soundtracks from a decade later.

As soon as he saw the poor sales of Sextant, Hancock knew that he had alienated his audience, and decided to “bring his music back down to earth.”  The first thing he did was disband the septet.  He would handle keyboards and the synthesizer now, Bennie Maupin would remain in the band, on the reeds, added to the band was Paul Jackson on bass, Harvey Mason on drums, and Bill Summers on percussion.  Hancock gave this new band the name “The Headhunters.”

He had been listening to a lot of Sly Stone, James Brown, and Stevie Wonder and for this new album Hancock wanted to add more of what those artists were doing except doing it with jazz.  He also wanted to reign in the synthesized parts to have a more mainstream appeal.

On October 13, 1973, Herbie Hancock released the first album with his new band, not surprisingly titled, Head Hunters.  Hancock’s decision to go for a more mainstream appeal worked big time, as eventually Head Hunters would become the biggest selling jazz album of all time.

The Album Cover:

The front cover shows all five members, psychedelically tinted, four in blue and Herbie in red orange.  Each member of The Headhunters is holding their respective instruments. From left to right in the background is Harvey Mason with his drum, Paul Jackson with the electric bass, Bennie Maupin with the sax, and Bill Summers with what appear to be shekere.

Herbie Hancock is sitting at the electric piano, but there is a weird mask thing over his face.  This mask is a particular mask from the Baoulé tribe which live in The Ivory Coast.

However, when zoomed in on the album cover, you can see there is a bit of a change to the mask.

The “eyes” of the mask have been changed to resemble the reels on a tape recorder and the “mouth” is now made out of a gauge.  These additions made the mask resemble a reel-to-reel tape head demagnitizer.

This one kinda looks like a face, with a fu manchu mustache.

The idea no doubt is giving a double meaning to the title Head Hunters, with the African mask stereotypically representing the mask of a African headhunter, while at the same time referencing a tape head on which the album is being recorded on.

The cover design is by Victor Moscoso, who designed a lot of psychedelic cover art in the 60’s and 70’s for people as varied as Jerry Garcia, Steve Miller Band, and Steve Cropper.  He is still doing artwork and a gallery of his album artwork can be found here. My favorite of his is probably this weird one for Manfred Mann’s The Mighty Quinn.

It’s Owlzilla! With some dude’s face.

The back cover is a slightly different picture, everybody has moved only a tiny bit from their front cover picture and now colored purple.  The most notable difference is that you can now you can see Herbie’s face, looking very serious, but very cool.  It also includes a track listing and personnel credits and which instruments were played.

The Album:

I am reviewing the vinyl record version of Head Hunters, released in 1973.

(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs)

The album starts off with “Chameleon,” a song that has become a jazz standard through the years.  The 15 minute, 41 second track has probably one of the most recognizable bass tracks in jazz history.  Jackson drives the song with his electric bass.  Hancock used an ARP Odyssey synthesizer for the keyboard section of “Chameleon.”

This is some serious funk.  I think overlooked within Herbie’s syth sounds is some fantastic drumming by Harvey Mason.  About 6 minutes in “Chameleon” makes a bit of a twist, which the the syth vibe dropping out and the sound becomes less funky and more easy listening.  Bill Summers’ percussion on the conga or bongos (I’ll be honest I really can’t tell the difference in sound) flowing with the bass line.  But that is merely and interlude as the syth comes back to introduce a still electric piano driven, but faster section of the song.  They then take us back to the opening with the driving bassline reprise as the song comes to close.  One of the best opening tracks of all time, and definitely sets the stage for what is to come.

I will say my ignorance of jazz music shows when writing about pure instrumentals, in that I know there are terms for some of these segments and movements, but I don’t know what they are called.

I probably should have snagged one of these.

Track 2, is a cover song, of sorts.  Herbie Hancock decided to cover himself by updating his first big hit “Watermelon Man” with The Head Hunters.  On an album that features so much sythesized music, it was actually the simplest instrument, well technically non-instrument, that opens the track, Bill Summers blowing into a beer bottle.

The beer bottle even got a credit.

It is such an odd sound that I assumed it was some weird setting on the synth.  Along with some strange yelps, it gives an African music vibe, which I’m sure is exactly what Hancock was going for.  I can hear a bit of a reference to  Sly and the Family Stone on this track, it reminds me a bit of something around the time of There’s a Riot Goin’ On.

I’ll get to this one eventually.

Hancock has discussed coming up with the original song as a story and the sounds he used in the song were sounds that in his mind represented an actual man going around selling watermelons, a remembrance from when he was young.  He took the down beat from the sound of the cart on cobble stone walkways and the keyboard and sax parts represented the way that housewives would call out to the watermelon man asking to buy a watermelon.

And here I thought it was about this guy.

A clip can be found here, of Hancock explaining all of this to Elvis Costello and then playing both the original and Head Hunter‘s versions together to (in my opinion) less than successful results.

Side 2 opens with “Sly.”  Proving that I wasn’t too far off in comparing The Headhunters version of “Watermelon Man” to Sly Stone’s music, Hancock out and out names a track after him.  “Sly” while still very good, might be the least memorable track on the album in my opinion.  To be honest, I don’t hear a lot of Sly Stone influence on this track.

Thankfully Herbie never tried to copy Sly’s hair from recent years.

It is funky, but doesn’t really go anywhere.  The best part of the song is the quick time change interludes (again that probably isn’t the correct music term for what I am hearing, but I don’t know.) I probably don’t appreciate the complexity of what is being played here since I am not a jazz musician.  I will say that it would probably be the best track on most any other people’s album.

Side two’s conclusion has perhaps one of the greatest song titles I’ve ever heard, “Vein Melter.”  That title I think would work well as either the name of a horror movie or a WWE wrestler’s finishing maneuver.

I’m imagining something like this.

Interestingly enough, the track is quite laid back, but with a great recurring beat that sounds almost like chains.  About six minutes in it has an horror movie-esque sound cue.  Personally, I once wanted to use this track as part of a soundtrack to a spy movie I was working on, which never came to fruition.  It definitely has a bit of film score-ishness to it, perhaps foreshadowing Herbie’s future movie soundtracks.

Chuck Bronson and Herbie Hancock a match made in heaven?

“Vein Melter” is a truly great ending to a very great album. When looking at the album as a whole, everything recorded here is fantastic. “Sly” is the only song of the four that doesn’t in my opinion get a perfect rating, but even then it is close.

My take on Rolling Stone’s take:

RS: ” I was tired of everything being heavy-I wanted something lighter,” Hancock said. With that in mind, the keyboardist shed his former backing band (as well as all guitars) and recorded this Miles-meets-Sly Stone masterpiece, a peak of the jazz-fusion movement, highlighted by “Chameleon” and “Watermelon Man.”

Rolling Stone didn’t say anything new here, mostly just facts.  They did call it a masterpiece, which I agree with.

The oddest thing to me is that this album that they call a masterpiece just barely made the Rolling Stone 500, and in the updated 2012 list it is gone altogether which I guess means that its reputation has waned in recent years for whatever reason.


The fusion of jazz with electronic instruments leads to some of the best sounds in music history and mixing that with the genius of Herbie Hancock, it lead to an extremely fertile time for him from 1969 to 1973.  Head Hunters was the culmination of that period and one of the true high points in jazz.

It is the best album I’ve listened so far from the Rolling Stone list.  I can’t quite give it 5 stars, but it is close.  “Sly,” while it has great moments, ultimately doesn’t quite live up to the other three tracks in my opinion, and it lowers my score by just a hair.  I hate being that petty, but when there is only 4 tracks I feel like I have to be a little more critical of each individual song when putting together my ratings.

4.75 out of 5 Stars, highly recommended.

My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:

1. Herbie Hancock-Head Hunters

2. Outkast-Aquemini

3. B.B. King-Live in Cook County Jail

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