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"Spanish Harlem" is a song released by Ben E. King in 1961 on Atco Records, written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector. The song was King's first hit away from The Drifters, a group he had led for several years. With Spanish guitar, marimba, and drum-beats, the song climbed the Billboard charts, eventually peaking at #15 at R&B and #10 at Pop. . It was later ranked #349 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

The topic of the lyrics was not original to this song, however. A centuries-old Czech folk song, called "Rozmarýnka", or "Na tom pražském mostě" contained the same symbolic idea of a flower growing neglected up through the city pavement and of someone plucking it and cultivating it in his own garden. It is possible that this theme existed in the folk songs of other nations also, and it may or may not have been known to the writers of "Spanish Harlem".

Aretha Franklin released a cover version of the song in the summer of 1971 which outperformed the original on the charts, charting #1 R&B for three weeks and #2 Pop for two weeks. . Aretha Franklin's version earned a gold single for sales of over one million. Dr. John played keyboards on Franklin's version. This version, more intense than the original, hit #6 on Billboard's Easy Listening chart. Franklin also changed the lyrics slightly, from "A red rose up in Spanish Harlem" to "There's a rose in Black 'n Spanish Harlem. A rose in Black 'n Spanish Harlem."

Laura Nyro covered "Spanish Harlem" in her live concert, at the Fillmore Eastmarker, released in 2004 on the CD Spread Your Wings And Fly: Live at the Fillmore East May 30, 1971. On November 17, 1971, Laura released a studio version on the album Gonna Take a Miracle. Laura's covers gender-shift some of the lyrics of “Spanish Harlem.” In each version, Laura gender shifts twice: 1. “I’m goin’ to pick that rose and watch him as he grows in my garden.” (originally, “watch her as she grows”), 2. Laura added an original gender reference, i.e. “With eyes as black as coal he looks down in my soul.” (originally, “with eyes as black as coal that look down in my soul”) In the live concert version, Laura, in her second refrain, substituted “rare rose up” for “red rose up.”

The song was also covered by The Mamas & the Papas in 1966, Slim Smith in 1968, and Kenny Rankin in 2002. It has also been covered by Willy DeVille, Leon Russell, The Cats, Geoff Love, Percy Faith, Janet Seidel, Chet Atkins, Rebecca Pidgeon, Neil Diamond, Cliff Richard, Bowling for Soup, Tom Jones and Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass (Volume 2).

Trini Lopez included "Spanish Harlem" (Aquella Rosa) on his LP The Second Latin Album issued by Reprise Records (6215).

Finally, Spector himself recorded a version of the song, which can be found on the Wall of Sound Retrospective album, released in 2006.

King's version was not a hit in the UKmarker: the record was flipped and it was the other side, "First Taste of Love", that was played on Radio Luxembourg (it reached the Top 30).

"Spanish Harlem" is also referenced in the popular novel, "The Dogs of War", by Frederick Forsyth: it is the tune whistled by the protagonist.

Translated into French as "Nuits d'Espagne" by L. Salvet & L. Morisse in 1961, it was recorded the same year by Dalida.

The German version "Das ist die Frage aller Fragen" with lyrics by Carl Ulrich Blecher was recorded by Cliff Richard (his version was a #1 hit in Germany and Austria) and Howard Carpendale (1979).

The song is referred to in the 1972 Elton John song Mona Lisas and Mad Hatters on the Honky Château album. The lyrics, written by Bernie Taupin, begin with "And now I know, Spanish Harlem are not just pretty words to say. . .now I know that rose trees never grow in New York City." The speaker is saying that the song "Spanish Harlem" had given him a romanticized image of the city, but now that he has seen it for himself, he refers to it as a "trash-can dream come true." In turn, Rob Thomas stated in interviews that Elton's song inspired the line "my Spanish Harlem Mona Lisa" in the 1999 Santana song Smooth, which Thomas wrote and sang.


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