February 17, 2015

Yeh Yeh

Do you wake up with a tune in your head? I often do, and they are not necessarily songs I like. A few days ago the 70s hit “Sing a Song” by the Carpenters was mysteriously present in my head when I woke up. I don’t hate the song. It was a charming, well-produced ditty, complete with children’s choir. Perhaps the reason it was in my head is it is a bit of an ear worm. No one really knows why one song gets stuck in our head. But the only way for me to get this one out was to replace it with something else. That particular day I chose another ear worm, entitled “Yeh Yeh.”
Some months ago, my bandmate John Hutson brought a lead sheet to one of our gigs and we played “Yeh Yeh” without rehearsing, a common occurrence for us. While I had a vague recollection of the tune, playing it live tweaked my curiosity and I’m now fascinated by the history of it.
“Yeh Yeh” was written by Rodgers Grant and Pat Patrick as an instrumental song, and first recorded by Mongo Santamaria on a 1963 LP that also featured the first recording of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man.” It was a minor Latin hit, and soon was treated to a clever lyric composed by Jon Hendricks of the vocal trio Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Their own recording of the song was quickly covered by British pop musician Georgie Fame and his band, The Blue Flames. This was the biggest hit in Georgie Fame’s career, and its 1965 release knocked The Beatles out of the number one spot they were enjoying with “I Feel Fine.” Any one of these versions will find a place in your brain for a full day. Here’s the original version by Mongo Santamaria.
Let’s take a look at some of the hooks. The song starts out with Latin percussion and a distinctive piano riff, a variation on the omnipresent Latin rhythm called the clavé.
The original composers wrote a call & response melody made up of two riffs, the second a third lower than the first.

Twelve bars of this melodic exchange leads to the “Yeh Yeh” riff. If that’s not enough memorable material, the composers balanced this active verse/chorus with a marvelous bridge that starts with a rare  beat of silence. The rest on beat one is a hook in itself, followed by an ascending line with pairs of notes that climb over major and minor chords — very sophisticated for pop music.

Another YouTube of the song, this one with the Jon Hendricks lyric, features Hugh Laurie, actor and musician.
If you listen to these versions of “Yeh Yeh,” I predict the song will stay in your head, stay in your head, stay in your head. If you can figure out why certain songs become ear worms, you should probably go write one.


  1. I also like this version from They Might Be Giants (featuring my college friend Marty Beller on drums):


  2. Tubby only arranged Georgie's big band chart, not that for the Blue Flames.

  3. Thank you for the correction, Simon. I have removed the reference to Tubby Hayes.

  4. Best (jazz) version is from "The 3 Sounds" (Gene Harris at the piano), instrumental trio, but very soulful & funky!