"Spanish Harlem" is a song released by Ben E. King in 1960 on Atco Records, written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, and produced by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. During a 1968 interview, Leiber credited Stoller with the arrangement; similarly, in a 2009 radio interview with Leiber and Stoller on the Bob Edwards "Weekend Edition" talk show, Jerry Leiber said that Stoller, while uncredited, had written the key instrumental introduction to the record. In the team's autobiography from the same year, "Hound Dog", Stoller himself remarks that he had created this "fill" while doing a piano accompaniment when the song was presented to Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler at Atlantic Records, with Spector playing guitar and Jerry Leiber doing the vocal. "Since then, I've never heard the song played without that musical figure. I presumed my contribution was seminal to the composition, but I also knew that Phil didn't want to share credit with anyone but Jerry, so I kept quiet."
The song was King's first hit away from The Drifters, a group he had led for several years. With an arrangement by Stan Applebaum featuring Spanish guitar, marimba, and drum-beats, it climbed the Billboard charts, eventually peaking at #15 R&B and #10 Pop. It was later ranked #349 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. King's version was not a hit in the UK: the record was flipped and it was the other side, "First Taste of Love", that was played on Radio Luxembourg, charting at #27. In 1987, after Stand By Me made #1, the song was re-released and charted at #92.
Jay and the Americans released a cover version of the song on their 1962 album, She Cried.
Aretha Franklin released a cover version of the song in the summer of 1971 that 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 with Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums and Chuck Rainey on bass.  This version 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 East, released in 2004 on the CD Spread Your Wings And Fly: Live at the Fillmore East May 30, 1971. On November 17, 1971, Nyro released a studio version on the album Gonna Take a Miracle. Her covers gender-shift some of the lyrics of “Spanish Harlem”. Thus, she sang “I’m goin’ to pick that rose and watch him as he grows in my garden” (originally “watch her as she grows”). She also added an original gender reference, i.e. “With eyes as black as coal he looks down in my soul.” (The original lyric is “with eyes as black as coal that look down in my soul.”) The live version also substitutes “rare rose up” for “red rose up” in the second refrain.
Long John Baldry released a cover version on his 1969 cover album, Wait For Me. It was later included on the 2006 posthumous release Let The Heartaches Begin: The Pye Anthology
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, Bowling for Soup, Tom Jones, Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass (Volume 2), Jimmy Justice (UK number 20, 1962), and Billy Joe Royal.
Led Zeppelin covered the song, at least in part, in a live recording of "Dazed and Confused." An example of this appears on the Led Zeppelin bootleg Get Back to L.A., a recording of their Los Angeles concert of March 25, 1975.
Cliff Richard released a version on the 1962 album 32 Minutes and 17 Seconds. He also recorded a German version, titled "Das ist die Frage aller Fragen," with lyrics by Carl Ulrich Blecher, that was a #1 hit in Germany and Austria in 1963.
A Macedonian version, "Spanski Noki," with lyrics by Gjoko Georgiev and re-edition by Milan Kotlic, was recorded by Nina Spirova in the 1970s. There are also versions in French, Swedish, and Finnish.
Finally, Spector himself recorded a version of the song, which can be found on the Wall of Sound Retrospective album, released in 2006.
There have been over 150 recordings of the song.
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.
The song was included in the musical revue "Smokey Joe's Cafe".
|Preceded by||Billboard's Best Selling Soul Singles number-one single
(Aretha Franklin version) August 28 - September 11, 1971
"Kleine Annabell" by Ronny
|Media Control (Germany) Top 100 number-one single
"Das ist die Frage aller Fragen" by Cliff Richard January 29, 1965 (4 weeks)
"Kleine Annabell" by Ronny
|Number-one hits of 1965 (Austria)||Succeeded by
"So ein Tag, so wunderschön wie Heute" by Freddy