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Herbie Hancock In $3 Million 'Watermelon' Fight

Herbie Hancock In $3 Million 'Watermelon' Fight

Courtesy Douglas Kirkland

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I learned the melody from my old man. He sold watermelons in the south side in the 1940s and '50s. I would do the rounds with him, help him push the cart through the cobblestone alleys, collect the money…
—Melvin Sandia, retired watermelon vendor
Jazz legend Herbie Hancock knows better than most that jazz is the sound of surprise, after all, the 81-year-old pianist has sprung plenty of musical surprises in a glittering six-decade-career that has seen him embrace modal jazz, hard-bop, jazz-funk and electronic disco. But imagine Hancock's surprise when he was recently hit with a $3 million lawsuit... for plagiarism.

The song that Hancock is alleged to have ripped off is "Watermelon Man," an uber-catchy number from his debut album, Takin' Off (Blue Note, 1962) that quickly attained jazz standard status.

The man making the shocking accusation against the multiple-Grammy winning jazz musician is 84-year-old Melvin Sandia from Chicago's south side. Mr. Sandia's former occupation? Watermelon vendor.

"It's my little tune," Mr. Sandia declares. "Like an ice-cream van has its little melody to attract the kids, that one is what I always sang in the neighborhood, so folks knew I was selling my wares. Ooooooh, wa-ter-mel-on maaaan!" sings Mr. Sandia with the authority of someone who began selling watermelons from a push-cart at the age of ten.

Melvin retired twelve years ago but the family watermelon business, now a pick-your-own farm on the city outskirts, is still run by his eldest son, Red.

According to Melvin Sandia, the defining melody he claims as his own and which was made famous by Cuban conguero Mongo Santamaria's hugely successful boogaloo version, had been in the family for at least a couple of generations.

"I learned the melody from my old man. He sold watermelons in the south side in the 1940s and '50s. I would do the rounds with him, help him push the cart through the cobblestone alleys, collect the money... The old man sang good," recalls Sandia, grinning. "He'd sing wa-ter-mel-on maaan and folks would come a-runnin.' When I inherited the business I added the oooooh at the beginning... made it mine. Least, I thought it was mine. Then that Mr. Hancock he took it and made a whole lotta money off of it."

Hancock's version of events, predictably enough, is somewhat different. In his autobiography Possibilities (Viking Press, 2014) Hancock recalled how, as a child, he would listen to the rhythms of the horse-drawn watermelon cart. "I'd heard the rhythmic clacking so many times, it was easy to turn it into a song patter. I wrote out a funky arrangement, with the melody lilting over a rhythmic pattern that represented the wagon wheels going over the cobblestones in the alley."

"Horse? We didn't have no horse!" exclaims Melvin Sandia. That is horse shit! I figure that Mr. Hancock heard me singing 'Ooooh, wa-ter-mel-on maaaan' when we'd go past his school every day. Maybe he didn't know he took my jingle," says Melvin in slightly more conciliatory tone, "but he surely did just that."

So why has it taken Melvin Sandia all these decades to file a lawsuit? Incredibly, despite the worldwide popularity of "Watermelon Man" Mr. Sandia says he only heard the song for the first time on the radio last year, when he accidentally tuned his radio to a jazz station.

"I don't even like jazz—way too many notes for my liking. I'm an Aretha, Marvin, Curtis kind of guy. But they was playing this song and it hit me like a bolt of lightnin.' 'Damn! That's my watermelon jingle!' I said."

Mr. Sandia is being represented by the reputable Chicago law firm Stanley & Oliver, which specializes in disputes over intellectual property rights.

"We believe that Mr. Hancock is in breach of intellectual property rights, and we will be suing him on behalf of our hard-working client for a very pretty penny," says Mr. Oliver. "We certainly will, won't we Olly?" adds Mr. Stanley. "Mr. Hancock will be pretty penniless when justice is finally served. He'll be left with nothing but watermelon all over his face!"

Herbie Hancock was unavailable for comment.

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