By Dave Price
When The Lemon Pipers recorded and released their simple, psychedelic tribute to a street busker, they had no idea the success of their single would start a music genre. But it did. Music critics hail (or decry, depending on taste) “Green Tambourine” as the first #1 hit in the world of bubblegum pop, a category still used to describe songs created to appeal to pre- and very young teenagers.
Released in November of 1967, “Green Tambourine” reached the No. 1 sport on the Billboard Hot 100 in the first week of February, 1968 and remained on the chart for three more months. The song was written by Brill Building writers Paul Leka and Shelley Pinz. It tells the story of a street musician banging his tambourine and pleading for money (“Give me pennies, I’ll take anything”) in return for performing “any song you want I’ll gladly play.”
Leka produced the song, which obviously included a prevalent tambourine. It also featured two signatures of the psychedelic sound, which exploded across America after the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival – an electric sitar and heavy tape echo applied to the word play in each chorus (Now listen while I play play play play play play my green tambourine.)
In producing “Green Tambourine,” Leka established a bubblegum practice where the producer called all the shots in the studio, with the musicians simply following instructions in an assembly-line process. One of the best examples of this is the story of music publisher Don Kirshner, a major force behind the made-for-TV band The Monkees. The band rebelled against Kirchner’s strict creative control and NBC fired him in 1967. Seeking revenge, Kirshner came up with a cartoon band called The Archies based on the Archie comic series. That group’s single “Sugar, Sugar” held the top chart spot in 1969 for four weeks and is considered the epitome of bubblegum music.
The Lemon Pipers’ song was the first bubblegum hit for the Buddha label, which soon became a major home for bubblegum artists. The band attempted to repeat the success of “Green Tambourine” but their two other singles “Rice Is Nice” (#46) and “Jelly Jungle” (#51) fell far short in that attempt.
Here is the Billboard Top Ten the week “Green Tambourine” captured the top spot:
- Green Tambourine
- Judy is Disguise (with Glasses) – John Fred and His Playboy Band
- Chain of Fools – Aretha Franklin
- Spooky – The Classics IV
- Bend Me, Shape Me – The American Breed
- Woman, Woman, – Gary Puckett and the Union Gap
- Love Is Blue – Paul Mariat and His Orchestra
- Nobody But Me – Human Beinz
- Goin’ Out of My Head/Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You – The Lettermen
- I Wish It Would Rain – The Temptations
9 Things You Might Not Know About The Lemon Pipers and “Green Tambourine”
- The Lemon Pipers were a much heavier band than their bubblegum efforts would show. They first gained notoriety in 1967 by losing out in the finals of the Ohio Battle of the Bands in Cleveland to current Eagles’ guitarist Joe Walsh’s then-band The James Gang.
- The group once made an appearance on a bill at Bill Graham’s Fillmore West with Traffic, Spirit, and Moby Grape.
- The band left the Buddha label in 1969. It appeared in various reformations for the next few decades.
- Three members of the original band – guitarist Bill Bartlett, keyboardist Reg Nave, and bassist Steve Walmsley – had further chart success in 1977 when they reworked an old Lead Belly song “Black Betty” and released it under the name Ram Jam.
- In 1968, a cover of “Green Tambourine” was included on the Lawrence Welk and His Orchestra’s album Love Is Blue. The single reached No. 27 on Billboard’s Easy Listening Chart.
- The song was featured in a TV commercial for the Plymouth Road Runner in 1970.
- Robert Goulet, who provided the singing voice for the character Mikey, covered the song for the 2001 film Recess: School’s Out.
- Actor Billy Bob Thornton, as the character Lorne Malvo, plays the song at the beginning of Episode 9 “A Fox, a Rabbit, and a Cabbage” of the TV series Fargo.
- Paul Leka, who wrote the music for “Green Tamborine,” had one other hit – “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye” for a group he made up entitled Steam. You’ve been hearing that song at all types of sporting events for almost 50 years.