What follows is the story behind the lyrics to a famous piece of music. However, we are going to swing a wide circle to get there, so stay with me.
The Harlem Globetrotters are an international institution. They originated on the south side of Chicago in the 1920s, and originally were a legitimate competitive team. They first came to national recognition when they won the 1940 World Professional Basketball Tournament, and later in 1948 when they beat the Minneapolis (later Los Angeles) Lakers of the NBA. Over the next few years they gradually began to work comedy routines into their play, and before long became completely entertainment, without any pretense at real competition.
The Washington Generals were created in 1952 as the “opponent” for the Globetrotters. While on defense, they are an integrated part of the comedy routine and offer only token opposition. The Generals actually have beaten the Trotters at least three times, including one famous game in 1971 when the Globetrotters lost track of the score and found themselves down twelve points with two minutes to play.
Although the Generals’ defense is in name only for most of the game, that was not true when Marques Haynes (and later Curly Neal) would go into his famous dribbling routine. For a few moments he would be pursued by one of the Generals, who was genuinely trying to steal the ball. Haynes would slide on the floor, keeping the ball tantalizingly close to the defender, dribbling (by actual count) as many as six times per second.
The first “clown prince” of the Globetrotters was the incomparable “Goose” Tatum (who was born in El Dorado, Arkansas). Tatum had massive hands and an 84” arm span. I read somewhere that he was able to pass the ball behind his back the long way around. Later Meadowlark Lemon would take over the role of clown prince, and would become a household name on television to millions of children through the licensing of the Globetrotters to the Scooby Doo cartoon program.
It was during the tenure of Tatum that the famous warm-up routine of the Globetrotters was developed. They stand at half court in a circle and go through a dazzling array of ball-handling pyrotechnics. While all this is going on, the music to “Sweet Georgia Brown” is playing over the loudspeaker – and that begins the rest of our story.
Sweet Georgia Brown is a jazz standard that was written in 1925. Virtually every jazz pianist plays it, and most of the big bands. (Count Basie’s version is probably the most famous.) The version used by the Trotters is one recorded in 1949 by Brother Bones and his Shadows, which features a solo whistler doing the melody.
The lyrics to the tune were written by Kenneth Casey based on an idea by composer Ben Bernie. Bernie had met Dr. George Thaddeus Brown in New York. Brown was a longtime member of the Georgia House of Representatives. He told Bernie about his daughter, and how that after her birth on August 11, 1911, the Georgia General Assembly had issued a declaration that she was to be named Georgia, after the state.
If you have heard a vocal version of the piece, you know that contained in the lyrics is the phrase, “Georgia claimed her, Georgia named her: Sweet Georgia Brown.” That is a direct reference to the action of the Georgia legislature mentioned above.
So now, whenever you watch the Harlem Globetrotters going through their world-famous pre-game warmup and hear Brother Bones whistling Sweet Georgia Brown, you will know the story behind the song. It is about the baby girl who belonged by birth to the Browns; by legislative action to the state of Georgia; and now, through the Harlem Globetrotters, to the world.