“Witchi Tai To”: Pop Chant

How did I only just learn of “Witchy Tai To”?  This morning I heard this song for the first time, and it immediately occupied the empty spaces in my soul and refused to leave:

“Witchi Tai To”     Topo D. Bill     1969

I am hardly the first person to react this way to the song — many voices on the web likewise characterize the song as an “earworm” of major proportions.  Is it possible that Jim Pepper’s adaptation of an ancient (peyote) chant is the first such Native American chant to be played on pop radio?  Brewer & Shipley confirm the hunch:  “To this day ‘Witchi Tai To’ is the only hit in the history of the Billboard pop charts (reaching #69 in 1969) to feature an authentic Native American chant.”  Pepper’s hit version was recorded with the group, Everything is Everything, and issued, unsurprisingly, on Vanguard.

Ed Ward drew my attention to this song when he reviewed a non-LP version of this mesmerizing tune by “Topo D. Bill” (get it?), a pseudonym for “Legs” Larry Smith of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band and special friends, although there is fervent speculation as to whom — possibly Keith Moon on drums and members of Yes lending support.  “This song,” wrote Ward, “is on its way to becoming a ‘standard’ in the rock field, and no wonder, since it lends itself to myriad interpretations so readily.”

This 1979 Trouser Press tribute to the Charisma record label states that (1) a pseudonym was used for this single since the Bonzos were still under contract to United Artists at the time of the song’s release and (2) “Witchi Tai To” was the label’s inaugural 45.  David Fricke gets the amusing back story from Charisma’s founder, Tony Stratton Smith:

“For this masterpiece of a single, Larry insisted on either ‘Witchi-Tai-To’ or ‘Springtime for Hitler.’  We were just closing a deal with a German distributor, so we didn’t think ‘Springtime for Hitler’ would be all that good and went with ‘Witchi-Tai-To.’  I also remember that single because we were counting every penny in those days.  I said to Larry, ‘Well, you’ve got your studio and musicians.  What else do you want?’  He said, ‘I’ll tell you, old boy, if you could arrange for 44 drumsticks of chicken and a dozen bottles of champagne…’  I told him he had to be joking. ‘No, no,’ he said, ‘we’ve got to have a supper break.’  And like an idiot, I fell for it.”

            UK 7″                                    German 45                                French 7″

Witchi Tai ToWitchi Tai To-aWitchi Tai To-b

Is “Witchi Tai To” the ‘standard’ Ed Ward predicted it would be?  Perhaps not yet – but it could and should be the “native” part of our American pop canon.

Larry Coryell, Billy Cobham & Chuck Rainey (et al) backed Jim Pepper on his debut LP

Jim Pepper LP