1964: Al Hirt wins a Grammy for ‘Java’
Trumpeter Al Hirt, one of New Orleans’ best-known mid-century musicians, won his only Grammy in 1964 for his performance of “Java,” a peppy instrumental tune composed by a fellow New Orleanian, Allen Toussaint. The song, which was on Hirt’s album “Honey in the Horn,” was a huge hit. “Java” sold a half-million copies and climbed to No. 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in March 1964, and it kept “Honey in the Horn” on the Billboard album chart for 104 weeks.
More than a half-century after its debut, “Java” is still instantly recognizable — and bound to make listeners smile and bounce in time. It was the biggest success of Hirt’s career. Like other Hirt hits of the period, such as “Cotton Candy” and “Sugar Lips,” “Java” was a simple song that depended on a frequently repeated melody that Hirt, who died in 1999, embellished with his own prodigious talent.
- “Java” wasn’t named for the Indonesian island, and it has nothing to do with coffee. The song first appeared on an album called “The Wild Sounds of New Orleans.” The record’s producer, Danny Kessler, was a racetrack regular, and he reportedly named each track of the album, including Java, after a horse.
- This is the formal name of the Grammy category in which Hirt won: “Best Performance by an Orchestra or Instrumentalist With Orchestra – Primarily Not Jazz or For Dancing.”
- Hirt wasn’t the first musician to record “Java.” In 1962, Floyd Cramer covered a piano version that went to No. 49 on the Billboard chart.
- When Toussaint wrote “Java” in 1958, he was using the pseudonym Tousan.
- Hirt received seven other Grammy nominations over the course of his career.
- In a 1998 interview, Toussaint counted Hirt’s version of “Java” among the most memorable renditions of his myriad compositions, adding, “Al Hirt just really nailed ‘Java’ to the wall.”
- “Java” was used as the closing theme for “Vision On,” a BBC-TV children’s program that ran from 1964 to 1976, and two creatures danced to it on “The Muppet Show.”
- At the 1972 Summer Olympics, the Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut performed her gold-medal-winning floor routine to a condensed version of “Java.”
- In addition to being a musician, Hirt was also a fan of sports. He was a partial owner of the New Orleans Saints upon their inception in 1967, and he performed at halftime of Super Bowl I. He would also perform at Super Bowls IV, VI and XII.
Al Hirt was a beefy, bearded man who was nicknamed “Jumbo” — and who had talent to match. He was also an ambassador for New Orleans, not only for his talent but for his exuberance and his apparently boundless appetite for good food and good times. He “spread the fame of the city around the world,” said Don Marquis, the Louisiana State Museum’s jazz curator emeritus. Besides being popular, especially during the 1960s, Hirt gained the respect of his peers, including the modern jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, who admired his technique. Hirt also did his bit to pass the baton: He gave Wynton Marsalis his first trumpet because Hirt had heard Ellis Marsalis, who played in his band, say that he wanted to get his young son started learning an instrument. Marsalis, who has gone on to win nine Grammys and a Pulitzer Prize, said he was “eternally grateful” for that Christmas gift, adding that Hirt was “a great talent.”