So, how does 'Spanish Harlem' inspire thoughtful leadership?


‘Spanish Harlem’, a song written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector was recorded in 1960 by Ben E. King of ‘Stand by Me’ fame . It became popular and ranked the Billboard charts at #15 for Rhythm &Blues and #10 for Pop. It was included in the Rolling Stone magazine’s list of ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time’.


In 1971 Aretha Franklin released a cover version of the song. She took the original, sandwiched it with huge dollops of soul, topped it with a frosting of an incredible ensemble of talent and ‘seconds’. Dr. John on the keyboards, Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, famous for his signature use of triplets ( A ‘triplet’ in drumming terms is a group of three notes played in a different duration then the regular beat — remember the movie Whiplash?) against a half-time back beat (the ‘Purdie Shuffle’) on drums, and Chuck Rainey, provided the backing.


She changed original opening lyrics of the song from “ There is a rose in Spanish Harlem, a red rose up in Spanish Harlem” to “There’s a rose in Black ‘n Spanish Harlem, a rose in Black ‘n Spanish Harlem”.


The result was an awesome piece of raw, powerful and emotive music.


Her version outperformed the original on the charts, hitting #1 Rhythm & Blues for three weeks and #2 Pop for two weeks, winning her a ‘gold single’ for sales of over a million.

Whenever I fly Emirates Airlines, I listen to Aretha Franklin’s ‘Spanish Harlem’ on their entertainment system, ICE. It’s a peculiar affinity, which I can’t explain. It’s a ritual…and each time I listen Spanish Harlem by Aretha Franklin I get goose bumps. Incidentally ICE has all the Billboard Chart Toppers going back to the ’50s in its collection.


The lyrics go:

(There’s a rose in black ‘n Spanish Harlem)

(A rose in black ‘n Spanish Harlem)

It is the special one

It never sees the sun

It only comes up

When the moon is on the run

And all the stars are gleaming

It’s growing in the street

Right up through the concrete

But soft sweet and dreamy

(There is a rose in Spanish Harlem)

(A rose in black at Spanish Harlem)

With eyes as black as coal

That look down in his soul

It start a fire there and then he loses control

I’m gonna beg his par-ar-ar-ardon, yeah

He’s going to pick that rose

And watch her as she grows

In his garden.

© ‘The Definitive Soul Collection Album’, Rhino Records


So, how does ‘Spanish Harlem’ inspire thoughtful Leadership?


The song communicates about something beautiful, which has hope, the potential to bloom, aspires, and has longing. It’s in an environment that can at any moment snatch all these away — trampled and trod into an indifferent concrete pavement. To prevent this from happening, its transplanted to a ‘garden’ to ‘grow’.


Leaders and managers within organisations and in workplaces see this every day.


People, with inherent potential and talent, who live within their cubicles or work spaces, limited to their job descriptions, and expected to complete their tasks within a nine-to-five time span. If given the freedom, opportunity and responsibility within a safe and nurturing environment they will come out of these spaces, will grow, and do wonderful things.


Everyone has unique talents, capabilities and potential. For these attributes to bloom, people need the space to structure their thoughts, participate in meaningful conversations and contribute to workplace decisions. They will need opportunities to work on building relationships with people from other teams, and networks unique to them and their areas of expertise.


Leaders need to ‘create spaces’ or ‘gardens’ for their people to grow and these things to happen. This will help people explore the most effective ways their concepts, thoughts, talent, capabilities and contributions could be channelled into mainstream work for the overall good.


Leaders and managers can also create forums for their people to negotiate and ‘create spaces’ for themselves and utilize what they offer and bring to the table. Fostering a culture of encouragement for people to be frank and honest, without fear of retribution or vindictiveness is important. This will boost confidence, contribute to personal and professional growth, create ownership and loyalty.

Investing in these do not require resources, but it does need deliberate and thoughtful effort and commitment by leaders and managers to ‘create spaces’ for people to regularly come together for discussion, sharing, dialogue, and agreement.


Finally, people should not be squeezed into prescribed structures or hierarchies, cracks in the ‘concrete’ as in the song, but let the structures adapt to accommodate people, their capabilities and potential.


An organisation or workplace is only as good as its people, their confidence in using their inherent potential, and platform for demonstrating talent and capability.


This requires leadership and managerial courage and risk-taking. There is no ‘owner’s manual’ or blue-print for this. The formula or ‘mantra’ should be empathy, innovation, experimentation, self-correction, adaptation and implementation.


If this is done, leaders and managers can watch their people as they ‘grow in the garden’, and bloom.


This is the leadership lesson ‘Spanish Harlem’ continues to reinforce in me.

Album artwork credit: http://www.45cat.com/record/71507

Colombo, Sri Lanka

November 2017

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