In Hear This, A.V. Club writers sing the praises of songs they know well. This week, we’re talking about great songs by non-musicians.
“King Tut” is the epitome of the novelty hit. Unlike “The Monster Mash,” say, or “Tiptoe Through The Tulips,” the song wasn’t even written by a man who had any designs on music star success. Though Steve Martin was always an accomplished banjo player, in the late ’70s the comedian was at the height of his “wild and crazy guy” persona. Thanks in part to his appearances on Saturday Night Live, Martin was transitioning from a club comedian to that rare level of stand-up who could sell out an amphitheater. His absurdist sensibility meshed well with the SNL crew. So when he hit upon the idea of recording a goofy little ditty about the then-popularity of touring museum exhibit “Treasures Of Tutankhamun,” the Not Ready For Prime Time Players’ show seemed like the perfect place to debut it, a week ahead of the single’s release.
Opening with the stereotypical Egyptian melody before launching into a mid-tempo sock-hop beat, the song immediately signals its silly status. Martin’s voice is distinctive, and when he launches into lines about the mummified man’s disbelief at becoming a tourist spectacle, the vocals practically drip with the comic’s sense of ridiculous bravado. Watching the live performance, it quickly becomes clear that the spectacle of Martin the comedian is inextricable from the success of the song. His ironic joy whips generic musicality of “King Tut” into a giddy delight.
By the time Lou Marini emerges from the tomb, painted in gold, to deliver the song’s saxophone solo, the instant appeal of the tune is clear. (Having spontaneous applause erupt at the beginning of a solo is one of the rarer live music occurrences.) Simultaneously satirical and celebratory, indelibly mocking and undeniably fun, “King Tut” rolls through every popular style at the time: “Disco Tut,” “Funky Tut,” and “Rockin’ Tut” are all name-checked by Martin and his backup singers. The songs feel both timeless and very much of its time.
The recorded version, done with members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, ended up hitting No. 17 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. It sold over a million copies, and provided Martin with a ready-made closing number for the last few years of his stand-up career. The name of the group credited with the song, on the front of the single, is—quite appropriately—Steve Martin And The Toot Uncommons.