‘Shahdaroba’ Is The Word They Whisper Low . . .

Last television season, one of my favorite shows, Mad Men, ended its season finale – as it does all its episodes – with a popular song framing the last moments. As ad man Don Draper’s wife, Betty, flew to Nevada with her lover to get a divorce, Draper found himself checking into a hotel, and the mournful music – though it had a positive final lyric – underlined the melancholy and uncertainty of the moment. As I watched, I recognized the voice: It was unmistakably Roy Orbison. But the song?

I had no clue. The melody and accompaniment were clearly based on Middle Eastern themes, as was the lyric:

Where the Nile flows
And the moon glows

On the silent sand
Of an ancient land

When a dream dies
And the heart cries
Is the word they whisper low

Shahdaroba, Shahdaroba
Means the future is much better than the past
Shahdaroba, Shahdaroba
In the future you will find a love that lasts

So when tears flow
And you don’t know
What on earth to do
And your world is blue

When your dream dies

And your heart cries
Fate knows what’s best for you

Shahdaroba, Shahdaroba
Face the future and forget about the past
Shahdaroba, Shahdaroba
In the future you will find a love that lasts


As soon as the show was over, I wandered to the record stacks and pulled out The All-Time Greatest Hits Of Roy Orbison, and on Side Three I found a song titled “Shahdaroba” and put it on the turntable. That was the tune. And it was just as haunting without the visuals of the television show.

I’ve seen the title spelled numerous ways. The listing inside the jacket of the two-LP set I pulled from my shelves listed the song as “Shahadararoba,” which I knew wasn’t right. The listing at All-Music Guide for the album I have has the title as “Shahadaroba,” while the CD version of the two-LP album I have now – listed at Amazon – spells the title “Shadaroba.” And on-line listings for merchants selling the record include several spellings, with “Shahdaroba” being the most frequent (although frequency in those precincts is certainly no guarantee of accuracy). The generally accurate folks at the Both Sides Now discography site have it as “Shahdaroba,” as does the label on the LP I have, so I’m going with that.

Whatever the spelling, the haunting recording used to close last season’s Mad Men was from 1963 and was released as the B-side of Orbison’s No. 7 hit, “In Dreams.” And although I know I’d heard it before – no LP goes into my stacks without being played at least once – it evidently didn’t leave much of an impression when I got the album in February 1998. (I do remember being intrigued by “Leah” on the same album and immediately using it in several mixtapes for friends; I wish now I’d paid more attention to “Shahdaroba.”)

I’m not entirely certain when the practice began of closing television shows with an entire popular song in the soundtrack continuing over the credits. Sometime in the 1990s, when I watched very little television? Or earlier? I don’t know. I do know that I’ve listed in recent weeks two songs from the 1960s that were brought to my attention in that way: “Shahdaroba” today and Richie Havens’ “Follow,” which I wrote about two weeks ago.

The virtues of “Shahdaroba” – written by one Cindy Walker – are clear and include a great vocal from Orbison, an eerie melody with what I think is an oboe providing the sinuous counter-melody, and an enigmatic yet hopeful set of lyrics. There’s clearly room for it in the Ultimate Jukebox.

A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 34
“Shahdaroba” by Roy Orbison, Monument 806 [1963]
“Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)” by the 5th Dimension, Soul City 772 [1969]
“Up On Cripple Creek” by The Band from The Band [1969]
“Minnesota” by Northern Light, Glacier 4501 [1975]
“Smoke From A Distant Fire” by the Sanford/Townsend Band, Warner Bros. 8370 [1977]
“Mandolin Rain” by Bruce Hornsby and the Range from The Way It Is [1986]

I’ve written before about the 5th Dimension’s “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In (The Flesh Failures)” and its place as the first musical 45 I ever bought with my own cash. (Long-time readers will remember my discovery of Dickie Goodman’s “Batman and His Grandmother” in a box and my memory of that being my first 45 purchase of any kind.) Why does “Aquarius” belong here? First, having been pulled from the musical Hair, the two songs that were merged to form a medley reflect a good portion – some of the most positive portions – of the spirit of the late 1960s. Second, the 5th Dimension’s pop-soul sounded good then and still sounds good today, with production by Bones Howe and backing provided by a large cast of session stars that included Larry Knechtel and Hal Blaine. Third, and most importantly, I guess, I just like it.

I was out on an errand with my mother sometime in January 1970, and I had the radio tuned to KDWB, one of the Twin Cities’ Top 40 stations. I remember exactly where we were – I drive past the spot on St. Cloud’s North Side on occasion – when the strains of The Band’s “Up On Cripple Creek” came out of the radio. I’d been listening to Top 40 for a few months, and I’d heard the song before, but for some reason, this was the first time I’d really listened. I took in the drum and guitar riff introduction, Levon Helm’s countryish vocal with its sly “hee-hee” along the way, the ensemble choruses and Garth Hudson’s twangy fills that sounded like a jew’s harp (I had one of those at home and twanged it on occasion), and I wondered why I hadn’t paid the song any attention before. Every evening from then on, I listened for “Up On Cripple Creek” as I tuned into WJON, just down the street and across the tracks. Why I just didn’t go out to Musicland and buy the single or the album, I have no idea. I wouldn’t buy any LPs until May of that year, when I would get stuff by the Beatles and Chicago. By that time, I’d likely forgotten about The Band.  “Up On Cripple Creek” peaked at No. 25 in early January 1970, and by the middle of the month, the record had dropped out of the Top 40 and consequently faded from the airwaves and, evidently, my memory. That Christmas, in 1970, Rick brought The Band back into my life when he gave me The Band, the group’s second album. I loved most of it, and made a vow to look into the group’s other work. I did so eventually, and The Band is still my all-time favorite group. And “Up On Cripple Creek” is about as good a track as that talented group ever recorded.

Every state should have its own popular song. Sorting through songs whose titles refer to states – just off the top of my head – maybe the best would be “Georgia On My Mind.” In the spring of 1975, Minnesota got its own popular song when the group Northern Light released “Minnesota.” With its harp glissandos, Beach Boys-inspired harmonies, a great blues harp solo and its iconic opening of a loon calling across the water, “Minnesota” reeled me in right away. I don’t have access to any Twin Cities charts from that spring, but the record, as you might expect, got a lot of airplay here. It did get a little bit of national attention, peaking at No. 88 in the Billboard Hot 100 in mid-May and reaching No. 77 on the Cashbox chart a few weeks later. I was lucky enough to find a near-mint copy of the 45 at a garage sale here in St. Cloud a few years ago, so I can hear the tune whenever I want, but I feel even luckier when I’m in the car and I hear the call of the loon and the rest of the single on the oldies station.

(For more on “Minnesota” and Northern Light, check out the post my friend jb put up at The Hits Just Keep On Comin’ in May.)

A true one-hit wonder, “Smoke From A Distant Fire” came from the first, self-titled album by the Sanford/Townsend Band. And nothing else on the group’s first album or on its two follow-up albums was ever quite as good as that single. Bursting from the speakers with a drum intro followed by a bluesy guitar solo, the record grabbed one’s attention from the start. Add the solid vocal and great guitar and saxophone solos, and you have a hit single. The record went to No. 9 in the late summer of 1977 and was a vital part of the soundtrack to my life as I was finally finished with school and tentatively began to find my place in the working world.

Sanford/Townsend Band – “Smoke From A Distant Fire [1977]

The gorgeous piano introduction to “Mandolin Rain” pulls me back to a place of refuge. During the winter of 1986-87, I made a number of poor life decisions, and for several months, the only place I felt I could relax was in my teaching office at St. Cloud State, a tiny space in the offices of the Performing Arts Center. I had a cassette player there, and I’d retreat there for lunch, eating the same thing every day for most of those months: egg salad on wheat bread and black coffee. A friend in the public relations office frequently loaned me music from his large tape collection, and one day he handed me The Way It Is, the first release from Bruce Hornsby & The Range. I liked most of it but loved “Mandolin Rain.” The record went to No. 4 early in 1987, but it was No. 1 on my list, and I listened to that side of the cassette two or three times a week that winter and early spring. Late in the spring of 1987, I emerged from my cocoon, thirty pounds lighter, a little bit wiser, and ready to live again. I’ve never been certain what the lyrics of the song are really about, but to me they sound like a tale of necessary and welcome transformation.

Bruce Hornsby & The Range – “Mandolin Rain” [1986]


(“Shahdaroba” © Combine Music Corporation)

(Chart error corrected since first posted,)

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10 Responses to “‘Shahdaroba’ Is The Word They Whisper Low . . .”

  1. Andy from San Rafael says:

    Cindy Walker was quite the songwriter — she wrote hundreds of songs and had several hits, the biggest probably being “You Don’t Know Me”. Early in her career, she wrote “Cherokee Maiden” for Bob Wills. Another Orbison song she wrote was “Dream Baby”. Willie Nelson recorded a tribute album of her songs in 2006 (“You Don’t Know Me”).

  2. Yah Shure says:

    I’m glad to see that the ‘Mad Men’/”Shahdaroba” pairing demonstrated a positive way of incorporating a Roy Orbison performance into the closing of a show.

    Such was not the case in 1970, when MGM made an eleventh-hour decision to first commission and then tack Roy’s “So Young” onto the ending of the film ‘Zabriskie Point’ without bothering to tell the film’s director, Michelangelo Antonioni. The song had nothing artistically or stylistically to do with the film itself, and probably more to do with the fact that Roy was still contracted to MGM at the time. While certainly not one of Roy’s greatest moments, I’ve nevertheless always enjoyed “So Young” in spite of its dubious origins.

  3. Paco Malo says:

    “Up on Cripple Creek” is the tune that opens The Band‘s legendary set in their film “The Last Waltz”. It instantly kicks the set and that magical evening into rock ‘n’ roll gear.
    If I spring a leak she mends me
    I don’t have to speak, she defends me
    A drunkard’s dream if I ever did see one

    Now that’s my kind of woman!

  4. Alexandra Thrift says:

    Shahdaroba is the horse I backed to win at Ascot on August !0 , 2013.
    It didn’t win but lovely to know where the name came from and such beautiful lyrics too. ( and I’m a Mad Men fan )

  5. The Warped Vinyl Junkie says:

    It’ll always be “Shahadararoba” to me, since that’s the way I’ve seen it listed on album covers since the late ’70s…but it’s my vote for one of the least re-listenable songs recorded by Roy during his Monument days, and one of the weakest of Cindy Walker’s voluminous output. Too bad she died back in 2006 (just a few days after Willie Nelson recorded an album of her compositions) or we could ask her how to spell it for sure! There seem to be several current reissues of Roy Orbison material at Amazon with the longest spelling, but there is a photo of the original Monument 45 label with the spelling “Shahdaroba” at http://www.discogs.com/viewimages?release=1361287

    The first TV show I remember seeing that ended with what I thought at the time was a full song (which only continued over the opening line of the credits, not the full credits) was an episode of “Moonlighting” that ended with Percy Sledge’s “Take Time to Know Her”–but having looked it up online, it seems that the middle verse was excised. It originally aired on April 2, 1989 and is available for viewing at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FW_G5UWminU

    “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” was also the first 45 I bought with money “from my own pocket”…although a decade or so before, I had been handed the money by my parents to make my first actual record purchase: a copy of the LP “Pat Boone Sings” (later reissued as “Pat’s Great Hits, Volume 2”).

  6. sandra says:

    i have played it over and over again .love the video you have dessert sands Egypt pyramids Taken me back to another time .i love the title thank you for bringing this lovely story in a song . ..

  7. Shirley Dunne says:

    I have known of Shahdahroba since the album was published it was one of my favorites and still is l’ve named my rescue cat Shahdahroba shadi for short because of the meaning of the word and l don’t know if this is right or not but in the song it says it means the future is much better than the past so l assume it means look to the future l wish l new what language it is lm assuming middle eastern but if anyone knows please let me know l would appreciate it very much as forvthe song itself llove it l play it neally evey day and sing it to my cat and cry every time not becaude it makes me sad but because of how beatiful the words are and how could yiu not be mesmirized by the pne and only Roy Orison ‘ s enchanting alluring voice

  8. Tom says:

    Shadaroba has always been a favorite of mine because of the Haunting horns that play along with Roy’s inimitable voice. I have downloaded it to my computer and put it on several cd’s that I have made for my wife and I to listen to when we want to relax. It’s a beautiful song.

  9. Andrew R says:

    Bought a 1970s Bungalow named Shahdaroba 2016 right pain spelling for postal address e.t.c never realised it was a Roy Orbison song title, both myself and the mrs have always liked Roys songs along our years of life luv it.

  10. Shirley says:

    Ive played this song ever since it was recored so many people had never heard it or played it even though they had the album l actually named a little cat Sharhdahrohbah because l found her pregnant and dying,ltook her to the vet who told me all her kittens when dead inside her and he wanted to put her to sleep l said no you can take the kitten but she has been through a lot she desevers a chance needless to say after a lot of TLC she pulled through hence the name Sharhdahrohbah she died of cancer eight years later l use to dance with her to this song. Her song

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