The History of the song "Pharaoh Pharaoh"

Pharaoh Pharaoh was based on the song Louie Louie, written by Richard Berry in 1955 and released as a single in 1957.  Coincidentally, the band with which Richard Berry recorded the song was called "The Pharaohs."  The 1963 recording of the song by the Kingsmen is the most well-known, and was the version that Tony Sbrana had in mind when he wrote new lyrics for it and created a version he called "Pharaoh Pharaoh."  As Tony tells the story:

In 1971, as seniors in high school, two friends and I decided that the way to get an 'A' on our Bible As Literature final project was to write and perform a 'Rock Opera.'  [editor's note - Tony assures me that they did, indeed, receive an A.]  It was, after all, the era of Godspell and JC Superstar. One of the songs I brought to the mix was Pharaoh Pharaoh. It was really just for laughs, but everyone liked it so we kept it in. It was the only parody in the project.

At the time I was also doing music with a friend named Rick Riso. He's gone on to have a career in the realm of Christian music. We had met in Young Life, the organization I now work for, and we performed a lot for youth groups and churches and camps and such. We called our duo 'Brothers.' Anyway, at one point we were going to be performing at a retreat somewhere, and we decided to bring in Marj Snyder, a recording artist we knew, and perform the Rock Opera. Everyone loved it, and Marj's producer suggested we put it on an album. So we did. One side was 'Brothers' tunes, and the other was the Rock Opera now called Journey of Faith. The problem was this: none of us knew how to get parody rights to record Pharaoh Pharaoh. So we just left it off the album. We'd perform it in concert, but it never officially got recorded.

After 1972 or 73 we stopped doing Journey of Faith, and as far as I was concerned, that was that. But apparently somebody at one of our shows had heard Pharaoh Pharaoh and started doing it in their youth group. Others heard it and started doing it as well, and before long it had developed a life of its own. I had no idea.

In about 1987 I was doing music at a church in Santa Barbara, and one of the guys on my music team came in and said "check out this song I just learned." He proceeded to play Pharaoh Pharaoh. I was flabbergasted. I hadn't thought about the song in 15 years. Anyway, he had no idea I had written it...he just thought it was a song I'd enjoy. When he told me it was extremely popular in youth groups and such I couldn't believe it.

The song even appeared in a songbook that was widely used at that time (and still is) with a 'contributed by' credit rather than an author's credit. Interestingly enough, the guy who publishes the songbook was a friend of mine. So I let him know that I wrote it, and I agreed to let him continue handling the song through his company Songs and Creations. At least now my name generally appears as the author.

Anyway, when I wrote the song it was pretty much a dead rip-off of the Kingsmen's version of Louie Louie. (There were also two more verses...but I don't think they're any better than the verses some other people have added.) Over the years the tune of the verses has mutated so that it sounds more like the chorus. I guess it's easier to sing as a group that way. The song also grew to include hand motions and various grunts and 'yeah, yeah' variations. Lots of fun...none of my doing. It still amazes me to think that crazy little parody has had such a life.

Pharaoh Pharaoh continues to to be widely performed and recorded.  In fact, in recent years, the song has appeared on a number of different CDs, as the chart below demonstrates.  

Interestingly, this song that began as part of a musical has been incorporated into another musical.  "Christmas in Egypt" by Kathie Hill, was published in 1995.   According to the author's Web site, the play tells "a story of the possible relationship Mary, Joseph and the Christ-child might have had with their Egyptian neighbors."   The lyrics to Pharaoh Pharaoh have been substantially rewritten by Kathie Hill to tell the a story of the Pharaoh's desire to kill the baby Jesus who has come to Egypt, and those in his court imploring: "Pharaoh, Pharaoh, Oh Oh, Let this baby go!"  The play has been performed by children in numerous churches and other religious settings.  Although the music is clearly derived from Richard Berry's original composition, and the lyrics are based in part on Tony Sbrana's (as is the song's title, obviously), the credits for the song state only that the words and music are by Kathie Hill!

Pharaoh Pharaoh Lyrics

As described above, the lyrics for this Louie Louie variation were originally written by Tony Sbrana in 1971.   Originally, the song had five verses and the chorus varied in some cases to match the preceding verse.  The version that eventually made it's way into a published songbook dropped the last two verses and used a single version of the chorus.  Since that time, others have made small modifications to the lyrics and/or added entirely new verses.