Atlantic Records was one of the very few indie labels to survive the transition from the 50s to the 60s, and they did it by shifting their emphasis slightly away from black rock and rollers (Ray Charles, Ruth Brown, The Coasters, The Clovers, The Drifters, Big Joe Turner), amping up their arrangements, and coming up with series of in-betwixt, throwin'-shit-at-the-wall recordings. (In conversation, the label's boss, Ahmet Ertegun described them as "synthetic.") And so, Atlantic's first white artist, Bobby Darin, scored with "Splish Splash," and "Mack the Knife," and Ben E. King scored his first hit with "Spanish Harlem," which rose higher on the pop charts than it did as rhythm and blues.
The song was written by Jerry Leiber and Phil Spector, who came up with an ascending melody which reminded Leiber of Ibert's Ports of Call, L'Escales. "It had that particular Spanish sound, so I kept pushing him in that direction," Leiber recalled. "Building the chords, a third up, a third up. He wrote the tune, but I was pushing him in the direction of a contour that was really an imitation of L'Escales. While he was doing this, I got the idea, which was literal. It was Spanish, 'Spanish Harlem,' and I wrote it - wrote it on the spot."
A Spanish melody, set to a Brazilian (Baion) rhythm ("By My Baby," by the Ronettes, would use it, too - "for a while, that rhythm became everyone's idea of what rock and roll was," Leiber's partner, Mike Stoller, would say.) And, of course, strings on top. (According to the American Masters biography of Ertegun - which is 20x better than the half-assed AM bio of Marvin Gaye, which PBS aired last week - the strings annoyed one of Atlantic's founders, Herb Abramson, so much that he left the company.)