Playing off the popularity of the traveling exhibit of the Treasures of Tutankhamen, actor/comedian Steve Martin debuted his parody song “King Tut” on an episode of Saturday Night Live in the spring of 1978. Not long after, the single — credited to “Steve Martin & The Toot Uncommons” — reached #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and went on to sell more than a million copies. Here’s how it all began.
Steve Martin – ‘King Tut’: Not just another piece of ‘Tut glut’
By Ben Fong-Torres, Rolling Stone
I’m sure that I’m as sick as you are about the ongoing exploitation of a dead boy. I’m talking, of course, about Tutankhamen, or King Tut, the boy king of Egypt (reigned 1344-1325 BC) whose burial treasures, unearthed 56 years ago in the Valley at the Kings, are on an American tour. Tutmania has resulted in a glut of Tut toys and trinkets, posters and T-shirts that say things like DON’T TOUCH MY TUTS.
One man who shares my sickness and who has done something about it is Steve Martin. His single, “King Tut,” is a clarion call against commercialization. The fact that it has already sold 300,000 copies and is high on the charts indicates that there are a lot of us who are fed up with the peddling of Tut.
“King Tut came to me in a dream and told me to do this,” says Martin. “He told me he was tired of all the commercial rip-offs on his name, and he wanted me to write a song.”
Why did Tut choose Steve Martin, the comedian, and not a more established protest songwriter like Bob Dylan or Helen Reddy?
“I was the only one who realized you could spell his name backward and it’d be the same,” said Martin. “Tut wanted me to give the facts about his life, like how he was Boss Tut. And in the song. l say. ‘He’s an Egyptian.’ See, it’s instructional.”
Part of the fun at “King Tut” is its disco feel, with Martin dipping into falsetto for a line or two. What inspired that?
“Jeff Hanna (guitarist with the Dirt Band) came to me in a dream and told me to sing that line in falsetto,” said Martin.
Did the boy king know that Martin would give the song a disco sound? Martin, upset by the insinuation, got… instructional.
“If you listen closely to the song,” he sneered, “and if you’re familiar with Egyptian music, you can hear a lot of the old modalities and tones they used then. Some of the same notes they used back then are in this song.”
Also, the line, “How’d you get so funky?” was not a rip-off of R&B lingo. “That refers to his odor,” Martin said, “’cause when he came to me in my dream, he was in his jammies, and he’d been buried in them tor 4,000 years.”
As for the line, “Did you do the monkey?” Martin said he thought of the question only alter he’d awakened, “and that’s why the question is unanswered on the record.” But he was happy to leave the issue unresolved. “You see, there has to be an element of mystery. Once the public understands somebody completely, they desert him.”