The Headhunters

The Headhunters was an American jazz-fusion band formed by Herbie Hancock in 1973. The group fused jazz, funk, and rock music.

The Headhunters
Background information
GenresJazz fusion
Years active1973–2000s
LabelsColumbia, Verve Forecast, Basin Street, P-Vine, Owl Studios
Past members


In 1973, the band comprised Hancock (keyboards), Bennie Maupin (saxophone, clarinet), Harvey Mason (drums), Paul Jackson (bass), and Bill Summers (percussion). Their first album, Head Hunters, sold more than one million copies.[1] For the next album, Thrust, Mike Clark took over as drummer. Both Mason and Clark contributed drums to Hancock's 1975's album Man-Child, which featured 18 musicians, including Stevie Wonder playing harmonica on the song "Steppin' in It".

In 1975, The Headhunters recorded Survival of the Fittest, their first album without Hancock. The album contained a hit, "God Make Me Funky" which was sampled by the Fugees and others. On some re-issues of the album, the band's music is called space funk. The following album Straight from the Gate was released in 1977.

As the 1970s turned to the 1980s, Hancock drifted away from the band as he moved into his electro-oriented phase, and they ceased operation as a visible unit. The band reunited with Hancock for the 1998 album Return of the Headhunters.

In 1989 Hancock gave concerts with a band called Headhunter II including Wah Wah Watson on guitar, Bill Evans on saxophones, Darryl Jones on bass guitar, Leon "Ndugu" Chancler on drums and Mino Cinelu on percussion.

In 2008 a video, called Watermelon Man, was released in Germany of a concert recorded in Tokyo on August 2005 under the name Herbie Hancock's Headhunters featuring Hancock, Wah Wah Watson with Marcus Miller on electric bass guitar, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, Lionel Loueke on electric guitar and vocals, Munyungo Jackson on percussion and Roy Hargrove on trumpet.

Clark, Jackson and Summers have since continued recording and performing as the Headhunters, with varied incarnations, such as Victor Atkins or Robert Walter filling in for Hancock on keyboards, and utilizing Donald Harrison as often as possible. They released an album, Evolution Revolution, for Basin Street Records in 2003, and backed up the saxophonist Rebecca Barry on her 2005 album Rebecca Barry and the Headhunters. They toured again in 2008, with Jerry Z on keyboards and bassist T.M. Stevens, a live album called On Top: Live in Europe was released the same year. In 2009 they played gigs featuring Geri Allen on keyboards and Harrison on alto, with Richie Goods playing bass.

In 2010 the Headhunters signed with Indianapolis jazz label Owl Studios. In 2011 they released Platinum, which featured many of the original members of the band with guest spots by Snoop Dogg, George Clinton, and Killah Priest, among others.

In 2018 they published the self-released album Speakers in the House with Clark and Summers joined by Donald Harrison, Reggie Washington on bass and Stephen Gordon on keyboards..

Musical style and influences

The Headhunters' music is a complex blend of many styles and genres, including jazz, funk, African and Afro-Caribbean music. The group made pioneering use of electronic instruments and effects.

In the sleeve notes to Head Hunters, Hancock wrote that track 3, "Sly", was named in tribute to Sly Stone, leader of Sly and the Family Stone. This band, along with James Brown, is one of the key influences on funk music. As in funk music, the band often built a groove around a bassline; Paul Jackson's licks are frequently the bedrock of Headhunters material, as much as Mike Clark and Harvey Mason's drumming. Also taken from funk music is the technique of building a complex groove by combining many small but carefully interlocking syncopated contributions.

While straightforward funk depends on a snappy, danceable backbeat from the drummer, Clark and Jackson's interplay danced in and around the groove motif, creating some complex rhythmic patterns. This is arguably best exemplified by the music on Thrust, particularly on the song "Actual Proof".

Early editions of the Headhunters did not include a guitarist. All guitar-like parts were handled by Hancock on his first two albums with the group, with one exception: the "rhythm guitar" heard interacting with Hancock's synthesizer bass early in the track "Chameleon" is Jackson playing in the upper register of the bass guitar, as pointed out by Steven F. Pond in his book Head Hunters (2005). Electric guitars were first introduced when DeWayne "Blackbyrd" McKnight appeared on Survival of the Fittest.

Although the Headhunters' albums were often belittled as pop music by jazz critics, it is now widely accepted that they were significantly influenced by, and made a significant contribution to, the "serious jazz" canon. Their music featured extensive solo and group improvisation over chord progressions, just as in the jazz mainstream. Most of the overtly jazz-influenced material comes in the form of solos from Hancock and Bennie Maupin.

A strong connection to African music is evident, with the role of percussion enhanced compared to mainstream jazz, and more extensive exploration of complex polyrhythms compared to most funk.

The Headhunters use a wide range of instruments. Hancock used a myriad of keyboards, from the staple Fender Rhodes electric piano to the Hohner clavinet, as well as being an early adopter of synthesizers, particularly instruments from ARP. Maupin used bass, tenor, alto and soprano saxophones, bass clarinet and bass flute, and oddities such as the Saxello and Lyricon. Unusual choices like beer bottles and the Voice Bag also featured in their instrumentation.


The following members appeared on multiple Headhunters releases:


Studio albums

Title Album details Peak chart positions


Head Hunters (With Herbie Hancock)
  • Release date: 1973
Thrust (With Herbie Hancock)
  • Release date: 1974
Survival of the Fittest
  • Release date: 1975
  • Label: Arista
126 12
Straight from the Gate
  • Release date: 1977
  • Label: Arista
Return of the Headhunters! (With Herbie Hancock)
  • Release date: 1998
  • Label: Verve
Evolution Revolution
Speakers In The House
  • Release date: 2018
  • Label: The Headhunters (Self-released)
"—" denotes releases that did not chart

Live albums

Title Album details
On Top: Live In Europe
  • Release date: 2008
  • Label: BHM Productions


  1. Henderson, Alex. "The Headhunters | Biography & History | AllMusic". AllMusic. Retrieved 6 September 2016.
  2. Peak chart positions for albums and singles charting on the United States charts:
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