It’s the TV spot that launched a million Shazam searches.
Peggy Lee’s haunting take on “Similau (See-Me-Lo),” a 78 RPM single released on Capitol Records in 1949, forms the sound-track to a television ad campaign by Samsung for the new Galaxy Note8, a contemporary love story told via phone messages. Samsung has so far spent $31 million airing the ad. Before the campaign is done, that could total between $50 and $70 million.
The commercial was created and produced by Wieden + Kennedy (W+K), a Portland, Ore.-based ad agency. It was directed by music video veteran Isaiah Seret and supervised by Brooklyn DJs Kenan Juska and Justin Cox, whose internet radio show, “Chances With Wolves,” aired for 10 years on the now-defunct East Village Radio and featured offbeat covers of familiar (and not-so-familiar) tunes.
“I’ve been a fan of their show from the beginning,” says director Seret, referring to the DJs. “It’s formed the soundtrack to my life. They’ve inspired much of my creative practice, so I contacted them a few years ago to collaborate as my music supervisors.”
Seret, repped by L.A. commercial production agency Biscuit Filmworks, and “Chances With Wolves” DJs first worked together on a TV spot for Kohler’s “Composed Faucet Collection,” using the Zombies’ “She’s Not There.”
For the Samsung spot, Juska offered, among other tracks, Lee’s 1949 recording of “Similau,” with Dave Barbour’s Afro-Cubans. It’s a song that was first covered by Gene Krupa and His Orchestra earlier that year, and later by an eclectic list of performers that includes Bobby Darin (the B-side to his 1964 single, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”), cocktail lounge stalwarts Martin Denny and Arthur Lyman, Artie Shaw, the Surfaris and memorably by Desi Arnaz on both the “I Love Lucy” TV show and live on Peggy Lee’s radio program.
“Similau” has a strong element of exotica/Tiki culture with an Afro-Cuban groove based on, according to Juska’s research, “a Caribbean folk story about a ghost that lives in the sugarcane fields.” The song peaked at #17 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1949.
“We sent him a bunch of different ideas,” Kenan says. “There was even another song whose lyrics were far more literal and fit in with the love story.”
“It was a deep cut, but when you heard it, you couldn’t get it out of your head,” says Seret of “Similau.” “It painted the atmosphere of the world I was going for. Playing the song on the set just sparked the spot to life.”
“Similau” was co-written by Arden Clar and Harry Coleman, with the song’s copyright controlled by Paul McCartney’s vast MPL Music Publishing banner. Veteran major label A&R executive Nancy Jeffries, who oversees the MPL catalogs, received the license request. “I’m impressed with the depth of knowledge and research that a lot of young music supervisors show these days, making them some of the most creative music professionals around,” she tells Variety.
“There’s something in the air that makes an old song work in a modern context,” Juska says. “I was surprised … but Samsung was into it from the start.”
Adds Seret: “Everyone’s scared to do old tracks in commercials, but our philosophy is, if we find something timeless, but also speaks to the moment, then we have a total winner. It’s certainly better than a Top 40 pop hit, which might be cool now, but will be played out by next week.”
For “Chances With Wolves” co-founder Juska, the personal connection to the music is what matters most. “Peggy Lee’s granddaughter called the ad agency to thank them,” he says. “That kind of human connection is the most moving outcome of what we do.”