“Green Tambourine” is a song about busking, written and composed by Paul Leka (who also produced it) and Shelley Pinz. It was the biggest hit by the 1960s Ohio-based rock group The Lemon Pipers, as well as the title track of their debut album, Green Tambourine. The song was one of the first bubblegum pop chart-toppers.
Released toward the end of 1967, it spent 13 weeks on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 1 on February 3, 1968, and sold over a million copies. The record remained on the chart for three months. It was also the first U.S. No. 1 hit for the Buddah label. The Lemon Pipers never repeated this success, though their “Rice Is Nice” and “Jelly Jungle”, both also written by Leka and Pinz, made the charts in 1968.
The song’s lyricist, Rochelle “Shelley” Pinz (1943–2004) was a writer at the Brill Building, working with Leka. She said:
In early Spring, 1966, while standing in front of the Brill Building I watched a man holding a tambourine begging for money. I wrote a poem about him and called the poem, ‘Green Tambourine.’ I added it to my lyric collection … Sometimes I wonder what happened to the man in front of the Brill Building, holding a tambourine begging for money. I remember writing the lyric, ‘watch the jingle jangle start to shine, reflections of the music that is mine. When you toss a coin you’ll hear it sing. Now listen while I play my Green Tambourine’ as if it were yesterday..; in the 60s, on the streets between Seventh Avenue and Broadway there was a magic one could only imagine.
The song tells the story of a street musician pleading for someone to give him money. In exchange he offers to play his green tambourine. The song’s instrumentation contains the titular tambourine as well as an electric sitar, a frequent signature of the so-called “psychedelic sound”. Another hook is the heavy, psychedelic tape echo applied to the word “play” in each chorus and at the end, fading into a drumroll (“Listen while I play play play play play play play my green tambourine”). The echo is noticeably different in the mono and stereo mixes. The mono version also starts fading out slightly earlier than in the stereo version. The musical arrangement also features sweeping orchestrated strings and the distinctive vibraslap percussion instrument. While the Lemon Pipers played on the record, producer and joint author-composer Leka hired a string section to accompany the band, to add extra depth to the already psychedelic arrangement. The string section consisted of Elliot Rosoff, David Sackson, Irving Spice, Louise Stone, Louis Gaborwitz, and Deborah Idol on violins; Seymour Berman on viola; and Seymour Barab and Sally Rosoff on cellos.
The single’s B-side, “No Help from Me,” featured lead vocal by keyboardist Bob Nave and did not appear on either of the group’s two albums.