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Elaine Stritch's musical theater career began with 'Bongo, Bongo, Bongo'

The first song that the late, great Elaine Stritch sang on Broadway was in the 1947 comedy/musical revue Angel in the Wings, recalls Michael Sigman, son of the late songwriter Carl Sigman.

Elaine Stritch attends the "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" screening reception at Paley Center For Media on February 19, 2014 in New York.
Elaine Stritch attends the "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" screening reception at Paley Center For Media on February 19, 2014 in New York.Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images

The song was “Civilization,” which the elder Sigman co-wrote with fellow Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee Bob Hilliard.

But because of a key lyric in its chorus, “Civilization” is also known as “Bongo, Bongo, Bongo (I Don’t Want to Leave the Congo).”

“It’s as politically incorrect a song as could be--and hilarious,” says Sigman. “The last time I saw Elaine, my mom and I went to see [her 2001 Tony-winning one-woman show] Elaine Stritch at Liberty, at which she reprised ‘Bongo, Bongo, Bongo’ the same way as she did it originally, with African bongo drums and crazy jungle sounds. We went to see her backstage and she was very nice and asked how Dad was doing—though he had recently passed away.”

The lively novelty tune is about how a a native African declines a missionary’s invitation to experience “civilization” with “educated savages,” and chooses to remain “happy in the jungle.”

“She told a story of how she got the role as a neophyte, but with no singing part,” continues Sigman, an essayist for Huffington Post who also administers his father’s song catalog. “So she called her mom, then went back and pleaded with the producer to let her sing.”

After Stritch introduced “Civilization” in Angel in the Wings, the song became a No. 3 hit that year for the Andrews Sisters and Danny Kaye, and a No. 8 entry for Louis Prima.

“I have a friend in South Africa who tells me that people there greet each other by saying ‘Bongo, bong, bongo’!” says Sigman. “It may be politically incorrect, but it’s a signature line”

Elaine Stritch was 89 when she died today.

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