Reportedly Ben Bernie came up with the concept for the song's lyrics - although he is not the accredited lyricist - after meeting Dr. George Thaddeus Brown in New York City: Dr. Brown, a longtime member of the State House of Representatives for Georgia, told Bernie about Dr. Brown's daughter Georgia Brown and how subsequent to the baby girl's birth on August 11, 1911 the Georgia General Assembly had issued a declaration that she was to be named Georgia after the state, an anecdote which would be directly referenced by the song's lyric: "Georgia claimed her - Georgia named her."
The tune was first recorded on March 19, 1925 by bandleader Ben Bernie, resulting in a five-week No. 1 for Ben Bernie and his Hotel Roosevelt Orchestra.
Of the many early recordings of the tune, the vocal version by Ethel Waters in the 1920s, and instrumental version by Stéphane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt in the 1930s, are particularly notable. Ethel Waters also starred in the 1940 movie Cabin in the Sky, in which Lena Horne plays a character named Georgia Brown.
Shortly after the song debuted in 1925, the California Ramblers recorded their own instrumental version of "Sweet Georgia Brown" as well.
The version used by the Globetrotters is a 1949 instrumental by Brother Bones and His Shadows, featuring whistling and bones by Brother Bones. It was adopted as the Globetrotters theme around 1950, and today is inextricably associated with the team.
The song was covered by The Beatles while working as a backup band for singer Tony Sheridan. Two versions exist; the first was recorded on May 24, 1962 in Hamburg, Germany, using the original lyrics. The second (but the first version released) was released in 1964 during the wave of Beatlemania, with Sheridan having re-recorded the vocals with notably more tame lyrics featuring the added verse "in Liverpool she even dares / to criticise the Beatles' hair / with their whole fan-club standing there / oh Sweet Georgia Brown." Recently, bootleggers have utilized the two recordings to produce an instrumental featuring only the Beatles' instruments and backup vocals, entirely eliminating Sheridan.Roy Young played the piano.
The robot Bender of TV science fiction cartoon Futurama harbors a desire to join the Harlem Globetrotters, and often whistles "Sweet Georgia Brown" in the episode "Time Keeps on Slippin'".
The Simpsons have made references to "Sweet Georgia Brown" on three occasions:
"Homie the Clown": The music can be heard during the part where Krusty is watching the Globetrotters vs. Washington Generals match.
"Home Sweet Homediddly-Dum-Doodily": Skinner uses "Sweet Georgia Brown" as an oath when he finds Bart and Lisa disheveled and suspects that it has something to do with Homer and Marge neglecting them at home.
"The City of New York vs. Homer Simpson": The music can be heard in the couch gag where the family, dressed as Harlem Globetrotters, pass a red, white, and blue basketball to each other (with Maggie dunking the ball in the basket above the couch and hitting Homer in the head with it) as they run to the couch.