A Visit To Planet Spo-Dee-O-Dee
By Rev. Billy C. Wirtz
Each week Rev. Billy C. Wirtz tells us about artists, albums, and music that we need to know about.
Last week I told the strange story of an innocent tune, reputed to contain all manner of lewd and lascivious lyrics, that became a rock ‘n’ roll anthem.
That song, “Louie Louie,” has now trumped “Yesterday” as the most re-recorded song of all time, even the article generated more responses than any piece I’ve written so far.
This week’s tune was originally X-rated and sung by black soldiers in the segregated barracks of Petersburg, Virginia.
Celebrating their drink of choice, the lyrics went something like:
Drinkin’ that mess is our delight,
And when we get drunk, start fightin’ all night.
Knockin’ out windows and tearin’ down doors,
Drinkin’ half-gallons and callin’ for more.
Drinkin’ wine mutherf–ker, drinkin’ wine!
Drinkin’ wine motherf–ker, drinkin’ wine!
Drinkin’ wine muthaf–ker, drinkin’ wine!
Pass that bottle to me!
In 1947, Granville “Stick” McGhee, brother of legendary bluesman Brownie McGhee, stepped into a studio in New York City, added a couple of verses, and recorded a cleaned-up version of the song. He substituted the phrase “Spo-Dee-O-Dee” for the M.F. word, and replaced G-Damn, with various manifestations (“Elderberry, Blackberry, or Cherry!”) of said beverage.
He named the song “Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.”
His first recorded version was performed with a guitar and slap bass, and began with the words:
“Down in Petersburg, everything’s fine.”
Much like “Louie, Louie,” it was recorded for a tiny independent label (Harlem Records) that had neither the time nor money to promote it, and within weeks it was forgotten about.
In 1949, Amhet Ertegun, president of Atlantic Records, was hanging around a record distributor’s office. He noticed an order come through for thousands of copies of a song called “Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.”
Apparently, it had become a huge hit in New Orleans. No one seemed to know why, just another “go figure” moment in music history.
Without bothering to inform anyone at Harlem Records, Ertegun tracked down Stick and re-recorded it, adding “Big Chief” Ellis on piano, Gene Ramey on drum,s and brother Brownie McGhee on guitar. They slowed down the tempo, changed the song’s location from Petersburg to New Orleans, and it took off.
Within the year, it rose to #2 on the R&B charts, and climbed all the way to #26 on the pop charts.
“Wine…” was the song that saved the young record label (Atlantic Records) from impending bankruptcy. Thanks to “Wine…” Ertegun was able to pay off his creditors, offer lucrative contracts to such artists as Big Joe Turner, Ruth Brown, and Ray Charles, and build an empire.
The Legacy Of Spo-Dee-O-Dee
There was something about that song…
Everyone loved it and, almost immediately, everyone covered it.
Less than six months after Stick, Wynonie Harris did a rip-roaring version.
Later that same year, there was a “Hillbilly” cover.
Jerry Lee Lewis sings it virtually every time he sits down at the piano, recording it at least a half-dozen times, beginning when Sam Phillips let him cut it for Sun Records in 1956.
Go to Allmusic.com and notice, along with the staggering number of recordings, the numerous variations on it’s name. The most common:
“Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee”
“Wine, Wine, Wine”
As a social greeting:
The simplified version:
And my favorite phonetic train wreck:
“Wine” and “Louie Louie “ share some notable similarities:
1) They were both recorded on small labels and then forgotten.
2) Both songs became accidental smash hits as a result of airplay in areas completely foreign to the artists.
- Two years after it’s release in New York, “Wine,” became a hit in New Orleans.
-“Louie Louie,” recorded in Takoma, Washington, became a hit as a result of airplay in Boston.
2) Each of them featured an unusual and distinctive chord pattern.
– In “Louie, Louie,” the V (Five) chord is a minor instead of the usual dom.7th configuration.
– Stick’s original version of “Wine…” repeats the I-V turnaround. The basic chord pattern goes I-IV-I-V-V#-V-I-V-I- V. Note: The original also holds the one chord for an unusually long eight bars.
As a result of social media, it’s now possible to listen to both Stick’s version and two dozen others on YouTube.
-Should you wish to see the uncensored lyrics, go to Wikipedia.
-Along with “Sixty Minute Man,” the song is still played weekly in Beach Music clubs all across the Carolinas. Not bad for a sixty-three year-old song.
Although the original is still popular, a version by Larry Dale has a more pronounced backbeat, and is preferred by the dancers.
Unlike Richard Berry, who created “Louie Louie,” Stick never received much in the way of fame or fortune, recording for Atlantic, then King, and finally Savoy, before retiring from the music business at the age of forty-three, in 1960.
He died of cancer a short year later, leaving Brownie’s son his guitar, the one containing the secrets of an elixir he called “Spo-Dee-O-Dee.”
Rev. Billy C. Wirtz is a weekly columnist at BluesWax. Each week he finds artists, albums, and music that you should know about. He also plays piano. His radio show, Rev. Billy’s Rhythm Revival, is available in podcast. To hear the latest, go to Rev. Billy C. Wirtz’ page on Facebook and look for the link.
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