“But the sages of Hellas knew nothing of the song whose title is “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”, nor did they know that this song inspired more great recordings than any other song in the history of what people on television refer to as the rock’n’roll field. We must excuse the sages, for they passed on long before the song we speak of, long, even, before television, itself“. — Nick Tosches, Unsung Heroes Of Rock’N’Roll (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984)
It’s true, it seems this song is almost impossible to fuck up, or more likely, it is a song that would not attract to it the type of performer who could fuck it up. Notice, almost unique among American R&B hits, the lack of cover versions by British bands.
The story of Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee begins with a guy named Stick McGhee, brother of folk-blues star Brownie McGhee, as well as warbler of such other fine tunes as Jungle Juice (King) and Sleep In Job (Herald). Note his name was Stick, not Sticks as many re-issue labels have billed him.
In the afore-quoted classic volume The Unsung Heroes Of Rock’N’Roll, Nick Tosches
includes a short biography of the man they called Stick, and you should read it, in fact if you are the slightest bit interested in rock’n’roll you should own a copy of said book. Taken from Tosches’ tome we know that McGhee picked up on a song that he learned in the army, a drinking song popular with black soldiers that went– “Drinkin’ wine mother fucker drinkin’ wine“, and after his discharge in 1947 he added some verses and recorded it, in it’s cleaned up guise (Spo-Dee-O-Dee standing in for Motherfucker in the lyric) for the tiny Harlem label, which had neither the money nor will to promote it. The recording was crude with just one guitar and a slap bass as instrumentation, but the performance was spirited, and the song itself great, but this record was, like so many other fine discs, a commercial flop and soon forgotten. Fast forward to 1949.
Ahmet Ertegun, president of the then fledgling Atlantic Records is hanging around at a distributors office when an order from New Orleans comes in for many thousands of copies of the Stick McGhee record which by some fluke had become something of a hit in and around New Orleans. Morty Shad who owned the Harlem label knew nothing of this, for the wily Ertegun took the order and tracked down Stick through his brother Brownie and re-recorded the record on Atlantic, in a superior version that added Wilbert “Big Chief” Ellis on piano and Gene Ramey on drums. Notice that in the Atlantic version the St. Petersburg local is changed to New Orleans in the lyric. Atlantic sent these discs to New Orleans, and then all over the country. It became the first hit on Atlantic Records and keep the label alive in the year of 1949, a time when they could have conceivably gone under for lack of sales. It rose to #2 R&B (and #26 Pop) on the Billboard magazine chart in April of ’49. Cover versions started coming out of the woodwork: R&B, country, rockabilly, and more. One of the first and best was a stompin’ R&B rendition by Wynonie Harris on King (this version rose to #4 R&B in May of ’49). Wynonie could sure belt it out.
Sam Phillips loved the tune and recorded a wild proto-rockabilly version on Sun with Malcom Yelvington in ’54. He recorded Jerry Lee Lewis’ version in ’57 but it would not see the light of the pressing plant until the 1970’s. Jerry Lee loves the tune and has been singing it for
over fifty years now. He’s recorded it numerous times, although he’s never topped the version waxed at Sun he did chart briefly in ’73 with this version on Mercury which rocks pretty hard.
Atlantic Records would return to the song several times including fine renditions by Glen Reeves (actually on their Atco subsidiary, 1956) and Larry Dale (1961).
The Johnny Burnette Trio cut a wild version, actually two versions, for Coral. The version on their classic LP is fantastic, but the 45 version is even better. While we’re on the subject of rockabilly, I’ve always like Wally Deane’s rendition on Artic
There’s all sorts of lyrical variations among the versions of the song, one peculiar spin put on the thing by the Five Strings (not yet Sid King and the Five Strings as they would soon become) who recorded it for Columbia in 1955 and changed the Spo-Dee-O-Dee into Drinkin’ Wine Spoli-oli for reasons we may never know.
An attempt to cut a PG version was made by Donny Baker on Rainbow who turned the song into the rather harmless Drinkin’ Pop (Soda-Oda) although the guitar solo is great as is the red plastic it was pressed on. Actually, now that I’ve pulled it off the shelf and played it, it’s better than I remember it being.
Another positively perverse take on things came from Andrew Tibbs with Drinkin’ Ink Splink
which appeared on Aristocrat (the label would eventually morph into Chess). Given the 1947 release date, it may not have even been influenced by Stick McGhee’s song at all, although it sounds it. Sometimes a good idea is just in the air and emerges simultaneously in different guises in different locals and I think that may be the case here.
By the end of the fifties the song became a standard with frat party bands and early garage rockers and it mutated into a slightly different song, this time known simply as Wine Wine Wine, the best known version being the one cut by Texans’ the Nightcaps on Vandam in 1960. There are some truly killer versions of Wine Wine Wine like this one by the Devons (actually the Sir Douglas Quintet) on Pic (1965) and the Renegades V on Dubonet (1961), which may be the finest version of all.
Pittsburgh’s legendary disc jockey Mad Mike put out many volumes of his Mad Mike’s Mouldies LP’s (now available on Norton) and on one of them he put Drinkin’ Wine by the Fames, a fantastic version, anyone out there know the original label on this one?
Of course we can’t forget Jim Dickinson’s savage tear through of the number which he just called Wine and cut, for, but of course, Atlantic in 1970. It opens his classic Dixie Fried LP in style.
Can I throw in one recent version? Well, I’m gonna anyway, here’s Richard Thompson doing Drinkin’ Wine Spo-O-Dee-O-Dee, since it proves an Englishman can do the song justice, if you just get the right Englishman.
Well there ya go, nineteen versions of the same damn tune, all different, all great in their own way. Having covered Night Train and Thunderbird in past blogs, I think this one was overdue. Like I said, it’s a hard song to fuck up. Mop! Mop!