What’s The Word- Thunderbird!







Me and Quine were standin’ out in front of CBGB’s one night, around 1980, smoking cigarettes, catching a breeze, shootin’ the shit when an old black wino came stumbling out of the Palace Hotel next door. He was dressed in a ragged sharkskin suit, wore a battered, Lester Young style pork pie hat, and he had the mouthpiece of a sax hanging from a cord around his neck. He stuck a dirty, calloused hand out—“Yo, young blood, lemme hold a dollar“. “Yo, professor, lemme hold a dollar“. His eyes were milky red, his lips were cracked. “I used to play with Bird“.
Me- “You played with Bird?” “Yeah, man” he replied. “I played with Bird. I played with Trane too..Bird and Trane….Thunderbird and Night Train! Ahhahahaha“. I gave him a dollar.

This memory was sparked by an entry a few days ago on the Blues For Redboy blog, one of my favorites. Red Boy had posted the Casual-Aires version of (What’s The Word)Thunderbird (Brunswick) along with a record I’ve never heard before, and now want very much– Thunderbird Twist by the Thunderbirds on the Delta label, from here in NYC, year unknown to me. Great record, I hope you agree. And I hope Redboy doesn’t mind my borrowing his copy for my blog (feel free to lift anything from this blog for your page, R.B.). There’s a lot of good versions of Thunderbird, and a lot of good songs called Thunderbird that ain’t the (What’s The Word) Thunderbird tune that sparked the ignition in my brain that led to this blogeration.
For those who don’t know, Thunderbird is a fortified wine much preferred by degenerates and alcoholics everywhere. I drank a lot of this shit hanging out at the Seminole reservation next to where I grew up in Florida when I was a teen. My liver still hurts from it….well, my liver hurts because I have hepatitis C and cirrhosis, but the memory of Thunderbird, and Night Train (see the October posting All Aboard….The Night Train) and Mad Dog 20/20 bring back memories of
some truly foul hangovers. These wines are created for one reason– fast inebriation, and they have been celebrated in song for just that reason. Shall we proceed to the vinyl?
My favorite version of Thunder Bird is by Hal Paige & the Whalers, a fine New York based R&B stomping outfit who recorded excellent sides for Atlantic and Fury as well as this one on the Bronx based J&S label (which originally issued Johnnie & Joe’s Over The Mountain, Across The Sea before Chess picked it up). It’s a raw, crude, fast paced rocker with the classic lines– “what’s the word?/thunderbird, where do you cop?/ beauty shop, what’s the price?/ cut it twice” giving it cross audience appeal (alkies and dope fiends). It was covered on Mercury by tenor sax honkin’ man Red Prysock, retitled What’s The Word? Thunderbird! The label dates it to Oct. 11, 1957.
The same tune shows up again, missing the dope references on the Roselawn label by the Thunder Rocks, this time titled What’s The Word in version that is pure guitar rock’n’roll.
West coast guitar great Rene Hall cut a tune called Thunderbird for Specialty that is a completely different song, but still a great record. That’s Plas Johnson on the tenor sax and Earl Palmer beating out the drums. Hall is one of the most under rated guitarists (and arrangers) in rock’n’roll history and is a subject I will get around to writing about one of these days.
Blues man Little Walter Jacobs knew from shitty wine, it killed him at age 32, and he too used the Thunder Bird title for one of his greatest Checker sides. It was the b-side of his second biggest hit– My Babe, and it’s classic Little Walter all the way with his saxophone like tone soaring over Fred Below’s always propulsive drumming. That’s Robert Jr. Lockwood on lead guitar. It was issued in January of 1955.
Sonny Burgess, the great Sun rockabilly singer mastered the art of sounding inebriated on such killer discs as Red Headed Woman b/w We Wanna Boogie (Sun 247, 1956), and Ain’t Got A Thing b/w Restless (Sun 253, 1957). Oddly enough, like Elvis he was a teetotaler. Sam Phillips couldn’t get a hit with Burgess’ magnificent voice, so in the wake of the mega smash Raunchy he tried Burgess out as an instrumental artist issuing his tune called Thunderbird backed with the slow groove Itchy (Sun 304, 1958). Much confusion has ensued over the years since virtually every copy pressed had the labels reversed! The fast song is Thunderbird. Itchy is the slow, Link Wray style side. Issued under Burgess’ name, it’s something of an early supergroup with Billy Lee Riley providing the harmonica and Charlie Rich tickling the ivories. James Van Eaton who played on all the Jerry Lee Lewis and Billy Lee Riley Sun sides is on the drums. He was one of the great unsung heroes of Sun Records (dig the way he propels Jerry Lee on his early Sun discs). That’s Sonny’s autograph on the label pictured above, he signed it when he came out to my radio show in the early nineties. Sonny’s a heck of a nice man, and one of the greatest rockers of all, in my opinion.
On the Ermine label is a group called the Thunderbirds who are almost certainly not the guys performing the Thunderbird Twist heard above, but this oddball instro-mental– Stalkin’ The Thunderbird was issued in 1962 and that’s about all I can tell you about it.
In this era of economic collapse I’m sure we’re going to see a lot less Cristal and a lot more Thunderbird in the alcoholic intake of musicians, and while it may be vile tasting stuff, it surely inspires better music than fine champagne. This I know is true.
ADDENDUM TO YESTERDAY’S POST: Comedy writer/producer/archivist and all around genius Eddie Gorodetsky sent a version of Thunderbird by Slim Gaillaird from a Dot LP which I’ve never heard before and it’s so incredible I just had to add it.
Check out these lyrics: “What’s the word/Thunderbird/what’s price?/thirty twice/what’s the flavor?/Ask your neighbor/what’s the reaction?/Satisfaction/Who drinks the most?/Us colored folks!” Talk about having a way with words! Thanks Eddie, you’re the best. And thank you Slim Gaillard in heaven-a-roonie.

ADDENDUM TO THE ADDENDUM: Reader KevanA pointed out that I used to play the Nitecaps (of Wine Wine Wine fame) version of Thunderbird on my radio show quite often. That version, which is great, slipped my mind when I was writing the above. It can be found here. Thanks Kev….
%d bloggers like this: