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RCA 22-0023 (78RPM); RCA 50-0007 (45 RPM); MAY, 1949

 
 

 

The preponderance of cover records was a fact of life across all forms of music in the 1940’s and into the early 1950’s. At times the upper reaches of the Pop Charts were made up of just a handful of songs, each one however might have three or four versions sitting alongside one another, all getting plenty of sales and airplay.

This seems odd today when original material is what matters most – to listeners and artists alike. But back then it wasn’t always the specific performance that drew interest, it was simply the tune itself. Each artist might interpret it slightly differently but essentially they weren’t trying to radically re-invent it and use the song to define themselves as an artist. The original artist certainly might be, but those who covered it were merely trying to latch on to the bandwagon and wrack up sales and it wasn’t considered at all unethical to do so either.
 

 
What changed this of course was rock ‘n’ roll, but even that didn’t occur until a few years down the road when the white pop cover versions which proliferated the market in the mid-1950’s drastically watered the music down, scrubbed it of all of its ethnicity and treated the music condescendingly. The adult audience for these records were conditioned to believe the source material was beneath them and thus once the novelty aspect of this trend of covering rock songs wore off they looked down upon it and lost interest. Meanwhile the intended audience for the original material, even the Johnny-come-lately white kids who only recently had discovered rock ‘n’ roll, quickly learned the difference between the authentic records and the weak imitations and increasingly stuck with the originals, getting a perverse pleasure in the mild form of rebellion it signified by embracing music from black culture.

With rock dee-jays naturally favoring the originals, giving those records the airtime and exposure they needed to compete with any pop music while at the same time reinforcing the artistic authenticity of rock ‘n’ roll, the combined effect of all of this essentially wiped the cover version movement in ALL forms of popular music off the map entirely.

But in 1949 everybody still covered everybody else, pop acts ripped off one another on a daily basis and those same artists were now increasingly dipping into the expanding country field to shake the dust from those records in an attempt to appeal to pop listeners, and any kind of exotic source material, be it folk or foreign melodies, were treated as quaint novelty numbers that got plenty of covers themselves.

There was usually just one notable exception. The music that was mined least for cover versions was rock ‘n’ roll and other supposedly cruder black forms such as blues. That type of music was deemed to be unworthy of the ears of middle America and so it was initially left untouched.

But the habit of covering hot records even began to infiltrate that realm once its commercial potential became evident and here we have an example of a major company in RCA, who viewed such practices as standard operating procedure to begin with, looking through their rather slim roster of black artists to find someone who might reasonably tackle a song that was making a considerable amount of noise in rock ‘n’ roll in the hopes of getting some sales of their own from this ungodly racket.
 

Pass It To The Boys Up And Down The Line
Now this wasn’t the ONLY cover of Stick McGhee’s recent noisemaker Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee by any means and so it wasn’t confined to just a callous major label preying on the tiny independents if that’s what you’re thinking. King Records cut this with their heavyweight rock star Wynonie Harris at the same time. Heck, Lionel Hampton of all people scored a small hit with a cover of it as well, and truthfully Atlantic Records themselves, who had the biggest hit with McGhee had in fact brought HIM in to essentially cover his OWN record, one he’d done two years earlier for another label that was just now starting to stir interest in New Orleans, prompting a desperate Ahmet Ertegun to find somebody to cut the song to bring him much needed sales. When the guy he found to do it just so happened to be the one who wrote and recorded the tune to begin with, well that only made it seem a little less opportunistic, yet the intent was the same no matter the circumstances.

As for the RCA version of Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee which is the specific focus of this review, the artist in question, Big John Greer, is someone we’ve already met. He was a saxophonist and occasional singer with Lucky Millinder’s older more sophisticated black big band who found himself drafted into the rock field as a solo act when companies were eager to capitalize on the movement. A movement which depending on your perspective and optimism was either simply a hot fad at risk for dying out quickly and so you better hop to it if you wanted to get some hits of your own out of it before it vanished forever, OR it was a vibrant new genre destined to take its place alongside the more established jazz and blues at the pinnacle of the secular black music scene.

Either way Greer hardly had the type of persona ideally suited for rock stardom. A somewhat chunky bespectacled and mild-mannered cat who seemed more comfortable in the background than at center-stage and with a musical pedigree that was from a more refined style than rock, certainly one that was more steeped in proper arrangements than was found in rock circles, there was no chance you’d ever mistake Big John Greer for either Wynonie Harris or Stick McGhee.

But unlike a lot of future artists of a more high class background who saw themselves covering rock material at the request of an opportunistic cynical record label Greer was no interloper. He might not have chosen rock ‘n’ roll as his musical pursuit if it were left entirely up to him but he wasn’t averse to trying his hand at it as it proved to be something with plenty of potential to make himself a name. He could still play classier when he was with Millinder, but on his own he would willingly lower himself – if that’s what you want to call it – to gain acceptance as a rocker and he continued to do so consistently for the bulk of the next half dozen years and became widely accepted in the process.

 

 

Doing Things Smart
So yes, all of that may be true enough and consequently Big John Greer was positioned as a rocker for years and made a solid career for himself in that realm. But no matter how many records he sold in the process he never came close to defining rock.

One listen to Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee tells you why.

Everything found in the original version of the song in terms of structure, lyrics and attitude are present and accounted for here. Greer didn’t clean this up for more mainstream consumption, and he didn’t seem to take any displeasure in being asked to sing it, thinking its crude simplicity (it WAS after all a barracks ditty where the original line was “Drinkin’ wine motherfucker, drinkin’ wine, goddamn!) was beneath him.

No, Greer approached this with his typically good natured enthusiasm and delivers the lines with the appropriate energy. Though his voice is far less ragged than either McGhee or Harris it’s not artificial sounding striving to connect with cocktail sipping fur-wearing bluebloods at a nightclub where no self-respecting rock fan would ever enter, or be allowed to.

So his approach to the song works fine, but the lack of grit in his voice, maybe simply the absence of the dirt and grime picked up in the dingier joints on the chitlin’ circuit that the others traversed while Greer was playing in downtown clubs which rarely were located in the midst of a tobacco field or in a converted barn, might explain the difference. But regardless of the reason it’s still a notable difference in the texture he’s able to deliver.

It just sounds a little too clean for the content even though he’s more than comfortable enough voicing the same sentiments about getting drunk all night by swilling cheap wine with his buddies. The images he conjures up though when telling it take on a slightly altered tint. You could easily envision McGhee doing his drinking sitting on the curb. Harris no doubt would soon be laying in the gutter. But Greer and his buddies probably would be sitting in the back seat of a car parked in some unobtrusive spot, making sure to keep the noise down so as not to alert the beat cop to their activities.

It’s not a huge leap from the curb to the car, maybe just the matter of a few feet, but that distance is crucial in how this comes off in contrast to the other attempts at it.

By the sounds of it though the effects of the wine are about that same. He’s certainly having some fun getting sloshed if nothing else, his voice displaying the appropriate gusto, but you get the idea that unlike the others who might partake in this kind of boozing every night Greer sounds inexperienced about the whole matter, as if he’s someone who only imbibes on rare occasion (not in real life sadly, as Greer battled an alcohol problem down the road and RCA hardly were driving him to AA meetings, as they had him cut a number of drinking songs along the way).

Throughout this one his usually tea-totaling band-mates are having a ball themselves, adding the same rhythmic handclapping and exuberant shouting the other versions feature, but due to their inexperience none of them are quite anticipating the hangover that’s coming in the morning from this kind of supposedly harmless fun.
 

Breakin’ Up Furniture, Pullin’ Up Floors
Musically it’s also a little more refined than we’d like to hear, the horn charts are too tight, too well thought out, too structured, but they compensate for this hint at their upscale mindsets by playing with a touch of honest to goodness vitality.

The soloing in particular is first rate with Greer himself on sax delivering an extended full-bodied workout with plenty of passion. While its furor might be controlled to an extent, it’s not straightjacketed and he lets fly with some nice honking along the way.

The horns behind him might be the wrong personnel, there’s too many of them for one thing making it sound far too professional, but they’re certainly feeling the buzz-like effects of a few too many swigs from the bottle and doing their best to cut loose with as little self-consciousness as they can muster.

The most interesting aspect of Greer’s Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee is the inclusion of a guitar during the bulk of the song, something obviously meant to connect it with McGhee’s original which featured both Sticks and his more skilled guitarist brother Brownie on the instrument which gave it a downhome feeling that certainly helped its appeal, especially down south.

Here they eliminate Stick’s acoustic rhythm guitar but replicate Brownie’s underpinning on electric. It’s mostly snaky lines and accent notes but the feel it conveys is appropriately sinister, almost like the nagging voice of your conscience when you and your pals skip school in junior high and raid the liquor cabinet. The guitar reminds you that you’re having fun but letting you know all along that you’ll be caught and it’d be in your best interest to hightail it out of there before your parents get home and you’re grounded for a month. You never listen however, nobody does in those circumstances.

As for these circumstances, because of the focus on horns the guitar only lurks in the background here, not getting a solo like McGhee’s featured, which is fine for the overall mood Greer and company are creating. It might not be quite the same atmosphere but adding more guitar – even as well played as this is – hardly would suit his more refined take on the subject.

That tendency to aim a little higher becomes apparent with the one noteworthy betrayal of their perceived legitimacy when Greer bends the melody to come up with a more artificially dramatic ending that’s intended to be a typical closing line on the bandstand, one that sort of ties it up in a nice bow rather than let them all collapse to a drunken heap on the floor, giving away the fact that the alcohol content in their bottles was somehow diluted and their tipsy behavior was largely an act.

A decent act all things considered but not quite as authentic as they’d like you to believe.
 

If You Want To Get Along In My Hometown
I can’t really fault Greer for any of this. He was being asked to carry off a song he had no hand in creating and in a style he may have understood and maybe even appreciated but didn’t entirely fit comfortably in. He did it well enough, this isn’t something that you’d single out as not belonging here. Even if you were unfamiliar with other versions you’d certainly slot this as a rocker when you heard it and a pretty well played and sung one at that.

But his version of Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee wouldn’t ever be the one you’d offer up as an example of rock’s typical attributes. Though each aspect of it remains intact everything is smoothed out just enough to fall on the mild side of the ledger. It’s competent, reasonably effective and their approach is fairly appropriate in theory yet in rougher settings they’d still stand out as conspicuous by their mere presence.

That doesn’t mean you should avoid this drink, just know going in that it’s not the best bottle, or maybe in this case the highest proof stuff, you could buy for your needs.

Still, the fact that RCA was aware of rock’s existence and thought enough of its potential sales to bring Greer in to cover this was a sign that society’s musical anti-temperance movement if you will was conditional to a degree. They had never been averse to covering other forms of music because of those styles broad appeal, now here was a case where their eyes were being opened to the growing appeal of something they usually preferred not to sample or even acknowledge as existing.

The major labels weren’t about to be wandering drunkenly around the park just yet, guzzling from a paper bag to get high with their buddies, but every so often they might just pick up a bottle of the so-called cheap stuff just to see what kind of a buzz it’d get them all the same.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Big John Greer for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)
 
 
 

 
Spontaneous Lunacy has reviewed other versions of this song you may be interested in:
 
Stick McGhee (March, 1949)
 
Wynonie Harris (May, 1949)