Trampling’ on my vines.”
In 1956 Decca wanted a follow-up to Lonnie Donegan’s ‘Rock Island Line’ and as Lonnie had moved to Pye, they chose Lonnie’s ‘Diggin’ My Potatoes’ from what they had previously recorded. It was an excellent performance, full of life, but nobody heard it as it was banned by the BBC, and Decca didn’t generate any publicity from that ban.
THE FEISTY FIFTIES
“What has rock’n’roll got to do with good taste?”
(Jack Good, producer of Six-Five Special and Oh Boy!)
Standing at the edge of 1949 and 1950, could anyone have seen rock’n’roll coming? Maybe not but there were signs that the times were changing. Black music was appealing to a wider community and many listeners were realising that their songwriting was more grounded in reality than the confections of Tin Pan Alley.
As we have already seen, there have been many R&B songs about sexual braggadocio, which were often unsuitable for airplay. The early 50s was no different. In 1950 Myra Johnson with Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra recorded ‘Silent George’ which was highly dubious then and even more so today. A man breaks down the door and takes his girlfriend which sounds very much like rape: could this really be entertainment?
On the other hand, Bull Moose Jackson’s ‘Big Ten-Inch Record’ is smutty and very funny. Jackson, a saxophonist and a reluctant vocalist, is excellent on this track, especially when he sings, “I really get her going when I take out my big ten inch.” The song has been revived by Dana Gillespie and is one of her stage favourites.
In the same vein Bull Moose told us about ‘Nosey Joe’, an early Leiber and Stoller composition. Then there’s Dorothy Ellis’ ‘Drill, Daddy, Drill’ in which her attentions are clear,
“We’ll find oil on my land if you hold your drill firmly in your hand.”
But how about this line,
“When one well goes dry, we’ll use another hole.”
The groundwork was taking place for harmony groups, later called doo-wop. By and large, doo-wop is seen as teenage music and the songs themselves are relatively innocuous, but there are three prototype doo-wop records from 1951 which were controversial – ‘Sixty Minute Man’, ‘It Ain’t The Meat, It’s The Motion’ and ‘Lemon Squeezing Daddy’.
In that year Billy Ward and his Dominoes released an infectious song: indeed, who could resist ‘Sixty Minute Man’? What’s more, the group had an exceptional lead vocalist in Clyde McPhatter. It was clear that McPhatter’s platter was going to matter, and there was no doubting the subject matter of the song,
“I rock ’em, roll ’em all night long, I’m a sixty minute man.”
McPhatter as ‘Lovin’ Dan’, describes his plan in some detail:
“There’ll be 15 minutes of kissing,
Then you’ll holler ‘Please don’t stop’,
There’ll be 15 minutes of teasing
And 15 minutes of squeezing,
And 15 minutes of blowing my top.”
The song can be traced back to Eddie Cantor’s “Dapper Dan, The Ladies Man From Dixie Land” from 1921. Then in 1937, when Georgia White recorded “Dan, The Back Door Man”, which with little disguise was about anal intercourse.
“Now baby you’ve got it
Keep your tongue, keep it right there.
Now baby see what you’ve done
But I don’t care.
Keep in easy, greasy,
Like Dan, the back door man.”
More usually, a back-door man was the lover of a married woman; he’d nip out of the back door as the husband came in the front. This is the meaning that Willie Dixon gave his ‘Back Door Man’, which he passed to Howlin’ Wolf in 1960, but this is the thing with double and triple entendres: you sometimes don’t know what the songwriter really meant.
In 1955 Billy Ward and his Dominoes recorded a follow-up song, ‘Can’t Do Sixty No More’. Lovin’ Dan was worn out and needed a rest,
“When I got through with Suzie, I was walking with a cane”
On the other hand, ‘Don’t Stop Dan’ by the Checkers was all about a girl who wanted to give her man the full 60 minutes. There is an amusing outtake, ‘Derby Dan’, which is attributed to the Clovers, as well as another called ‘Rotten Cocksuckers Ball’. Is it really the Clovers, who knows, but the second song is clearly a dirty song that was doing the rounds. Years later Shel Silverstein amended the lyrics and it became ‘Freakin’ At The Freakers Ball’ for Dr Hook.
The concept of a man blowing his top was also the subject of ‘It Ain’t The Meat, It’s The Motion’ by the Swallows. It was sung straight by their bassman Norris ‘Bunky’ Mack, but there was little doubt that this was about sexual union,
“It’s the movement that gives it the sock.”
The song has been revived in later years by Southside Johnny and Maria Muldaur.
It was back to the fruit bowl and our old friends, the lemons, for the third controversial single from 1951, ‘Lemon Squeezing Daddy’ by the Sultans.
“I’m a lemon squeezing daddy and I just got back in town
Way out in California where they grow so big and round.”
In 1954, ‘Billboard’ published a feature, ‘Control The Dimwits’, which condemned the double-entendre records and approved of the police confiscating offending juke-boxes and their records. The latest offender was Hank Ballard.
Hank Ballard had liked ‘Sixty Minute Man’ and the controversy which ensued and he had come up with a song for his group the Royals called ‘Sock It To Me, Mary’. When Hank and his group, soon changed to Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, recorded it for Federal with Ralph Bass (who had also made ‘Sixty Minute Man’), the song became ‘Work With Me, Annie’, with Hank remembering an old girlfriend, Annie Butler.
The song was controversial and the authorities even wanted to close Syd Nathan’s label down. Nuns went into record stories complaining and asked jukebox owners not to stock the record. It was denounced in churches although the only explicit line is “Annie please don’t cheat, Give me all of my meat.”
Naturally, the rhythm and blues audience loved it and it crossed over to the white kids. The song became unstoppable and it topped the rhythm and blues charts for two months.
A disc-jockey joked that their next record should be ‘Annie Had A Baby’ and as that seemed a good idea, that’s what they did. Ballard would go on stage dressed as Annie and produce a baby doll from under his dress. Their show was stopped for indecency at the Eagles Auditorium in Seattle. According to the song, the baby now takes up all of Annie’s time and “That’s what happens when the getting gets good.” Of course you could ask how Annie got pregnant when she was only working with him.
The Midnighters combined sequels for ‘Annie’s Aunt Fannie’ and among the unauthorised sequels as it were is Buddy Holly’s ‘Midnight Shift’. Holly took up the opening of ‘Work With Me, Annie’ for ‘That’ll Be The Day’.
Another variant, ‘Roll With Me, Henry’, was recorded by 16-year-old Etta James. This in turn became the enormous pop hit, ‘Dance With Me, Henry’ for Georgia Gibbs. Later there was, so help me, ‘Twist With Me, Henry’.
Hank Ballard and the Midnighters also recorded ‘The Coffee Grind’ with a great rhythm track, pretty much akin to ‘Speedo’:
“They call me coffee, I coffee grind so fine.”
Their ‘Sexy Ways’ ran into trouble for the line,
“Shake baby shake till the meat falls off your bones”
The 5 Royales took a similar view in ‘Laundromat Blues’,
“She’s got the best washing machine in town.
Relax while the machine goes round and round.”
But she was possibly a prostitute as it could “cost you 30 cents a pound”.
Contrast this with ‘Bicycle Tillie’ by the Swallows, who declared,
“I ain’t pumped Tillie in a long time,
Gonna pump Tillie tonight.”
In 1953 the Swallows, working as the Blenders, cut ‘Don’t Play Around With Love’ and at the session, they reworked it as ‘Don’t Fuck Around With Love’, and this version was released in 1971.
Another controversial record was ‘(I Love To Play Your Piano) Baby, Let Me Bang Your Box’ by the Toppers as nobody was fooled by the words in brackets. Taking its lead from ‘Work With Me, Annie’, it was not a hit at the time but it became a party classic. Another version by the Bangers is not quite the same song.
More problematic was ‘Poon-Tang’ by the Treniers. It would appear from the record that a poon is a hug and a tang is a kiss. According to the song, the singer learnt about it in the South Pacific and it sounds innocent, but is it? How come he is “blowing his tropical top”? According to the Cassell Dictionary of Slang, the term originates from the 1920s and a poontang trip was for seeking out loose women and prostitutes. Indeed ‘putain’ is the French for prostitute and so poontang comes from this.
The same dictionary states ‘shag’ was used for sexual intercourse in the 1700s and so Billy Graves was taking a chance with ‘The Shag (Is Totally Cool)’. So what were the American songwriters thinking when they invented a dance called the Shag?
“The queen of the hop came up to me and asked me if I knew how to shag.”
Beats the twist any day.
By 1954 Clyde McPhatter had moved over to the Drifters and was the lead singer on ‘Such A Night’, written by Lincoln Chase, which left little to the imagination. Johnnie Ray covered it for the pop market and for once he was not crying but writhing in ecstasy. There were several cover versions, some of which copied Ray and McPhatter and some which ignored the sexual action.
In the UK, the BBC at first decided that the song was permissible and it was played by Sam Costa in March 1954. Complaints from listeners caused the BBC to think of banning the record, which happened at the beginning of May by which time Johnnie Ray was soaring to the top. Johnnie Ray’s grunting was described by the Beeb as ‘lewd and suggestive’ and any cover version which contained similar groaning was banned. Eve Boswell, Alma Cogan, Ray Ellington, Elizabeth Welch, the Stargazers and (God help us!) the George Mitchell Choir were allowed to sing it on the BBC and as Eve Boswell commented, “I do it genteel”, which comes into the category of too much information. The following versions could only be heard on Radio Luxembourg: Johnnie Ray, Dennis Lotis, Bunny Paul and Jane Turzy. Ten years later, the BBC ban was lifted, but not with unanimous approval.
Clearly cashing in on ‘Such A Night’, Clyde McPhatter wrote and recorded ‘Honey Love’ with the Drifters, although the sexual sounds were more humorous. The BBC banned the song but it was featured heavily on Radio Luxembourg, and the music publisher, Keith Prowse, tried again with the BBC as Dennis Lotis had amended the words when he recorded it with Ted Heath and his Orchestra. The BBC still banned his version as his ‘two minute yelps’ were offensive. An agreement was reached with the publisher so that while the record could not be played, Dennis could perform the number live, providing he cut the yelping. A non-blue version on Capitol by Bunny Paul was also passed.
In 1956, a young Cambridge graduate, Michael Winner, wrote a feature about how ludicrous and illogical the BBC was behaving when it came to banning records. He saw nothing wrong with ‘Such A Night’ which had given Johnnie Ray a UK No 1. This may be a first but Pauline Bauer of Ashford wrote Michael Winner a fan letter: “Congratulations NME on courageously attacking the BBC song-banners and providing convincing evidence to prove your point. Judging by their censoring, one would think that they got left behind from the Victorian era. It is a well-known fact that the public rushed to buy Johnnie Ray’s ‘Such A Night’ on hearing of its ban. I know several people who bought it for that reason alone! I feel that what the music industry needs is a board of intelligent, broad-minded censors who do not suffer from hallucinations. They should be appointed by the industry itself, and should have a position similar to the British film censors. We cannot continue this present farce any longer.”
You can feel sorry for the censors confronted with ‘I Put A Spell On You’ by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. It combined sexuality with voodoo and Hawkins had recorded the song after imbibing a lot of wine. The American broadcasting authorities decided that the groans and the shrieks were a step too far. OKeh reissued the record, giving it a fadeout ending, thereby omitting some of the action. It didn’t make much difference as there was enough of it to make an impact and it gave Hawkins an image from which he could not escape.
Few would deny that ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’ by Big Joe Turner from 1954 was a great rock’n’roll record, but it was also one of the most lascivious performances ever recorded. The song was covered by Bill Haley and his Comets, and their producer Milt Gabler, mindful of the young audience, amended the saucy bits. Joe Turner sings,
“You wear those dresses, the sun comes shining through,
I can’t believe my eyes all that mess belongs to you.”
Bill Haley revised the lines,
“You wear those dresses your hair done up so nice,
You look so warm, but your heart is cold as ice.”
One verse was ditched completely:
“Over the hill and way down underneath,
You make me roll my eyes, then you make me grit my teeth.”
Possibly because he did not know black slang, Milt Gabler overlooked the most salacious comment of all, and Haley like Mr Turner sang, “I’m like a one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store.” It’s a great image implying that the cat is concentrated on finding some shrimps, but a one-eyed cat is a willy and as for a seafood store…well, you can do the rest.
We now know that Haley was very self-conscious about losing the sight in one of his eyes and grew his kiss curl so that fans were distracted when they looked at his face, so it is surprising that he sang the words at all. Elvis Presley’s version follows Joe Turner’s original – one-eyed cats, going down underneath, et al – a daring move when you consider his young audience.
When Elvis sang Smiley Lewis’ ‘One Night Of Sin’, he recorded the original lyric which was about a liaison with a prostitute, but it was not released. The lyric was diluted to ‘One Night With You’ but Prez sang it so powerfully that it is far more sexual than Smiley Lewis’ performance.
One of the scary, science-fiction films of the 1950s was ‘It Came From Outer Space’ and the title neatly describes how the broadcasting authorities regarded rock’n’roll. Indeed, it would have been the perfect title for a Little Richard LP.
Fortunately, they never heard the original lyric of Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’ which included “If it don’t fit don’t force it’ and “You can grease it, make it easy” and possibly related to homosexual sex but what did Wee Dick mean when he sang, “I got a girl named Sue, She knows just what to do.” Pat Boone thought the worst and sang an amended lyric.
Jerry Lee Lewis was highly prolific while he was at Sun Records and from time to time, he’d go dirty, knowing full well that Sam Phillips would be reluctant to release it. When he recorded ‘Keep Your Hands Off Of It (Birthday Cake’ (1960), he asked Sam what he planned to do with it. “Take it out behind the barn,” replied Sam. When it was released, the song was attributed to J J Titzanass. His ‘Big Legged Woman’ (1958) was not released until long after the catalogue had another owner: Jerry Lee sings, “When I start drilling on you baby, you’re gonna lose your night gown.”
And then there was Gene Vincent’s ‘Woman Love’. If he wasn’t actually singing ‘fucking’, then he was getting close to it. It’s probably,
“a-huggin’ and a-fuggin’ and a-kissin’ all the time.”
Maybe the authorities were right. After all, Vincent was found guilty of public lewdness on a stage in Virginia.
The single was banned by the BBC, the first bona fide American rock’n’roll classic to be so treated. “Let’s face it,” said a BBC spokesman, “it’s a bit suggestive and anyway, you can’t understand what’s he’s saying.” It’s akin to the controversy in 1969 over Desmond Dekker’s ‘The Israelites’ as Dekker might have said, “My wife and my kids, they fuck off and leave me.” Another example is Eddie Cochran’s ‘Drive-In Show’ where Eddie appears to be singing,
“I’ll bet my penis to a candy bar,
You’ll be cuter than the movie star.”
In all probability, Eddie is singing a rather lazy ‘peanuts’.
There are several senseless examples of censorship from the rock’n’roll years. The couple in ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ were banned in Boston for falling asleep at the drive-in. The smooching in Jerry Byrne’s ‘Lights Out’ was banned in Florida and many US radio stations refused to play an instrumental called ‘Raunchy’. Bobby Darin was told that if he performed ‘Mighty Mighty Man’ on TV, he must not add a pelvic thrust to the line, “I’m gonna love you little baby, all that I can.”
Proof that censors were not always aware of slang is a 1956 British record by Marie Adams called ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, which was passed for broadcast. On the other hand, the BBC banned Mickey and Sylvia’s ‘Love Is Strange’ because of the line, “Love is money in the hand”. The Corporation wrote apologetically to the publishers, Essex Music, “We do appreciate that the phrase can have a figurative meaning but unfortunately the literal meaning would inevitably predominate.”
It is surprising that Ray Charles’ two-parter ‘What’d I Say’ was relatively unscathed, but maybe Atlantic was shrewd in just promoting the first part as the sexual excitement of the second part can hardly be denied.
THE SEXY SIXTIES
“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.”
The image of a rooster servicing his hens can be found in many blues songs, notably Charley Patton’s ‘Banty Rooster Blues’ (1929), but in 1961 Willie Dixon wrote his take on it, a brilliant new blues for Howlin’ Wolf, ‘Little Red Rooster’.
“Well, if you see my little red rooster, please drag him home
There no peace in the barnyard since the little red rooster been gone.”
In 1963, Sam Cooke was producing his brother, L C, and wanted to record ‘Little Red Rooster’ but L C felt that he wasn’t a convincing blues singer. “OK,” said Sam, “I’ll do it.” He added a new verse which emphasised the sexual nature of the song:
“He keeps all the hens fighting, fighting among themselves
He don’t want no hen in the barnyard layin’ eggs for nobody else.”
It reached No 11 on the US charts but it did nothing in the UK. Interestingly, Cooke’s B-side was another contentious song, ‘Shake, Rattle And Roll’.
In 1964 the Rolling Stones recorded ‘Little Red Rooster’ for a single with some brilliant guitar work from Brian Jones, but really it was a case of killing one bird with five Stones. Nevertheless, it was a considerable achievement for a blues song to make No l, especially in the face of criticism that it was unsuitable for airplay. Jagger maintained that he was singing about farmyard life but he knew darn well what it was all about and if it wasn’t about sex, what was the point of singing about roosters and hens? Indeed, Jagger makes one significant change to the lyric and it makes the song more carnal. Howlin’ Wolf sings “I have a little red rooster” and Jagger offers, “I am the little red rooster” as indeed he was.
Who knows whether ‘Louie Louie’ by the Kingsmen was a dirty song or not. The original version by Richard Berry is clear enough – a sailor is dreaming of his girl – but what were the Kingsmen actually singing? As this song climbed the US Top 10, the FBI was put on the case. Nowadays we can read the FBI’s file on their website. There are 118 pages and two years after they started, they concluded that the lyric was “unintelligible at any speed”. Gives you confidence in the USA’s prime law enforcement agency, doesn’t it?
Perhaps they should have been looking at Jackie Wilson and LaVern Baker instead. In 1965 they recorded an inoffensive song, ‘Think Twice’, which was a moderate success. They had recorded their vocals over a backing track and while they were in the studio they recorded a fun version for themselves. They made sexual references, they insulted each other and LaVern even referred to Jackie’s cocaine habit. It wasn’t just the black acts who were recording these naughty outtakes. There are rude versions of Clinton Ford’s ‘Rhymes’ and Kenneth McKellar’s ‘At The Ball Of Kirriemuir’ around, which were never officially released.
In the mid-60s, a strange thing then happened. The dirty blues of the pre-war era was duplicated in reggae records from the Caribbean. There were less songs about sexual athleticism and far more about languor, sometimes not even able to have a stiffie: could be the ganja at work? The songs included ‘Rub And Squeeze’ (Lee Perry, 1966), the skinhead favourite ‘Bang Bang Lulu’ (Lloyd Charmers, 1967), the Top 10 hit whose title could not be mentioned on the BBC ‘Wet Dream’ (Max Romeo, 1969), ‘Big Five’ (Prince Buster, 1969), ‘Rough Rider’ (Lloydie and the Lowbites, 1970), ‘How Your Pantie Get Wet’ (Stranger and Gladdy, 1971), ‘Horse Race’ (Derrick Morgan, 1972) (in which My Dickie is chasing Pussy Willow) and ‘Papa Do It Sweet’ (Lloyd and Patsy, 1972) (“I just smoke a spliff and get real cool til you cum.”)
There are hundreds of rude reggae records and from a commercial standpoint, the most successful artist was a London singer Judge Dread (Alex Hughes) who updated nursery rhymes on a series of singles which started with ‘Big Six’; in 1972. The most bizarre story about him is that Elvis Presley was planning to record his song, ‘A Child’s Prayer’, in 1977, but I suspect that’s what it is, a story.
There were still controversial records in the black American market. Muddy Waters told us he was rubbing ‘My John The Conquer Root’ and, taking his cue from the Esso ad, he wanted to put a tiger in your tank. James Brown had a Top 20 hit in 1968 with ‘Licking Stick’ (although the song appears to be about beating your sister) and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins sang ‘Bite It’ in 1970 which also included invitations to lick it, chew it, eat it and suck it, although he never says what ‘it’ is. He does end by saying, “Don’t suck lemons.”
Pardon my French but all this sounded mild compared to the eroticism of ‘Je T’Aime, Moi Non Plus’ from Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg, a UK No. 1 in 1969 and the first single to be condemned by the Vatican. They followed it with ’69 Année Érotique’ and ‘La Décadense’, after which Gainsbourg recorded ‘Lemon Incest’ with his daughter Charlotte. He thrived on controversy and when he went to the Caribbean, he recorded not rude reggae but a new arrangement of the French national anthem, ‘Aux Armes Et Caetera’, which horrified his countrymen.
Maybe the sensuality and sexuality of Serge Gainsbourg encouraged Marvin Gaye to act likewise and he recorded ‘Let’s Get It On’ and ‘Sexual Healing’, but he was also married to Janis Hunter, the daughter of Slim Gaillard, who had recorded his fair share of dirty blues. Donna Summer had one orgasmic groan after another in ‘Love To Love You Baby’. The Rolling Stones completed their contract with Decca by giving them a final track, ‘Cocksucker Blues’ (1970), which Decca ignored, but United Artists issued Frank Zappa’s soundtrack for ‘200 Motels’ (1971) which included ‘Penis Dimension’. Candi Lauper’s hit single, ‘She Bop’ (1984), was about masturbation, but then what was ‘Willie And The Hand Jive’ really about?
In 1969 the Johnny Otis Show became Snatch and the Poontangs – there’s that word again – for an album, ‘For Adults Only’, but most of the tracks are simply an excuse to say rude words with little humour behind them. ‘Hey Shine (Save This Ass Of Mine)’ has a Bo Diddley beat but the lyric would seem suspect today. ‘Two Girls In Love With Each Other’ is an excuse to do a lesbian ‘Je T’Aime’. In addition, there was a single which combined the rap of ‘It’s Good To Be Free’ with the insults of ‘The Dirty Dozens’, but surely Otis could have improved on “Your mamma don’t wear no drawers.”
In 1972 Chuck Berry topped the UK charts for four weeks with ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ but instead of being ecstatic that their hero was getting such recognition, rock’n’roll fans were dismayed: there were better candidates for his best-selling single than this trite and silly song. Maybe that is true, but although several artists have recorded Chuck’s songs better than himself, I doubt that anyone else could have done ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ as effectively. This erection needs protection: it is a master class in comic timing and the jokes are good.
From another angle, ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ was attacked by Mary Whitehouse, promoting her Festival of Light campaign. She hated its innuendo and smuttiness, and she castigated the BBC for promoting him on ‘Top Of The Pops’. Chuck Berry commented, “There’s nothing wrong with sex. It’s just the way you handle it.”
‘My Ding-A-Ling’ was not new. It had begun as a cheerful, almost blue beat song, about playing with your willy. It was written by Fats Domino’s co-writer, Dave Bartholomew, who recorded it himself in 1952. Two years later, he produced a new version, ‘Toy Bell’, for the Bees, and presumably Fats Domino turned it down as he never sang it.
Chuck Berry recorded it, rather staidly, as ‘My Tambourine’ in 1966 and the audience was lifeless when he sang it at the Fillmore the following year. In 1972 his performance at the Lanchester Arts Festival at the Locarno Ballroom in Coventry was recorded for a live LP, inaccurately called The London Sessions. Chuck’s set included a 12 minute version of ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ with a very animated audience. This was edited for the hit single, and it should be heard in full as it is extremely funny. No other record links British music hall and American rhythm and blues so comprehensively.
If someone of 20 is reading this feature, it will probably seem archaic. With rap and hip-hop, the boundaries are wide open and although Snoop Doggy Dogg is regretting some of the misogynistic things he said, he still said them and the damage has, as it were, been done.
Nowadays anybody can talk frankly about their sexuality: we hear four-letter words and much more on trains and buses the whole time, but we have lost something. There is no need for anyone to couch their language in metaphors. The records I have been writing about are from an earlier time and although sometimes they are infantile, the language that they employ is often funny, clever and poetic. Long live the dirty blues.
Thanks to Tim Adams, Trevor Cajiao, Stuart Colman, John Firminger, Clinton Heylin, Steve Millward and Mick O’Toole.