OP-ED BY TONY SACHS
I love drinking. I love women. I love music. And I love making lists, preferably while drinking with women and listening to music. But when it comes to making a list of the best songs sung by women about drinking and/or being drunk, the pickings are comparatively slim. Take a look, for example, at the 4 CD compilation Drunk: 100 Smashed Hits. A mere nine of the hundred are sung by women. That’s as wrong as a water glass full of room-temperature Grey Goose.
Why is it that songs about drinking are generally sung by men? I’m putting my money on sexism. The same stud/slut double standard that applied to sexual promiscuity also applied to drunkenness, especially since the two often go hand in hand. Tuxedo-wearing lushes like Sinatra and Dean Martin made over-imbibing somehow charming, even sexy. But it’s telling that they never had any “broads” up there matching them drink for drink. Is it any wonder that the lion’s share of female drinking/drunk songs have been in the genres of rhythm & blues and country, both of which were long marginalized and ghetto-ized by the pop music mainstream?
What the ladies lack in quantity, they make up in quality. These are ten of my favorite songs about drinking, being drunk, and the joys and heartaches (not to mention the headaches) that come with it, as sung by members of the fairer sex. This list is by no means objective – I’ve omitted a lot of worthy choices, some of which you would have chosen over my picks. I hope you remember them for when you’re asked to make your own damn list for publication. And if you’re wondering why I didn’t include any songs from the last, oh, 45 years or so, it’s because I like my music the way I like my liquor – aged.
Ten Classic Drinking Songs Recorded By Women
GIMME A PIGFOOT AND A BOTTLE OF BEER – Bessie Smith (1933).
Not just one of the best drinking records ever made, but one of the best records ever made, period. Smith makes her entrance as if busting through a saloon door, hollering, “Twenty-five cents? Ha! No, no, I wouldn’t pay twenty-five cents to go in nowhere!” Backed by one of the hottest bands ever put together (featuring Jack Teagarden, Chu Berry and a young Benny Goodman), Bessie growls, shouts and wails about the party to end all parties, where the guests “check all your razors and your guns” at the door, and which goes on so late that at dawn, you can hear a guest’s rallying cry: “Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer!”
Smith sounds so badass throughout the record that if I were at a party with her I’d match her drink for drink, out of both conviviality and fear of what would happen if I didn’t. I’m not a big beer drinker, but at the end of the song she finally goes for the hard stuff – “Gimme a reefer and a gang o’ gin!” Now that’s more like it.
DRINKING AGAIN – Dinah Washington (1962).
Few singers, if any, could sing about liquor with as much panache as “The Queen,” whose best records effortlessly straddled the worlds of jazz, blues, R & B and pop. Alas, it was alcohol, combined with pills, that killed her in 1963 at the age of 39. This song, recorded less than two years before her demise, finds her falling off the wagon, hitting her old haunts, “having a few and wishing that you were here.” The music is all string-laden pop elegance, but Washington’s clipped, half-spoken phrasing is nothing but the blues. She holds it together pretty well until the end, when she shouts, her voice rising an octave, “I’m trying to make it home… with just a memoryyyyy!” And then, for emphasis, “I know you heard me the first time!” Finally, her doubt becomes a declaration: “I said I’m gonna make it on home, and ain’t got nothin’, nothin’ but a memory!” From the tone of her voice, there’s no doubt she made it.
BARTENDER – Loretta Lynn & Ernest Tubb (1967).
Over a fairly generic country-western chord progression, we come upon Loretta Lynn sitting alone in a honky-tonk, pouring out her love-related miseries to the man behind the stick while getting hammered on wine. She must have already had a few, because she’s to the point of contemplating suicide. “With nothing left to live for,” she wails, “what’s there to do but die?”
Our bartender, Ernest Tubb, counsels her in what I think is a rather patronizing fashion. “Ah know your story, honey,” he wearily intones. “They’re all the same, you see.” He’s not necessarily going to cut her off – Loretta seems like a nice girl and I’m sure she tips comparatively better than the rest of the yokels he has to serve – but he just doesn’t want her turning into some desiccated trollop “with a barroom for your home.” So well-honed are his techniques of persuasion that she immediately puts down the vino and declares, “I know you’re right, bartender – goodnight, I’m going home.” The whole thing is over in a mere 1:53.
In a just world, this classic duet would be drunkenly warbled in karaoke bars as often as the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me.” And like that song, the drunker you get, the more hilarious it becomes.
SOMETHING COOL – June Christy (1954).
As gorgeous an example of Great American Songbook writing as this is, I think it never became a widely covered standard for two reasons. First off, the lyrical content is dark, and by dark I mean dark – this is like the Blanche DuBois story in song. And second, June Christy, the cool jazz chanteuse who first recorded “Something Cool,” did such a brilliant interpretation that she virtually owns it.
Christy completely inhabits the protagonist’s character – I picture an attractive woman a few years and a few drinks past her prime, with hints of gray at the roots of her bottle-blonde hair, ordering “something cool” and complaining about the heat. “I don’t usually drink with strangers,” she sings. Does she have a man? “I most usually drink alone.” It’s one of the few totally believable things she says – before we know it she’s telling stories about the mansion she used to have, the fifteen men who used to fight to have her on their arms, trips to Paris, and so on.
She snaps out of her reverie and quickly dismisses it all with a curt, “Well, it’s true,” and starts complaining about the weather again, and the date she was supposed to meet. Only we find out it wasn’t even a date after all – it was just “a guy who stopped to buy me something cool,” who has presumably already left.
I’ve always wondered what it was the bartender wound up making her. An Old Fashioned? Gimlet? Daiquiri? Julep? My best guess is that whatever she ordered, the bartender knew her well enough to pour a glass of something strong and amber, with an ice cube or two the only garnish.
MAKE IT ANOTHER OLD FASHIONED, PLEASE – Julie London (1962).
Listening to a Cole Porter ditty can make even the sloppiest of drunks feel a little more dapper and sophisticated, even as they drool all over their bar stools. This is especially the case when it’s Porter as sung by the lovely and talented Julie London, who’s remembered as much for her come-hither album covers as for the records themselves. At her best, her music is like a soft, sexy caress for the eardrums; at worst it makes a great sleep aid for even the worst insomniacs. This is one of her best, with her delivery of Porter’s typically witty lyric just wry enough, without crossing the line into camp (for that, check out Ethel Merman’s all-but-unlistenable version).
Julie sings from the vantage point of a half-hearted teetotaler who seems to have almost looked forward to a bad romance as an excuse to fall off the wagon and order an Old Fashioned. In fact, she sings, make it a double, “for one who’s due/To join the disillusion crew.” No, they don’t write ‘em like that anymore. My favorite part of the song is the end, where she cuts right to the chase and coos, “Leave out the cherry… leave out the orange… leave out the bitters… just make it straight rye.” (Actually, the transcribed lyrics I’ve read say it’s “make it straight, right.” But I prefer my interpretation.)
ONE MINT JULEP – Sarah Vaughan (1962).
There are few things in this godforsaken world better than Ray Charles’ 1961 instrumental version of “One Mint Julep.” And there are few things on our rapidly warming planet finer than the impeccable jazz vocal stylings of Sarah Vaughan. So having Sassy sing this cautionary tale over Brother Ray’s finger-snapping arrangement is a perfect you-put-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter combination – or for our purposes, maybe it’s more like a “you-put-your-mint-sprig-in-my-bourbon” combo.
At any rate, a single mint julep was all it took to seal our heroine’s downfall. Her story isn’t as sordid as the original, male-sung version by the Clovers. She goes with her Lothario to a “tavern,” not his house, and while she does wind up marrying him, possibly while blacked out from the effects of said mint julep, at least in her rendition she doesn’t have “six extra kids from gettin’ frisky.” And truth be told, Miz Vaughan’s singing is so exuberant that I’m guessing her hubby turned out to be a pretty decent guy in the end.
I’M ALWAYS DRUNK IN SAN FRANCISCO – Carmen McRae (1968).
The imbiber’s alternative to leaving one’s heart in San Francisco. The melody and relaxed tempo of the two songs are actually quite similar, with “Always Drunk” a bit more sassy and less sentimental. McRae sings the hell out of it, with phrasing that really emphasizes her soused state: “I’m always drunk – in San Franciscooooohhh… I always stay. Out. Of. My. Mind….” And so on.
I love the idea of constantly staying three sheets to the wind whenever I’m in a particular city, especially one as lovely as San Francisco. Of course, it depends on how long I’m staying, as I wouldn’t necessarily want to go on a days-long bender. But – lyrical spoiler alert forthcoming – Carmen claims she’s sober as a judge: “I guess it’s just the mood I’m in that acts like alcohol/Because I’m drunk in San Francisco, and I don’t drink at all!”
I’m glad she waits until the last line of the song to mention that little fact, because it means we’ve already had about 3:45 to drain our glasses in solidarity. And judging from her singing, it sounds like she knows her way around a cocktail glass, so I’m tempted to disbelieve her anyway.
GIN HOUSE BLUES – Nina Simone (1968).
Originally recorded by Bessie Smith in the ‘20s as a slow blues called “Me And My Gin,” Nina Simone takes it on before a live audience at Montreux four decades later and makes it into a whole ‘nuther song, adding Ray Charles-ified boogie piano, revving up the tempo, and giving it a funky, booty-shaking beat. She sings the hell out of it, too, in her typically cool-yet-intense style. The lyrics get right to the heart of the matter – this woman likes gin, and will do whatever it takes to get some, including fighting “the army and the navy,” foregoing clothing, a bed, even food: “Don’t want no pork chops and greens – just give me gin instead.” From personal experience, if I don’t eat either before or shortly after I start drinking gin, I get pretty tipsy pretty quickly. But then again, I can’t play piano or sing like that, either.
I’ve “experimented” with many types of gin while listening to this song, in many different cocktails. And whether you’re having London Dry or Old Tom or New Western Dry, and whether you’re drinking it in a Martini, a Gin Daisy, a Last Word or a G & T, this song will help it all go down a little more easily, and may even make it taste better. Such is the power of Nina Simone.
HANGOVER BLUES – Maddox Bros. & Rose (1952).
This is about the last song you’d want to hear when you actually have a hangover (trust me, I speak from experience). Disregard the group’s spangled hillbilly outfits and you’ve got a red-hot slab of pure proto-rockabilly, with a whomping beat, stinging guitar work, and members of the band whooping and hollering behind Sister Rose, who belts out her tale of woe with a gusto unimaginable for someone who feels as bad as she supposedly does.
But while I wouldn’t want to spin this record in the aftermath of a “spree,” as Rose calls it, it’s perfect for sowing the seeds of morning-after misery. Meaning, it sounds great while you’re drinking. I’m not a big fan of moonshine, but the thought of corn liquor in a Mason jar is oddly appealing for the two and a half minutes the song lasts.
WAS I? – Lil Johnson (1937).
Lil Johnson had a fairly successful career back in the 1930s, judging by the number of records she made. A whole lot of them were of the risqué, double-entendre variety (“My Stove’s In Good Condition,” “Press My Button,” “Get ‘Em From The Peanut Man (Hot Nuts)” and so on). This one, half-spoken half-sung over a rollicking small combo arrangement, is rather more straightforward. A hungover Johnson describes a night of wild, passionate, occasionally violent and certainly intoxicated lovemaking to her friends who’d merely asked if she’d had fun.
Her story, sordid as it is in places (“Did he fight? Was I blue?… I don’t know yet the system he was usin’”), comes back to the three core questions at the heart of the song: “Was I drunk? Was he handsome? And did my ma give me hell?” In this day and age, a song like that might follow with “Was it consensual? How drunk was I? And should I alert the authorities?” But Johnson’s tone is so matter-of-fact, and she sounds so pleased about what transpired, that I’ve always assumed she out-drank and out-shagged the poor fellow and is telling the story from a bar where she’s planning to have a little hair of the dog. In which case, I’ll join her.
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