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From Issue #35 January 30, 2014

Dirty R&B

A truly filthy, wonderful genre of blues fails to get the attention it deserves.

By Leah Reich Twitter icon 

Editor’s note: This article links to sites that feature sexually explicit lyrics in text, audio, and video form.

The year Purple Rain and Like A Virgin were released, I was nine. I had both albums on cassette, and my dad had written my name on each tape very neatly in all-caps with a black marker. On a drive one day with my dad and one of my friends to somewhere — we lived in rural Colorado at the time, and everywhere to anywhere beyond downtown or the ski mountain required a drive of some distance — I asked if I could play a song.

I don’t remember exactly what he said, but I do remember a look of consternation and horror as the words to “Darling Nikki” oozed through the speakers. I didn’t really understand what they meant but my dad sure did. I just thought the song was so cool. With a snap the tape ejected.

A few years later, in eleventh grade, a boy in my class made me a mix tape. I don’t remember most of the songs on it anymore, but I do recall it had one by 2 Live Crew. DJ Quik too, and not just “Born and Raised in Compton.” In retrospect, I’m not sure exactly what message that boy was trying to send with that tape, but at the time I was excited because I knew every word to those songs — every face down, every ass up, and every f-bomb in between.

Those songs were shocking. Some people found them offensive. They were often sexist. But I loved them. Sexy, bawdy, filthy, and full of f ------, they were outrageous and fun to listen to. Occasionally puerile; but then, so was I. Best of all, I thought songs like those were totally new, a sign of our wilder, looser, grosser times. A lot of us did. Who had ever been so dirty in a song before? Who had ever been so raunchy and raw?

I liked it the first time

I can’t remember the first time I heard Wynonie Harris, but I suppose it was when I was big into Lindy Hop, stepping out decked head to toe in vintage clothing during San Francisco’s ’90s swing revival. I do remember the song:

Keep on churnin’ till the butter comes
Keep on churnin’ till the butter comes
Keep on pumpin’ make the butter flow
Wipe off the paddle and churn some more

The song opens with a jump blues walking bass line from the upright bass—a bouncing horn section dancing in time right alongside it—and then a solo sax snakes down right into the lyrics. Harris’s voice is gritty and gravelly, a real blues shouter’s voice that earned him the nickname of Mr. Blues. He’s not just singing about wanting a fine brown cow — you can tell from the way he sings he’s going out and filling up his pail every night.

Harris recorded “Keep On Churnin’ (Till The Butter Comes)” on January 9, 1952, with the Todd Rhodes Orchestra.1 As far as double entendres go, it’s a lot less double and a lot more entendre, and the first time I heard it, it knocked my socks off. Somehow I bet Wynonie Harris knocked a lot of socks off.

“Keep On Churnin’” was on a compilation CD called Risqué Rhythm. The cover is mostly orange, and it has a gorgeous photo of a young man and his dance partner. She’s flying over his head and he’s looking up at her, but of course as she goes over him it’s as if he’s looking straight up her skirt.2

The other songs on the comp included “Big Ten-Inch Record,” by Bull Moose Jackson; “(I Love to Play Your Piano) Let Me Bang Your Box,” by the Toppers; and “It Ain’t the Meat,” by the Swallows. All of these songs were so gloriously crude, but not a single one of them had a filthy word. It was a whole world of “nudge nudge, wink wink,” and oh boy, could you dance to it.

Best of all, the filth didn’t come just from men. There was wonderful Julia Lee, with “My Man Stands Out,” “I Didn’t Like It the First Time,” and “Don’t Come Too Soon.” The inimitable Helen Humes has a live version of “I’m Gonna Let Him Ride” that’s as glorious for her singing as it is for the way the crowd roars her train on. The fascinating and captivating Nellie Lutcher sang “Hurry On Down.” And of course, there’s the magnificent Dinah Washington singing some of my favorites from the era, “Long John Blues” and “Big Long Slidin’ Thing.”

In fact, one of the most notoriously salacious songs — so raunchy I’ve had otherwise unflappable male friends tell me to turn it off when I played it for them in the car — was an early blues song recorded by Bessie Jackson, also known as Lucille Bogan. She sang many dirty blues songs, long before R&B and jump blues came on the scene, but none so raw as “Shave ’Em Dry II.” I won’t ruin the surprise for anyone who hasn’t heard it.

Let’s get drunk and…what?

The journey of recorded dirty blues songs begins in 1927, with Blind Lemon Jefferson’s famous B-side “Black Snake Moan #1.” (Don’t bother searching for it: you’ll just find the movie of the same name absent the #1.) Follow that path and you’ll hear about Bessie Smith’s sugar bowl. You’ll hear from Big Bill Broonzy, the Mississippi Sheiks, Lil Johnson (will you ever!), Art Mckay, Memphis Minnie, and Tampa Red and Georgia Tom.

Along the way, you’ll pass through swing and jazz groups, swinging and jump jiving their way from New York to New Orleans, from St. Louis and Chicago to Los Angeles. They’re singing about the finer points of dining, big-leg girls, and the particular, delectable shake of jelly.

With that last one, the road zooms right on into the late 1940s, when R&B explodes onto the scene and takes over. By this time, artists could no longer release records that were as flagrantly filthy, in part because of censorship but also because, as “rhythm and blues” replaced “race music” in the music industry, white audiences had more access to music by black artists.

Radio station censors would often refuse to play “race records” because of the lyrics, so R&B made the wink much broader. Of course, black audiences had been enjoying R&B for years, but when white audiences began listening, artists had to produce cleaner versions of their dirtier songs to put on the air — or at least versions that seemed cleaner.

Some dirty secrets are bigger than others

Wynonie Harris’s career began in the 1930s and ended in the late 1960s, just before his death in Los Angeles in 1969 at 53, partly the result of living exactly as he sang. He was one of the originators of rock ’n’ roll, although his version was not the one that made it to the mainstream.

The version that did was made by white musicians who took R&B-fueled rock ’n’ roll and melded it with rockabilly licks and rhythms. Bill Haley was one of them, and one of his biggest and best-known hits was “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” It was a straight-up dirty blues song as bawdy as they come, originally sung by the mighty Big Joe Turner.

Haley’s version was much cleaner, with almost all the entendre taken out including lines like “I’ve been holdin’ it in, way down underneath / You make me roll my eyes, baby, make me grit my teeth.” This ensured that the record would have no problem passing the radio station censors. One line was left in however, in part because Bill Haley was blind in one eye: “I’m like a one-eyed cat, peepin’ in a seafood store.” Unlike what happened with covers of many black artists’ music, the success of Haley’s version led audiences to Turner’s original. Each sold over a million copies.

But those artists in the 1940s and early 1950s who never saw success beyond the race and R&B charts, or whose work was picked over and then passed over, or whose hits we might remember now and again in passing, or who were even viewed as jazz greats by audiences who didn’t know about the wildcards they had tucked up their sleeves: these are the dirty secrets I love.

Songs that are wildly clever or appallingly crude. Eye-poppingly filthy, with a giant neon wink and nary a four-letter word. Songs with R&B rhythms that just happen to joyously and gleefully remind you that people have been talking and writing and singing about sex for as long as — well, at least as long as the stinger on Big Mama Thornton’s bumble bee. And it’s as long as her right arm.

Note: Jim “the Hound” Marshall knows more about music than I could learn in many lifetimes, so it was gratifying to see many of my favorites mentioned in his exceptional 1997 piece “The Ins and Outs of Dirty Records.” His article served as a wonderful, necessary reference for this music and these records.

You can listen to the author perform “Big Long Slidin’ Thing” on David McCreath’s podcast, It Might Get Personal.

  1. Matt Barton, the Library of Congress’s recorded sound curator, says that the library doesn’t seem to have a copy of the original. He says a recording in 1952 was likely released on both 45 and 78. 

  2. I eventually figured out that the young man on the cover was none other than Frankie Manning, one of the original Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers from Harlem. I’d taken a dance workshop with him when I was learning to dance — he was about 82. 

Leah Reich is a writer and ethnographer who lives in Berkeley, California. Her work has appeared in the Atlantic, The Awl, Maura Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and more. People used to come to her for advice about relationships, and now they just ask for advice on avocados.

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