“I drink too much. The last time I gave a urine sample it had an olive in it.”
– Rodney Dangerfield
Singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton was inspired to write “The No No Song” the morning after a losing bout with booze and drugs. “I was afraid if I looked around I’d see the devil sittin’ in the chair across the room, sayin’ ‘I gotcha, boy – you finally overdid it,'” Axton told NewsOK in 1982. “That was the day before I wrote ‘The No No Song.’
“It wasn’t really that much of a moral issue. It was just my body started sayin’ ‘now wait a minute …’ A good analogy would be that your life is a camera and your mind is the lens. If you’ve got something foggin’ up the lens, man, you’re not gonna get a clear picture, a clear set of memories or a clear life.”
The song became a Top 10 hit for Ringo Starr in 1974. In a conversation with Bill Minkin, Starr called the song a “magical experience with Hoyt Axton. Love the song. Love what it was doing. It was such a good song for me. Real, but comedy. Good lyric, good attitude. Makes no sense. Good song for me.”
But Starr told Time that the song’s message didn’t make much of an impression on him. “We were doing ‘The No No Song’ with the biggest spliff and a large bottle of Jack Daniel’s.”
“The No No Song” by Ringo Starr
“The No No Song” by Hoyt Axton
“Tequila Sunrise” was a highlight of the Eagles‘ 1973 LP Desperado. It is among the earliest songs co-written by Don Henley and Glenn Frey, inspired by the name of that year’s popular drink. “I believe that was a Glenn title,” said Henley in the liner notes of their collection The Very Best Of. “I think he was ambivalent about it because he thought that it was a bit too obvious or too much of a cliché because of the drink that was so popular then. I said ‘No – look at it from a different point of view. You’ve been drinking straight tequila all night, and the sun is coming up!’
“It turned out to be a really great song. The changes that Glenn came up with for the bridge are very smart. That’s one song I don’t get tired of. ‘Take another shot of courage’ refers to tequila – because we used to call it ‘instant courage.’ We very much wanted to talk to the ladies, but we often didn’t have the nerve, so we’d drink a couple of shots and suddenly it was, ‘Howdy, ma’am.'”
“I love the song,” added Frey. “I think the goal of any songwriter is to make a song appear seamless, to never show the struggle. Nothing should sound forced. ‘Tequila Sunrise’ was written fairly quickly, and I don’t think there’s a single chord out of place.”
“Tequila Sunrise” by the Eagles
When British band UB40 recorded “Red Red Wine” in 1983, they were unaware that the song was written and first recorded in 1967 by Neil Diamond. The band’s inspiration was a version cut by Jamaican reggae singer Tony Tribe. “That was a ska number I heard when I was about 7 or 8 years old,” singer Ali Campbell told Digital Trends. “When we did the Labour of Love series, the three albums of covers – those were the songs that got us into reggae in the first place: ‘Red Red Wine,’ ‘Cherry Oh Baby,’ ‘Kingston Town,’ ‘Many Rivers to Cross’ — those were all songs we grew up listening to and loved.”
“The funny thing about the song is we only knew it as a reggae song,” Campbell recounted in 1000 UK Number One Hits. “Even when we saw the writing credit, which said N. Diamond,” added singer Astro, “we thought it was a Jamaican artist called Negus Diamond or something.”
By the way, the name UB40 comes from the form Brits fill out to claim unemployment payments from the government: Unemployment Benefits, Form 40.
“Red Red Wine” by UB40
“Red Red Wine” by Neil Diamond
“Spo-Dee-O-Dee” is what hobos get by mixing together what’s left at the bottom of many wine bottles. Granville “Stick” McGhee recorded “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” for Harlem Records in 1946 after a stint in the army. Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records, told the Los Angeles Times how the tune became a success.
“This big record distributor in New Orleans called me one day in 1949. He was looking for a blues record that was selling so fast he couldn’t keep them in stock. It was on some obscure label and he asked if I could help him find it. He wanted 10,000 copies. Now that floored me: The most he had ever ordered of any of our records was 25 copies!
“I had never heard of the label, but I told him that if he’d send me a copy of the record, we’d go into the studio and make an exact copy. The record turned out to be ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’ by someone named Stick McGhee. Now the only two blues singers in New York at the time were Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. So, I called Brownie … and it turned out Stick was his brother. So, Brownie put me in touch with Stick and I asked him if he’s under contract to anybody. As soon as he said ‘no,’ I got him into the studio and we made our version of ‘Spo-Dee-O-Dee.’ Within three days, I shipped 10,000 copies. The record went to No. 2.”
Jerry Lee Lewis released his single version in 1973 but had performed it years before. “People don’t realize that I have been doin’ these songs ever since they were No. 1’s, 1947, 1948,” Lewis told The Guardian. “I got the original record of that, ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.’ My cousin gave it to me many years ago. I played that sucker and played it and played it till I wore the damn thing out. It had it. But it didn’t have it like my version had it. A song can be good, but it can’t be great till I cut it.”
“Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by Stick McGhee
“Boogie Woogie Country Man / Swinging Doors / Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
A close listen to the lyrics of Traffic‘s “John Barleycorn Must Die,” with its references to pitchforks and scythes, reveals a description of the manufacture of barley into beer and whisky. Flutist Chris Wood first heard a version of the ancient tale by the Watersons, a British folk group.
“It was Chris Wood who came up with the idea of doing ‘John Barleycorn,'” Steve Winwood told Guitar. “He found the song, which is an Oxfordshire version from the 16th century. Chris came up with the idea; he was always introducing us to very different styles of music.”
Traffic was hardly known as a folk-rock band, but “John Barleycorn” was an easy fit on FM radio when the song was released in 1970. “What happened then is Traffic were quite happily playing exactly the music that we wanted to, without paying any attention to what anybody else wanted,” Winwood recalled in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And at that same time U.S. radio went from AM to FM, and so the way it seems to work in America is that AM played the Top 40 and FM wanted for some reason to play these long tracks, the 15-minute-long jams, with not much talking, and of course that’s exactly what we were doing. We weren’t aiming for that market in any way. We just happened to be there in the right place.”
“John Barleycorn Must Die” by Traffic
“John Barleycorn” by the Watersons
Fans are still trying to figure out the meaning of Eric Burdon and War‘s “Spill the Wine,” a Top 10 hit in 1970. The tune began as an improvisation with Burdon and War keyboardist Lonnie Jordan. “It was back in the days when the label would put you in a studio and let the tape roll,” Burdon told The Record. “While most of the band was across the street having lunch, I was taking a break, lying on the floor of the studio. My Puerto Rican girlfriend strolled in and Lonnie Jordan started playing a beat to reflect her body movement. I grabbed the microphone and started rapping. At the time, the California wine industry had no real grasp of how to produce red wine. It was more like spill it than drink it.
“The engineer captured the moment. When the band returned from lunch, we played it for them and we recorded it right away. It was an improvisational piece that found its way to the top of the charts.”
The song almost didn’t make it to the charts. “The funny thing was that it was originally going to be the B-side to a song called ‘Magic Mountain’,” recalled Burdon in Get Ready to Rock. “Now that song was basically about a Californian mountain called Mount Tamalpais, and back in the hippie days we all used to go up there and hang out. But the deejays wouldn’t play the song because they wrongly assumed the lyrics were all about sex and drugs. So as a consequence ‘Spill the Wine’ became the song that they played.”
“Spill the Wine” by Eric Burdon and War
While “Roadhouse Blues” was not a successful single for the Doors on its release in 1970, the song became a fan favorite in concert. Its signature line is “Woke up this morning and I got myself a beer.” Legendary guitarist Lonnie Mack took part in the session though controversy surrounded what part he played.
“Lonnie had quit the music business and was actually working for Elektra Records doing something,” guitarist Robby Krieger told Premier Guitar. “I know he sold Bibles for a while too. He was around the studio when we were getting ready to record ‘Roadhouse Blues,’ so we asked him to play bass. He did a great job, and got back into music after that.”
“Lonnie sat down in front of the paisley baffles that soak up the sound,” drummer John Densmore recalled in Riders on the Storm. “A hefty guy with a pencil-thin beard, he had on a wide-brimmed hat that had become his trademark. Lonnie Mack epitomized the blues – not the rural blues, but the city blues; he was bad.”
“Roadhouse Blues” by the Doors
Written by Nickolas Ashford, Valerie Simpson and Josephine Armstead, “Let’s Go Get Stoned” was a No. 1 R&B hit for Ray Charles in 1966. Country singer Ronnie Milsap explained on Dialogues that as a college student he met Charles backstage after a concert. Milsap says Charles gave him some good advice.
“He said, ‘You could be a lawyer if you want to. But there’s a lot of music in your heart. And if I were you I’d do what my heart tells me to do.’ By the second time I saw him, he said, ‘You know, I love that record you’ve got out called ‘Never Had It So Good.’ He said, ‘Man, that thing, that’s a big record for you. You took my advice and you’re doing pretty good.’ He said, ‘But you know what I like? I like that B-side, that thing called ‘Let’s Go Get Stoned.’ As a matter of fact I like it so much I’m gonna cut it myself!'”
“That was all a joke too when we wrote that song,” Ashford told NPR’s Ed Gordon. “Because we were working with this publisher, Ed Silvers, and we came into his office one day and he said, you guys got a song for us? And we said, oh yeah, we wrote this great song. But it was a song we went out the door singing when we couldn’t write any song. We were saying, oh, let’s go get stoned. And we made it up for him on the spot. And he said, oh my God, that’s great.”
Joe Cocker recorded a few versions of the song but best known is his performance at the Woodstock Festival in 1969.
“Let’s Go Get Stoned” by Ray Charles
“Let’s Go Get Stoned” by Joe Cocker (at Woodstock)
Originally recorded in 1953 by Amos Milburn, “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” became a classic of bluesman John Lee Hooker. “The first time I heard John Lee Hooker do ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer’ no one was dancing to the blues at that time,” George Thorogood told Blues Blast. “They would sit there like they were in a temple … you could hear a pin drop. But when John Lee did ‘Bourbon’ the dance floor filled up with women. I said, ‘That’s it. That’s the one.’ Hooker knew what he was doing.”
Thorogood recognized the song’s potential but had a hard time convincing anyone to let him record it. “Well, the song was a hit,” Thorogood told Music-Illuminati. “I saw John Lee Hooker doing that, and I saw Brownie McGhee doing it, and I said, ‘This song’s a hit.’ I was playing that song even before I put the band together, and Rounder Records came along and they said, ‘Well, if we’re going to make a record, that’s the song that we have to record.’ And they were right. It’s a great song, and it would’ve been a great song no matter who did it. If Dean Martin had done it, or if Tom Waits had done it, or Aerosmith or J. Geils, the song’s a hit. I’m not a hit. The song’s a hit.
“I included that intro from another John Lee Hooker song ‘House Rent Blues.’ So I just connected the two. I thought one just would blend into the other.”
“One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” by George Thorogood and the Destroyers
“One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer” by John Lee Hooker
“Hey Bartender” was written and recorded by bluesman Floyd Dixon in 1955. The Blues Brothers, comedians John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, included the song on their 1978 LP Briefcase Full of Blues. Belushi was introduced to the song by musician Curtis Salgado during a break in the filming of National Lampoon’s Animal House.
“We had a Monday night gig to make some extra money with some musicians and Belushi shows up,” Salgado recalled to the Houston Press. “He wants to play with the band and he wants to do ‘Jailhouse Rock’ or ‘Johnny B. Goode,’ and I said no, that was cornball, overdone. So I brought him ‘Hey Bartender’ by Floyd Dixon.
“Years later, at the Chicago Blues Festival, Floyd Dixon comes up to me and said, ‘Curtis, I want to thank you for turning them onto that song. It made more money for me than anything else, I got the biggest royalty check of my life.’ And it choked me up. And I said ‘It’s none of my business, but how much was it?’ And he said $78,000. And I said, ‘Wow, what did you do with it?’ And Floyd just looked into the distance with a gleam in his eye, and said, ‘I had a wonderful time. I spent it all on a horse.’ Now that is a bluesman! He gambled it all away, and he didn’t care!”
“Hey Bartender” by the Blues Brothers
“Hey Bartender” by Floyd Dixon
Tommy James released “Sweet Cherry Wine” in 1969 as protests of the Vietnam War swept the U.S. Like his “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” “Sweet Cherry Wine” was a psychedelic rocker that promoted peace. “Basically they sounded like what I believed in that moment and I still do,” James explained in Psychedelic Baby. “I was very glad that those records became as big hits as they became, because they were truly a very different type of music than what we started out with. You know, we started as the garage band and we ended up selling albums with a lot of different kinds of music. One thing I must say is that we felt our records were like chameleons for a while, because we literally went from ‘Mony Mony’ to ‘Crimson and Clover,’ ‘Crystal Blue Persuasion’ and ‘Sweet Cherry Wine’ and we kept dragging the line and changing the sound! It wasn’t that we were trying to do that, it`s just we were writing so many different kinds of songs and we just picked the best one of them, and each of them was a snapshot of what we were writing in that moment.”
James told CBN that wine was a metaphor for the blood of Christ. “What I’m saying is the Lord has not only directed my path, but He’s been my Shepherd all my life. He’s been kind to me. He’s been generous to me. But He’s also let me know that it’s Him. When I’m appearing somewhere, I get to throw little seeds out there. I’ll say at the end of ‘Sweet Cherry Wine,’ which is about the blood of Jesus, ‘Keep looking up. Jesus is coming.’”
“Sweet Cherry Wine” by Tommy James and the Shondells
Below, enjoy our Top 11 Booze Songs as a Spotify playlist: