10 Fabulous Vintage Drug Songs

By Tony O'Neill 03/27/13

If you think great songs about the highs or horrors of drugs began in the rock 'n' roll era, think again. The likes of Cab Calloway, the Ink Spots and Fats Waller were way ahead of the game.

Fats Waller: "Everybody's here but the police..."

For better or worse, drugs and popular culture are irrevocably entangled. Nowhere is the link more pronounced than in popular music, an art form that has an almost symbiotic relationship with substances. Whether drugs influence music or vice versa is a subject for debate—but few would argue that the Beatles would have transformed popular culture as they did without the influence of psychedelics; that house music would have become the behemoth it did without ecstasy culture; or that punk would have been quite the same without the relentless energy of speed and the nihilistic black hole of heroin as the twin engines that drove it.

Many might lazily assume that drug culture started in the 1960s—the era when supposedly everybody started turning on, tuning in and dropping out. But the truth is, just as human beings have been getting high since practically the dawn of time, popular musicians have been recording songs about getting high since they first started pressing 78s. To prove it, here's my selection of amazing pre-rock 'n' roll tracks about shooting smack, snorting coke, getting blitzed on booze and dancing all night on speed. Ladies and gentlemen, we present your grandmothers’ favorite drug songs: 

1. That Cat Is High (1938) - The Ink Spots

Active from 1934-1954, the Ink Spots were a very successful vocal group, whose close harmony style predated and influenced both doo-wop and rock’n’roll. Toward the end of their career the group fragmented into several competing factions—all laying claim to the Ink Spots moniker—but it was the classic lineup that recorded this witty homage to being wasted. Ostensibly about booze, the lyrical reference to how “hip” the subject is suggests that the song was actually a sly reference to marijuana. Indeed the “mellow as a honeydew” protagonist craves nothing more than a “home cookin’ momma with a frying pan”—an urge any stoner can surely relate to. In 1989 the original Ink Spots were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


2. Junker’s blues [1940] - Champion Jack Dupree

Legendary New Orleans boogie-woogie pianist Champion Jack Dupree recorded this ode to a life spent drunk and smashed on drugs, despite his reputation as a light drinker who didn’t do drugs. While some of the songs on this list used careful metaphor to approach the controversial subject, Champion Jack Dupree’s much-covered paean to drug use was lyrically loud and proud. Among references to needles, cocaine and reefer, Dupree at one point makes a case for quitting dangerous drugs like alcohol in favor of the more benign pleasures of pot: “Say goodbye, goodbye to whiskey
 / Lord and so long to gin
 / I just want my reefer / I just want to feel high again…” The song later became a massive smash when Fats Waller cleaned up the drug references and recorded it as “The Fat Man.” In the punk era the song turned up again as a “Junco Partner”—a punk-reggae track on The Clash’s Sandinista! album.


3. Who put the Benzedrine in Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine? [1947] - Harry “The Hipster” Gibson

Harry “the hipster” Gibson was a wildly successful jazz pianist, singer and songwriter. His career was kick-started when Fats Waller discovered him playing the nightclubs of Harlem back in 1939. Waller introduced the young Harry Raab to the midtown club circuit and—one quick name-change later—the legend of Harry “The Hipster” Gibson was born. Throughout the '40s Gibson recorded witty, wild records like “Barrelhouse Boogie” and “Get Your Juices at the Deuces”. But this 1947 novelty song about a housewife who gets spiked with Benzedrine—the then-popular prescription amphetamine that was widely used by proto-beats and jazz musicians—nearly ended his career. Its risqué lyrics—which also reference Nembutals, a benzo known as “goofballs”—and glorification of drug use (Mrs. Murphy quite enjoys the speed she accidentally ingests) led to a music-industry blacklisting that finished him as a commercial prospect for the next two decades. Still, he remained a cult figure among the first wave of rock 'n' rollers. He staged a comeback in the 1970s, resulting in three more (very strange) albums.


4. Minnie The Moocher [1931] - Cab Calloway

"Minnie the Moocher" is one of the best known and most loved drug songs of all time. First recorded by Cab Calloway in 1931, it turned out to be one of the legendary jazz vocalist's most enduring songs. He re-recorded it several times during his storied career. Interestingly, the drug references were often smoothed out in later versions to reflect shifting mores—it’s best to seek out the original version. Here Calloway tells the tragic story of Minnie—a “red-hot Hoochie-Coocher”—and her tragic dalliance with the grimy glory of the opium pipe. Minnie meets “Smokey Joe,” a habitual cocaine user who takes her down to Chinatown to smoke opium (or “kick the gong around”). Instantly recognizable for its call-and-response section, the song has endured for over 80 years. It spawned a bunch of sequels: Other Calloway songs to reference Minnie include “The Ghost of Smokey Joe,” “Kicking the Gong Around” and “Minnie’s a Hepcat Now.” According to the longest known version of this song, Minnie ends up dying in an insane asylum. Poor Min, indeed.


5. Cocaine Habit Blues [1930] - Memphis Jug Band

Between 1927 and 1934, the Memphis Jug Band recorded a staggering 80 commercial records. Their unique sound was down to their unusual lineup, which included harmonica, washboard, kazoo and the jug [above], alongside more traditional instruments. Based on the traditional blues number, “Take A Whiff on Me”—which had been recorded by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Lead Belly—the lyrics of “Cocaine Habit Blues” prove that drug use is indeed cyclical. “Since cocaine went out of style,” observes one verse, “
You can catch them shooting needles all the while…”—a line which could easily have been written about the heroin explosion of the early 1980s, following the '70s cocaine fad. Hardly an anti-coke song, the track does refer to cocaine as “worst old habit I ever had” —but each verse ends with the cheerful invitation: “Honey, take a whiff on me!”

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