Many brain cells ago, in a bar in, I think, Phoenix, I heard a western swing band doing a song that, to a hopped-up descending string of chords (like “Minnie the Moocher”), repeated “Dunkin’ bagel, dunkin’ bagel, dunkin’ bagel/ Splash! In the coffee.” That line has come into my brain over the years, seemingly out of the blue, and it has always made me smile. But I never got around to tracking it down.
I was listening recently to an anthology that included a song by swing musician/songwriter Slim Gaillard when I realized that it was he who was responsible for “Dunkin’ Bagel.” Now I keep a compilation that includes that song around for when the mood hits me.
Slim Gaillard is, sadly, mostly forgotten now, but those who do remember him are probably thinking of his 1938 hit “Flat Foot Floogie” or his post-war composition “Cement Mixer” (“Cement mixer, put-ti, put-ti”). Slim was way into the nonsense syllables. He even published a dictionary of hepcat phrases that found their way into his novelty numbers, including the aforementioned songs, plus “Yip Roc Heresy” (pronounced ha-REE-see), “Laughing in Rhythm,” “Tee Say Malee,” and many others too vout-oroonie to mention. Oh, but on the food theme, I should mention that Slim gave us a “Tutti Frutti” in 1945, eleven years before Little Richard’s.
Slim Gaillard was just a funny guy. In his book 52nd St.: The Street of Jazz, Arnold Shaw writes, “A natural musician, he was not content just to shine as a jazz performer.” Shaw describes Slim playing the piano with his palms up, playing vibraphone with swizzle sticks, and playing the melodies of songs like “Jingle Bells” on a snare drum, massaging the drumhead to beat out the different notes.
Now, that’s entertainment! Slim was indeed the very voutiest.
From the same era came Cab Calloway’s playful “Everyone Eats When They Come to My House.” Its verses rhyme various food items with names: “Have a salami, Tommy,” “Pass me a pancake, Mandrake.” I would like to update the song a little bit, using some more recent taste sensations. Maybe “Have some wasabi, Bobbi”? Or “Pass me the kale, Dale”? Or how about “Try a Muchaco, Rocco”?
When his family moved to Texas from Iowa, one of the Midwestern treasures my childhood friend Dean brought along from Iowa was a 45 by The Slough Boys. Apparently, they were pretty big in the Cedar Rapids area at one time. That one 45 was a feast for food-song lovers. The A side was their regional hit “Fried Chicken Baby.” It was swell, but the flip side is the one that endured in my world. I sang “Grapefruit Juice and Oranges” quite often to my daughter. She couldn’t get enough of it. And now she sings it to her kids. (They prefer Michael Jackson and Disney theme songs but will occasionally break away to revel in a little “Grapefruit Juice.”) I’ve found it not only to be a song kids love to sing but a song kids enjoy rewriting. Since each verse repeats a pairing and then reverses it, children love to sub in their own food items. “Chili dogs and Cheez-Its, chili dogs and Cheez-Its, chili dogs and Cheez-Its / Cheez-Its and chili dogs.” And kids’ elastic sense of meter can make it fun: “Pineapple upside-down cake and spaghetti-and-meatballs, pineapple upside-down cake and spaghetti-and-meatballs…”
“Shoo-fly Pie and Apple Pan Dowdy” is one I learned from my late, great duo partner T. Buck Burns. Being a Texas boy, I really didn’t know until I’d been singing the song for many years that shoo-fly pie is a Pennsylvania Dutch treat made with molasses—hence the flies that must be shooed. The Pennsylvania Dutch also gave the world apple pan dowdy, to make our tummies “say howdy.”
An album whose track listing reads like a restaurant menu is Herb Alpert’s 1965 blockbuster Whipped Cream & Other Delights. “Green Peppers,” “Tangerine,” “Ladyfingers.” Not to mention “Whipped Cream, a food item that was notably featured on the LP’s jacket. It made us young boys think of something other than food when we looked at it slathered all over a beautiful lady (who, contrary to a rumor popular at the time, was not married to Alpert). It was the record cover in our parents’ record rack that all of us occasionally snuck a peek at. It sold so well that it was a frequent Clearance item at the book-and-record store where I worked. We got so many that one guy wallpapered his warehouse office with the covers.
The concept inspired a slew of ethnic variations, including Sweet Cream & Other Delights (by a black group), Sour Cream & Other Delights (Yiddish), and Spaghetti Sauce & Other Delights by Italian comic Pat Cooper. Of course, Herb and his Tijuana Brass were themselves not truly Mexican. Alpert is Jewish; his association with Mexico was as a tourist. Most of his band members were Italian. It was the same with the offshoot Baja Marimba Band.
James Brown was all over popcorn (actually “the popcorn”—a dance) in 1969: “The Popcorn” was followed by “Mother Popcorn,” “Lowdown Popcorn,” and “Let a Man Come in and Do the Popcorn.” But my favorite JB food references are in the song “Make It Funky.” After displaying musically for three minutes or so just what is funky, James, as the song fades out, decides to yell out some food items that make it funky: “Neck bones! Candied yams! Turnips! Smothered steak! Smothered steak! Cracklin’ bread!” That’s some funky food—especially, looks like, smothered steak.
Honorable Mentions: How about a last meal playlist comprising favorite songs of favorite foods? Start out “Struttin’ with Some Barbecue” (1928). It is the best of food songs, musically evoking the joys of eating. A hit from Louis Armstrong’s Golden Era. Then get some “Jambalaya” (Hank Williams, 1952). Add “Mashed Potato Time” (Dee Dee Sharp, 1962) and “Bread and Butter” (Newbeats, 1964). Finish it off with a little “Cherry Pie” (Skip & Flip, 1960). And, after a nice meal and dessert, gotta have (no, not “Scotch and Soda”) “Chiclete com Banana” (banana gum—Trio Mocoto, 2005). OK, occasionally a scotch and soda, too.
Amazing Jimmy (“No such thing as a bad song”) Nominees: Two acts are guilty of inflicting the radio-listening public with double-whammy bubble-gum/food-song dreck: Tommy Roe, for “Sweet Pea” and “Jam Up Jelly Tight,” and Ohio Express for “Yummy Yummy Yummy” and “Chewy Chewy.” Indigestible.
For songs of food, you probably can’t beat “Popcorn” by Hot Butter. Or is it “Hot Butter” by Popcorn? Either way, both the artist and the song title are food! Of course, the song sucks, and the whole thing was probably a gimmick. Who ever heard of Popcorn (or Hot Butter) again?
Great Song Title: One of the things I like about Captain Beefheart is his instrument choices, especially the way he incorporates trombones and marimbas into his music. But another treat is his way with a song title. Favorites include “Bat Chain Puller,” “Blabber ‘n Smoke,” “Abba Zabba,” and, for this category, “Tropical Hot Dog Night.”
Dream Jukebox Candidate: “Make It Funky.” Any JB is welcome on my Dream Jukebox.