September 22, 2013
Fryers... Broilers... and Detroit barbecue ribs!
That’s the bridge from “House of Blue Lights” by Don Kaye and Freddie Slack. I’m used to hearing it performed by Asleep at the Wheel, and back in the day when Diane and I used to hear them at a roadhouse called “The Hall of Fame” people would pack the floor two-stepping to the Texas swing beat. The bridge line is where all the food is in “House of Blue Lights” and the “Detroit barbecue ribs” lyric is perfect for plumbing the magnificent lower range of Ray Benson’s baritone. The rest of the song is (appropriately) about dancing. Despite the fryers, broilers and Detroit barbecue ribs that seem to be a major attraction, the verse continues to advise listeners “but the treat of treat is when they serve up those fine eight beats.”
Now there is a bit of a controversy here, as some transcriptions indicate that the lyric is “egg beats” rather than “eight beats”. I think this just testifies to the way that food overrides dancing in fixing the larger hermeneutic frame for making sense of this highly rhythmic little ditty for many listeners. It’s the infectious beat that carries the dancing subtext to our feet, so why not go with the stomach as far as the main message is concerned? However, in the spirit of accuracy that is the enduring spirit of the Thornapple Blog (!?!) I would lean to the “eights” rather than the “eggs”. After all, the first verse tells us to alternately pull up our boots or jeans (depending on who’s singing) and truck on down to that knocked-out joint at the edge of town. We are then advised “There’s an eight beat combo that just won’t quit. Keep on walkin’ ‘til you see a blue light lit.” So I think that Messrs. Kaye and Slack have signaled the dancing theme pretty clearly right up front.
And being of the over sixty persuasion as noted last week, I have to say that I am overwhelmingly taken by the idea of walking down to a knocked out shack at the edge of town, notable for its fryers, broilers and Detroit barbecue ribs, and recognizable merely by the “blue light lit.” I admit that it’s pure nostalgia, but it sure beats heading to Appleby’s for the early bird special. There’s no reason why a food song can’t also be good to dance to, after all.
Although I associate “House of Blue Light” with Ray Benson, the song has apparently been covered by just about everyone—Chuck Berry, George Thorogood, the Andrews Sisters. Billy Joel does his own tune by the same name, but despite the fact that the love interest in his version “don’t mind makin’ breakfast in the morning”, I don’t really think it’s a food song. While Joel goes for tawdry sex, the Kaye and Slack version is more wholesome (if not also frank about the full range of bodily pleasures). The original (I presume) is the one recorded by Freddie Slack’s band back in 1945 with Ella Mae Morse doing the vocals. Freddie and Ella Mae banter for a while at the outset about where to spend the evening. Although Ella Mae is mainly taken by the “fine eight beats”, I also get the sense that she’s keen on getting Freddie to spring for some of those fryers, broilers and Detroit barbecue ribs.
And that’s why the “House of Blue Light” is a food song.
Paul B. Thompson is the W.K. Kellogg Professor of Agricultural, Food and Community Ethics at Michigan State University