Friday, 24 July 2015

My favourite songs about sex workers

The story about a hotel in Hull refusing to admit an 18-year old Romanian student because staff thought she was a prostitute surprised me, because every report I saw on the incident used the word “prostitute” rather than “sex worker”. Sky News and the BBC went through a phase of favouring the latter term, which implies that whoring is a perfectly respectable way to earn a living, rather than the old-fashioned, judgmental one. Is this a sign of political correctness finally loosening its suffocating hold on the nation’s throat? Probably not. I’m sure our collective timidity will ensure that the void between, for instance, “coloured people” and “people of colour” will grow ever wider, and that the use of "homosexual" - as opposed to "gay" - will eventually be outlawed altogether.

Yesterday’s news item reminded me that I’d once come up with a list of my favourite songs about the world’s oldest profession. (I’m a bloke – I do lists.) Here they are, in no particular order:

The lyrics of Edith Piaf's "C'est à Hambourg" present an ickily sentimental view of prostitution ("My heart is too big for a single guy/ My heart is too big and that is why/ I took on love from all over the world"). Yeah, sure. Anyway, it sounds lovely in French.

There's nothing sentimental about "Backside of Dallas" (1969), Jeannie C. Riley's tough-as-old-boots take on the issue:

The earliest recording on my list is "Love for Sale" by Fred Waring's Pennsylvanians & The Three Waring Girls, which reached No. 14 on the US charts in 1931, despite Cole Porter's song receiving a universal radio ban (for obvious reasons). This recording features a complete instrumental run-through before the girls put in an appearance at 1'29":

In 1968, the under-rated O.C. Smith gave us a slice of prime Country Soul, "The Son of Hickory Holler's Tramp". That big bouquet of 14 roses gets me ever time!

Regular infusions of alcohol and a Donna Summer LP once got me through a particularly harrowing holiday with a girl-friend at her parents' flat in Spain (second-rate food, unfriendly locals, idiot teenagers constantly revving their crappy Honda 50cc rip-offs along the pathetic little "strip" which separated our apartment block from the nasty, rocky beach opposite, where some old racist drunk lobbed an empty liquor bottle at us during our one attempt to use it). The LP just happened to be there. Anyway, I got very fond of Ms Summer during our grimly joyless stay:

I've always loved Patti Labelle's "Lady Marmalade" (1974), partly because of the bit where she sings "Gitchy Gitchy Ya Ya Da Da(?)" and partly because the Frenchified pronunciation of "marmalade" manages to make the breakfast staple sound both exotic and naughty:

The tune to "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels" belongs to an old Southern hymn, and has been re-used regularly by country song-writers over the decades for a variety of material: devotional ("The Great Speckled Bird") and undevotional ("I'm Thinking Tonight of my Blue Eyes""The Wild Side of Life"). The last of those - recorded by Hank Snow in 1952 - was answered later that year in a No. 1 hit by Miss Kitty Wells, whose Bible Belt propriety I've always found strangely touching (and, yes, I'm aware that a honky tonk angel is more of a good-time girl than a professional):

Durn, that's purdy!  

There's no doubt about how "Fancy" makes her living in the the song of that name written and performed by sultry Mississippi chanteuse, Bobbie Gentry, possessor of possibly the most gorgeous white female voice of the 1960s (or of all time, come to that) - a sort of musical version of Fenella Fielding's (who, I'm delighted to say, is still with us, and is often to be encountered doing her shopping on Chiswick High Road - but I digress). Quite apart from her vocal talent, Ms Gentry was a brilliant writer of short stories - just listen and marvel:

Now, I've never seen America's Got Talent, and asking a ten-year old girl to sing a song about being a prostitute strikes me as extremely inappropriate, but I came across Anna Christine's extraordinary performance while searching for versions of the song on YouTube, and thought I'd share it with you (as they say these days):

Ten??? (Naturally, she didn't win the competition.)

I could have included "Honky Tonk Women" (here) and "Roxanne" (here) - but I was trying not to be too predictable.


  1. ... I was trying not to be too predictable.

    I predicted the inclusion of this quiet little ditty but maybe that really would have been too predictable.

    1. Not a bad idea - but it would have needed to include the line "Every one a wirgin" from "Wilkommen". Also, whenever I think of Liza Minnelli, I also think of David Gest, and, as Kevin Keegan used to say, nobody's a fan of that.

  2. A propos next to nothing, I sat through Neil Brand's Sound of Song series on BBC4 the other night. In Episode 2 he interviews Mike Stoller, who reminisced about a song he wrote and produced with Mr Lieber: "Jerry said he wanted to call it Mother****er but I said I was comfortable with Hound Dog".

    1. Also, when Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers were writing their first big hit, "Le Freak", it was actually called "Fuck Off!" - because they wrote it after not being allowed into Sudio 54 on the grounds that they weren't famous. I think, on the whole, the right call was made in both cases.