Steely Dan's Dallas.
There are a ton of songs about or inspired by Dallas, and they say a lot about who we are. So each week in this space, we'll take a closer week at one of these songs — and we'll try to determine what, exactly, they say about this great city of ours. Check out this feature's archives here.
In 1972, Steely Dan released their debut release, Can't Buy a Thrill. That album, which featured lead singles “Do It Again” and “Reelin' in the Years,” helped launch the band's wildly successful 40-year career.
Though recorded in the Can't Buy a Thrill sessions, the songs “Dallas” and “Sail the Waterway” weren't released on that album. Instead, they were put out separately as a single and b-side that same year.
Although Thrill was the only album to feature David Palmer occasionally covering lead vocal duties (Donald Fagen wasn't sure at the time that he was up to handling vocals during live performances), it was drummer Jim Hodder who lent his vocals to the “Dallas” single.
Here's the question: Was Dallas chosen as the song's setting simply because it conveniently rhymed with “palace” or did the city, in fact, have some sort of special meaning for songwriter's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker?
In the song's opening lines Hodder sings, “I lived in no holy house but the Grand Hotel / Back streets of this old town I know so well.”
Aside from inserting a jab at Led Zeppelin in a moment of dark witticism (Zep's Houses of the Holy was recorded in 1972 as well), the lyrics do mention the Grand Hotel — a name later applied to the Statler Hilton, which currently sits vacant (with renovation plans in the works) across from Main Street Garden Park.
Located at 1914 Commerce, the Statler Hilton was something of a marvel when it first opened in 1956. Though it initially began development under the Statler brand, that changed mid-stream when Conrad Hilton purchased The Hotel Statler Company for $111 million in the largest real estate transaction to date at that point. As one of the first new properties to open since the acquisition, Hilton considered his new Dallas hotel something of a flagship for his growing company.
As such, the hotel's three-day opening celebrations featured appearances from a Who's Who list of A-list Hollywood actors, the governor and other important figures. Also notably featured in the celebrations were a group of chorus girls called the Hiltonettes, whose performances were intended to represent the “ingredients” of Dallas. According to Hilton, the ingredients his mink-clad dancers were supposed to represent were oil, cotton, the State Fair of Texas, SMU, money, show business, fashion, cattle, bluebonnets and, most importantly, the Statler Hilton.
But it wasn't just all just for show. The Statler Hilton introduced many new features to the hotel industry, including elevator music and a television set in every room. At the time, the hotel's 13,000 square-foot grand ballroom was the largest in North America. And, although it never quite proved itself necessary, the roof originally included a heliport. At the time, popular belief was that the future would include some sort of aero-taxi service, and Hilton wanted a convenient way for guests to quickly travel to Fort Worth as well as to and from the airport.
After opening, the Statler became the place in Dallas for celebrities and entertainers to stay. It was even said to be Elvis' preferred spot. More notoriously, though, the Statler Hilton was where Tina Turner left her abusive husband Ike. Following a 1976 performance at the hotel, Turner snuck down the back stairs and walked to a nearby Ramada while Ike was fast asleep in their suite at the Statler.
Although this may seem like the perfect place for Donald Fagen to crash while in town, the Statler Hilton was probably not the place the Dan sang about. While the hotel was known as the Dallas Grand Hotel for a roughly 13-year period, it didn't earn that name until being sold to a group of Hong Kong investors in 1988.
Another hotel on Lyndon B. Johnson Freeway called The Grand Hotel Dallas has been in operation since the '60s. That hotel is currently unaccredited by the Better Business Bureau because, as the BBB site puts it, they “made two or more requests for background information from the business. BBB has not received a response from this business and/or has not been able to verify information received from this business.”
This makes since, though. When one looks up the “history” section of that hotel's website, the only thing it says is “1964: Opened. 1974: Renovated.” So it wouldn't necessarily be much of a stretch to think that the place is neither a “holy house” nor a “palace.”
Still, it could have very likely been the place Fagen and Co. would've stayed in the days before their debut album began shooting up the charts.
Nowadays, what with the Statler Hilton being vacant for the last decade, the Dan would probably prefer a place like the Omni, whose infamous facade has already played a small role in the Leobardo Trevino's re-development of the long-abandoned building. Trevino even hinted to as much in a recent interview with the Dallas Morning News about the recent addition of blue lights on the building's exterior.
“That is going to look gorgeous at night,” Trevino says.”And it will just be one color. I didn't want to go with the multicolor thing. We went with royal blue to give us the best reflection. These lamps were made for this building, and it's not Christmas lights, not disco. Just one shade of royal blue.”
Royal, huh? Kind of like a palace, I guess.