Charlie Daniels Band's Trudy.
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.
Before his 1973 novelty song “Uneasy Rider” became a chart-topper, Charlie Daniels was a relatively unknown commodity. This was despite being a rather sought-after Nashville studio musician and recording bass parts for a number of Bob Dylan albums. By 1974, though, he had enough clout to begin holding his annual Volunteer Jam concert series, which featured a Who's Who of southern rock artists.
It was at 1979's Volunteer Jam where the surviving members of Lynryd Skynryd reunited for the first time since a 1977 plane crash killed several key members of the band. Several members of Daniels' own backing band helped fill in the gaps.
The same year that he launched the Volunteer Jam, Daniels also released Fire on the Mountain, an album featuring a song that focused on Dallas. That song, “Trudy,” tells us a great deal about our city's past involvement with the mob, gambling activities, dirty dealings, murders and cover-ups. In the song, an unnamed protagonist has been thrown in jail following a poker game gone bad.
Sings Daniels: “So call up Trudy on the telephone / send her a letter in the mail. / Tell her I'm hung up in Dallas / and they won't let me outta this jail.”
While Dallas may not seem like the most logical setting for Daniels' song to take place, there was indeed a time period in the '30s and '40s — before Las Vegas became the country's gambling hub — when North Texas was actually home to the most lavish gambling establishment in the country. Located within close proximity to Arlington Downs Racetrack, a nearby tea house and restaurant called Top O'Hill Terrace was attracting celebrities like John Wayne and Clark Gable and even outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde.
Unbeknownst to local authorities — and many of the restaurants' legitimate customers, for that matter — Top O'Hill Terrace was secretly operating as the most luxurious casino and brothel in the country. Secret tunnels, trap doors, two-way mirrors, false walls and hidden gates helped the establishment's basement gaming facilities hide its gaming equipment during raids, while also allowing gamblers the chance to secretly escape into the nearby tea room. It also helped that the property was located on the highest tract of land in Tarrant County, featuring a 1,000-foot elevation and security guards posted around the grounds 24/7.
Eventually, after several attempted raids over the years spearheaded by a zealous Fort Worth minister and the Texas Rangers, the casino was caught running full force in 1947 and was finally shut down. Just a year earlier, casino partner Benny Binion lost his fix with the Dallas government following the sheriff elections that year, effectively ending Binion's nearly decade-long reign as Dallas' Boss Gambler. Ironically, Top O'Hill Terrace would become the site of Arlington Bible College just nine years later.
Shady characters like Binion weren't all that unfamiliar to Daniels, though. In “Trudy,” the singer tells of a card mechanic with “a head for trouble and an eye for cash,” and this Johnny Lee Walker character's methods could very well have been a reference to the iron-fisted, wildcard ways with which Binion ruled North Texas' illegal gambling activities with during his reign.
Sings Daniels in this regard: “Carried a switchblade knife in his left hip pocket /
and a .44 hog leg up under his coat. / Cut you down in a New York minute / if he catch you cheating, that was all she wrote.”
But it wasn't just cheaters that had to worry about Binion's wrath. Without hesitation, Binion murdered anyone he felt stood in his way of total rule. In 1936, the ruthless Binion shot competitor Ben Frieden in cold blood and then shot himself in the shoulder to make his act appear to be in self-defense. And it was his well-publicized feud with fellow area Boss Gambler Herbert “The Cat” Noble, who was said to have earned his nickname because he purportedly had nine lives, that caused several national mob bosses to criticize Binion's methods and the negative attention they drew.
As it turns out, it actually took Binion over 14 tries to finally end Noble's life. Eventually, the constant threats on his life caused Noble to go crazy and grow vengeful. He was even caught once on an airplane with a cargo full explosives and a map of Binion's home in his possession to boot. That's understandable, perhaps. Noble survived several car-bombing attempts and gunshot wounds before succumbing to a mailbox bomb in 1951. It was said that the blast left a four-foot-deep crater after ti went off, and two playing cards (an ace of diamonds and a joker) were supposedly found near the hole.
While he was certainly no saint, Binion's innovations to the gambling industry following his relocation to Las Vegas brought on some permanent changes to casino tradition. Comped food and drinks at casinos? That was Binion's idea. Said Binion: “Folks want good food, good whiskey and a square gamble.” His Horseshoe Casino in Vegas was also the first to replace the saw dust-covered gambling floors common to casinos up until the '50s with carpeting.
Then, in 1949, Binion arranged for the country's two best gamblers, Johnny Moss and Nick “The Greek” Dandalos, to play a head-to-head poker tournament, which ended up lasting five months. From there, Binion's idea of a World Series of Poker was born. Greatly underestimating how popular the event would eventually become, Binion speculated that the 1973 tournament would possibly draw as many as 50 entrants. By 2006, the tournament was drawing nearly 9,000 participants on an annual basis.
In his book Famous Gamblers, Poker History, and Texas Stories, Johnny Hughes also describes another clever marketing tool employed by Binion to advertise his Mexican food restaurant and dice joint in Fort Worth. The restaurant had a tamed burro as its mascot, and Binion would affix signs to its back advertising the spot's food and gambling activities. Each morning, he would drop the burro in a different part of the city, and, like a homing pigeon, it would slowly make its way back to the restaurant that evening, with several other “pigeons” in-tow.
But Binion didn't completely escape his troubles back home for good when he fled to Vegas in the late '40s. In fact, it was a tax evasion charge back in Dallas that caused Binion to ultimately lose his gaming license for good.
Still, Binion never really had a change of heart. He was, by all accounts, a sonofabitch up until he died of congestive heart failure on Christmas Day in 1989.
That doesn't mean change isn't possible, though. Top O'Hill Terrace did go from being the premiere gambling establishment in the country to a Christian college. And Daniels too switched gears in the early '90s, releasing several Christian albums and new versions of his more controversial hits with altered lyrics.
Hey, not all gambles are winners.