The Nightcaps' Wine, Wine, Wine.
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.
Published in 1912, Hart A. Wand's “Dallas Blues,” is widely regarded to be the first true blues song ever published, and, ever since, our city has remained a hotbed responsible for not only shaping the blues, but keeping the genre alive.When Texas bluesmen began reviving the genre with their exciting new, electrified take on the blues, that movement too was largely influenced by Dallas. The Oak Cliff-raised Vaughan brothers, ZZ Top (whose bassist Dusty Hill grew up in East Dallas) and Steve Miller thrust the new Texas blues (sometimes called “the whiteboy blues”) squarely into the mainstream with their string of hits in the '70s and '80s.
And, to a man, each of these performers has cited that another Dallas blues band was their greatest influence.
Although they never achieved anything close to the stardom or widespread recognition of their successors, '60s outfit The Nightcaps was greatly admired by the generations that followed them. Jimmie Vaughan often proudly admitted to knowing their only album entirely by heart, and was even said to have named his band The Fabulous Thunderbirds after the band's “Thunderbird” single. Meanwhile, Vaughan's brother Stevie Ray and other artists such as Miller, ZZ Top, Boz Skaggs and Delbert McClinton have all covered “Thunderbird” as well.
But it's probably ZZ Top's version, from their live album Fandango, that is most well known. Sadly, The Nightcaps never received a cent of royalties, despite the performance of ZZ Top's album, which also contained the Dallas-referencing Top 40 hit, “Tush.”
A 1992 court case by The Nightcaps against ZZ Top was dismissed after a judge ruled that ZZ Top could rightfully claim ownership of the song. The judge justified his ruling by pointing out the fact that, when The Nightcaps released their song as teenagers in the '60s, they failed to file a copyright of their own. While the court acknowledged that ZZ Top's version is both “musically and lyrically identical” to The Nightcaps' version, it also pointed out that ZZ Top filed a successful copyright of the song in 1975.
As much as “Thunderbird” has ingrained itself as a standard among Texas bluesmen, though, it is another song that the band wrote as teenagers that speaks even more volumes about our city. It turns out that a lesson on Jesus turning water into wine was all the inspiration frontman Billy Joe Shine needed to pen the band's biggest hit. While sitting in class at Jesuit College Preparatory School, Shine scribbled lyrics in the margin into his notebook that ultimately became the band's “Wine, Wine, Wine.”
To put the band members' time at the private, Catholic-based college prep academy in perspective, it came just a few years after the school became the first in Dallas to integrate when sophomore Charles Edmond and freshman Arthur Allen enrolled in 1955, and just before the school's now-trademark blazers became a mandatory part of the school's dress code in 1961.
Or as Shine mentions in the song's lyrics: Wine cost only 15 cents back then.
By their late teen years, the band was a staple at school dances and sock hops all over town. According to the band's onetime bass player Mariano Martinez, the band got so popular regionally in the early '60s that its members were bringing home $200 a night each — or enough to by 1,200 bottles of wine. And that was back when the standard night's pay for a musician was $15 per night.
Realizing their popularity wouldn't last forever, Martinez had the foresight to preemptively quit the music business, trying his hand at pro golf briefly before going back to school and eventually becoming a restaurateur in the '70s. Martinez, of course, is most famous for inventing the original frozen margarita machine.
Eventually, the Nightcaps' music caught the ears of famed Dallas producer Tom Brown, who attempted to get the band signed to RCA records. After that fell through, Brown signed the band to his own label, Vandan, which was putting out garage rock records by Dallas bands like The Gentlemen and The Sweethearts at the time.
Brown then hooked the band up with WRR DJ Bob Kelly, who produced the band's only album at the station's Fair Park studios. While Kelly was supposed to be manning the station's control room during the overnight shift, he had The Nightcaps come in at 1 a.m. for several nights over the course of a week, running back and forth between the band's recording session and the station's control room, where'd he'd make sure commercials would play on time.
As a quick aside, we'll point out that WRR was the first licensed broadcast station in Texas and the second broadcast station issued a commercial license in the entire United States. Before moving to the Fair Park studios that The Nightcaps recorded at, the station had been located in the Southland Life Building, the Adolphus Hotel and the Jefferson Hotel since making its first broadcast in August 1921 from the Dallas Fire Department central headquarters.
And, like WRR, The Nightcaps' legacy endures to this day. In a 2004 issue of Texas Monthly, “Wine, Wine, Wine” was listed as one of the Best 100 Songs in Texas History. In 2009, Conan O'Brien and Robin Williams did a version of the song during an episode of O'Brien's Late Night talk show.
More importantly, though, the song served as the catalyst that first kicked off the Texas blues movement a decade later, and helped foster the career of what just might be the most famous guitarist to have ever called Dallas home.
In her biography on legendary bluesman Stevie Ray Vaughan, Keri Leigh wrote that “the first song Stevie Ray learned to play on the guitar was the legendary record 'Wine, Wine, Wine' by The Nightcaps.”
Just think: If Shine and his bandmates had just paid more attention in class, Vaughan may have never picked up the guitar.