I hear it's fine if you got the time
And the ten to get yourself in
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The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas - The Chicken Ranch
Let's be quiet about prostitution, now. It's a vice, it's a sin, the moral majority condemns it, it's a social ill, nobody thinks it's a very nice thing.
Oh, but here comes mainstream, critically-acclaimed movie stars Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas
, a movie version of an already successful Broadway stage play, which would go on to spawn a number of hit songs. The stage play took home two Tony Awards and was nominated for four more. What this has to do with ZZ Top's "La Grange" is: they're both about the same place.
The Chicken Ranch was an illegal brothel which was tolerated by local authorities from 1905 until 1973. Not to be confused with the currently-operating (and legal) Chicken Ranch in Pahrump, Nevada, this was located in Fayette County, Texas, just outside the city limits of La Grange. Beginning in 1972, in a well-publicized case, Texas Attorney General John Hill and Houston television reporter Marvin Zindler began an "undercover investigation" of activities at the Chicken Ranch, "uncovering" the scandalous activities that just about everybody in Texas, including the armadillos, had known were going on there for three-quarters of a century. Suddenly the ranch was shut down.
At its peak, the Chicken Ranch knocked a lot of Texan's boots together, to the tune of $500,000 per year. The establishment was run in a very honorable and reputable fashion; sex workers received weekly doctor's checkups, were forbidden to frequent the bars in town, were allowed to keep 25% of all fees as well as an extra $300 a week for themselves, and were overseen by a succession of very benevolent madams, who paid all of their living expenses. The establishment was frequented by students at Texas A&M University, as well as enlisted men from nearby military bases, including one base which provided a helicopter for transport to the ranch.
Railroad Bridge over the Colorado River in La Grange
Photo: Patrick Feller - Flickr
The establishment was also frequented by local law enforcement - not for recreational purposes, but to help with crime-fighting. It seems that a succession of local sheriffs found the place so handy for information that a direct phone line was even installed to the sheriff's office, so that word-on-the-street could reach the sheriff's ear that much faster.
La Grange, itself, is an unassuming small town in a pocket in the southeast part of Texas. It has a population of close to 5,000, with the kind of sunny climate and open-plains-type scenery you'd expect. The town's sole other claim to fame is being home to the Chihuahua used in marketing by Taco Bell.
As for ZZ Top's "La Grange," it came out in... 1973. Now, remember that the investigation to close down the Chicken Ranch began in 1972, so it couldn't have been triggered by this song. Can't you just picture if it happened that way, though? There's the Attorney General listening to the radio in his office, humming along with it, and then he says, "Hey, what town did he say again?"
The song is a blues-type number with a distinctively Tex-Mex feel to it, using a sparse, single chord and Billy Gibbons apparently smoking a pack of Lucky Strikes and downing a fifth of Jagermeister to get his voice to go low enough for those "Mmmm Hmmm Haw How How" parts. Quite the popular little boogie. Numerously covered, but only the ZZ Top version is the one recognized.Pete Trbovich
August 16, 2010
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