One thing to note before reading this interview with British-born, Nashville-based songwriter Roger Cook: A “skinful” is a British term, essentially meaning “enough alcohol to get you drunk.”
But when it came to writing “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” with Allan Clarke and Roger Greenaway, Cook was trying to tap into American drinking culture — specifically, the Prohibition era.
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Clarke went one step further when he took it to his band, The Hollies, who cooked up a swamp rock record not unlike States-side rockers Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Cook told the Story Behind the Song to Bart Herbison, executive director of Nashville Songwriters Association International.
Bart Herbison: “Saturday night I went downtown. Early morning FBI.”
Roger Cook: “Saturday night, I was downtown working for the FBI.”
BH: “Working for the FBI!”
RC: That’s close enough.
BH: We would spend more ink than The Tennessean has on a Sunday edition naming your hits. But I’ve always wanted to talk to you about “Long Cool Woman.” Was there ever a bigger hit in history where people don’t understand the words?
RC: That is wild, isn’t it? Allan loved all that slapback echo on his voice.
BH: This is the Hollies.
RC: Yeah. And that’s the reason you can hardly understand the words. And, of course, the words are a kind of a little English-y. We wrote it in England about the bootlegging days in the ’30s in America. … We’d just gone out and had a skinful ourselves, you know? We came back to the office and thought it was fun to write a song about — What did they call it when they banned drinking?
RC: Prohibition! So, we wrote a song about Prohibition and all the bad people surrounding it. The FBI raiding and this (woman) singing at the bar. (The narrator) doesn’t want her to get in trouble. So he kind of saves her.
BH: Did you have any idea of its global impact? Roger, it may get played more today than it did when it was a hit for the Hollies.
RC: I swear it almost does. It is amazing.
BH: Did you have any inkling? Did you even think the band, even though he was part of it, would cut the song?
RC: You never think you’re going to write an elevator song. But now and again you do. It’s a combination. … Yeah, it was a good song, but it was a great record. It made such a good record.
BH: Let’s go back more to that day. So you go back, you’re writing the song, did it happen quickly?
RC: I go back to my office. I get on the piano, and I start messing around. And, that riff came …
BH: I never knew you wrote it on the piano. I’m astonished! It’s almost unbelievable because it’s the pre-eminent, pop-guitar song.
RC: Well, Allan said at the time … he said, “I think the boys would like that. I think we could work up a good version of this.” So I said, “Well, go and do it, Al.” And three weeks later he played me the track. I went … “Wow, that’s really good.”
BH: Wow. How long until it was out?
RC: It came out within a very short time. About five to six weeks in those days.
BH: But even in those days, Roger — you’re tipping a pint and you got “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress.”
BH: The song was pretty much a global hit — eventually.
RC: Yeah. It wasn’t as big a hit in England. It was unexpected for the Hollies in England. They had (hits) with big ballads and so on. And here comes Allan, and he’s doing his version of … what’s the name … “Born on the Bayou.”
BH: John Fogerty!
RC: John Fogerty! He was doing his John Fogerty that day.
RC: And it came out great!