RE/MX: High Fidelity

Stuff Smith - “You’se a Viper”

By David Jenison

NYC jazz violinist Stuff Smith was a regular at the Onyx Club, a famed venue that originally opened in 1927 as a bootlegger speakeasy during alcohol prohibition. The term “viper” was Harlem slang for cannabis smokers and a reference to the hissing sound made during smoke inhalation. Smith first recorded his classic tune “You’se a Viper” at the venue with the Onyx Club Boys in 1936 (the same year Reefer Madness premiered), and it was one of many songs (“Viper’s Drag,” “Viper Mad,” “Viper’s Dream”) that used the term. 

The song, often titled “You’re a Viper” in later versions, was covered by countless artists, including Rosetta Howard, Jim Kweskin, Jug Band, Bobby Short, Wayne Kramer (MC5), Kermit Ruffins, Widespread Panic, Wayne Hancock, Ekoostik Hookah, The Manhattan Transfer, Erin McKeown and Alex Chilton, but Fats Waller’s recording in 1943 is the most famous. His version, titled “The Reefer Song,” was a jab at Narcotic Bureau chief Harry Anslinger, the former alcohol prohibitionist who popularized the “reefer madness” tales and successfully instituted cannabis prohibition.

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