Pop Music Muse 6/3/2022: Hit the road with hot rod hits

Let’s hit the road with some highway hits and cruising classics. After all, rock ‘n’ roll wouldn’t exist without wheels. Larry and Lori, the rockabilly act who made up The Collins Kids, knew the value of owning your very first set of wheels. I couldn’t wait to get mine, which turned out to be a ’46 Ford V8.

You know who else owned a Ford V8? Chuck Berry, in pursuit of Maybelline. He gunned it chasing down his untrue girlfriend who was driving a Cadillac Coupe De Ville. Originally a Western swing song known as Ida Red, Berry changed the title to Maybelline after the cosmetics firm. It was one of the biggest records of 1955. As Rolling Stone Magazine put it: rock ‘n’ roll guitar starts here:

There were some hot rodders who preferred driving an Oldsmobile Rocket 88, just like the one Jackie Brenston had in 1951. Considered by many to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record, Rocket 88 was performed by Brenston backed by a very young Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm, and it was recorded by Sam Phillips at his Memphis recording studios. Listen closely and you’ll hear a good example of a distorted fuzz guitar played by Willie Kizart. If you like raw rhythm and blues rock ‘n’ roll music, you gotta drive this one down the highway.

Long before Jan Berry collided with dead man’s curve in 1964, a fellow named Nervous Norvus was preaching about the pitfalls and dangers of either driving too fast, ignoring stop signs, or just being foolishly reckless. He promises the doctor he’ll never speed again while getting a transfusion, which is the title of our next song, which came out in 1956. Nervous Norvus was actually a DJ from Oakland. Despite being banned on many radio stations, Transfusion reached number 13; it’s a fabulous novelty song with a message.

Many hot rod hits in the fifties and sixties involved racing your machine alongside another for quite a distance. In the case of the following song by Johnny Bond, the distance might be starting in San Pedro and traveling all the way to the Grapevine in Los Angeles. I guess Bond felt a little intimidated by a Cadillac who passed him by and felt the need to settle a score, after having boasted about the power of his car. His father told him, “Son, you’re gonna drive me to drinkin’ if you don’t stop drivin’ that Hot Rod Lincoln.”

Truckers had their own anthems of the road. Country singer Dave Dudley had the winner in that department perhaps when he recorded and released Six Days on the Road in 1963. It’s basically a tune about missing his girlfriend, whom he hopes to see tonight. It’s not the first truck driving song, but it was one that set the standard for years to come. You get a feel for what it’s like being on the road driving a truck for weeks at a time. Of the many versions, Dudley’s is one of the best.

One of my favorite hot rod duels is one between a Chevy Impala and a little ’40 Ford, performed by a guy named Leon Smith in 1959. It’s a rare rockabilly number that made a lot of noise in the Pacific Northwest but nowhere else. Smith, a 15-year-old kid at the time, was too young for a license, but you’d never know it. Smith’s tune was recorded in a Eugene, Oregon studio basement, and he managed to get signed to a major label in order to release it. After releasing a few more songs, Smith recorded until the seventies when he laid down his guitar for good. But he left behind a rare treasure.

Another favorite of mine (and you’ll see why) is a rare number by Ronnie Dee, a rockabilly artist from Dallas. Known as the blonde bomber, Dee vowed to be a singer and guitar player, and formed his own band Ronnie Dee and the D Men in 1956. His first single was a tune called Action Packed that he released in 1958. Dee’s records never charted, but he did make an appearance on American Bandstand. Dee went on to be a session player on hits like Hey Baby and Hey Paula. But none come close to the thrill and excitement of his first:

Even doo-wop groups were active in the hot rod cause. One of the best doo-wop songs was Buick 59 by Vernon Greene and the Medallions, which came out in 1954. Based on the Todd Rhodes’ R&B classic Rocket 69, the Medallions went into the studio with a great sense of fun. This was the first record put out by LA record maker Dootsie Williams, who brought us Earth Angel by the Penguins in 1955. Vernon Green and his group continued recording until he was injured in a car crash in the early sixties. Buick 59 was a hit. 

Speaking of irony, lets talk about Dead Man’s Curve by Jan Berry and Dean Torrence. The 1964 song is about a dare and a race between Berry’s Stingray and an XKE Jaguar along the treacherous curves of Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Berry’s accident in the song became a reality in 1966 when his speeding Corvette drove into a parked truck off Sunset Boulevard and severely injured the pop producer and singer, and ultimately shortened his career. Berry died in March 2004.

Hollywood became a mecca for car songs in the 1960s. Many were written by Jan and Dean, Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, and local DJ Roger Christian—who became obsessed with hot rods, and it showed in all of his songs—many written with Brian Wilson. This was one such a song, and it was the first custom car tune offered by the surfing group, appearing on the flip side of Surfin’ Safari in 1962. It was Chevy’s big block V8 engine at the time. It made the charts briefly, but many other Beach Boy car songs soon followed.   

  • 409, The Beach Boys

Hollywood producers, singers and songwriters Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher also contributed to the LA hot rod craze by forming a group called The Rip Chords who recorded and released a paean to the Shelby Cobra in 1963, peaking at number three. It’s interesting to note that during this time surfers and hot rodders were making all the music, yet neither group hung around together much. If you were a teenager in Southern California during the sixties you got the impression that all you did with your time if you weren’t riding a wave was drag racing an expensive automobile. 

If driving a Cobra wasn’t your thing, perhaps you preferred the Pontiac GTO, another  popular muscle car of the sixties. One group who extolled the virtues of such a car was from the South, specifically Nashville. Ronny & The Daytonas wanted to inject a few country sounds into the surf rock scene, and with the help of producer Bill Justice (who wrote Raunchy in ’57) they did. GTO screamed up the charts in September of 1964 earned a gold disc. When most hot rod hits at the time featured electric guitars, Ronny showcased an acoustic.

About the same time the GTO was garnering attention, Ford was investing in a revolutionary car called the Mustang, which became the subject of many musical compositions. It caught the ear of one singer-songwriter named Mack Rice, who had never heard of a Mustang, but he liked the idea of a woman who didn’t want to do anything else but ride around in her new car. Soul singer Wilson Pickett liked the tune, and recorded it with his background group the Sweet Inspirations, whose “ride Sally ride” became a famous call and response refrain: 

All the songs we’re listening to sound best on your car radio as you’re flying down a two-lane blacktop out in the middle of nowhere. Crank up the volume and you find yourself in a different world. Anything by the Doobie Brothers would fit the bill, especially Rockin’ Down the Highway, a Tom Johnston composition that sounds just about like everything else the group recorded in their earlier years. But this delight, Johnston said, “is a good times song with top down vibes.”

Another terrific car song might better be suited for the urban jungle than the open road, and that is Low Rider by the group War in 1975. According to one review, the lyric takes the cool, laid-back image of the low rider—the Chicano culture practice of hydraulically hot rodding classic cars—and using innuendo extends the image to a lifestyle. The song has  been covered by a ga-zillion artists, and has appeared in at least 18 movies. Low Rider gives you a lift even if you don’t have hydraulics.

One of the classic car songs I was exposed to in my later years (and I’m lucky I did) was written by singer-songwriter John Hiatt, who could play the blues with the best of them, and that he did with Drive South, a tune that forever makes you feel good, especially in your car. From his late-eightiess album Slow Turnin, it is so infectious it makes you want to ride along with him. It should definitely be on your traveling list.

And while we’re on the road again we might as well join Canned Heat, that great blues rock band from the late sixtiesI was far from being a hippie in those days, but this road anthem sure turned a lot of people on. Flower power on the move, thanks to the great falsetto of guitarist Alan Wilson, who also played an Eastern string instrument called the tambura, which gave On The Road Again a psychedelic flavor. Wilson also sported a harmonica on the session. Originally an underground album track, it was released as a single and reached number 16.

One of the best highways to travel in America is Route 66—starting in Chicago and ending in Santa Monica. At one time it was the primary road crossing the U.S., and adventures in taking this two lane highway were recorded in an early-sixties TV series called Route 66, accompanied by the theme song composed by famed bandleader and producer Nelson Riddle. Having taken Route 66, it’s a driver’s paradise if you like being in the middle of nowhere with nary another vehicle in sight for miles on end. Route 66 is included here because it’s a classic car song that conjures up days gone by.

We finish with Chuck Berry, who speaks for all of us frisky-minded males hoping for some female companionship, only to be thwarted by some seat belts that refuse to be unfastened. Leave it to Chuck Berry, who in 1964 during the Beatles invasion writes about stealing a kiss with his curiosity running wild—cruisin’ and playin’ the radio with no particular place to go—except parking way out on the ko-ko-mo in his calaboose still tryin’ to get her belt a loose. Frustrating perhaps, but the only way to fly.

PS: One of the weirdest songs involving a dual between a Cadillac and a little Nash Rambler was recorded by a group called the Playmates in 1958. Weird because the tempo of the song accelerated to a novel climax. The record label Roulette didn’t want to release it because the tempo change made it “not danceable.” The song also listed contemporary products. When DJs lifted it off the album, it forced Roulette to put out a single. It’s one of those records you only have to hear once.