Sunday, April 12, 2009
Roots and the Roadster: Car Songs 1935-1960
America's love affair with the automobile inevitably finds its way into American popular music as far back as the 1920's. Memorializing the car through song has become a tradition that is well represented in practically all genres. The car theme tends to pick up steam in the 1950's as automobiles become more accessible to the middle class and as musical styles pay homage to the power and status a nice ride brings with it. The sheer number of songs in the roots mode that deal with cars is vast. In this post I will mention a few of my favorites.
Perhaps a good place to start is with legendary blues icon Robert Johnson, whose 1936 rendition of Terraplane Blues, while not referring to ownership of Terraplane, underscores the power of "driving a vehicle" albeit metaphorically. Also in a blues mode is K.C. Douglas' classic 1949 song "Mercury Boogie," which later became a huge hit (number 1) for country music star Alan Jackson in 1992 as Mercury Blues. In the late 1940's Jump Blues phenom Jimmy Liggins recorded Cadillac Boogie which is said to be the inspiration for one of the all time classics, the oft covered Rocket 88 supposedly composed by Jackie Brenston, but recorded first by Ike Turner's Kings of Rhythm at the Sun studios in 1951. Covered the same year by Bill Haley and the Comets, Rocket 88 has been spuriously dubbed by some to be the first real rock and roll song, perhaps because of the Haley cover. Chuck Berry's crossover hit Maybelline from 1955 is a classic in the same vein, and Chuck's marvelous voice and guitar work are remarkable.
Rockabilly musicians also glorified Detroit's massive V8s throughout the 1950's. The Cadillac becomes the icon of the era, exemplified by Bob Luman's famous "Red Cadillac." One of my all time favorites is rockabilly swinger Sammy Master's "Pink Cadillac," which combines country swing and rockabilly and some great guitar work on this classic cut. To close out the era, Johnny Bond's 1960 cover of the Charlie Ryan tune "Hot Rod Lincoln" is a beauty, and certainly served as inspiration for the more famous Commander Cody cover in 1972. Unfortunately, a link doesn't exist to "Trans Am" a classic eighties car tune by the Morells.