The automobile has been a potent symbol of US life since the affluent days of the Fifties and Sixties, so it is no surprise that it has come to hold a special place in the hearts and minds of many songwriters who have captured both the pleasure of owning a shiny chunk of 20th-century engineering and the thrill of driving on four wheels at top speed.
Just about every famous rock and rock’n’roller worth their salt – from the Beatles, Beach Boys and Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen, Prince and Roy Orbison, whose ‘Go! Go! Go!’ is featured in this collection – has written and sung about the excitement of driving down the open road with the wind in their hair, burning up the endless miles of highway.
The birth of rockabilly and early rock’n’roll coincided with a boom in driving Hot Rods, cars with large engines enhanced for speed. In the postwar years the craze for driving these souped-up machines reached a peak just as the nation started its love affair with the raw, primal thump of a new sound – rockabilly.
Curtis Gordon, who kicks off our first disc, never got the recognition he deserved. A fan of Ernest Tubb, Jimmie Rodgers and Bob Wills, Curtis and his band, the Ragtime Wranglers, first hit big with ballads. When he switched labels his style changed dramatically and he began to concentrate on what he called his ‘rhythm numbers’. The result, as ‘Draggin’, the A-side of his 1956 Mercury 45, reveals, was electrifying. Sadly he was drafted and his career never took off as predicted.
A six-foot seven-inch baritone-voiced rocker born in Smackover, Arkansas, Sleepy La Beef was another giant of the era. Raised on a melon farm, he moved to Houston, Texas when he was 18 and began singing gospel. He soon switched over to pursue a rockier direction and his rambunctious take on Bo Diddley’s ‘Ride On Josephine’ features on disc two of this collection. Sleepy later sang country and western and is today regarded as one the survivors of the original rockabilly age.
The instrumental ‘Hot Rod’ by the Berry Brothers was the first 45 to be released on the Omaha-based independent label, Dreem Records, reaching Number 22 in the KOIL Fabulous 50 in 1959. Another tune with the same title was recorded by the Stripes, one of two combos bearing the same name who played in the Pacific Northwest in the late Fifties. Comprising Gerry Flander on guitar and vocals, Ken Johnson on bass, Scotty Miller on drums and Ron Wakely on baritone sax, it was pure rockabilly dynamite!
‘Brand New Cadillac’ was written and recorded by British-born singer Vince Taylor, whose family moved to the States when he was seven. Returning to London, he fell in with drummer Tony Meehan (later of the Shadows) and formed the Playboys. ‘Brand New Cadillac’ was the flipside of his third single for Parlophone and is one of a handful of genuine slabs of early British rock that could hold a candle to its American counterparts. It’s since been covered by the Clash and Stray Cats, among many others.
The thrill of driving at high speed did have its downside and, after the demise of movie star James Dean in a blur of heat, light and twisted metal, young rock’n’rollers like Eddie Cochran, Johnny Horton and Johnny Kidd all suffered a similar fate. Some, however, managed to avoid an early appointment with the Grim Reaper. This set features ‘Car’ by one of the pioneers of rockabilly, Carl Perkins, who escaped an automobile accident in 1956 when drummer ‘Fluke’ Holland pulled him clear of the ditch of water he’d been thrown into.
The incomparable Gene Vincent managed to keep Heaven’s Door closed on more than one occasion. The leather-clad vocalist survived a crash in 1955 in Norfolk, Virginia when he crashed his Triumph motorcycle. His left leg was shattered, but he refused to have it amputated and wore a steel sheath around it for the rest of his life. In 1960 he escaped death again in the crash in Wiltshire, England that robbed us of Eddie Cochran.
We feature two of Gene’s greatest automobile-inspired rockers here: the aptly titled ‘Race With The Devil’ reached Number 96 in the Billboard chart in October 1956, while ‘Pink Cadillac’ appeared on his second LP, ‘Gene Vincent And His Blue Caps’. It features guitarist Cliff Gallup, who had quit the band and had to be persuaded to return by producer Ken Nelson. Fittingly, also around this time Gene starred in the movie Hot Rod Gang about a kid who wants to enter his car in a drag race and joins a rock band to make the money to do it.
Whether it’s the thump of the double bass in your ear or the rumble of the road under your feet, the tunes on this compilation should get your adrenalin flowing. So turn up the car radio and enjoy these early rock’n’roll sides at full throttle!