A century-long tradition of songs that feature lyrics (and sometimes musical sound effects) associated with driving automobiles attests to the fact that songsmiths have found the topic of fast cars to be an attractive one. Road-race songs have certainly been popular in the Pacific Northwest, and one of the best-known of all such tunes -- Charlie Ryan's proto-rockabilly gem "Hot Rod Lincoln" -- originated here back in the 1950s. But the region's hot-rod-song history is richer than that, as Ryan's hit was preceded by earlier Northwest country records including Jack Rivers's "Navy Hot Rod" and the granddaddy of them all, Arkie Shibley's "Hot Rod Race."
Cars and Songs
"In My Merry Oldsmobile" from 1905 was among the earliest notable hit tunes that celebrated the joys of motating via a petroleum-fueled automobile. But there would be many more to come rumbling down the pike in subsequent decades, especially in the realms of country, rockabilly, rhythm & blues -- and rock 'n' roll music, including what is widely considered the very first rock song ever recorded: Jackie Brenston's (and Ike Turner's) No. 1 hit from 1951, "Rocket 88" (which referenced Oldsmobile's latest model). Then came a parade of additional tunes: Chuck Berry's 1955 debut hit "Maybellene" (which tells of racing a Ford to chase down a Cadillac that was motoring his girlfriend away); the Beach Boys' 1964 winner "Fun, Fun, Fun" (which tells of a girl cruising around in her Ford Thunderbird); and on and on down this same road.
Northwest songwriters have contributed generously to this genre. In 1959 Tacoma's early rock band the Wailers recorded the chugging instrumental "Roadrunner;" in 1960 their crosstown rivals, the Ventures, cut "Night Drive;" in 1961 Seattle's Thomas and His Tomcats cut their "Drive, Drive, Drive;" and in 1965 Tacoma's Sonics released the garage-rock classic "Boss Hoss" (whose narrator boasts about how chicks dig his ride, while all the other guys are simply jealous). Yet the local origin of car-related songs stretches quite a bit further back than the rock 'n' roll era to a trio of bands that were active on the 1940s and 1950s country-music scene. Those bands were led by Bremerton's Arkie Shibley (1914-1975), Seattle's Jack Rivers (1917-1989), and Spokane's Charlie Ryan (1915-2008).
The U.S. Navy port town of Bremerton, in Kitsap County across Puget Sound from Seattle, in the 1940s was rife with energetic young males out looking for excitement and good times. Taverns there and dancehalls in neighboring towns like Belfair, and as far as Seattle and Tacoma, saw plenty of the young sailors showing up to show off their rides and also seek out female companionship. Bremerton was also the home of the KBRO radio station, which catered to this community with specialty shows -- including a hillbilly/country show hosted by local bandleader Arkie Shibley, who had moved his family there to take a job helping construct Illahee State Park and eventually operated a nearby dancehall, Arkie's Corral (formerly the Airways).
Jesse Lee "Arkie" Shibley had been born in Van Buren, Arkansas, and in the 1930s the self-taught guitarist found his way to the Northwest:
"[He] wandered up Washington way singin' and playin' as the Lone Cowboy. Then he met up with Leon Kelly, from Fort Worth, Texas, who is a hot lead Guitar player and a 'whiz' on the steel guitar. They played as a two-some 'til meetin' up with Jack [Hayes] from Oklahoma, who sure knows Hillbilly Music. Jack plays bass, and is one of the best five string banjo players that ever done hefted a Banjo! For three years they played fer radio, dances and stage---all over the North West. Four months ago they meets up with a feller who can sure play the fiddle, and he joined up with 'em. He's known as Phil [Fregon] from Tacoma, Washington" ("Music Notes").
Shibley and his band -- the Mountain Dew Boys -- got their initial radio experience performing on Bremerton's KBRG, and then when a new station, KBRO, was getting set to launch, the Boys were hired for a regular weekly timeslot. Gaining popularity with the rowdy local sailors, loggers, and shipyard workers, the band, over time, recorded a series of discs featuring Shibley's songs, which had a distinct navy-town appeal, among them "Uncle Sam Has Called My Number Again," "Shore Leave," and "3 Day Pass."
"Hot Rod Race"
But the band's most impactful record would be the early disc "Hot Rod Race." It was a primitive country-boogie tune that featured lyrics delivered in a talking style as forged in earlier hits like Woody Guthrie's 1940s gem "Talkin' Blues." The four verses of "Hot Rod Race" -- a song whose authorship is credited to a still-mysterious "George Wilson," even though its lyrics evince Shibley's "Arkie"-type hillbilly vernacular -- relate the saga of some young folks who got involved in a race while heading down to California:
Now, me and my wife and my brother Joe,
took off in my Ford for San Pedro,
We hadn't much gas and the tires were low,
but the doggone Ford could really go ...
But after our narrator's Ford encountered a Mercury and their epic race began, those two competing drivers were stunned when they were both passed by a third car:
When it flew by us,
I turned the other way,
the guy in the Mercury had nothin' to say,
for it was a kid in a hopped-up Model A
Many years later Mabel Kelly -- the widow of steel-guitar player Leon Kelly -- recalled that in 1947 the band members made their first trip down to Pasadena, California, where they tried to interest Bill McCall, an executive at 4 Star Records -- a very successful country-oriented label and studio -- in recording "Hot Rod Race." But things didn't pan out as hoped, as Shibley would later explain in the lyrics to yet another of his story-driven tunes, "Arkie's Talking Blues:"
I went to 4 Star with a smile on my face,
I had a little tune called-a 'Hot Rod Race,'
Bill McCall, he said it was no good,
I'd be better off a-cuttin' hard wood,
It hurt my feelings,
he slammed the door,
I went up the street talkin' to myself,
but we recorded it though..."
Indeed, although a significant amount of time passed, the Mountain Dew Boys did enter some studio and (around 1949) managed to cut their song -- a version featuring Shibley's acoustic guitar, Hayes's distant banjo, and Kelly's steel providing the simulated honking-car-horn sounds. Back home in Bremerton, Shibley launched his own Mt. Dew record company and "Hot Rod Race" made its official debut on disc (Mt. Dew No. 101) around August 1950. That month's issue of Oregon City's Songmakers Magazine featured Shibley's photograph on its cover and noted that the stars up at KBRO in Bremerton had a real hit on their hands: "Requests sure have been a-spinnin' and requests sure have the boys a-pressin' records for orders" ("Music Notes").
McCall evidently took note, had second thoughts, and stepped up to license the recordings, which he released on his subsidiary label, Gilt Edge Records (No. 101), in December 1950. McCall also published commercial sheet music for "Hot Rod Race" on his Four Star Sales Co. imprint. With McCall's promotional skills, the disc began selling widely and he decided to fully commit to it, re-issuing the song again with a new serial number (No. 5021) that aligned with the rest of his Gilt Edge catalog. Then "Hot Rod Race" began climbing Billboard magazine's Country Music charts, finally peaking at the No. 5 slot in February 1951.
Around Washington, Shibley's song got some good airplay and a reporter with the Leavenworth Echo newspaper was grateful when it was broadcast by Wenatchee's KPQ (560 AM) radio station:
"Some of the disc jockeys nowadays are pretty good too. They take the trouble to explain how the tune happened to be written or to give little spotlights on the life of the artist. One local station has a much needed hour called Club 360 which I like ... It is interesting to note the choice of the songs. Not so long ago all the younger set wanted to boogie woogie but now they seem to go for ballads and love songs. Just about the time I threatened to bust the radio they let up on [Guy Mitchell's 1950 wimpy pop ballad] 'My Heart Cries for You' and started playing 'Hot Rod Race'" (Sinclair).
But, as was the practice back in those days, other labels suddenly popped up with cover versions performed by their artists, and Shibley's apparent hit was soon overtaken by better-financed versions including those cut by Capitol Records' Ramblin' Jimmie Dolan, Decca Records' Red Foley, and Mercury Records' Tiny Hill and His Orchestra -- the latter being a rendition that even crossed over and became a No. 29 hit on the Pop charts.
Excited by the success he'd experienced, Shibley moved to California and cut a nearly endless series of thematic follow-up tunes in 1951 -- including "Hot Rod Race No. 2," "Arkie Meets the Judge (Hot Rod Race No. 3)," "The Guy in the Mercury (Hot Rod Race No. 4)," and "The Kid in the Model A (Hot Rod Race No. 5)." But it was that first racing song that had the most historical significance, with music historians Jim Dawson and Steve Propes noting in What Was the First Rock 'n' Roll Record? that its importance revolves around the fact that it "introduced automobile racing into popular music and underscored the car's relevance to American culture, particularly youth culture" (Dawson and Propes, 79). For his part, Shibley returned to the Northwest, ran a nightclub in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, for a while and then returned to Arkansas where he spent his final years.
"Navy Hot Rod"
Soon another Northwest country bandleader, Jack Rivers, decided to go down the road of cutting a car-related novelty song. The musician, whose birth name was Rivers Lewis, was the brother and occasional band-mate of nationally famed hillbilly bandleader (the Lone Star Cowboys) and western film star "Texas" Jim Lewis (1909-1990). In the 1930s the brothers' band had recorded for big-time labels like Vocalion and Decca Records and in the 1940s Rivers recorded Western Swing-style tunes for Capitol Records, played on scores of Hollywood film soundtracks, and picked some hot guitar solos on many radio hits as a member of Jimmy Wakely's Saddle Pals.
Then in 1950 the two brothers settled in Seattle, where Jim soon gained further notoriety as the host of KING-TV's kiddie show Sheriff Tex's Safety Junction and Rivers hosted the beer-fueled hillbilly music program Rainier Ranch and then the Raging River Ranch show on KIRO-TV. In addition, both played steady gigs in area taverns and dancehalls, including Rivers's own J.R. Ranch roadhouse at 140th S and Des Moines Way in Des Moines, south of Seattle.
Jack Rivers was such an ace guitarist -- and one of the first anywhere to own an electric solid-body guitar -- that he also was very active in the nascent recording-studio scene in Seattle and Tacoma. Oliver Runchie's Electricraft recording studio at 622 Union Street in Seattle even became the production home of Rivers's own label, JR Ranch Records, but it's one of his recordings for Runchie's Listen label that is pertinent here. Sometime around the summer of 1952 Rivers cut his own proto-rockabilly version of a hot-rod tune. "Navy Hot Rod" (Listen No. 1441) had the novel twist of telling a topical saga regarding a race, but as if it involved a couple of speeding U.S. Navy ships. So loaded down with naval jargon as to be nearly incomprehensible to mere civilians -- Billboard magazine figured that it would "probably have limited appeal" -- it begins with a reminiscent intro: "Well, me and my buddy, Swabby Joe ..."
Next came a song that was indisputably inspired by Arkie Shibley's "Hot Rod Race," and is the one that became the biggest, most enduring hit of all of those within this lineage: Charlie Ryan's "Hot Rod Lincoln." This adventure began where Arkie Shibley's left off:
You heard the story of the hot rod race ...,
when the Ford and Mercury went out to play,
Well, this is the inside story, and I'm here to say,
I was the kid that was a-drivin' that Model A
Charles S. Ryan hailed from Graceville, Minnesota, where he bought his first guitar from his older brother for four dollars. Then as a 15-year-old he built the first-ever hot-rod automobile in Browns Valley. After that his family moved to Polson, Montana, where he took on the stage name of Charley "The Chicago Kid" Ryan and began forming a band. Led by the singing guitarist, the Montana Range Riders also included Sylvester "Tex" Hansen (guitar), Ray Woods (fiddle/banjo/bass), and Walter "Slim" Kursawe (accordion). They easily found gigs and as early as 1935 traveled as far as Spokane, where they played at the Bell Tavern at 427 W First Street. Charlie Ryan met Ruth "Ruthie" Scheffler back in Polson. They married in 1937 and had three children. Ryan served with the U.S. Army during World War II, and after his discharge in 1946 the young family moved to Spokane.
One of the country-music hotspots in the area was Wallace, Idaho, where dancehalls and bordellos did a thriving business. In 1951 a record label based there -- Keyboard Records -- issued the musician's debut disc: "Double Track Woman" (Keyboard Records WES-510), credited to Charley Ryan and the Cross Country Cowboys.
At the time, Ryan was also working on building a new hot rod. He took his old 1941 Lincoln Zephyr four-door sedan and modified it by taking off the body, shortening the frame by two feet, and dropping a 1930 Model A coupe body on the rig. Then he hopped it up by adding a 1948 V-12 engine and a three-speed transmission with overdrive. Once he painted it black, with red wheels, Ryan had one red-hot Lincoln hot rod on his hands.
Meanwhile Ryan had formed a new trio with Neil Livingston (steel guitar) and his brother Ronnie Livingston (lead guitar) and they began gigging around. Another rowdy and fun place back then was the border town of Lewiston, Idaho, located on the Snake River at the bottom of an infamously steep and winding 11-mile road grade nicknamed the "Spiral Highway."
"Hot Rod Lincoln"
It was while driving back from a gig at Lewiston's Pair-A-Dice Club that the idea for Ryan's next song was sparked by a particular incident. One night Ryan decided to race a Cadillac owned by his buddy, Bert Bartholomew, over the narrow Clearwater Bridge northward out of Lewiston and right up that Lewiston Highway toward Spokane. Ryan later recalled: "He passed me goin' up there and I passed him comin' down" (Bristol, 15). That post-midnight white-knuckle trip inspired a set of lyrics -- "the fenders were clickin' the guardrail posts, the guys beside me were white as ghosts" -- that Ryan worked on for a few years before completing, and then finally recording, the song.
In the mid-1950s Ryan and the Livingston brothers entered Spokane's Sound Recording Company, located in the Symons Building, to try to capture the song "Hot Rod Lincoln" for posterity. The recording would feature some solid country-boogie guitar picking and Neil Livingston's inventive steel-guitar tricks, which mimicked all sorts of exciting sounds including that V-12 engine's knocking rods, the Lincoln's fenders brushing the bridge's guardrails, and the inevitable pealing of police-car sirens. Or, as the esteemed author Nick Tosches once praised the record: "steel-guitarist Neil Livingston wrought sounds of speed, sirens, and whiplash behind Ryan's tough boogie beat and amphetamine vocal" (The Twisted Roots, 192).
The noisy tune was pressed on an instant acetate reference disc for Ryan and he took it over to his radio-DJ pal across town at KPEG, who gave it a spin and exclaimed, "It's a hit." Well, that was enough for Ryan. He ponied up the cash and sent off to the home of country music, Nashville, Tennessee, where a stack of 45 rpm singles were pressed for his new Souvenir Records label. KPEG followed through with additional airplay, and "Hot Rod Lincoln" first charted as a radio hit in 1957 on KBMY in Billings, Montana.
Time passed and the song was basically forgotten when Bill McCall at 4 Star Records suddenly made contact, cut a deal, and had Ryan and company re-record the song. McCall released this version of "Hot Rod Lincoln" as a single (No. 1733), credited to Charlie Ryan and the Timberline Riders, around October 1959. But something disconcerting happened along the way: when McCall published it via his 4 Star Sales (BMI) firm, the song's authorship was noted as Ryan along with some mysterious "W. S. Stevenson" -- a phantom name believed to have been used by McCall to grab a 50-percent share of the royalties.
This new version of "Hot Rod Lincoln" finally jumped onto the nation's Country charts in the spring of 1960, peaking at Billboard's No. 14, and then a bit later crossed over to the Pop charts, where it enjoyed its moment in the Hot 100 spotlight, peaking at the No. 33 slot. Although Ryan never got rich off his classic song, he carried on performing for decades, rebuilt the Lincoln a few times, and basically carved out a whole career based on a series of follow-up releases that mined the same car-themed turf, such as "Hot Rod Guitar," "Hot Rod Hades," "Hot Rod Harley," "Cadillac Bounce," "Seat Belt Charlie," and "The Dart and the Lincoln." Indeed, Ryan even recorded Arkie Shibley's old "Hot Rod Race" for 4 Star around 1961.
Meanwhile Montana-raised country star Johnny Bond came roaring up from behind in 1960 with a cover version of "Hot Rod Lincoln." "We had a race goin' up the charts," Ryan later recalled (Clark). Bond was the victor at the finish line, scoring a big No. 26 hit on the Pop chart. And the song wasn't idling yet. It took a victory lap in 1972 when Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen scored a No. 9 hit with "Hot Rod Lincoln," and Texas's Asleep at the Wheel covered it in 1988. Finally, in 1990, Charlie Ryan opted to re-record his old song once again -- this time for his own label, Lincoln Records.