8 March 2011

Cars of the blues

The train will always have a prominent spot in blues lore because so many great musicians made the trek from the Delta to Chicago via rail. But the car began to enjoy a much more prominent place in blues lyrics as it emerged as a status symbol in the post-war years. In urban areas such as Chicago, St. Louis and Memphis, successful bluesmen rewarded themselves with Cadillacs, Lincolns and Oldsmobiles and worked them into the fabric of their songs.

Still, there were some superb pre-war songs that highlighted cars. Perhaps the gem was Terraplane Blues, penned by blues great Robert Johnson, the epitome of the tragic, doomed hero. Reputed to have obtained his spectacular writing and singing skills through a deal with the devil, Johnson created a stunning set of songs in two marathon recording sessions in Texas in 1936 and 1937 before dying at 27 under circumstances that remain in doubt today.

Terraplane Blues was a regional hit, selling 5,000 copies. The Terraplane was built by Hudson, an automaker that in its prime (1929) ranked third among American models behind Ford and Chevy. The Terraplane — badged as an Essex — was among the earliest low-cost, mass-produced brands. Its innovations included a dual braking system and balanced crankshaft, and it was the first brand to have dashboard, oil pressure and generator warning lights.

Johnson’s haunting, evocative singing and playing resound through a tale about deception and desertion. He also sings about going “down low” and checking “under the hood,” and utilizes several other car-driven metaphors before telling the song’s subject that he’s going to drive down to see another lover in Arkansas. So much for loyalty, but the consistent mention of different car parts and functions reinforces its importance within the song.

Still, most of the truly memorable and lasting blues tunes associated with cars were created during the Urban Era. Part of the reason for that echoes the evolution of the automobile and innovations in design and technology that paralleled the creation of urban blues and rock ’n’ roll, helping make such models as Cadillac, Oldsmobile and Ford (Mustang) not only vehicles of choice for hit-making performers, but the subjects of hot singles being aired on popular radio stations.

The convergence of car and song may have begun in the pre-war era, but it became a cultural staple as electric blues, sexually charged boogie pieces and hip-shaking numbers became the rage. White teens increasingly ignored the moralistic claims of their parents about the evils of the blues and rock ’n’ roll and they embraced these songs, especially those that reaffirmed notions of rebellion and freedom. Simultaneously, the lyrics in several numbers cited the lure of particular cars and the thrill of the open road.

At the same time, the earning status of African-Americans began to climb after World War II, fostering a cultural climate that fueled musical invention and supported economic development, albeit in a very isolated and insular fashion.

That triggered more fondness for cars among black audiences, many of whom at that time were blues fans. With black stars beginning to earn larger salaries and conspicuous consumption rearing its head in some sectors, more people became both music and car fans.

No car has been more revered and celebrated among blues musicians than the Cadillac, in part due to its history within the black community. Cadillac was one of the first companies to conduct advertising campaigns aimed at blacks. Company president Nicholas Dreystadt was informed in 1932 that Joe Louis wanted to purchase one but couldn’t go into a distributorship for racial reasons and had arranged for a white friend to buy one for him.

The subsequent implementation of such features as tail fins and the signature front bumpers in the late 1940s and ’50s, plus its long, sleek look and overall design, further popularized the Cadillac and elicited a Above: Argill’s Music Store in Hendersonville, Tennessee, “the biggest hearted little guitar shop to the stars,” and BB King’s Blues Club in Nashville take their place among automotive icons of the blues’ golden era, including a ‘48 Chevy pickup logo; a ‘49 Ford hood ornament and tail light, a ‘48 Chevy pickup whitewall tire and rim, a ‘49 Ford bullet nose and a ‘59 Caddy logo. host of musical responses that eventually became anthems. The film Cadillac Records shows a record label owner (ostensibly Leonard Chess) who rewarded his prize musicians with Cadillacs in lieu of royalties when they had hit records, one of many things in the movie hotly disputed by surviving family members and blues historians.

Ironically, some of the greatest tunes about Cadillacs have been written by performers whose finest moments came on the Chess label. Perhaps the king of the Cadillac and car song is Chuck Berry, who frequently either alluded to or directly referenced them in enormously influential numbers.

Arguably the greatest of his car anthems is Maybellene from 1955, a song that borrows the structure of Bob Wills’ Ida Red, but transforms it through Berry’s splintering licks, driving rhythm and inspired lyrics. It’s a tale about an epic road race that also incorporates within its narrative a plea for romantic dedication. Berry’s tune keeps its descriptive mode throughout:

Several other Berry tunes equally praise the Cadillac or other cars and cite them during the song. The list includes No Money Down, You Can’t Catch Me, Dear Dad, No Particular Place to Go and Jaguar and Thunderbird. None of these are as masterful as Maybellene, but all are superbly crafted and worthy additions to his glittering legacy.

Labelmate Bo Diddley also had his share of auto hits. Yet despite the fact that he named one of his guitars after the automobile (shown on the inside cover of Bo Diddley Is a Gunslinger), his seminal tune Cadillac isn’t exactly an endorsement of the car’s prowess. For example, the first stanza expresses strong disdain for the car, with lyrics like “I don’t want no Cadillac, the one I got, I’m gonna take back.” Seems to us, though, that it wasn’t the car’s fault, as he wrote about flat tires in the morning.

Other strong tunes about this classic car include Albert King’s Cadillac Assembly Line, Jimmy Liggins’ Cadillac Boogie, Lightnin’ Hopkins’ Lightnin’s Discourse on the Cadillac, Floyd Dixon’s Red Head and Cadillac, and Wynonie Harris’ Fishtail Blues. More recent compositions include Jerry McCain’s hard-edged Welfare Cadillac, Mitch Woods’ Solid Gold Cadillac and Texas Cadillac from Smokin’ Joe Kubek and his band featuring Bnois King. But if Maybellene serves as perhaps the grandest blues ode to the Cadillac, then the Jackie Brenston tune Rocket 88 is both a harbinger of the coming rock era and a salute to the Oldsmobile and its potent “Olds 88” overhead valve V-8. Introduced in 1949, the Oldsmobile 88 series gave the company its top sellers from 1950 until 1974.

The song Rocket 88, recorded in 1951 when the car was at its sales peak, was credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, a band that didn’t exist. Brenston was a saxophonist in Ike Turner’s band, and the tune was cobbled together from the framework of the 1947 Liggins’ tune Cadillac Boogie and an instrumental from boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson called Rocket 88 Boogie. It was powered by great pumping piano phrases and a honking sax line that buttressed the primary arrangement; Brenston also doubled as the vocalist. It’s often called the “first rock ’n’ roll tune” because the flow, tone and overall approach mix horn-driven R&B with a lighter, pop-flavored vocal style.

The opening lines establish a jovial, free-wheeling mood, while also paying homage to the car’s appeal:

"You may have heard of jalopies
You heard the noise they make
Let me introduce you to my Rocket 88
Yes It’s great, just won’t wait
Everybody likes my Rocket 88
Gals will ride in style
Movin’ all along
V-8 motor and this modern design
My convertible top and the gals don’t mind
Sportin’ with me, ridin’ all around town for joy
Blow your horn, Rocket, blow your horn!”

Perhaps the most unusual instance of a car identified with a performer comes via the performer known as T-Model Ford. James Lewis Carter Ford worked at sawmills and in lumber camps in his youth, drove a truck and even reportedly was sentenced to a 10-year stretch for murder that he supposedly got reduced to two. Ford cut seven albums for Fat Possum Records, lives in Greenville, Mississippi, and plays a singular mix of traditional and urban blues numbers. He doesn’t even profess an affinity for Fords, attributing the nickname to the fact that he saw a lot of them when he was a boy.

The Ford model that’s probably earned the most admiration in both blues and pop culture annals is the Mustang, the sports coupe and sedan introduced in the mid-’60s. With such options as a V-8 engine and disc brakes, Mustangs have remained popular over the decades.

The iconic Mustang Sally was written by Sir Mack Rice, a fine composer and vocalist whose version (and everyone else’s) was eclipsed by Wilson Pickett. The two were friends from their days in Detroit with the Falcons, and Pickett turned the number into an R&B/soul standard with his prototypical animated driving version, punctuated by a powerful scream at the conclusion of the chorus. The song has since been done by other blues (Buddy Guy), soul (Sam & Dave, The Rascals) and rock types (Bruce Springsteen, Los Lobos).

A close second would be Chuck Berry’s My Mustang Ford, a tune that today might be used as product placement in a film because it pays such homage to the vehicle. Another Lightnin’ Hopkins number, T-Model Blues, is his homage to the Ford.

But these are not the only cars that have served as the centerpiece of classic tunes. Some others include K.C. Douglas’ powerhouse Mercury Blues, a number he co-wrote with Robert Geddins in 1949 to honor the then-popular Mercury. Ironically, the Mercury ceased production in 2010, but this song’s staying power has seen it covered by Steve Miller, David Lindley, Alan Jackson, Dwight Yoakam, even Meat Loaf. The Ford Motor Company even purchased the lyrics for a commercial, changing them to fit a campaign for the Ford truck.

Rice Miller’s (AKA Sonny Boy Williamson II) masterful Pontiac Blues became a staple of first-generation British invaders, partly because he cut later versions of it with The Animals and the Yardbirds. In addition, a Wisconsin blues ensemble co-led by Vic Tomasello and Warren Ziech formed in 1985 using the name Pontiac Blues. They’ve won several regional awards and are still active.

Perhaps the ideal concluding number is My Old Car, performed by New Orleans vocalist and part-time mechanic Lee Dorsey, who ran a car repair business for much of the ’60s when he was performing tunes penned and produced by Allen Toussaint and featuring The Meters. The lyrics relate a tale of a man trying to squeeze the last bit of life from his vehicle while trying to get home:

“Fifteen miles from town
My old car broke down
The battery’s dead
Man, like I said
Oh, what I’d give to be home
Fourteen miles from town
My old car broke down.”

Today, contemporary blues and blues-rockers like ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, Eric Clapton and Jimmie Vaughan are guardians of the blues classic car legacy. Gibbons owns a 23-foot vehicle he calls a “Cadzilla” that’s based on a ’58 Cadillac. Clapton has a ’49 Ford and Vaughan a green ’61 Cadillac. All are regulars at classic car shows around the country and just part of the musical crew that maintains the long ties between the blues, R&B and the car culture.

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To see this article in its original format, view the pdf version of the  Spring 2011  issue of Hagerty Classic Cars magazine.

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