Arkie Shibley was a hillbilly singer who recorded the original “Hot Rod Race” in 1950, in Los Angeles. (“Arkie” was a common nickname for Arkansas immigrants to California.) The importance of this song, according to Jim Dawson and Steve Propes (in “What Was the First Rock ‘n’ Roll Record?“), lies in the fact that “it introduced automobile racing into popular music and underscored the car’s relevance to American culture, particularly youth culture.”
The writing credit for “Hot Rod Race” goes to George Wilson, which is probably Arkie Shibley‘s pseudonym. He offered the song to Bill McCall at 4 Star Records, but he turned it down, much to Arkie’s frustration. The experience was incorporated into the lyrics of “Archie’s Talking Blues” :
“So 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.”
Shibley decided to release the song on his own Mountain Dew label (# 101), with the label credit reading “Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys“. The line-up of this group was Arkie Shibley on rhythm guitar, Leon Kelley on lead guitar, Jackie Hayes on bass and banjo and Phil Fregon on fiddle. Once the record began to sell, it was reissued on 4 Star’s Gilt Edge imprint, first with the same number (# 101) and then as Gilt Edge 5021. Though “Hot Rod Race” accelerated into the country charts in January 1951 (peaking at # 5),
three cover versions on major labels overtook him. These were by Ramblin’ Jimmie Dolan on Capitol (whose Shibley picked up “Playing Dominoes And Shooting Dice” in 1951 – see below the podcast), Red Foley (who was always charting with others’ songs) on Decca and Tiny Hill on Mercury and they were more polished (!) than the original, with its occasional odd tempos and awkward verses. The Tiny Hill version also crossed over to the pop charts (# 29). Arkie recorded no less than four sequels to his hit, all in 1951 : “Hot Rod Race # 2“, “Arkie Meets the Judge (Hot Rod Race # 3)“, “The Guy in the Mercury (Hot Rod Race # 4)” and “The Kid in the Model A (Hot Rod Race # 5)“. All these were performed in a Woody Guthrie-like talking blues style. Only a few of Shibley’s recordings can be classified as rockabilly, most notably “You Put My Heart In Orbit” (with a vocal by Leon Kelley). The influence of “Hot Rod Race” was immense. Car songs like Chuck Berry‘s “Maybelline” and Gene Vincent‘s “Race With The Devil” owe something to Shibley’s record. There were countless variations and remakes, the most successful of these being three versions of “Hot Rod Lincoln“, by Charlie Ryan (recorded 1959, charted 1960, # 33 pop), Johnny Bond (1960, # 26 pop) and Commander Cody (1972, # 9 pop).
HOT ROD RACE
(written by George Wilson)
Arkie Shibley & His Mountain Dew Boys – 1950
Now me and my wife and my brother Joe,
took off in my Ford from San Pedro.
We hadn’t much gas ‘n’ the tires was low,
but the doggone Ford could really go.
Now along about the middle of the night,
we were rippin’ along like white folks might,
when a Mercury behind he blinked his lights,
and he honked his horn and he flew outside.
We had twin pipes and a Columbia butt,
you people may think that I’m in a rut,
but to you folks who don’t dig the jive,
that’s two carburetors and an overdrive.
We made grease spots outta many good town,
and left the cops heads spinnin’ round ‘n’ round.
They wouldn’t chase, they’d run and hide,
but me and that Mercury stayed side by side.
Now we were Ford men and we likely knew,
that we would race until somethin’ blew,
and we thought it over,
now, wouldn’t you?
I looked down at my lovely bride,
her face was blue, I thought she’d died.
We left streaks through towns about forty feet wide,
but me and that Mercury stayed side by side.
My brother was pale, he said he was sick,
he said he was just a nervous wreck.
But why should I worry, for what the heck,
me and that Mercury was still neck-and-neck.
a-flyin’ low and a-flyin’ wide,
me an’ that Mercury was a-takin’ a ride,
and we stayed exactly side by side.
Now I looked in my mirror and I saw somethin’ comin’,
I thought it was a plane by the way it was a-runnin’.
It was a-hummin’ along at a terrible pace,
and I knew right then it was the end of the race.
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.
Joe Wajgel (aka Legjaw), who was very active on the 1995-1996 Rockabilly list, has always been fascinated by the Hot Rod Race saga and has assembled his research, complete with all the lyrical variations, at http://www.rockabillyhall.com/HotRodLncln.html (Warning : very long!!). Charlie Ryan continued to serialize the Lincoln saga. More about him at http://www.hot-rod-lincoln.com/ and http://www.geocities.com/shakin_stacks/charlieryan.txt
See also : Jim Dawson and Steve Propes, What Was the First Rock ‘n’ Roll Record (Boston : Faber & Faber, 1992), page 79-84. The fact that Shibley had died in 1975 was unknown to the authors at the time: “At press time, we were still trying to find the elusive Shibley”.
CD: Arkie Shibley, Hot Rod Race (Collector CLCD 2856). Released in 1997, 25 tracks. The collection as a whole suffers from a certain sameness. There are nine (guitar) instrumentals, some of them with a nice honky tonk piano. The liner notes ramble a little, but as this is a Collector release, we should be grateful that there are liner notes at all.
Biography from: Dik De Heers, at BlackCat Rockabilly, Europe. Visit his site!