The Ballad of Thunder Road ~ Robert Mitchum

Robert Mitchum was an Academy Award nominated American film actor, author, composer and singer. Mitchum is largely remembered for his starring roles in several major works of the film noir style, and is considered a forerunner of the anti-heroesprevalent in film during the 1950s and 1960s.

One of the lesser known aspects of Mitchum’s career was his forays into music, both as singer and composer. Mitchum’s voice was often used instead of that of a professional singer when his characters sang in his films. Notable productions featuring Mitchum’s own singing voice included Rachel and the Stranger, River of No Return and The Night of the Hunter. After hearing traditional calypso music and meeting artists such as Mighty Sparrow and Lord Invader while filming Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison in the Caribbean island of Tobago, he recorded Calypso – Is Like So… in March of 1957. A year later he recorded a song he had written for the film Thunder Road, titled “The Ballad of Thunder Road.” The country-styled song became a modest hit for Mitchum, reaching #69 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart.

The Ballad of Thunder Road

The Ballad of Thunder Road is a song written by actor Robert Mitchum in 1957. It was the theme song of the movie Thunder Road.

It tells the tale of “Lucas Doolin” (Robert Mitchum), a bootlegger during the 1950s who would deliver moonshine along local roads at excessive speeds to avoid “revenuers”.

Lucas’ father asks him for his next run to “make this run your last”, and that he should not attempt to outrun the revenuers, but if he could not get through safely, to turn himself in. However, Lucas ignores his father’s request, and attempts to outrun the law, but fails to evade them and dies as a result (the last lines read: Then right outside of Bearden, they made the fatal strike./He left the road at 90, that’s all there is to say/The Devil got the moonshine and the mountain boy that day).

Mitchum got the tune for the song from an old folk-dance song his mother used to sing to him. He also played the bootlegger in the movie.

The song is subtly referenced in Steve Earle’s song Copperhead Road, another song about moonshine running (it is implied that the bootlegger left behind a wife and son, the son would later abandon the moonshine business for marijuana).

The Ballad of Thunder Road – Mitchum, Marshall

Let me tell the story, I can tell it all
About the mountain boy who ran illegal alcohol
His daddy made the whiskey, son, he drove the load
When his engine roared, they called the highway Thunder Road.

Sometimes into Ashville, sometimes Memphis town
The revenoors chased him but they couldn’t run him down
Each time they thought they had him, his engine would explode
He’d go by like they were standin’ still on Thunder Road.

And there was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his load
There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the Devil’s thirst
The law they swore they’d get him, but the Devil got him first.

On the first of April, nineteen fifty-four
A Federal man sent word he’d better make his run no more
He said two hundred agents were coverin’ the state
Whichever road he tried to take, they’d get him sure as fate.

Son, his Daddy told him, make this run your last
The tank is filled with hundred-proof, you’re all tuned up and gassed
Now, don’t take any chances, if you can’t get through
I’d rather have you back again than all that mountain dew.

And there was thunder, thunder over Thunder Road
Thunder was his engine, and white lightning was his load
There was moonshine, moonshine to quench the Devil’s thirst
The law they swore they’d get him, but the Devil got him first.

Roarin’ out of Harlan, revvin’ up his mill
He shot the gap at Cumberland, and screamed by Maynordsville
With T-men on his taillights, roadblocks up ahead
The mountain boy took roads that even Angels feared to tred.

Blazing right through Knoxville, out on Kingston Pike,
Then right outside of Bearden, they made the fatal strike.
He left the road at 90; that’s all there is to say.
The devil got the moonshine and the mountain boy that day.

UPDATE:

In the comments below, Bob Ellis points out that the soundtrack of the movie is NOT sung by Robert Mitchum.  He asked if anyone knew who actually sung the song in the opening credits of the movie and throughout the movie.

This wasn’t the first time someone has asked me this, and I thought I would set out to find out.

I “Googled”, I “Yahoo’d”, I even “Binged”.  All I could find were a lot of people asking, and only a few people speculating.  The general consensus of those doing the speculating was that it might have been either Randy Sparks or Jimmie F. Rodgers.

So I thought I would simply ask Randy Sparks himself.  I emailed him yesterday, and by this morning he answered back with not only the answer, but a very interesting and detailed back story.  I asked him if I could post his email in full here so that he could tell the story in his own words.

Thanks much for the kind words, DJ. It’s nice to be appreciated, even as an old man…especially as an old man.

Yes, I sang the title song in Thunder Road. It’s somewhat embarrassing to me now that I can sing much better, but that’s not the whole story. The song had been orchestrated in the wrong key, about three full-steps too high, and the orchestrator refused to change what he had written. I had already lost my billing in the picture, and I was absolutely powerless to get the problem fixed.

I had been contracted to write the title song and sing it. Robert Mitchum had seen me on the Bob Crosby Show in my Navy uniform, and he told the people around him, “That’s the guy I want to play the role of my kid brother in the movie.” His director called my manager, and the deal was struck. I was to act in the flick and write and sing the song. I was still in the Navy when all of this took place, but everyone was pleased that I had such a wonderful opportunity, and I was certain that I’d be granted time-off to join the film crew in Asheville, North Carolina. They sent me a script, and I immediately began memorizing my lines and working on the music. I wrote two themes: Whippoorwill and Thunder Road, and I was feeling pretty good about the assignment. Just then, something miraculous happened that made my life a lot easier. The Navy, it seems, got tired of dealing with draftees. I had been in the front row of the hapless crowd at the Induction Center in San Francisco when the man in charge said, “First two rows Navy, second two rows Army!” That apparently had never happened before. The Navy usually didn’t have to draft anybody, but I was drafted exactly four years after the beginning of the Korean Conflict, and back then the boys had flocked to the Navy in order to stay out of the Army and Marine Corps. Now the Navy was becoming shorthanded, so they’d decided to draft a few people. I had just the previous year come from San Diego where I’d done three years of my college time (San Diego JC and SD State), and like everyone else in a seaport town, I hated sailors; now I was one! Exactly eighteen months after I had been standing in that front row, the Navy decided to boot-out the draftees three-months early, and I was mustered out (with a good conduct discharge) from Washington, DC. I caught a flight that morning to Asheville.

I had a legal contract for more money than I deserved, but there were two major disappointments that I received upon my arrival on location. Bob had yet to hear my two songs for the picture, but he informed me that he and Don Raye had gotten together to write the theme song, and I would be singing their song, not mine. He also let me know that his 16-year-old song Jimmy had lobbied him to play the part of his kid brother, and he had agreed to that arrangement. I would no longer be acting in the film, but I would still be there for the duration, and I’d appear in a cameo role. He was very apologetic about my loss of the acting assignment, but I certainly understood the problem. I handed over the demo records I had made of my two songs. He told me he liked the songs, but that the changes had already been made. He then asked me who was playing guitar on my dubs, and I told him about Ralph Grasso, my pal who was also a Navy Talent Contest winner from The Ed Sullivan Show. Bob said, “Let’s get him down here.” There was a problem with that. “Ralph is still in the Navy,” I told him,” and I don’t know that he could get time-off to be here.” “I’ll call the Secretary of The Navy, if I have to,” Mitchum replied, “He’s a friend of mine.” I called Ralph, and he was there in Asheville the next day. “Were you able to get leave?” I asked. “No,” he said sheepishly, “I’m AWOL!” This news made me feel terrible.

On my second day in Asheville, I was standing around in the lobby of the Battery Park Hotel when I noticed a nice-looking young woman, about my age, and she didn’t look happy. I asked her if there was something wrong, and she said, “I think I was brought here for the wrong reason. I’m not that kind of girl.” I had become aware of the meat-market atmosphere, and the whole cast and crew seemed to be sexually hyperactive, but her problem was with Bob. “He insists that I join him in his room for dinner and a private script reading,” she said, “and I’m not comfortable with that arrangement.” “How would you like to have dinner with me?” I asked. “That’s the best offer I’ve had all day,” she quipped. We were in the hotel dining room when RM entered, saw the empty plates, and became quietly enraged. He didn’t look at me; he spoke only to her. “I thought we were supposed to have dinner together,” he snarled. “I had a better offer,” she replied. Nothing more was said, and she and I spent much of the next month together. She was a genuinely nice girl, and I served honorably as her protector. We had a wonderful vacation at the company’s expense, but that’s how I lost my billing in the film. Her name was Sandra Knight, and she later on married Jack Nicholson.

I’ve just now taken a few moments away from the keyboard to play the You-Tube opening credits of Thunder Road, and it doesn’t sound so bad to me, but my wife gets hysterical whenever it comes on TV. It’s so high…I sound more like Della Reese.

Jack Marshall, who wrote the music for the flick, was an excellent musician, and he could have fixed the problem in a few minutes, but he refused to do so, and the picture was already over budget. Jack played guitar on my subsequent first solo hit record, Walkin’ The Low Road.

Mitchum’s long-time stand-in Tim Wallace knew what had happened to my screen credits and why, and he invited me as his guest to a special cast party at the Beverly Hilton Hotel later on. My name had somehow been omitted on the official list.

I know this is much more than you wanted to know, but I need to add a couple of finishing touches. Ralph Grasso now lives in Tucson, and he joined us just the other day for our two concerts in Phoenix. We’d gotten together just before that at Saddle Brooke in Tucson. He played guitar with me in our sold-out concerts there, and it was like old home week. After the Navy (and he got away with being AWOL, by the way; he’d had friends cover for him), he came to California at my invitation, and built a career as one of the most successful studio musicians.

Just a couple of years after my Thunder Road adventure, Robert M showed up where I was appearing at Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills. He was a little bit drunk on Chivas Regal, but couldn’t have been nicer to me. Then the problem started. An ancient and famous old bandleader (whose name I cannot remember) came up to where Bob and I were visiting after my show, and said to me, “Congratulation, I take full credit for discovering you.” I had done some program with him and his band, but it wasn’t a major event, and there certainly had been no discovering. Mitchum instantly took offense, telling the guy that I was HIS discovery, and the two of them actually began scuffling. I had to separate them.

Sometimes, when I think about all the unbelievable moments in my life, I get really amused. That probably hasn’t ever happened to anybody else. Why me, Lord?

Cheers! RS

© Copyright 2009 Cherrybell Music, used by permission

So there you have it.

  • The following is the soundtrack version with Randy Sparks singing:

Play 

Play 
  • Audio from the 1957 single, The Ballad of Thunder Road:


Purchase-Music The Ballad of Thunder Road (Remastered) – $1.29

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About DJ Allyn

DJ Allyn is a burned out radio guy who went on to become a burned out sound engineer for a few Seattle area grunge bands in the 1980s and 1990s. Left the madness of worldwide tours with bands, cleaned up my act and went into the relative sanity of sound engineering for television series. Currently working as the Director of Sound for a television series being filmed in North Vancouver, British Columbia. I am always on the lookout for interesting videos, old music, and fun.

7 thoughts on “The Ballad of Thunder Road ~ Robert Mitchum

  1. 2 things:

    1. Of all I like the song. I am old, I ran dirt mods out of a shop
    like him – I was paid to drive.

    2. I am kinda having this technical problem:

    His last run was in 1954. He rolls a 1956 Ford. Told you I old.

    Rainmayker@gmail.com

  2. His last run was in 1954. He rolls a 1956 Ford. Told you I old.

    It is a classic blooper. Just like the car chase scenes where the camera glances at the speedometer and the gear selector is still in “park”. (remember the old Adam-12 series?)

    We aren’t really supposed to notice the technical things, but they are fun to point out.

  3. Do any of you know who sang the ballad in the movie? At the beginning, there’s a slower version of the song during the credits & in part throughout the movie. I’ve read that it’s Randy Sparks or possibly Jimmie F Rodgers. For goodness sake, does anyone know? It is not R Mitchum!! His version came out AFTER the movie and I know, I know: he co-wrote the song with Don Raye. Who was the singer at the beginning of the movie???

    1. This is a very good question, Bob, and is about the third time I have been asked it in emails.

      I knew that it couldn’t have been Robert Mitchum. I did a Google search to see if I could find the answer, and what little I could find was only speculation.

      So I did what nobody else thought of doing: I contacted Randy Sparks. I have updated the post above with his answer. I think you will find it very interesting and informative.

  4. Thanks and thanks again. I’ve always loved the movie and Mitchum’s version of the theme, but also always wished I could find the version from the film. Cheers to DJ and Randy Sparks!

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