Jesse Lee “Arkie” Shibley was a country singer who recorded the original version of “Hot Rod Race” in 1950. The record was important because “it introduced automobile racing into popular music and underscored the car’s relevance to American culture, particularly youth culture.”
Shibley had relocated from Arkansas – hence the nickname “Arkie” – and, around 1948, began hosting a regular country music show on radio station KBRG in Bremerton, Washington.
Although the writing credit for “Hot Rod Race” is given to George Wilson, this may be Shibley’s pseudonym. He offered the song to 4 Star Records in Los Angeles, but was turned down, and Shibley decided to release the song on his own Mountain Dew label. The record was credited to “Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys”, the line-up being Shibley on rhythm guitar, Leon Kelley on lead guitar, Jackie Hayes on bass and banjo, and Phil Fregon on fiddle.
The record became popular and was reissued on 4 Star’s Gilt Edge imprint. Shibley’s record raced into the country charts in January 1951, peaking at # 5, with cover versions on major labels by Ramblin’ Jimmie Dolan on Capitol, Red Foley on Decca and Tiny Hill on Mercury. The Hill version also crossed over to the pop charts (# 29).
In 1951 Shibley recorded four sequels to his hit, all performed in a Woody Guthrie-like talking blues style: “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)”. He subsequently disappeared into obscurity.
There were later countless variations of the song, the most successful being “Hot Rod Lincoln”, a hit for Charlie Ryan (recorded 1959, charted 1960, # 33 pop), Johnny Bond (1960, # 26 pop) and Commander Cody (1972, # 9 pop). Shibley’s record also directly influenced Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene”, Gene Vincent’s “Race With The Devil”, and the succession of hot rod records by the Beach Boys and others in the early 1960s.
Hot Rod Race
“Hot Rod Race” is a Western swing song about an automobile race out of San Pedro, California, between a Ford and a Mercury. Released in November 1950, it broke the ground for a series of hot rod songs recorded for the car culture of the 1950s and 60s. With its hard driving boogie woogie beat, it is sometimes named one of the first rock and roll songs.
Written by George Wilson, it became a major hit for Arkie Shibley and his Mountain Dew Boys (Gilt-Edge 5021), staying on the charts for 7 weeks, peaking at #5 in 1951. Trying to repeat his success, Shibley recorded at least four follow-up songs.
Shibley’s record may have climbed higher and outpaced any of the others, but his second verse opened up with:
Now along about the middle of the night
We were ripping along like white folks might.
Eastern radio stations, never a fan of Western swing anyway, refused to play it.
Dolan changed the verse to say “plain folks”; Hill to “rich folks”; and Foley to “poor folks”.
The song ends with:
When it flew by us, I turned the other way.
The guy in Mercury had nothing to say,
For it was a kid, in a hopped-up Model A.
These lyics set the stage for an “answer song” called “Hot Rod Lincoln”, first recorded in 1955, and later recorded in 1971 by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen
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.
Now on through the deserts we did glide,
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.
- Audio from the 2010 album, Hot Rod Rockability – ’50s Rumble: