Automobiles and the blues have a long history. Of course, before cars, it was trains, and before that, mules. Blues artists have always been travelers, and, therefore needed a way to get around. Whether they owned them, wrote about them, or sang about them, here is our list of the 10 most famous cars in the blues world. Please feel free to comment with your favorite.
10. The Cadillac
Majorly disputed by blues historians and family members alike, the film, Cadillac Records, based on the history of Chess Records in Chicago, shows the label owner purchasing Cadillac cars for his artists in lieu of royalties. However, a few of the actual Chess artists wrote some of the most iconic songs regarding this car. Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” is probably the best known, however Bo Diddley did have a hit with “Cadillac.” It seems that many major blues, soul, rockabilly, R&B, and rock and roll artists had a love for the “Caddy,” either as a sign of prominence or familiarity. Some other great tunes about the car are “Lightnin’s Discourse on the Cadillac,” “Cadillac Boogie,” “Cadillac Assembly Line,” “One Piece at a Time,” “Redhead and a Cadillac,” “Fishtail Blues,” “Welfare Cadillac,” “Solid Gold Cadillac,” “Texas Cadillac,” “Pink Cadillac,” “Cadillac Baby,” “Cadillac Walk,” “Ray’s Dad’s Cadillac,” and even, “Geronimo’s Cadillac,” to name but a few.
9. T-Model Ford
James Lewis Carter Ford was born in Forest, Mississippi, sometime in the early 1920s. He grew up hard, being permanently injured by an abusive father at the age of 11, working blue collar jobs most of his life and even spending time in prison for murder. He didn’t begin playing music until his 5th wife left him a guitar as a going away present. It took until 1995 for him to be discovered by Matthew Johnson of Fat Possum Records. He did record 5 albums for that label, and 3 more on other labels prior to his death in 2013. He took his stage name from the famed Ford Model T automobile, but no one is quite sure why. Ford Motor Company built the Model T from 1908 to 1927 and it is considered the most influential car of the 20th century. It was Ford’s first automobile mass-produced on moving assembly lines with completely interchangeable parts, marketed to the middle class. However, there is no link between the vehicle and the artist. He didn’t have a particular fondness for the car, and allegedly he took the name only because he saw a lot of them when he was a child.
ZZ Top guitarist, Billy Gibbons, has had a long love affair with custom cars and hot rods. His custom 1933 Three-window, Ford Coupe, dubbed the “Eliminator” is a prime example. Its possible that, much like ZZ Top’s music, Gibbons wants to “inject old forms (say, blues music or antique Fords) with horsepower and flamboyance.” His 1948, Series 62, Cadillac Sedanette, named “Cadzilla” is the follow-up. Designed by Larry Ericson at Cadillac, and built by the late Boyd Coddington, the original vehicle was stretched, lowered, repainted, replanted, and turned into the one of a kind car it is today. The name of the vehicle, sometimes called “CadZZilla” comes from the combination of the terms, Cadillac, ZZ Top, and Godzilla. The Godzilla reference comes from its sheer size, as the car is 23 feet long. Even the license plates read, I8TOKYO. It was built at a cost of around $900,000 and has been displayed all over the world. Much like the “Eliminator,” this behemoth of a vehicle has become so famous, in fact, that it has its own Facebook page.
7. Bessie Smith’s Old Packard
“Empress of the Blues,” Bessie Smith, died of critical injuries sustained in an automobile accident in the early morning hours of September 26th, 1937. She was the passenger in her “old Packard” that Richard Morgan was driving down Highway 61 from Memphis, Tennessee to Clarksdale, Mississippi. Although no details are available concerning the exact year of the Packard, it was described as old, even in 1937, with a wooden frame and wooden roof and supports. This would play into the cause of her death. As Morgan tried to brake and swerve around a slow moving truck ahead of them, the Packard hit the rear of the truck almost broadside on the passenger side, shearing the wooden top off the car and nearly severing Smith’s arm which had been out the passenger window. The collision also caused major injuries to Smith’s ribs and possibly other internal organs as Morgan was thrown into her at the time of the collision.
6. Terraplane Blues
It was November 23rd, 1936, when Robert Johnson recorded his song, “Terraplane Blues” in San Antonio, Texas. It became his first hit song, selling around 5,000 copies regionally. In the lyrics is where the genius of Johnson shines, using a Hudson Terraplane automobile as a metaphor for sex. The car, it seems, has a myriad of mechanical problems, which he blames on his woman for allowing another man to drive it. “Who been drivin’ my Terraplane for you since I been gone?” Originally called the Essex-Terraplane, the vehicle was built by Hudson Motor Car Company from 1932 to 1938. Due to the popularity of aviation at the time, along with its modest price tag, the Terraplane combined style and power that was affordable during the Great Depression. Although Johnson would bemoan the mechanical issues of his Terraplane, they had the highest horsepower-to-weight ratio of any production automobile and were the favored cars of several gangsters of the day, including John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson. It seems they approved of the car’s lightness, acceleration, handling, and discreet appearance.
5. The Gold Plated Eldorado
By 1972, Isaac Hayes had been a session musician, producer, hit songwriter and recording artist for Stax Records in Memphis, Tennessee for many years. Some of his hits, written with partner, David Porter, included, “Soul Man,” and “Hold On, I’m Comin’.” He had also released some very well received solo albums, Hot Buttered Soul, and Black Moses among them. He’d also composed the music for the movie, Shaft, which garnered him a Golden Globe, a Grammy, and an Academy Award. As part of a contract negotiation that year, he received a custom built, gold-plated, Cadillac Eldorado. This glistening machine sported fur-lined interior, television, and a refrigerated bar. The grill, bumpers, wheel covers, emblems, windshield wipers, and all the exterior trim were gold-plated. Whereas most people would park a showpiece of this magnitude, Hayes drove it all over Memphis, all the time. He took great pride in cruising Beale Street, McLemore Avenue, and all parts of the Bluff City, showing off his prized car. A later bankruptcy would see Hayes losing the vehicle. Years later, when the Stax Museum of American Soul opened on the original site of Soulsville, USA in 2003, Stax and the El Dorado were reunited. It is now on display atop a rotating stage in the museum.
4. Mustang Sally
It was 1965 when Bonny “Sir Mack” Rice, a singer-songwriter from Clarksdale, Mississippi wrote, and first recorded the song, “Mustang Sally.” As the story goes, Rice was working primarily as a songwriter and living in Detroit. He was visiting his friend, singer Della Reese, who remarked that she wanted to buy her drummer a new Lincoln. When he mentioned this to drummer Calvin Shields, Shields responded, “I don’t want a Lincoln, I want a Mustang.” Ford Motor Company had released the Mustang in April of 1964 and the 1965 release was their largest since the Model A in 1927. Rice began penning a joke song, entitled, “Mustang Mama,” with the lyrics, “ride Sally ride,” in the chorus. Aretha Franklin suggested he change the title to “Mustang Sally” to better suit the chorus. Rice released the song on the Blue Rock label, and it went to #15 on the R&B charts. The next year, Rice’s former bandmate, Wilson Pickett, released his own version of the song which became an instant hit. It has since been covered by The Rascals, Sam & Dave, Buddy Guy, Bruce Springsteen, Los Lobos and nearly every bar band in the world. Coincidentally, in 1966, John Lee Hooker released a completely different song with a very similar title, “Mustang Sally & GTO.”
3. Janis Joplin’s Psychedelic Porsche
In 1968, blues rock star, Janis Joplin, bought a used, 1964 Porsche 356C Cabriolet for $3,500. When she purchased the car, it was painted in what has been described as either “oyster white” or “dolphin gray” and did not, at all, fit her outrageous sense of style. One the band’s roadies, Dave Richards, was given the car and $500 to decorate it properly. He began with a base coat of candy apple red, and then went on to add an image of Big Brother and the Holding Company, the “Eye of God,” a California valley, butterflies and even Joplin’s astrological sign, Capricorn. Richards’ dubbed the work, “The History of the Universe.” He topped it off with a clear coat, which protected the art work, even after the car was stolen and spray painted gray by the thief. When the car was returned, Richards was able to save most of the original paint underneath. This was Joplin’s every day car and soon became a familiar sight in the San Francisco area, with many fans leaving her notes under the windshield wipers. After her death, the car went first to her manager, Albert Grossman, and then to Joplin’s siblings. Her brother rebuilt the engine and again, restored the vehicle to its original gray color. In the 1990s a decision was made to restore the psychedelic paint job and artists Jana Mitchell and Amber Owen were able to replicate it from dozens of photographs. Once restored, the car was put on display at several museums and was loaned to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for a number of years. In late 2015, the car was sold at auction for a whopping $1.76 million. The Joplin family plan to use the money from the sale to support charity programs in the name of their late sister.
2. The Bluesmobile
According to the hit 1980 movie, The Blues Brothers, the original “Bluesmobile” owned by the band was a Cadillac. During “Joliet Jake” Blues’ stint in prison, his brother Elwood traded that car for a microphone. Upon Jake’s release, Elwood picked him up in the new “Bluesmobile,” a 1974 Dodge Monaco sedan, that he had purchased at the Mount Prospect police auction. The reason co-writer, Dan Aykroyd, chose this particular make of car for the movie was because he considered the 440 Magnum powered Monaco,”the hottest police car in America at the time.” As his character, Elwood, explains, “It’s got a cop motor, a 440-cubic-inch plant. It’s got cop tires, cop suspension, cop shocks. It’s a model made before catalytic converters so it’ll run good on regular gas.” In in the sequel, Blues Brothers 2000, the name “Bluesmobile” was bestowed upon a 1990 Ford LTD Crown Victoria. This model was equipped with a 190 hp, 351 cubic inch engine, 4-speed automatic transmission and full optional Police Package including front push bar, canine cage insert, and Appleton spotlights.
1 . Rocket 88
In the spring of 1951, Ike Turner and his band, Kings of Rhythm, were living and playing in Clarksdale, Mississippi and had a regular Wednesday night gig at the Harlem Theater. In between gigs one evening, they stopped in at a BB King show in Chambers, Mississippi and King allowed Turner to sit in with the band. He was well received there, and King suggested the band to Sam Phillips, owner of Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee. Phillips invited the Kings of Rhythm to record and the band needed an original song. It was saxophonist, Jackie Brenston, who suggested a song about the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 automobile that had been recently released and was very popular. The song was written in the Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale, recorded at Sun, and credited to Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats. Released on the Chess Records label in April, 1951, the song went to Number 1 on the Billboard R&B charts. Due to a damaged amplifier, it features one of the first uses of distortion or “fuzz” guitar, and as such, has strong claims to being the first Rock N Roll record.