Six Strings and Four Wheels

James Kraus

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The Rivieras surround a Claret Red 1964 Buick Riviera

A new sound hit the airwaves in early 1960s America: Hot Rod music. An offshoot of the Surf sound, this new genre was indeed similar to surf music, but the lyrics involved automotive themes, often centered around drag race culture. The first big hot rod hit was 409 by The Beach Boys, a paean to Chevrolet’s recently-introduced 409 cubic inch (6.7 litre) Turbo-Fire V8.  

Automotive themed music was not entirely new; the genre being nearly as old as the car itself. In My Merry Oldsmobile was written in 1905 and covered by Bing Crosby in 1939. In the sixties however, it became widely popular with hits like Little Deuce Coupe, Dead Man’s Curve and G.T.O. This was not a surprise as American teenagers growing up in the affluent sixties were the first that could realistically aspire to automotive ownership when they reached driving age.

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I’ll go you one better, if you’ve got the nerve… Dead Man’s Curve, Jan & Dean, 1964

As a result, young men looked at cars less as family transport and more as means of individual expression. Driving one’s own car bestowed an independence both thrilling and liberating. The resulting automotive enthusiasm generated a parallel trend in the world of popular music: in addition to singing about Chevrolets, hot rods, Jaguars and Pontiacs, a host of musical groups began identifying with specific cars by appropriating their names in a bid to capture the excitement and flair of the sleek and stylish new machines that manufacturers were creating in ever increasing numbers.

Moreover, since the most of these groups were garage bands, what could be more apropos than selecting a name from among the intended occupants of such a space?

There were a few automotive named groups in the fifties including The Cadillacs, The Capris, The Edsels and the Skyliners. The Edsels ironically had a breakout hit with Rama Lama Ding Dong in 1961, a year after their namesake automobile was discontinued. The new decade however, saw an explosion of musical ensembles taking on automotive appellations.

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Booker T. and the M.G.’s

Probably the most prominent of such bands was Booker T. and the M.G.’s whose Green Onions soared to top of the charts in 1962. A decade later George Lucas selected it to underscore the climactic drag race between John Milner and Bob Falfa in American Graffiti.

Not only were Booker T. and the M.G.’s named after the eponymous British sports car, but a contemporaneous Memphis studio band that included Booker T.’s organist and bass player was dubbed The Triumphs in homage to the Spitfire driven by Stax Records producer “Chips” Moman.

Countless other musical groups rode the wave of automotive excitement that was a hallmark of the decade.

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The Avantis

The Avantis were part of the Los Angeles surf music scene, playing clubs along the Sunset Strip and touring with The Beach Boys. They released Gypsy Surfer and Wax ‘Em Down in 1963, followed by Phantom Surfer in 1964. The band was fronted by a pair of Native American brothers, Pat and Lolly, who also recorded an album as The Deuce Coupes with tracks including Smooth Stick, Candy Apple Blue and Satan’s Chariot. In 1969 the brothers formed Redbone, producing a string of hits in the 1970s.

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Gregory Dee and the Avanties

Another Avantis initially got together in Minneapolis, Minnesota in 1961 under a different automotive nom de plume; The Tempest Trio. The following year they added two members and changed their name to Gregory Dee & The Avanties. In 1964 the new quintet released a number of singles including Olds Mo William. In August of 1965 they opened for the Beatles at Met Stadium in Bloomington, Minnesota.

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The Barracuda’s atop their Dodge A100 Sportsman. Veazie, Maine, 1966

The Barracudas from Maine released It’s High Time and Realize in 1966, following up with No Matter What You Do and Wait For Tomorrow in 1967.

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The Bel-Airs

The Bel-Airs of Southern California were an early surf band known for their local hit Mr. Moto of 1961, an instrumental named for a concurrently popular Japanese literary and cinematic secret agent.  Squad Car was Another Bel-Air favourite. Their original drummer later left to join the Standells, performing percussion and lead vocals on the classic Dirty Water of 1966.

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The Bonnevilles

The Bonnevilles formed in Columbus, Ohio circa 1961 and later appeared on television in the local NBC affiliate’s Dance Party.

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The Catalinas, Fun Fun Fun, 1964

A handful of bands chose the Catalina moniker in the 1960s. Probably the most well known is a studio group from California whose lineup featured Terry Melcher, Bruce Johnson and Leon Russell. Their song list included Queen of the Hot Rods and Boss Barracuda.

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The Chevelle V

At least three bands were named after the popular mid-size Chevrolet. The Chevelle V from Abilene Texas won a battle of the bands sponsored by Vox and American Airlines in 1966, garnering a recording session with Dot Records. This resulted in two singles, Dangling Little Friends and Stone And Steel Man.

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Rod and The Cobras, Drag Race At Surf City, 1964

A Canadian studio band recorded an LP in 1964 under the name Rod and The Cobras. The album was a collection of surf and hot rod instrumentals incorporating a dose of saxophone and Hammond organ including Gear Down, Dragsville and Stripped Down–Souped Up.

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The Cobras sporting blazers embellished with Shelby Cobra patches

Another Cobras from Danville, Illinois sold 3,000 copies of their 1966 release Try, with Goodbye on the flip side.

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Rick’s Continentals

Rick’s Continentals from Meridian, Mississippi were one of a handful of Continentals. The band got together in 1964, the same year a new Lincoln Continental came to an ignoble end in Goldfinger. Three years later they had a big hit on the East Coast of the U.S. with You Can Live It Up which received airplay as far afield as Chicago’s superstation WLS. The band later performed at the ’67 Junior Miss America pageant.

A Florida-based Continentals boasted a roster that briefly included Don Felder and Stephen Stills.

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The Corsairs EP, 1965

A popular Hong Kong act, The Corsairs released a 7” EP wrapped in a picture sleeve depicting a snare drum, a three-color sunburst Fender Jaguar and matching Fender Precision Bass propped up against a Ford Consul Corsair. The font used in the band’s name also matched that of the Ford Corsair model script.

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The Corvairs

The rear engine air-cooled Chevrolet inspired a couple of bands. The Corvairs, an R&B group out of New York got together just weeks after the Corvair was introduced, naming themselves after “that nifty new Chevrolet with the engine in the rear.” In 1962 they recorded two singles on the Comet label, Hey Sally Mae and True True Love.

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The Corvairs

Another New York Corvairs, a Doo-Wop group formed a few months later, eventually releasing several songs on the Cub and Clock labels.

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The Devilles

The Devilles of Memphis formed in 1963. In 1967, they changed their name to The Box Tops just prior to releasing The Letter. In September The Letter reached Number One on the Billboard Hot 100, a spot it held for four weeks.

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The Duals Stick Shift 7” 45 sleeve. Note exaggerated length of the dual exhausts on what appears to be a stylized 1953-1955 Chevrolet Corvette

A Los Angeles duo christened themselves The Duals and recorded a number of instrumentals including Stick Shift, which reached Number 25 on the Hot 100 in October of 1961.

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The E-Types

In 1966, a band calling themselves The E-Types got together in Salinas, California. One of their four releases, Put the Clock Back on the Wall, was featured in the film Blonde on a Bum Trip in 1968.

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The Exides

The Exides were a local band from Northern Illinois that recorded two songs, Route 66 and I Got My Mojo Workin’. They were named after a manufacturer of car batteries. Member Carl Anderson stated that the name was chosen to suggest “Music with a charge; like Exide batteries.”

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The Fairlanes

There was at least two Fairlanes in the 1960s, the longest-lived being a Nashville band fronted by Tommy Alberts.

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The Four Speeds in front of Mashak Motors in Van Nuys, California. In the foreground is Gary Usher’s brand new 1963 Plymouth 426 Max Wedge Sport Fury.

The Four Speeds released My Sting Ray, Four On The Floor, Cheater Slicks and RPM in 1963. The group was one of many studio bands assembled by producer and songwriter Gary Usher that utilized a variety of Wrecking Crew musicians. Dennis Wilson was borrowed from The Beach Boys to sit in on drums and backing vocals.

Promotional material showed the band in the forecourt of Mashak Motors. At the time, Mashak was sponsoring a popular competition Super Stock Plymouth driven by drag racer Doug Lovegrove.

Gary Usher also produced Mr. Gasser And The Weirdos, with vocals provided by multi-talented custom car designer Ed “Big Daddy” Roth.

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The Futuras Mile Zero

There were a few Futuras including a surf band that released Mile Zero and Storm Surf in 1963, and performed in the 1965 film Rat Fink.

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The G.T.O.’s

The G.T.O.’s of Cleveland were deep into automotive nomenclature. Beginning as Joey and the Continentals, their lineup briefly included a guitar player from the Starfires before they finally became The G.T.O.’s. They released Missing Out On The Fun and Girl From New York City in 1966 and became the house band for the Upbeat television show the following year.

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Thom Starr & the Galaxies, Anthology, 2010

Many bands adopted the name of the deluxe full-size Ford including a band from Brazil. Thom Starr & the Galaxies, a South Bay surf combo from California, recorded Sons of the Beach in 1963, an album that went unreleased until 2010 when its songs were combined with other Galaxie tracks into Anthology 1963-1964. Many aficionados now regard it as a consummate surf music classic. The cuts include Woodie Welcome Wagon and covers of the Bel-Air’s Mr. Moto and Squad Car.

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The Galaxies IV

The Galaxies IV of New Jersey formed in 1962. They played multiple dates at the New York World’s Fair in 1965 and later that year won the first annual Rock and Roll Olympics, whose judging team included Phil Spector. Their biggest hit was Piccadilly Circus released by RCA in 1967.

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The Galaxies

The Galaxies were a Kansas City band that recorded some original tunes including Come Alive and Big Boss Man. Bud Ross, a local electronics engineer, provided the band with solid-state guitar and bass amplifiers of his own design for real world development and testing.

Bud later formed a company to produce black or metalflake vinyl tuck-and-roll upholstered amplifiers with chrome acoustic ports under the name Kustom, featuring “the mellow sound of space age design.” Soon, Herbie Hancock, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Leon Russell and the MC5 would perform on stage using Kustom amps.

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Tom Morgan presents the keys of a new 1960 Ford Galaxie to The Galaxies in front of Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood. Tom was a longtime Capitol producer who occasionally portrayed Bozo the Clown in the annual Hollywood Christmas Parade.

Finally there were The Galaxies from Los Angeles, a trio created by Al Hazan in 1960. They released a handful of singles on the Capitol label including The Big Triangle and Trouble On A Double Date. The trio later revised their name to become The Royal Galaxies.

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Thee Impalas

Thee Impalas were an East Los Angeles band who had a regional hit, Power Glide in 1964.

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The Invictas

The Invictas out of New York produced The Hump, a single that became a regional hit and most requested song in Buffalo and Miami during the summer of 1966. They disbanded in 1967, lasting two years longer than the production run of their namesake Buick. The band reunited in 2005 with three of the original members and is still performing.

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The Jaguars, Chevy Shut Down

The Jaguars released two tunes during the decade, The Beach Boys-esque Chevy Shut Down and Just Out Of Luck.

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The Malibu’s

The Malibu’s of Fort Valley, Georgia recorded I’ve Gotta Go and I Want You To Know in 1966 which received widespread airplay locally and on Chicago’s influential WLS AM 890.

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Let Down by The Marlins

From Mount Lebanon, Pennsylvania came The Marlins, who recorded two instrumentals in 1966, Let Down and Saw Mill Run.

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The Mustangs

It should be no surprise that there were a number of Mustangs. Besides the Jacksonville, Florida based outfit shown above, there was Dean And The Mustangs from Virginia; and The Mustangs from Riverside, California that recorded an original track in 1966, That’s For Sure.

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The Rivieras

There were a few band named for Buick’s luxury coupé, but The Rivieras from South Bend, Indiana hit the big time with California Sun, which reached Number 5 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1964.

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Ron and the Starfires

Starfire was a popular sobriquet. Florida’s Ron And The Starfires produced a regional hit, The Grass Is Greener in 1965.

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The Starfires

A Starfires band from Cleveland changed their name to The Outsiders (at the behest of Capitol Records) just prior to releasing Time Won’t Let Me, which climbed to Number 5 on the Hot 100 in April 1966.

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The Starfires

A Los Angeles based Starfires released I Never Loved Her in 1965.

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The Starliners

The Starliners were a cover band from Minnesota formed in 1962. One of the founding members previously played in one of the many Galaxie bands, Johnny And The Galaxies. They once backed up Fabian at a concert in St. Paul, and released an original single in 1966, Broken Engagement.

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The Sting Rays

The Sting Rays of Virginia released four singles in the mid-sixties including I Need Her on the Vermillion label. Another Sting Rays band formed in 1963 in South Dakota and have since reunited.

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Sunny And The Sunliners

After a few name and personnel changes, a Texas band emerged as Sunny And The Sunliners in 1963. Their single Talk To Me reached Number 11 on the Hot 100 the same year.

Another band by the name Sunliners hailed from Detroit, releasing Hully Gully Twist and Sweet Little Girl in 1962. In 1968 they changed their name to Rare Earth and created several hits in the early ‘70s.

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The Super Stocks, Surf Route 101, 1964. Cover art features the Ebony Black 1963 Sport Fury driven by producer Gary Usher

Like The Four Speeds, The Super Stocks were another Gary Usher creation. The name of this studio group pays tribute to cars running in the NHRA Super Stock drag racing class where the fastest stock cars competed.

Super Stock also referred to the 426 cubic inch (7-litre) V8 engine that powered Gary’s own 1963 Plymouth Sport Fury. The Chrysler 426 Max Wedge was dubbed the Super Stock 426 when installed in Plymouths, while Dodge referred to the same powerplant as the Ramcharger 426.

Three full albums were released in 1964 under the Super Stocks banner, filled with automotive-themed songs like Ballad of Bonneville, Trophy Run and Wide Track.

The Super Stock moniker gained further notoriety In June of that year when Jan and Dean sang about a Super Stock Dodge in The Little Old Lady From Pasadena.

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The Tempests

The Tempests formed in 1962 in St. Petersburg Florida, later releasing two singles in 1966, I Want You Only and I Want You To Know.

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The Thunderbirds

The Thunderbirds of Iowa released two singles in 1967, Hey Little Girl and Those Days Are Gone. The band broke up in 1968, then regrouped from 2004 to 2013.

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The Triumphs, Reissue 7-inch EP, 2004

The Booker T. and the M.G.’s offshoot was not the only Triumphs. Another group of the same name from Wisconsin recorded four original tunes in 1964, the most popular being Surfside Date. The song faded into obscurity before being rediscovered in the 1980s and is now once again available on vinyl.

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The Vettes, Rev-Up

The Vettes were a studio band formed by musician and producer Bruce Johnson that released a single album, Rev-Up in 1964. The following year, Bruce joined The Beach Boys.

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Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs

Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs had a big hit in 1960 with Stay, which reached Number One in the U.S and Number 14 in the U.K. The band was named for the Ford Zodiac, an example of which the band spotted while travelling through West Virginia. It was an extremely rare sighting as very few Zodiacs were ever exported to the U.S.

Four years later, Stay was covered by both The Hollies and The Four Seasons.

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The XL’s of Wilton, Iowa

A few groups named themselves after the sporting variant of the Ford Galaxie. In late 1962, an XL’s band formed in Wilton, Iowa, some members having honed their skills in the school band. Their name was inspired by a Raven Black 1963 500/XL just purchased by the guitar player’s father. After a few years performing in the Midwest, The XL’s appeared in the 1968 film A Time To Sing.

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The XL’s of Columbus, Indiana. The object in the centre foreground is a rare Fender Electronic Echo Chamber tape-delay effects box.

Indiana alone hosted at least two XL’s, one from Columbus and another, incorporating a horn section, from Terra Haute. The latter released a pair of singles, Mixed With The Rain and Maryjane.

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Advertisement for the Fender Jaguar, 1962

Fender joined the sixties musical automotive naming trend with two new guitars: the aforementioned Jaguar of 1962 (later played by Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys) and the 1965 Mustang (used occasionally by Jimi Hendrix).

This is by no means a completely comprehensive list. It includes most major examples; concentrating on bands of the 1960s that conscientiously named themselves after automobiles or automobilia. Thus The Satellites (named for the orbiting type of craft rather than the Plymouth) of Ohio and the all-girl G.T.O.’s (Girls Together Outrageously) of 1968 were left out, as were a number of bands using The Jaguars appellation.

It would be risky to assume that a band named The Jaguars might have selected the name based on an automobile from Coventry; I distinctly recall a suitor of Elly May Clampett who assumed her beloved Jaguar was the four-wheeled sort rather than the feline variety. It did not end well.

Also missing are The Ferreris [sic] who intended to name themselves after the cars of Il Commendatore but managed to mangle the spelling, a rather egregious affront.

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2 thoughts on “Six Strings and Four Wheels

    • The Firebird actually predated Pontiac’s Firebird by five years and was named after the mythical avian Firebird, rather than the GM Firebird concept cars of the 1950s.

      The naming of the guitar is substantiated in Flying V, Explorer, Firebird: An Odd-Shaped History of Gibson’s Weird Electric Guitars by Tony Bacon. The same naming convention applies to the Gibson Thunderbird bass, although the logo on the pickguard does look quite similar to the Ford version.

      Interestingly enough, both the Firebird and Thunderbird guitars were designed by Ray Dietrich, a freelance automotive designer and one-time styling chief at Chrysler.

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