Charlie Ryan was playing at the Paradise Club in Lewiston when one night on his way back home to Spokane, he decided to race his ’41 Lincoln against a friend in a Caddy up the Lewiston grade. It was a seat-grabbing race that etched into the memory of the singer. Later he would write the lyrics, moving the fictional race to California on a road called Grapevine. Why? Artistic license, I suppose. Grapevine has the necessary two syllables for the line, while Lewiston would have been an awkward three. But another reason is probably that Grapevine is a straight shot, not like the Spiral Highway. The song doesn’t mention a corner at the end of every line, so that long highway worked better. It was called Grapevine not because it was twisty but because they had to slash through a lot of grapevines when building the road.
Charile’s song was something of a response to a song called Hot Rod Race, by Arkie Shelby that came out in 1951. There was a series of four back-and-forth racing songs.
Ryan released Hot Rod Lincoln in 1955 and did pretty well with it, the 45 staying on the Billboard chart for about a month. Charlie was on the charts again with the same song in 1959. Johnny Bond picked it up in 1960. His version was on the Billboard chart for seven weeks and climbed as high as 26. Then in 1971, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen released what would be the most popular version of the song, reaching number 9 on the charts. George Frayne IV, alias Commander Cody, by the way, was born July 19, 1944 in Boise, Idaho. Over the years the song was certified to have sold more than a million records.
Commander Cody and crew may have had the big hit, but they did something that ruffled the feathers of many hot rod purists. They changed the Lincoln’s V-12 to a V-8. Shocking!
And, was there a real Hot Rod Lincoln? As mentioned above, yes. But Charlie built a second, nicer version of the car to match the song and toured with it as an attention grabber. The candy apple red 1934 Model A with the Lincoln V-12 sold for $97,000 to an Ohio doctor in 2013 who uses it as a charity fundraising prop.
One mystery remains about the song, though, at least for me. Here’s the line:
“That Model A Vitimix makes it look like a pup.”
What is Vitimix? At the risk of sounding like Google, did he mean Vitamix, which is a brand of blender? Some reader in the know will set me straight.
Charlie Ryan, who is in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, died in 2008 at the age of 92.
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