Bam ba lam!
When it came time to name my 1940 Plymouth coupe street rod, the task was easy.
That's because a 1970's rock band and an African-American folk singer did the work for me.
Huddie Ledbetter, also known as Leadbelly, wrote numerous classic folk and blues songs including "The Midnight Special," (Creedence Clearwater Revival); "C. C. Rider," (The Animals); "Rock Island Line," (Lonnie Donegan); "Goodnight Irene," (The Weavers); and Black Betty.
Leadbelly was first captured on tape on field recordings by John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress. The folksinger had served prison time for murder, but was released. He had a prolific recording career and was a particular favorite in Manhattan.
Although Leadbelly died broke in 1949 after being diagnosed with Lou Grehrig's disease, "Goodnight Irene" became a million-selling No.1 hit the following year.
"Black Betty," meanwhile, was a hit waiting to happen when the rock quartet Ram Jam considered the song for its first album.
Based in Long Island, New York, Ram Jam was comprised of singer Myke Scavone, guitarist Bill Bartlett, bassist Howie Blauvelt, and drummer Pete Charles. They reworked Leadbelly's original 1930's arrangement for "Black Betty," giving the song a hypnotic rock beat.
Leadbelly's recording from 1939 is actually just a vocal with handclaps. It's also part of a medley, so Ram Jam had to write additional verses and add instrumentation. The song was actually a favorite of Bartlett's; he brought the song to the band and sang lead vocals on the track.
Released in the spring of 1977, the song is a two and one-half minute blast of pure rock 'n' roll. It became an international hit, reaching No.18 on the Billboard magazine singles chart in the United States. Although the band tried several follow-ups, including a song called "Keep Your Hands on the Wheel," nothing clicked with the public and Ram Jam became a one-hit wonder.
Still, "Black Betty" refused to fade away. When Australian group Spiderbait recorded their version, it went to the top of the Aussie charts in 2004. "Black Betty" was on my mind that year when my wife Sue and I started looking for a classic car to replace the Corvette we had sold a few years earlier.
I knew exactly what I wanted in a vintage car, too. Many folks desire 1960's or 70's era muscle cars, but I wanted a pre- World War II coupe. Sure, I liked the Camaros and Mustangs of my youth, but I wanted something older, but not the box-like models of the 1920s.
Why did I especially like cars from this earlier era? Well, as a kid in the early 1960's my dad took me into the pits during stock car races on the clay track at the Upper Peninsula State Fairgrounds. Then, the fastest, coolest cars were Chevy, Ford or Plymouth coupes.
Now, after months of searching, a two-door to my liking showed up on eBay, the giant Internet auction house. The car was powered by a 318 engine with an Edelbrock carburetor. An automatic, it had power steering, brakes and windows. The coupe featured bucket seats, frenched headlights, a v-butt windshield and was decked out in black primer.
We bid on the car and won. Now it needed a name.
For the uninitiated, "Betty," besides being a nickname for Elizabeth, is a slang term for a good-looking woman. My new car had curves in all the right places. It was in black primer. I had a life-long interest in music. "Black Betty" appeared to be the perfect name.
Getting behind the wheel, I turned on the stereo and slid in the Ram Jam compact disc. The ride proved to be a flawless combination of 100 percent American hot rod and timeless American music.
Bam ba lam!