What Song Did Paul Newman Sing in “Cool Hand Luke”?

Plastic Jesus

Paul Newman gave one of his greatest performances in the wonderful movie Cool Hand Luke (1967). In one scene, after hearing about the death of his mother, he sits on his bunk with a banjo and sings a song about a plastic Jesus statue in a car. When I first saw the film, I wondered if the song were an old folk song or if it might have been written for the film.

Well, I don’t care if it rains or freezes,
Long as I have my plastic Jesus,
Riding on the dashboard of my car;
Through all trials and tribulations,
We will travel every nation,
With my plastic Jesus I’ll go far.

The song, “Plastic Jesus,” was a real song that had been around for about a decade before Cool Hand Luke was made. Ed Rush and George Cromarty wrote the song in 1957 while they were high school students in Fresno, California.

As kids in Del Rio, Texas, Rush and Cromarty listened to the radio and heard a Mexican border station playing a religious program that sold a wide variety of religious items to make money. One of the items was a glow-in-the-dark plastic Jesus with a suction cup the driver could stick on a car’s dashboard. The teenagers saw the humor in the selling pitch, and they giggled at a song about “the bosom of the Lord.” From there, they created the song “Plastic Jesus.”

You can buy a Sweet Madonna,
Dressed in rhinestones sitting on a
Pedestal of abalone shell;
Goin’ ninety, I’m not wary,
‘Cause I’ve got my Virgin Mary,
Guaranteeing I won’t go to Hell.

Rush and Cromarty began performing the song in college and then traveled around performing as The Goldcoast Singers. As Rush later explained, when they were playing the song around 1962, sometimes the audience reacted with hostility to the song, finding it sacrilegious.

The Goldcoast Singers recorded the song, but their band eventually ended. Rush and Cromarty had their last performance together in 1963 when Cromarty went off to Vietnam.

Below is the original version of “Plastic Jesus” recorded by Rush and Cromarty with a humorous introduction capturing the origins of the song.

If you look around the Internet for the lyrics, you probably will find a long list of verses. Most of them have been added by various people, as the song has taken on a life of its own as a real folk song. Rush and Cromarty only wrote the chorus and the verse about Madonna (both above). The Paul Newman version only uses the original chorus and verse too.

In addition to Paul Newman, a number of artists have performed “Plastic Jesus.” In 1971, Tia Blake included the song on the album Folksongs & Ballads with a bouncing country sound.

The Flaming Lips included the song as a hidden track on the album Transmissions From the Satellite Heart (1993). The band mostly maintained Paul Newman’s sparse arrangement.

“Plastic Jesus” also appears in a rock version with extra verses on Billy Idol’s Devil’s Playground (2005). Idol explained in an interview with Juice magazine that his version of the song that is about “an alcoholic who keeps his booze in his plastic Jesus on his dashboard. It’s a symphony song.”

In addition to using additional verses, Idol changed the music from the Cool Hand Luke version, making the song more upbeat: “I just followed the meter of the words and made it less like a hillbilly song. I made it sound more religiouso.”

Idol even made an official video for the song, featuring a plastic Billy Idol jamming with the plastic Jesus, who is pretty good at air guitar. Seriously, you have to watch Idol’s video.

After I posted the initial version of this story actor Lucas Hare pointed out to me that Bob Dylan’s song “You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go” from Blood on the Tracks (1975) has music very similar to “Plastic Jesus,” and at least in one live version from 1976, the guitar solo actually plays the “Plastic Jesus” melody.

Finally, Jack Johnson often performs the song, which appeared on Live at Boulder (2001).

My favorite version remains Paul Newman’s version in Cool Hand Luke, where Newman adds a layer of meaning to the humorous song. The lyrics remain funny, but as Newman sings the song in his pain at losing his mother, the viewer learns a lot about the relationship between the son and the mother. Additionally, the song about Jesus underlies a movie that is full of Christ imagery.

I’ll bet those two teenagers laughing at the radio had no idea their song would go so far. But “Plastic Jesus” was not the only time that Ed Rush and George Cromarty had a brush with movie fame. In 2013, the Coen Brothers used an altered version of The Goldcoast Singers’ 1961 song “Please Mr. Kennedy” in the film Inside Llewyn Davis (2013).

And that is the story behind the song.


Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    More Online Time Killers V: Colors and Bikes

    pocket watch In the latest version of “Online Time Killers,” we present you with one that tests your color perception and another one with simple black and white graphics to challenge your cycling skills.

    First up is a website where you can test how well you detect colors. According to the website, “1 out of 255 women and 1 out of 12 men have some form of color vision deficiency.” See if you fall into one of those categories by heading over to the Online Color Challenge. The test is based on the Farnsworth Munsell 100 Hue Test, where the lower the score you get, the better you are at distinguishing colors. Unfortunately, I found out I’m not perfect.

    Free Rider 3 features a challenging biking video with simple graphics. See if you can navigate the bicyclist through varied terrain, using your cursor buttons. The up button accelerates and the down button brakes, while the right and left buttons help you navigate your angle. There are various tracks designed by players, or you may design your own. On the ones I tried, I made it through some of the hurdles but have yet to make it all the way through. I just need to spend some more time on it.

    How did you do? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Gene Clark in Concert: 1985

    Gene Clark Live

    Singer-songwriter Gene Clark passed away at the age of 46 on May 24, 1991 in Sherman Oaks, California, a little more than four months after appearing with The Byrds at the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Missouri-born Clark is worth remembering just for his work as a founding member of The Byrds from 1964-1966 that led to such works as “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better” (later covered by Tom Petty), “She Don’t Care About Time,” and “Set You Free This Time.” But there was much more to Clark’s career.

    With The Byrds, Clark’s work was at the forefront of folk, country-rock, and psychedelic rock (Clark was the primary writer of “Eight Miles High”). Yet, after Clark left The Byrds, reportedly over his fear of flying, he created substantial work as a solo artist and with others, such as with Carla Olson and with banjo player Doug Dillard. Considering his entire body of work, it is easy to see him as one of America’s under-appreciated music gems and understand why he still inspires indie musicians like Fleet Foxes.

    Clark only had four major-label solo albums during his lifetime and he never found widespread success. Rolling Stone magazine never even did an interview with him as a solo artist, although the magazine has heaped much posthumous praise upon the singer-songwriter.

    Despite the alcoholism and the demons that Clark battled during many of those those years, he still made great music, including “Spanish Guitar,” which Bob Dylan has praised. His 1974 album No Other has come to be seen as a classic.

    For a taste of Clark’s post-Byrds work, we are lucky to have this 1985 performance in New York City. The video and audio quality are decent for the time period. And it is worth watching for a number of reasons, including the final song, which is a bittersweet reinterpretation of the Byrds’ reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Tambourine Man.”

    A documentary about Clark, Byrd Who Flew Alone, was released in 2013, although unfortunately it seems to be hard to track down. In other recent news, Sierra Records is releasing a new Gene Clark album of thought-to-be lost recordings on The Lost Studio Sessions 1964-1982.

    As noted above, Gene Clark continues to influence a number of musicians today. For example, the Skydiggers recently released an album of Gene Clark songs, Here Without You: The Songs of Gene Clark.

    Finally, if you are a fan of Gene Clark, you may want to sign a petition for him to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as an individual.

    What is your favorite Gene Clark song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Chuck Berry’s First Hit: “Maybellene”

    Maybellene On May 21, 1955, the relatively unknown Chuck Berry recorded “Maybellene” at Chess Records in Chicago. The 29-year-old part-time musician then returned to St. Louis and his construction job, while starting to train for a career as a hairdresser. But soon, through various circumstances, the song began climbing the charts so that Berry could pursue music full time.

    Berry got the opportunity to record “Maybellene” when, during his visit to Chicago, he approached Muddy Waters after a show for an autograph and asked for career advice. Waters suggested Berry go to his label, Chess Records. Berry did.

    Berry met with Leonard Chess at Chess Records and then auditioned, thinking Chess would like his blues music, and in particular his song “Wee Wee Hours.” But Leonard Chess noticed something else in Berry’s music. Chess liked Berry’s R&B version of the traditional country song “Ida Red,” which had been recorded by performers such as Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, who had recorded the song in the 1930s.

    So, Chess recorded Berry’s take on “Ida Red,” although by the time Berry’s song was recorded, the song had new lyrics and a new name: “Maybellene.” Reportedly, Chess thought that Berry’s title of “Ida Mae” sounded too rural, so he found inspiration for the name from a mascara box nearby (changing the spelling of the Maybelline cosmetics to avoid a potential lawsuit).

    With the new name and lyrics, the 2-minute and 18-second song was recorded, although it took 36 takes to get it right. In addition to Berry, the recording featured other musicians who would become legendary in their own right, including Johnnie Johnson on piano and Willie Dixon on bass.

    Less than a year earlier in 1954, Elvis Presley similarly had recorded a Bob Willis song as one of his first recordings for Sun Studios. Presley’s version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky” kept the name and the lyrics of the original, while bringing the same rock and roll spirit that Berry brought to his interpretation of “Ida Red.”

    In Berry’s version of his song, he not only added a driving R&B sound, he incorporated youthful energy in his lyrics. The lyrics captured the spirit of the emerging rock and roll music, connecting love and cars. In the song, the singer drives his V8 Ford seeking out his unfaithful girlfriend in her Cadillac Coupe DeVille (“Maybellene, why can’t you be true”).

    As I was motor-vatin’ over the hill,
    I saw Maybellene in a Coup de Ville;
    A Cadillac a-rollin’ on the open road;
    Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford.

    But Berry at first did not know what would become of “Maybellene,” which eventually was released in July with “Wee Wee Hours” as a B side. So Berry returned to St Louis.

    In the meantime, Leonard Chess in a marketing move that was not unusual at the time, gave radio DJ Alan Freed co-songwriting credit and one-third of royalties in exchange for promoting the song. In retrospect, the deal seems unfair at the least, but assistance from the legendary DJ did not hurt.

    One night on station WINS in New York, Freed played “Maybellene” for two hours straight. And the great sound of the song sent it to number ten on the pop charts and to number one on the R&B charts.

    “Maybellene” helped launch the career of Chuck Berry, one of the holy creators of rock and roll along with his yellow Gibson ES-350T guitar. Below, Chuck Berry performs “Maybellene” live in 1958.

    Although the song boosted Berry’s popularity, it also led to some hurdles for the young singer-songwriter. Some venues discriminated against Berry when they were surprised to find out the singer was not white. And, Berry had to fight for years to eventually get sole songwriting credit for the song in 1986.

    Berry, of course, persevered with a long career and other hits. But “Maybellene” was a key turning point in the history of rock and roll. “Maybellene” is now listed as the 18th greatest song of all time by Rolling Stone magazine.

    And that is the story behind the song.

    Photo via public domain. Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Guy Clark: We’ve Got Something to Believe In

    Guy Clark RIP

    Guy Clark, the great singer-songwriter from Texas, passed away May 17, 2016 at the age of 74. It is hard to select a favorite song from his vast catalog of wonderful songs. We have previously written about such songs as “Dublin Blues,” “Out in the Parking Lot,” “Homeless,” “Desperados Waiting For a Train,” and “Stuff That Works.” But I have to say goodbye with the song that first led me to his music, “L.A. Freeway.”

    “L.A. Freeway” is a wonderful song about escape, but not the running-away-from-a-woman escape type of song. It is in the vein of Springsteen’s “Born to Run” about going somewhere new with someone you love. Springsteen’s song captures a young man’s joy of leaving for a new adventure and of leaving behind a “death trap, a suicide rap.” By contrast, Clark’s “L.A. Freeway” is about an older man looking forward to the escape but recognizing the bittersweet feeling of leaving something behind.

    Oh Susanna, don’t you cry, babe;
    Love’s a gift that’s surely handmade;
    We’ve got something to believe in,
    Don’t you think it’s time we’re leaving?

    I hope Clark found that joy he was searching for in the song. He certainly gave us a large catalog of great songs to help us find something to believe in. RIP.

    What is your favorite Guy Clark song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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