Go, little Honda, but don’t come back from dead man’s curve
As cool as boomers think music was in the 1960s, a lot of it was formulaic. You had teen tragedies like Bob Seger’s “East Side Story” and Wayne Cochran’s “Last Kiss,” a hit by J. Frank Wilson. Beach party and surfing songs were big for a while. Then there were songs about going fast in cars, from “Hot Rod Lincoln” to any number of Chuck Berry tunes. Sometimes the streams would cross, and you’d end up with something like the Shangri Las’ “Leader of the Pack,” a combination of teen tragedy with fast bikes.
That brings us to Jan & Dean’s big hit, “Dead Man’s Curve,” written by The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, plus Artie Kornfeld (who helped organize Woodstock) and Jan Berry, with additional credit to Los Angeles radio DJ Roger Christian. It’s a song about street-racing Corvettes (“Sting Ray”) and Jaguars (“XKE”) that ends in a wreck on an infamous Los Angeles highway.
There really was a particularly dangerous curve in L.A. back in the ’60s, a 90-degree turn on Sunset Boulevard near North Whittier Drive, and the song was based on an actual wreck—though that accident took place miles from the City of Angels and involved a 50cc motorbike.
The story goes back even further to a teenager named Mike Curb. You may recognize the name: In addition to a successful career as a songwriter, producer, record company executive, and politician, Curb, a racing enthusiast and team owner, has racked up over 100 wins in over 50 different racing series, including Indy Car, NASCAR, and IMSA.
Back in the early 1960s, though, he was studying music. It’s not entirely clear where he was studying, though. One source says he was enrolled at UCLA, another that he was a freshman at San Fernando Valley State College. A third asserts that he was still in high school when he wrote an advertising jingle for a class assignment about a new Japanese motorcycle brand that was changing the image of American bikers.
Until then, motorcyclists had an image of, well, bikers, perpetuated by sensationalist journalism about a ruckus in Hollister, California, and subsequent release of 1953 crime flick The Wild Ones with Marlon Brando. Whereas Brando’s Johnny rode a 650cc Triumph Thunderbird (not a Harley or Indian), Honda was selling the cute little 50cc Super Cub, known as the Honda 50 here in the states.
Curb’s song “You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda” somehow caught the attention of Robert Emmennegger, creative director at Grey Advertising, American Honda’s agency. Grey purchased the rights to the slogan and song, and became the basis of one of the most successful and longest running advertising campaigns in U.S. history, used in one form or another from 1963 to 1975. By then Honda had supplemented the Super Cub with big, four-cylinder bikes and four-wheeled vehicles.
In 1962, though, American Honda exclusively sold relatively small-displacement motorcycles. It had been successful establishing the brand in the United States, with 40,000 annual sales at over 700 U.S. dealers, more than any other motorcycle brand; but for 1963, Kihachiro Kawashima, the head of Honda’s American subsidiary, had set an ambitious goal for 1963 of 200,000 units. He budgeted the largest amount yet to market the bikes.
A key part of the marketing strategy was appealing to people who’d never before considered a motorcycle, in part due to bikers’ unsavory image. Emmennegger took the upbeat jingle and ran with it, using the slogan in print, radio, and television ads. The print ads were colorful and upbeat, focused on regular folks enjoying their Hondas. Mothers and fathers with their kids, surfers with their boards, young couples, and even some gray-haired grandmas. Everyone was respectable and nice.
Thanks in large part to the campaign, the Honda 50 resonated (and bigger displacement models like the 305 “Dream” as well) with the American public. Honda didn’t sell 200,000 bikes right away, but sales nearly doubled in 1963. By 1964 the ads and the bikes were so popular that The Beach Boys, whose own popularity rivaled that of the Beatles, departed from their surf-and-hot-rod formula to record Brian Wilson and Mike Love’s tribute to the Honda 50, “Little Honda” for the band’s All Summer Long LP.
On an album with hits like “All Summer Long” and “I Get Around,” Little Honda was essentially filler. Producer Gary Usher, though, heard the song, thought it had promise, gave vocalist Chuck Girad a copy of the album, and told him to learn “Little Honda.” Usher then put together a group of studio musicians from Los Angeles’ famed “Wrecking Crew” of first-call session players and commissioned DJ Roger Christian to write (mostly fictional) liner notes for an album with even cheesier songs about motorcycles and hot rods. He then released “Little Honda” as a single by the “Hondells,” with “Hot Rod High” as the B side. Though the production on the album is credited to Nick Venet, the vice president of Mercury Records, long-time Venet associate named Mike Curb was probably involved, since he is credited with producing the Hondells’ 1965 release of “You Meet The Nicest People on a Honda.”
The Hondells’ version of “Little Honda” began to climb the pop charts, causing Usher to assemble a touring version of the Hondells, fronted by “Richie Burns”—perhaps a fictional character, perhaps not. (I suppose promoting an essentially made-up band that actually sang was better than Milli Vanilli.) “Little Honda” was a bone fide hit for Usher and the Hondells. It went “faster, faster,” making the Top Ten and peaking at #9.
Capitalizing on the Hondells’ popularity, Mike Curb also produced their cover of Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise,” with the B side their version of “You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda,” thus triple-dipping on writing, arranging, and producing credits. That single, however, doesn’t appear to have charted–though you can still find copies if you’re into kitchy ’60s advertising.
Yes, I have a copy.
Regardless of the jingle’s success as a single, Honda was so happy with “Little Honda” that it gave Brian Wilson his own Honda 50 as a token of its appreciation.
Enter dead man’s curve.
The way Artie Kornfeld tells the story, he was hanging out with Brian Wilson in Santa Monica, not far from the beach. He and Wilson were riding on the Honda 50, which, with Wilson close to 200 pounds, was rather overloaded even for clean pavement. The sand-strewn roads near the beach were hardly that, and they wiped out on a curve. According to Kornfeld, they carried the Super Cub, now broken in half, about three miles to the home of Wilson’s ex-wife’s mother. The door was open but nobody was home. Bleeding profusely, the pair went in to recuperate.
In the house was a piano, a blank piece of paper on its music stand. Wilson sat at the keys. Kornfeld grabbed the paper and wrote the words dead man’s curve. Wilson began to pick out chords in a two-four rhythm on the piano. Kornfeld, who said he was jealous of Berry’s Corvette, began to sing: “I was cruisin’ in my Sting Ray late one night and an XKE pulled up on the right.” (It’s possible that lyric is the reason why American’s don’t refer to the Jaguar by its proper name of E-Type.) Wilson added some melody and, a half-hour later, the song was mostly finished.
Because Kornfeld was a native New Yorker, not an Angeleno, Wilson filled in the local street names and landmarks. Playing back what they had written, Kornfeld started musing on their bike wreck, concluding that “we need an accident here [in the song].” Wilson said Kornfeld was nuts, but played a chord and Kornfeld, thinking of a Robert Frost poem about a single decision changing one’s life, spun out some lyrics. Wilson worked out the compelling “Won’t come back from dead man’s curve” chorus. Jan Berry then appeared, adding a few touches of his own and working out an arrangement appropriate for Dean Torrence and himself.
A few days later, they went into the studio and cut the song, using Wrecking Crew members Glen Campbell on guitar, Leon Russell on keyboards, and drummers Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer as backing musicians. “Dead Man’s Curve” was released as the B side to a forgettable song titled “New Girl in School.” The A side stalled in the charts, but “Dead Man’s Curve” hit the top ten, making it all the way to #8.
That is how a crash on a little 50cc motorbike led to a great song about Corvettes and Jaguars street racing in L.A.