Route 66 was a major artery leading from Chicago to Los Angeles. The route still technically exists, but it’s no longer officially called Route 66. Now the roads are part of the Interstate freeway system – specifically as parts of i55, i44, i40, i15, and i10. Even though this historic freeway is officially no more, the route still holds a place in our collective memory because of a song written in 1946. (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66, written by Bobby Troup and recorded by the (Nat) King Cole Trio, has been recorded almost 300 times. Covers of Route 66 come from artists such as Tom Petty, Bing Crosby, Chuck Berry, and even Depeche Mode.
Covers, especially second wave covers, reflect the culture of the day. A 1996 cover of a song written in 1956 will sound like a 90s song. This phenomenon shows itself particularly well in the song (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66. The covers of Route 66 from the 1940s through the early 2000s fit three specific eras: The jazz vs. big band era, the rock and roll era, and the post-rock and punk era. Which era works best for the song? Does one cover of Route 66 from a particular era outshine the other covers from that era? These are all questions I will answer. This is cover vs. original: (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66.
The jazz vs big band era
King Cole Trio | 1946
The first thing we hear with the King Cole Trio version of Route 66 is an uptempo piano An early electric guitar joins the mix a few seconds into the song resonates with an all-around fun sound. Nat King Cole’s crooner voice provides an inviting tone. I can just imagine him smiling, as he educates us on the road trip we just have to take! The King Cole Trio’s version of Route 66 envokes an image of loading up an old convertible Studebaker and driving through the farmlands and the deserts of America.
The King Cole Trio version of Route 66 served as the unofficial motto for the great American road trip.
Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters | 1946
Bing Crosby & The Andrews Sisters took a different, road with Route 66. Instead of a jazz trio, we hear a big band with horns, strings, and all the fixings. Crosby serves as the primary vocalist, with The Andrews Sisters intermittently singing (starting on the first bridge).
In the Crosby & Andrews version of Route 66, we hear a little controlled scatting, The closing line of the song has the Andrews Sisters singing softly “66” and Crosby singing “Make Your Way on, and “Get Tray Gay On.” There’s also a part towards the middle of the song where The Andrews Sisters sing ” big 6-6.” Of course, the term “tray gay” had a different meaning in 1946 than it does today. I’m assuming it meant the happy feeling going from drive-in to drive-in on a road trip. As far as the Andrews Sisters 666, well, we’ll chalk that up to an accident.
Bing Crosby and The Andrews Sisters present an alternative take on Route 66 with a Big Band sound.
Bobby Troup | 1956
Bobby Troup’s 1956 recording is the closest thing we have to an original version of Route 66. Still, by this time. By this time, six versions of Route 66 had been recorded. While most covers followed the big band style, Bobby Troup presents the basic Jazz Trio sound found in Nat King Cole’s version.
The differences between Troup’s version and Cole’s version are subtle but noticeable. There’s no electric guitar. We hear standard jazz trio instruments instead – light drums, piano, and upright bass. Troup’s tone shows the other major difference between the two versions of Route 66. Cole sounds excited while he sings, whereas Troup sounds fairly natural and laid back. This is Troup’s song, and his tone shows he’s at home when he sings Route 66.
One subtle feature of the Troup version, we hear a faint female vocalist singing the very last line with Troup. Almost like a sound engineer tried to edit out the voice, but couldn’t do a thorough job because of limited technology. Still, this female vocal adds a nice little flavor to the end of the song.
Troup finally, after ten years, presents to the world his vision for Route 66.
The Rock and Roll Era
Chuck Berry |1961
Chuck Berry uses the jazz version of Route 66 as the inspiration for his rock and roll version of the song. We hear a piano driving the song, while an electric bass and drum set share the back seat of Berry’s road trip. Meanwhile, Berry’s vocals, while sitting in the front passenger seat, like to take the wheel from the driver.
Of course, Berry was not a crooner. Up until this point, every version of Route 66 had been crooned. Even Bobby Troup croons somewhat. Instead, Berry sings, well, in his regular rock and roll voice. Berry also adds a few bridges for an electric guitar solo.
Chuck Berry, the Father of Rock and Roll, claimed Route 66 for the genre while respecting the song’s origins.
The Rolling Stones | 1966
The first thing to note about The Rolling Stones’ cover of Route 66: It’s the first song on their first album. Route 66 is the very first Rolling Stones song heard by thousands of people (maybe even millions).
How do the Stones play Route 66, knowing this will be the first impression on so many people? Firstly, they get rid of the piano heard in every other version thus far. Instead, we hear Keith Richards and Brian Jones signature dueling guitars. Meanwhile, Charlie Watts drums louder than former drummers on Route 66. Still, The Rolling Stones follows the basic song structure of the original jazz version in most respects.
The Rolling Stones introduce themselves to the World, with a version of Route 66
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers | 1978
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers further the cause that Route 66 is a rock and roll song. The very first thing we hear on this live version is feedback. And it’s loud! The entire song is loud and raucous. Tom Petty’s version of Route 66 sounds like something a bar band might play. You can almost see the fights break out in the crowd, while beer is spilled all over from dancing patrons.
That is not to say, that Petty disregards the history of Route 66. Petty respects the song’s general structure. Petty goes so far as to bring back the piano. Sure, the piano must compete with guitars now, but it’s there and just as prominent as it was in Nat King Cole’s version.
Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers further transform Route 66 from a rock song into an early hard rock song, while paying tribute to the original jazz version.
The Punk & Post Rock Era
Depeche Mode | 1987
Depeche Mode fully transforms Route 66. Aside from melody and tempo, we hear nothing of Troup or Cole, and we certainly don’t hear Bing Crosby. We do hear a little Petty in the guitars, yet the guitars serve as more of a background instrument. Leading the DM version of Route 66, we hear synthesizers and lots of them! This was Depeche Mode, and this was the 1980s after all. New wave music had taken the airwaves by storm, and DM was one of the most influential bands of the genre.
Even the vocals change. Sure, Berry, Jagger, and Petty all ditched the crooner approach, but DM goes further. David Gahan sings almost ironically. Almost like he doesn’t care about the song. Granted, by this time, Route 66 was no more. Besides, why would an English band care about an old road in another country? So, an ironic tone seems strangely appropriate. Whatever, The Depeche Mode version of Route 66 is still a lot of fun.
Depeche Mode drives Route 66 into a new era, where the road doesn’t exist.
The Cramps | 1994
The first sounds you hear from the Cramps Route 66 is the soft and slow rhythm of a bass guitar. A few bars into the song, we hear lead vocalist Lux Interior singing like Jim Morrison. In other words, Lux Interior brings back the crooner. Meanwhile, Poison Ivy slowly strums her Django pop guitar in the background. The result makes us feel as though we’re traveling through space – we’re taking a road trip to the stars instead of LA.
During the titular lines, the tempo speeds up, and the volume on pretty much everything, increases. Lux Interior almost screams the line “Get your kicks, on Route, 66.” Meanwhile, the drums, bass, and guitar blast the listener’s ears – only to return to the previous tempo and volume for the rest of the song.
The Cramps show no rhyme nor reason for their psychobilly version of Route 66. Regardless, the Cramps’ cover of Route 66 gives the listener a trip to outer space.
Yo La Tengo | 2006
On their album, “Yo La Tengo Murders the Classics,” Yo La Tengo presents a unique version of Route 66. The main feature: Leila, the young daughter of band members Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan, sings lead vocals. Yes, a little girl sings Route 66, and it’s the cutest thing you’ve ever heard.
The track is part of a greater project – a fundraiser for independent station WFMU. Listeners called and requested Yo La Tengo to play a song, pretty much ANY song live. Hilarity ensured all through the session as YLT had to improvise quite a bit. In Route 66, you hear misplaced bass notes, missed beats, and guitar riffs that just don’t work. Still, while the Yo La Tengo cover of Route 66 might not be the best cover of the song, it has it’s redeeming qualities. The childlike innocence of Leila’s voice reflects the innocence of the timeframe of the original version of Route 66.
Yo La Tengo gives us a cute and innocence version of Route 66. Far from perfect, but the cover connects us to post WWII America.
The covers of Route 66 – what era, what version?
Which covers of Route 66 drives the listener crazy? Which version brings the listener on a fantastic voyage? Does one era cover more ground than the others? OK, enough of the road trip puns.
Look, your favorite covers of Route 66 probably show when you were born. If you’re older, maybe you have some fond memories of driving the actual Route 66 on a family road trip while listening to, say, the King Cole Trio. Myself, I favor the Depeche Mode version. DM has influenced me since the 80s, after all. Still, I enjoy every version in the Rock and Roll era, as well, and the Bobby Troup version. Granted, the Bing Crosby / Andrews Sisters version was just…meh. But I guess some people liked that version. And I’m sure the sisters didn’t mean to call upon the Dark Lord – but that was pretty darned funny.
Enjoy the version you enjoy. Route 66 is a fun song, and if you have fun while listening to a certain version, you’ve fulfilled the song’s command. You Got your kicks on Route 66.