The Motorcycle Song That Started It All | Cycle World
Robert Martin

The Motorcycle Song That Started It All

"Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" was released a week before James Dean died in 1955

In just two minutes and 10 seconds, the 1955 song "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller was the first to chart about motorcycles. Actor and teen idol James Dean died in an automobile crash in the week following the record's release, and the disappearance and presumed death of the song's subject made the song an important forerunner of the teenage tragedy song, a phenomenon that emerged in the early 1960s.

1955 for Capitol Records

The Cheers recorded it first in 1955 for Capitol Records.

Capitol Records archive

The Cheers - 1955

Recorded by The Cheers, it went to number six on the Billboard best-selling singles chart in the fall of 1955, becoming Leiber and Stoller's first top 10 pop hit. In 1956, French singer Édith Piaf recorded a French translation of the song entitled "L'Homme à la Moto," which became one of her biggest selling singles.

French singer Édith Piaf

French singer Édith Piaf recorded her version of the song in 1956 called “L'Homme à la Moto.”

Capitol Records archive

Édith Piaf - 1956

The Terror of Highway 101

The song tells the story of a motorcycle rider, described as "the terror of Highway 101," and his girlfriend Mary Lou:

“He wore black denim trousers and motorcycle boots
And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back
He had a hopped-up 'cicle that took off like a gun
That fool was the terror of Highway 101

Well, he never washed his face and he never combed his hair
He had axle grease imbedded underneath his fingernails
On the muscle of his arm was a red tattoo
A picture of a heart saying "Mother, I love you"

He had a pretty girlfriend by the name of Mary Lou
But he treated her just like he treated all the rest
And everybody pitied her and everybody knew
He loved that doggone motorcycle best…”

Rondi Marsh - 2016

Indian Scout customized by Roland Sands Design

The Indian Scout customized by Roland Sands Design parked in front of the James Dean memorial in Chilome, California on SR46 between highways 101 and 5. It’s the bike I rode to Las Vegas to watch Travis Pastrana’s ‘Evel Live’ jumps.

Gaz Boulanger

“He wore black denim trousers and motorcycle boots
And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back
He had a hopped-up 'cicle that took off like a gun
That fool was the terror of Highway 101

Mary Lou, poor girl, she pleaded and she begged him not to leave
She said "I've got a feeling if you ride tonight I'll grieve"
But her tears were shed in vain and her every word was lost
In the rumble of an engine and the smoke from his exhaust

Then he took off like the Devil and there was fire in his eyes!
He said "I'll go a thousand miles before the sun can rise."
But he hit a screamin' diesel that was California-bound"
And when they cleared the wreckage, all they found

Was his black denim trousers and motorcycle boots
And a black leather jacket with an eagle on the back
But they couldn't find the 'cicle that took off like a gun
And they never found the terror of Highway 101…”

Leiber and Stoller wrote several songs for Elvis Presley and The Coasters, including “Hound Dog,” “Young Blood,” “Yakety Yak” and collaborated with Ben E. King on the popular song “Stand By Me.” In the 1960s, Leiber and Stoller founded and briefly owned Red Bird Records, which issued The Shangri-Las' "Leader of the Pack" and The Dixie Cups' "Chapel of Love." Their last major hit was "Stuck in the Middle With You" by Stealers Wheel, taken from the band's 1972 debut album, which the duo produced.

denim trousers song

Jackie Brooks recorded it in 1955 for Decca Records.

Decca Records archive

All told, Leiber and Stoller wrote or co-wrote over 70 chart hits; they were inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1985 and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.