By Richie Unterberger

When Sailcat's "Motorcycle Mama" rose to #12 in the national singles chart in the summer of 1972, few would have suspected that the song had almost literally got thrown out in the garbage before it had a chance to get released. Too, few were aware that its songwriter, John Wyker, was hardly a newcomer to the business, but had been a behind-the-scenes player of note in the Southern rock scene for more than a decade. Accordingly, the Motorcycle Mama album was a diverse cocktail of the Muscle Shoals, Alabama roots music in which Wyker was steeped, merging blues, country, R&B, rock, and gospel music into a concept album of sorts.

    Wyker had barely entered his teens when he first got into the music business in the late 1950s, hanging around Spar Music in Florence, "the only recording studio [then] in the state of Alabama as far as I know." He got to know the great soul singer Arthur Alexander, songwriter Dan Penn, and some of the session musicians who'd later form the backbone of the Muscle Shoals sound. By his college years he was playing in a band with singer John Townsend (who struck gold in the late 1970s as part of the Sanford & Townsend duo) and bassist Ed Pickett, older brother of Sailcat singer Court Pickett. As the Rubber Band, they had a mid-'60s hit in many regions of the South with an original tune on Columbia, "Let Love Come Between Us." With the composition co-credited to Wyker and Joe Sobotka, in 1967 the song was covered by the popular soul duo James & Bobby Purify, rising to #23 in the pop charts. Near the end of the '60s, he formed American Eagles with John "Buck" Wilkin (who'd spearheaded Ronny & the Daytonas, who had a big hot rod hit in 1964 with "G.T.O.") and a young Chuck Leavell, who dropped out of high school to be the piano player. American Eagles issued just one single on Liberty, but that 45 (co-produced by Wyker in Muscle Shoals) was Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," well before Janis Joplin took the same song to #1.

    By the early 1970s, John was hanging out in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with Leavell and Court Pickett. "Three o'clock in the morning we'd be out in the parking lot, Court'd be doing 'Motorcycle Mama,'" he recalls. "I'd be playing and singing along with him, and the local Hell's Angeles would be out there just loving it." At a local bar in February 1971, Wyker "just jumped up on the bar and said, 'I heard somebody opened a new studio in Muscle Shoals. He mainly knows about running a truck stop, and had never been in the business. These two girls have volunteered to drive me up there. I'm gonna go up there and talk a speculation deal for some recording time. Anybody that wants to play on it, come on up. By the time you get there, I'll have a deal made.' That was a pretty bold thing to do, and crazy. But we go up there, and I catch the guy, Ron Ballew, who owned Widget Studios, walking out of the studio about midnight."

    Wyker wasted no time going into his pitch, and "by this time, I didn't expect it, but all my friends from Tuscaloosa showed up, like Chuck Leavell and his girlfriend, and the dog, the cat, and all his equipment. Lou Mullenix, an incredible drummer that died way too young, and about 15 guitar players. I mean, he couldn't have thrown us out of the studio. We had literally just taken over by force. But he said, 'Give me a minute.' He called around, and evidently somebody gave me a good reference. So we started a publishing company together and recorded for two or three days, cut four songs—'Motorcycle Mama,' 'Rainbow Road,' 'B.B. Gunn,' and I think 'The Thief.' So we get a motel, come back, listened to what we did, and I said, 'Oh, man, this is the worst thing I ever heard in my life.' And took the tape, and literally threw it in the garbage can."

    Soon afterward, John was knocking around Florida with Leavell, Mullinix, and Capricorn artists Cowboy and Alex Taylor when Ron Ballew somehow got a hold of him by phone. "He says 'Wyker, I took "Motorcycle Mama"'—and it didn't [even] have the Pete Carr slide guitar on it at that time—'I caught Russ Miller, vice president of Elektra Records.' I didn't think Ron could pitch it because the only thing he had to play it on was one of  those Dictaphone machines. [But] he played it for Russ, and almost before the thing was finished, [Miller] said, 'I'll take it. I know [Elektra president] Jac Holzman will love this, because he started his business delivering his recordings on a Harley 165. I'll give you a $30,000 budget, any artwork you want, if you can get this guy to finish the album.'"

    Ballew did get Wyker to finish the album, even flying down to Macon, Georgia, where John had "caught pneumonia or something," to take him back to Muscle Shoals and get "me a doctor and some antibiotics and stuff." The producer was also chosen in the on-the-fly spirit guiding the whole enterprise: "Pete Carr was trying to break into the business. I'd met him in '65. He was trying to get a job as a guitar player or something at Muscle Shoals Sound. Word got out that I was building the perfect beast, and Pete came down like the first or second day that we were recording, and all I wanted to do was get drunk and go sit by the river or something. So I said, 'Hey Pete, you wanna produce?' Pete almost went into shock. He just rolled [his] sleeves up and started telling people what to do. He said word got out at Muscle Shoals Sound, which was a closed door for him, [and] they offered him a job as soon as he finished the project."

Carr wrote a couple of songs ("The Dream" and "It'll Be a Long Long Time") for the LP as well, and would go on to play guitar on albums by Bob Seger, Paul Simon, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, and numerous other big names in the business. Old friends Court Pickett, Chuck Leavell, and Lou Mullenix were among the supporting players, with bassist/singer Pickett being the only other official member of Sailcat besides Wyker. Why Sailcat? "The name came from a Jonathan Winters record, where a sailcat is a cat that's been run over so many times on the highway that you can scoop him up and throw him like a frisbee," reveals John.

    "We went in the studio, and I hadn't written but about fifteen seconds of half the songs on there," Wyker admits. "But most of the songs were vague ideas in my head, and when we got everybody together, the adrenaline would start flowing to where I could finish the songs on the spot. I remember when we did 'Highway Riff,' we had an intro on the guitar, and I told [keyboardist] Clayton Ivey, 'In one part, I want it to sound like he's riding and the cops are chasing him.' That's when Clayton starts just beating on the Hammond organ. I said, 'And then I want it to be like an adventure, and all of a sudden, he comes to a screeching halt. And then the sun's going down, and I want it to sound like he's coming into town and winding  down, and eventually winds up in a bar having a beer. In "Ambush," I want places where it sounds like circus girls swinging by their feet from those ropes.' Just turned Clayton loose, gave him a bunch of visual illustrations, and he interpreted it so well. 'Ambush' and 'Highway Riff' are two of my favorite songs still." Strings were added in Memphis at Sun Records, and the famed Memphis Horns were also used.

    As for the album's "concept" (with which Wyker is even credited on the back cover), "I called it a rock opera. The storyline behind Motorcycle Mama is really simple to understand. It's about a no-good riding motorcycled tramp that is really a latent romantic, and has dreams of settling down and having a family. And 'B.B. Gunn' shoots him down." In the inside of the original gatefold sleeve, each song was illustrated with a different picture by artist Jack Davis, working from details supplied by John.

    The record label was happy too, as "the guy from Elektra gave me a box of albums and $500, which was a lot of money back then. He said, 'I had the privilege of telling Dustin Hoffman after he made The Graduate that this movie was gonna change his life forever. I've got the same honor to be able to tell you that this is gonna be a hit, and it's gonna change your life. Go somewhere and stay healthy, and we'll contact you when we're ready.'" John went to "a sleepy little fishing village" in Florida, "checked in the campground, and gave the lady one of the albums. I loved it so much, I'd never felt that free, just having a good time. I was seriously considering telling Elektra to go fuck off. But one day I was in the shower and heard 'Motorcycle Mama.' My first thought was, I gave the woman an album, she's probably got it on at the turntable in the playroom behind the shower. Then at the end of the thing, I heard the guy say, 'That was ol' Sailcat singing about his motorcycle mama. I got one, how 'bout you? This is WTIX, in New Orleans.' I knew it was a 50,000-watt, important [station]. I went running out of the shower naked, screaming, 'Hey y'all, I just heard "Motorcycle Mama" on the radio! Hallucination verification, somebody! We got a hit!' That night, there was a  radio on, I remember the song before it was 'Candy Man' by Sammy Davis Jr., and then they played one by Frank Sinatra Jr. Then later we heard it on a country station. I said, 'Good god, man, I got a fucking crossover hit. Something I threw in the garbage can.'"

    It wasn't long before Sailcat were promoting the record in Los Angeles. "It was already in the charts, and we didn't have a band put together," says Wyker. With a hastily hired backup group, they appeared on TV with Dick Clark, where Clark "says, 'How come so much great music comes out of a little town like Muscle Shoals, Alabama?' I said, 'There's nothin' else to do.' Sweat popped out of Dick Clark, just shot out every pore, like 'he's just insulted his home town.' He thought they'd take it a different way. But people that live there knew I was telling the truth."

His candor wasn't always appreciated by Elektra, however: "I cussed the label out from the stage of Carnegie Hall. Somebody said 'Motorcycle Mama'! I said, 'You know, I hate that fucking song. It's just so wussy. I had thrown it in a garbage can, and somebody fished  it out and these fucking double-domed eggheads from L.A. thought it could be a hit, and they made it a hit, and I'm ashamed of it. I'll play it, but first, I'm gonna play it the way I feel it.' And did a whole 'nother, like, 'Why Don't We Do It in the Road' version of 'Motorcycle Mama.' But I kind of said some nasty things onstage and had some people squirming. When we ended our show, we went right back in the bathroom and locked the doors so they couldn't beat us up and cuss us out. We passed out in there, and about four in the morning this guy says, 'They're gonna turn the heat off, and it's gonna get down to zero tonight, so if you're in there, you're gonna freeze to death.' So we woke up and got out of there."

    Motorcycle Mama sold pretty well, reaching #38 on the album charts. Yet although Sailcat did issue a subsequent non-LP single, "Baby Ruth," they never made another album, though Court Pickett did a solo LP for Elektra shortly afterward. "We were a one-hit wonder by choice," explains Wyker. "I was so burned out on the road. They would fly us from one side of the country to the next. I said, 'Man, this was a freak accident, I'm not going to try to duplicate the success. I'm gonna leave while I'm on top.' Then came back to Muscle Shoals, bought a 24-foot houseboat, and lived on it."

    John's still living in Alabama today, putting most of his musical energies into the Mighty Field of Vision project (, which is both an internet radio station and a foundation for aiding fellow musicians and artists in need of social and financial assistance. "Now my mission in life is to promote new artists, and also, more importantly, expose some stuff that got done in the '60s and '70s that got put in the vaults, and the record companies missed them, or passed over 'em, or somebody had half an album and died, and their music was destined to live in the can and collect dust forever," he summarizes. "Our content, you can't get it anywhere else." -- Richie Unterberger


contents copyright Richie Unterberger, 2000-2010
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