As they cruised along U.S. Highway 66, Troup told his wife he wanted to write a song about the trip. She threw him the line, "Get your kicks on Route 66." That stuck in his head as he began to construct his musical travelogue. When he arrived in Los Angeles and met with Nat King Cole, Troop nervously sat down at the piano and played the half-written song.
The rest is history. The song became a huge hit for Nat, spending two months on the pop charts and elevating him from well-known jazz pianist to superstar pop singer.
A great American travel story set to music, (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 is one of the hippest, catchiest and most enduring songs in American popular music history. Recently called one of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th century by National Public Radio, Troup's tune, which lists in fun and creative fashion many of the cities through which the highway runs, has since been recorded by everyone from Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones and Van Morrison to Manhattan Transfer, Depeche Mode and Cole's supremely talented daughter Natalie Cole.
Troup went on to write such hits as The Girl Can't Help It for Little Richard and also established himself as a skilled jazz pianist and actor, playing Tommy Dorsey in The Gene Krupa Story in 1959 and Dr. Joe Early in the 1970s NBC drama Emergency. But he'll always be remembered as the guy who wrote that affectionate, swingin' tribute to the legendary two-lane highway, which remains a metaphor for the American dream.
But Troup's song is only part of the story. It's virtually impossible to overstate the impact Route 66 has had on America's popular culture. Once the gateway to the west and a symbol of freedom and the open road, Route 66 saw the beginnings of its demise with the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. But many communities along its path are working now to preserve the famed highway, and much credit for that has to go to all the songs, books, television shows, movies and video games about America's Main Street.
For nearly a century, artists of all kinds have helped keep Route 66 alive in America's consciousness. Humorist Will Rogers, born near Claremore, Oklahoma along 66, was deeply connected to the highway and in 1928 greeted runners in the Bunion Derby, a foot race sponsored by the U.S. Highway 66 Association to bring more publicity to the new road.
And author John Steinbeck dubbed 66 "The Mother Road" in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath, the gripping account of the migrant farmers of the Dust Bowl who left on Route 66 for California's San Joaquin Valley in search of a better life.
Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath and the subsequent acclaimed 1940 film of the same name, which starred Henry Fonda as Tom Joad, the book's heroic main character who traveled Route 66 westward, cemented the highway in American hearts and minds as a place where you can find adventure and opportunity and reinvent yourself.
Steinbeck's story also proved inspiring to folk singer Woody Guthrie, who was born in Okemah, Oklahoma, also a city along 66. Guthrie sang about the road and its travelers timeless American worker songs such as The Ballad of Tom Joad, which includes the poignant passage, "They stood on a mountain and they looked to the west, and it looked like the promised land. That bright green valley with a river running through, there was work for every single hand, they thought, there was work for every single hand."
Steinbeck's book and, presumably, Guthrie's song even inspired Bruce Springsteen to write the dark, haunting The Ghost of Tom Joad, which includes the line, "The highway is alive tonight, but nobody's kiddin' nobody about where it goes. I'm sittin' down here in the campfire light, with the ghost of old Tom Joad."
Route 66 is also said to be the inspiration for Jack Keruoac's classic beat generation tome On the Road. Though he never mentions the highway by name in the book, Keruoac did threaten to sue the producers of the Route 66 TV show because he thought it was based not loosely enough on his book. Keruoac also apparently didn't like the fights between the show's two main characters, Buz and Tod.
But the lawsuit was never filed, and the TV show became a hit. Debuting on CBS in October, 1960, Route 66 show told the story of sheltered, privileged Tod Stiles' (Martin Milner), whose father dies and leaves him a new Corvette but little money, and his buddy Buzz Murdock (George Maharis), who had a rougher childhood and was more street-wise.
The two buddies take off in the car to discover America, and themselves, along the legendary highway. Entertaining and slightly ahead of its time, Route 66 was at times brilliant, other times just routine drama. Nelson Riddle's theme song for the show became a hit in 1962 and is still played as background music on many documentaries
The highway has permeated our popular culture. The acclaimed animated Pixar film Cars was about a forgotten town along 66. A touching and wonderfuly written movie, Cars is a wonderful tribute to the Mother Road.
The Inland Empire 66ers, a minor league baseball team in San Bernadino, took their name from Route 66, which ran through San Bernadino. There's even a Sega video game called The King of Route 66, which features such iconic California 66 stops as the Baghdad Cafe, the Wigwam Village in Rialto, and the Santa Monica Pier.
In the game, you battle in your 18-wheeler with the evil Tornado Corporation and their army of goons while you try to win the hearts of the beautiful queens of the road. The idea is to smash and destroy your rivals and become the king of the road as you tackle that historic drive to California. Probably not what Bobby Troup had in mind. But hey, at least they're still talking about 66, the Mother Road.