Ramblin' Jimmie Dolan's tenure in the music business goes back to the days when records ran at 78 rpm, but he was still around when the adolescent obsession was souped-up cars known as hot rods. A car would certainly be convenient if one were trying to ramble, and indeed this artist, kind of half hillbilly and half Western swing, seems to have acquired much glory through his connection with the world of hot rods, glorified for the couch-bound audio hound on compilations such as Drag City. Dolan was one of four performers to do a cover version of the song "Hot Rod Race," originally written and recorded by George Wilson. That song in turn inspired an even more popular ditty from the heart of honky tonk culture, "Hot Rod Lincoln." Through the rear-view mirror it seems the hot rod helped Dolan arrive at a cherished spot in music history: i.e., getting to appear on compilation sets with the likes of Robert Mitchum. It is all pretty good for a guy whose decision to go hot rod may not have been that heartfelt.
Jimmie Dolan (or Ramblin' Jimmie Dolan, as he was sometimes called) remains one of the most important and elusive figures in rockabilly music, a half-century after he made his contribution and more than a decade after one of the few indisputable facts surrounding life -- his death, in the summer of 1994. He always claimed for legal purposes that he was born Jimmie Lee Dolan, and was born in 1924 in (at different times in his life) Texas, Oklahoma, or Wyoming, but The Encyclopedia of Country Music pegs his birth name as Lee Roy Petit, his year of birth as 1916 (which would make him one of the oldest contributors to 1950s rock & roll), and his place of birth as Gardenia, CA. The 1916 birth date might make more sense, in terms of his apparent desire, manifested at age 14 when he took up the guitar, to be a singing cowboy. He later worked at radio station KWK in St. Louis, MO, broadcasting regularly until he entered the Navy in the early '40s.
Dolan honed his skills and his persona entertaining his fellow sailors during his four years in uniform, and was lucky enough to spend the final months of WWII stationed in Los Angeles, which allowed him to reintegrate himself to the music scene there, and start cultivating a civilian career. By 1946 he was singing on KXLA in Los Angeles and had his first recording contract soon after, for Four Star Records, which, thanks to a delay, didn't start seeing the light of day until 1948 -- the latter included a cover of Ernest Tubb's then recent hit "I'm Walkin' the Floor Over You." Meanwhile, Dolan was building up a loyal following on the air with his warm, easygoing persona and voice, and his self-effacing manner. He was signed at various moments in the late '40s to the Bihari Brothers' Modern Records and also to Crystal Records for one single, before joining Capitol Records' roster in 1949. Dolan's Capitol sides featured such top session players as Merle Travis and Charlie Aldridge on guitar, and were beautifully spare productions, with no pop music pretensions or other embellishments. What's more, the Capitol sessions showcased the singer/guitarist's limited but occasionally significant talent as a songwriter. He had to wait until 1950 for his first hit, a version of the Moon Mullican song "I'll Sail My Ship Alone," which featured lead guitarist Porky Freeman along with his usual sidemen Wade Ray on fiddle and Freddie Tavares playing steel guitar.
Most of Dolan's '50s sides were devoted to covers of others' songs, including renditions of numbers written by Rex Griffin and Lefty Frizzell, and in November of 1950 he came up a winner with his version of "Hot Rod Race," a track authored by George Wilson, which had previously been recorded by Arkie Shibley. That record constituted one half of Dolan's major legacy -- dating from the same period as (but a couple of years earlier than) "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston, it was a years' premature rockabilly-style single that would have slotted in perfectly with the rock & roll boom if there had been one to ride at the time. As it is, Dolan's sides -- cut with the likes of Jimmy Bryant, Speedy West, Billy Strange, and Cliffie Stone, among other renowned session players and country virtuosi -- continued to attract a country audience well into the mid-'50s, treading a fine line between Western swing, honky tonk, and traditional country, with the occasional novelty song thrown in. "I'll Hate Myself Tomorrow" and "Wham Bam Thank You Mam" seem like two sides of the same set of soiled sheets as presented on the A- and B-side of a 45 single, respectively. Also worth mentioning is Dolan's connection to the fascinating subject of people getting whacked over the heads with guitars. The song "Playin' Dominoes and Shootin' Dice," another of Dolan's efforts on the outer edges of rockabilly, is a description of a "guitar picker (who) lived a life of wine and liquor." This doesn't suit his girlfriend, who retaliates with an "el kabong." These passages written by Dolan should make him a favorite among guitarists: "Then his old guitar, she swung it/For his head, she really hung it/Bruises, knots, and bumps began to rise."
He enjoyed a fairly lucrative stage career on the West Coast, marred only by some of his more boisterous and overbearing behavior at clubs. According to those who knew him, the primary reason for Dolan's problems stemmed from a severe lack of confidence in his appeal and talent. He was, at best, a limited guitarist, which was sometimes a virtue in his earlier sides, and his vocal delivery developed a weightiness and ponderousness as his career progressed -- with a little flexibility and imagination (and especially with his background as an announcer), he might have slipped into a recording career similar to that of J.P. "Big Bopper" Richardson, with the right songs and producer to work with. Evidently, he lacked the impetus and ambition, and it was no accident that Dolan gave up his singing career when rock & roll came along, perhaps recognizing that, much more than the over-30 Bill Haley, he would never be able to find a niche among younger listeners. His last session in November of 1955, however, offered one of the most potent examples of country music rubbing up against rock & roll, in "Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots" -- the Leiber & Stoller song became Dolan's other major contribution to the new music, and, along with "Hot Rod Race," was one of two sides of his that have gotten licensed and reissued on country-based rock & roll anthologies in the decades since.
Not much is known about Dolan's life during the 39 years that he lived after walking away from Capitol and the music business. He may have performed occasionally, and how he earned his living is a mystery -- the only thing known for sure is that he died on July 31, 1994, at age 77. ~ Eugene Chadbourne & Bruce Eder, Rovi