(Ghost) Riders in the Sky

Musically speaking, Clara Litke knew no boundaries. The high schooler from Torrington, Connecticut spent much of the mid- to late-'50s taking on one music project after another, learning to play guitar and drums, transforming ideas into songs while developing her vocal skills. At one point around 1955 she performed locally with a country group called Gino and the Homesteaders prior to forming a band with brother Richard Litke that went by a few different names before settling on The Connectones. A few years later they had a nationwide top 40 hit under a not-so-accidental name, The Ramrods.

Clara took the unusual role of drummer in an era when few if any young women even considered percussion as a vocation. Richard played tenor saxophone and their cousin, Eugene Mooro, handled bass and rhythm. Lead guitarist Vincent Lariccia built up a resumé separate from the group, starting in '58 with "Spunky" as Vinny Lee and the Spunkys on the Lee label, following it with "Mule Train Rock" (no backing band credited) on Hy Weiss's New York City-based Old Town label in '59. Vinny enjoyed rocking up older country tunes and did an instro version of "Gambler's Guitar" (a Jim Lowe song that had been a top ten pop and C&W hit for Rusty Draper in '53) for the ultra-small Jan-Et label. Clara also recorded a vocal single for Jan-Et using the professional name Claire Lane; "I Love You So" (songwriter credit on the label gave her name as "Clara Litkie") was backed with a 1920s Irving Berlin standard, "All By Myself." The single was reissued soon afterwards on a Westport, Connecticut label, Dell Star, which also released "An Orphan's Christmas" flipped with "The Boy Next Door," featuring female singers backing Claire in a girl group style.

While the Connectones spent most of 1960 gigging in Torrington, Hartford and other spots north of (and closer to) the N.Y. nerve center, Vinny hopped back down to the city for another Old Town session, resulting in the instrumental "Whipper Snapper" while his previous recordings were reissued on Glover and ABC-Paramount. Meanwhile, the Connectones began enticing nightclub crowds whenever they performed Claire's beer-bottle-rattling instrumental arrangement of "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" in a style similar to red-hot guitar hero Duane Eddy's string of hits. The song, already a 12-year-old pop-country standard, had been written by Arizonan Stan Jones, who'd made his name writing "old west sagas" as three-minute melodies. Introduced in 1949 under the title "Riders in the Sky (A Cowboy Legend)," the 'Yippie-yi-yo!' tune describing images of ghostly horsemen under a 'ragged sky' on steeds 'snorting fire' became a number one pop hit for singer Vaughn Monroe (the year's longest-running at eleven weeks atop the best selling singles charts). Covers by Burl Ives, Bing Crosby and Peggy Lee were also popular; Jones' original version was issued on Mercury.

Richard Litke, Claire Lane, Eugene Mooro, Vinny Lee

The Litke siblings and their bandmates, encouraged by bar patrons' raves, headed to New York to make a demonstration disc. Amy Records, founded months earlier as a subsidiary of Bell, had already scored a hit with "The Madison" by Al Brown's Tunetoppers. Label heads showed interest in the demo but insisted the group change its name; the Ramrods, inspired by the title of one of Eddy's "twangy" instrumental hits, was agreed upon. "Zig Zag," a tune Mooro had written, was recorded for the flip and the demo, overdubbed for effect with cowboys' whoops and hollers and cows' moos, appeared as the main side under its alternate title, "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky." A year-end release, it reached the top 30 in February '61. Licensed to London Records in England, the song was even more popular there, making it to the top ten despite some reviewers' claims it bore a resemblance to The Shadows' recent U.K. chart-topper "Apache."

There were appearances on American Bandstand and other shows as the Ramrods were added to a number of tours supporting top-name acts. They plastered a logo of the band name and the "Ghost Riders" title on the van they traveled in and Claire pulled a diva move when she had her name silk-screened onto the bass drum. The second of three Amy singles, "Loch Lomond Rock" (a lyricless recording of the 'Ye'll take the high road and I'll take the low road and I'll be in Scotland afore ye' song), made heavy use of bagpipes, a choice that may have deterred radio play. The third, "War Cry" (similar to the spiritual number "Joshua Fought the Battle"), included "heys" and whoops by Claire while she gave the drums a relentless pounding. Neither disc caught on and royalty money for the hit single never really materialized. The group fell apart quickly...but Claire kept going.

As a solo artist she ditched the instrumentals, giving preference to singing and songwriting. With the "girl" sound prevalent in 1962, she recorded "Curiosity" for Mala, another of the Bell-Amy labels, before cutting ties with the company. Sticking with the formula, there was one on Josie in '63, "Run Run Run Away" and "I Dig That Guy" (the latter featuring "Rah-rah" football cheerleading calls), and two singles for a small North Carolina label, Petal; teen ballad "Isn't it a Shame" had piano backing, while "El Diablo" was a torrid love song that echoed the "Ghost Riders" concept. Claire continued college classes she'd begun earlier at the Hartt College of Music in West Hartford...majoring in percussion!

During that '63-to-'65 stretch, another female drummer made her mark: Britain's Honey Lantree had set about carrying the beat (and singing, too) for otherwise all-male band The Honeycombs, stealing some of Claire's glory in the process. Claire went into a local studio to record her only full-length album, Drummer Girl Sings, on the one-shot Flora Records (named after her mom). Two original songs, "Hey Lover" and "Lonely Day," accompanied ten standards (among them "Shangri-La," "Moon River," "Fly Me to the Moon" and "Never on Sunday"). The liner notes got right to the point: "She plays drums, guitar, yodels, writes, arranges and produces all her own recordings. And what a great singer, too!" There is one distinction Claire Lane of Connecticut's Ramrods can proudly lay claim to: paving a new road others followed, she was the first of rock and roll's hitmaking female drummers.

- Michael Jack Kirby


(Ghost) Riders in the Sky