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Old 02-07-2015, 12:13 PM   #1 (permalink)
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Default Gene Vincent--The Screaming End

Most of us are familiar with "Be-Bop-a-Lula" and maybe "Race With the Devil" since the Straycats had covered it (they also covered "Double-Talkin' Baby"). But much of his material is surprisingly unknown.

Born Eugene Vincent Craddock on Feb. 11, 1935 in Norfolk, VA, Vincent grew up dirt poor. It might sound cliche but he was poor and often poached swans as a boy so his family could eat. They moved around and lived at Munden Point near North Carolina (where both his parents actually came from) when Vincent was in his teens.

Here, Vincent began to get very absorbed in music. Raised on C&W, he became particularly attracted to blues and black gospel. His parents owned a general store in Munden Point and Vincent spent most of his time on the porch where white and black musicians congregated playing everything from bluegrass to r&b. He would watch the guitarists' fingers in hopes of learning to play as well.

He managed to cajole his parents into buying him a cheap guitar and thereafter, he sat on the porch playing with any musicians who stopped by--always picking up riffs.

Eventually, the Craddocks gave up their store and moved back to Norfolk. Gene, neither liking studying nor sports, dropped out of school in the 9th grade and lied about his age and joined the Navy as a boilerman at age 15 in 1952. While on a Med cruise, he picked up another guitar and began to entertain his mates with Hank Williams songs and such.

Vincent enjoyed the Navy and reenlisted at the beginning of 1955. While interested in music, he wasn't as obsessed with it as he was with motorcycles--an obsession that stayed with him his whole life. He spent his re-enlistment bonus on a Triumph motorcycle. While riding through Norfolk, a woman jumped a red light and smashed into Vincent, knocking him off his bike and badly injuring his left leg.

The leg was nearly severed and the doctor at the hospital suggested to Vincent's mother that she sign permission to amputate. Vincent though, even under sedation, begged his mother not to sign permission and so he kept his leg but it never healed, was prone to bleed, and caused him great pain throughout the remainder of his life.

However, the 20-year-old Vincent was up and about shortly after his operation. Fitted with a leg brace, he was able to get around well enough--although he spent too much time on the leg never giving it a chance to heal properly. He would walk with a limp but not overly pronounced. Later in his career he would trundle out on stage practically dragging his leg behind him for effect.

The Navy was forced to discharge Vincent because of his injury and the young man needed something to do. He took up his guitar and became as obsessed with music as he was with motorcycles (which he continued to ride). He saw whatever artists swung through town including the Louvin Brothers and Elvis Presley (Ira Louvin and Presley supposedly brawled backstage somewhere once).

The local country station, WCMS (which was still in operation when I lived in Norfolk during the 80s), had a house band called the Virginians who were quite good. Gene hung around the studios of WCMS in 1956 and sometimes sang with the Virginians, being encouraged by his mother to embark on a singing career.

He began to sing a song he'd written with a buddy in 1955. The song was called "Be-Bop-A-Lula" supposedly named after a Little Lulu cartoon. A dj at the station, Bill Davis--who went by the name of Sheriff Tex Davis--liked it and Gene began performing it at the Carnival Room where WCMS held a show called "Country Showtime".

Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps - Be bop a lula - 1956 - YouTube

Soon, Vincent was packing the place and all sorts of people became very interested in him. Davis knew he had some hot property. He promptly went to Vincent's co-writer of "Lula" and bought his rights as co-writer for $25. Then, with the help of WCMS and Carnival Room owner Sy Blumenthal, started to put a band together for Gene to perform with.

Willie Williams played rhythm guitar and was taken from the Virginians. Bassist Jumpin Jack Neal (named for his playing style rather than his rather low key character) was taken from another local band. A great drummer, 15-year-old Dickie Harrell, who like Vincent hung around the studio hoping to catch a break got his wish and was chosen as the drummer. All they needed was a lead guitarist and they chose a total monster lead man--26-year-old Cliff Gallup. Their image was carefully crafted and part of their band "uniform" was a blue flatcap. So the band became known as Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps. Rolling Stone magazine calls the Blue Caps the world's first real rock band.

After a few practice sessions at the WCMS studios, Tex Davis realized this was one helluva a great band and he became determined to get them a recording contract. Tex Davis knew producer Ken Nelson, a Nashville recording engineer who worked for Capitol Records. Capitol was desperate to find a way to rival Elvis who was tearing up the charts for RCA-Victor.
Davis figured the Blue Caps were just the thing and recorded demos of "Be-Bop-A-Lula", "Race With the Devil" (a new song Gene had just written) and a country ballad called "I Sure Miss You" in April of 1956. He sent the recordings off to Nelson in Nashville who raved over them. He wanted the Blue Caps to come to Nashville as quickly as possible to record at Owen Bradley's Studio (where Buddy Holly had just recorded earlier in the year).

The rest is history. Although the musicianship, as well as the recording quality, is top notch, it is the guitar-playing of Cliff Gallup that really makes the Blue Caps' music come to life. The story goes that when Nelson was preparing to record the Blue Caps, he had brought the great Hank 'Sugarfoot' Garland into the studio in case Gallup couldn't cut it. But shortly after launching into their first song, "Race With the Devil" Garland got up saying it was obvious his services would not be required and left. Vincent's voice earned him the title of "The Screaming End".

"Be-Bop-A-Lula" was a huge smash in 1956 and remained in the Top 100 for 20 weeks. Tex Davis and Sy Blumenthal got into a legal snit and the Blue Caps were kept off the road for a while but it mattered little as "Be-Bop-A-Lula" was raking it in. When they did go on tour, the Blue Caps toured with the Johnny Burnette Trio (who also had a fabulous lead guitarist but that's another thread). Reportedly the shows were sensational.

The Blue Caps' first album, "Bluejean Bop", did not contain "Be-Bop-A-Lula" or "Race With the Devil" as those were released separately as a 12" 45 rpm record (along with "I Sure Miss You" and the magnificent "Woman Love"). But that is just as well as it left more room for other terrific numbers including "Bluejean Bop", "Who Slapped John?", "Gonna Back Up Baby", and two marvelous Cliff Gallup numbers: "You Told a Fib" and "Bop Street".
"Bop Street" is perhaps THE definitive 50s greaser number. Just super.

Cliff's guitar is alternately soft and lilty then hard-edged and fiery. The dark underside of 50s youth just comes to life in this number. It lets you know that all was not well in white teen suburbia--AND THANK GOD!!!!

Cliff Gallup's guitar sound is quite unique. Since the echo chamber was necessary for Vincent's amazingly expressive vocals, Gallup found a way to rig a tape recorder to his equipment that played through his amp as a slightly delayed signal called "slapback." And Ken Nelson captures it with extremely impressive clarity. Gallup's guitar and Vincent's vocal form this incredible bond. Extremely distinctive and unique. There has never been anything else that even approaches it. It's amazing. No wonder Tex Davis snapped them up.

Nor do I mean to take anything away from the other fellows. They pump it out with great power and skill. Dickie Harrell's drum solo in "Jumps, Giggles and Shouts", Jack Neal's jumping thumping bass, Willie Williams keepin time on an acoustic. Can't beat it. Don't even try.

One song, "I Knocked and I Knocked (Bim Bam)" never came out on any Blue Caps album but it appeared on a popular compilation of that time. Gallup's solo opens with what I call kabuki-guitar--it's in a controlled rage, a managed manicism and it doesn't cease throughout the solo. Strange stuff there.
After the first recording, Willie Williams left the band as touring didn't appeal to him being a family man and all. He was replaced by Paul Peek who was as talented a guitarist and blessed with a fine harmony voice, which would come into the fore later in the band's career. For now, he just played.

Cliff Gallup too was a family man and did not wish to tour any further. At 26, he was the oldest band member and he considered his gig in the Blue Caps as embarrassing. He felt that he was too old for it. Gene could never get him to loosen up onstage. "If you think I'm gonna get down on the floor," Cliff said to his singer, "you're crazy!" And that was that.

Russell Wilaford was chosen to replace him. He was a young, good-looking blonde kid with a telecaster. He must have played well to have been chosen to fill Gallup's shoes but we'll never know. He was never recorded. He can be seen with the band in the Jayne Mansfield movie "The Girl Can't Help It" but he's miming to Cliff's lead in "Be-Bop-A-Lula".

Ken Nelson wanted to do another album in October of 1956. Gene had some songs written and other material was prepared. Nelson, in all his genius, was determined to get Cliff Gallup back for another go-around. He called him up and talked him into it. Russell Wilaford fell by the wayside never to be heard from again. Cliff missed playing and wanted to get back in the studio and I know he was touring as late as August of 1957 because I have a live recording of him with the Caps from that period.

This new album was "Cat Man". And it beat "Blue Jean Bop" by a country mile. The opening song is "Cat Man", one of Gene's songs. Dickie Harrell, as adept with the brushes as the sticks, pounds out a hot Latin rhythm and the rest of the band joins in before Vincent puts on one of his most perfect vocal performances. Where the earlier album had a bit of schmaltz with songs like "Peg O' My Heart" and "Up A Lazy River", this new one set the definition of hard-edged rocknroll. Maybe the only fault I find on "Cat Man" is the use of the Jordinaires as backup singers. They're competent and do an enjoyable job, but they're clearly not the type of backup singers for Gene Vincent's music. But they worked well for Elvis and Nelson wanted to take no chances with untested singers.

Gene Vincent - Cruisin' - YouTube

Paul Peek contributed an excellent number called "Pink Thunderbird" and just the title alone makes it immortal. Vincent also penned perhaps the finest song in all rockabilly (and I realize I might ruffle feathers here), "Cruisin'". Cliff's cool-ass guitar riff, that ****-hot rimshot snare of Harrell whose not even 16 yet--what can you do against that? Cliff throws in a song of his own "You Better Believe" and you'd better believe that this man could have had a brilliant career as a songwriter alone. I wonder if he ever looked into it. "Hold Me, Hug Me, Rock Me" is one of the greatest bashers in all rocknroll. Here, the guys just cut loose with everything. Vincent puts on one of the most sensitive vocals ever recorded and Gallup's first solo cuts in with the wildest licks you ever heard. As Vincent screams, "Rock, rock, rock me, baby!" over and over again, the band is totally cookin'! You could play this one for a bunch of punks moshing in a pit and get' em slamming it's so damned violent! And then Cliff just burns off this cool lead that abruptly ends with him whang-barring the crap out this chord he hits. Cool stuff!

After that, Cliff, Willie and now Jack Neal were gone for good from the band. Dickie Harrell would stay on and would record with Gene through several more albums. Paul Peek too stayed with the band but became, along with pal Tommy Facenda, a "clapper boy", that is, a backup singer who claps in time with the music. The great Johnny Meeks took over Cliff's spot. Meeks would stay with Gene Vincent for quite a number of albums. A lot of people say that Meeks was closer to Vincent than any of his other bandmates--past or future. And make no mistake, Meeks is an excellent and very competent lead man. His solo on "Lotta Lovin'" certainly would not have been disowned by Cliff. I really enjoyed what Meeks did on the song "Flea Brain". Super sweet guitar on that man.

In fact, Gene Vincent pretty much stole away Johnny Earl's band (Earl wrote "Little Piggy" if you ever want to hear a great tune). Meeks had been Earl's lead man until Gene got him. Then he took Bobby Jones who played electric bass. Later, he would take bassist/guitarist Grady Owen as well. About the only guy from Johnny Earl's band that Gene didn't take was Johnny Earl and it wasn't for lack of trying. Gene tried to get Earl to join his band as well but Earl wanted to be his own man. Vincent also recorded an Earl-Meeks composition called "Say Mama".

Other notables to play with the Blue Caps include Eddie Cochran (who sang bass for him and will get his own thread if I have anything to do with it), and Buck Owens (although I think he called himself Corky Jones or something like that back then). In his later years, Vincent had Robert Knight as his backup vocalist (Knight did "Everlasting Love" also covered by Carl Carlton). Ken Nelson also stayed with Vincent and produced him until Vincent would leave the U.S. and spend pretty much the rest of his career in Britain. While there, he used a group of scruffy unknowns from Liverpool as his backup band for a few gigs. They were called the Beat Brothers then and they still had Pete Best on drums.

It was also in Britain that Vincent witnessed the death of perhaps his best friend, Eddie Cochran, in 1960. They were riding in the back of a limo along with Eddie's girlfriend, songwriter Sharon Sheely, when the driver lost control and hit a lamp post. Cochran's head went through the roof of the limo causing severe bleeding. Vincent with a broken arm held his friend's head in his lap as he died. They say he never quite got over Cochran's death. I have an album of Vincent's made very late in his career called "The Day the World Turned Blue" and I think I know what he's referring to.

After Johnny Meeks, Vincent picked up another great guitarist and close friend, Jerry Merritt. They recorded some great stuff together. They even toured Japan and used a backup Japanese band. It was also the first band since the departure of Jumpin Jack Neal to play the standup bass.
Gene Vincent died in 1971. He was, by this time, overweight and quite ill. His best years were far behind him. But great years they had been and extremely productive. Gene Vincent left behind a body of work he need not be ashamed of. The man made a lot of records. A LOT of records!

"Lotta Lovin'" with Johnny Meeks:

But what about Cliff? Cliff did eventually get back in the studio. In the mid-60's Cliff recorded with the 4-C's. They made an album called "Straight Down the Middle" on the Pussy Cat label out of Norfolk (Pussy Cat PCLPS 701). It even has a version of "Be-Bop-A-Lula" on it. His style was as inventive as ever. According to Mike Bloomfield, when he met Jimi Hendrix both were die-hard Cliff fans and that Jimi could play perfect Cliff riffs and licks. Jeff Beck stated he wanted to learn guitar after hearing Cliff and Gene on the radio and played all his riffs like Cliff in his after-school band.

Here Chris Spedding does a perfect Cliff lead for Robert Gordon on this Marshall Crenshaw tune:

Robert Gordon - Wasting My Time.wmv - YouTube

While living in Norfolk, I tried to find where the Blue Caps lived--the individual guys. But Navy duties always came first and I never could follow up on it. I didn't know if Cliff was alive or not and I very much wanted to meet him if he was. But it never happened.

I learned later that Cliff was still alive up to 1988 when he was playing onstage and then complained during a break of chest pains. His band asked if he wanted to cut the show short. Cliff said no. The show must always go on. He finished his set, went home, hit the sack and never got up again. He had died during the night of a heart attack at age 58.

It turns out that Cliff didn’t like to talk about his Blue Cap days and never signed autographs and only granted one interview—to Guitar Player magazine. He recalled his days as a Blue Cap but felt embarrassed to be doing rock and roll at his age. But he said it was a lot of fun and recalled how Dickie Harrell would do a drum solo that culminated in his grabbing his snare drum and walking through the crowd playing it while people went wild. Cliff worked as a school administrator and founded a school for poor children. When he learned the school board planned to make the school for whites only, he took them to court saying the plan had always been for an integrated school. The court ruled in Cliff’s favor. Cliff’s daughter, Doris, said that her father always considered that victory to be his greatest achievement. He told Doris that when he died there was to be no mention in his epitaph about his time in the Blue Caps and Doris honored that request.
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Old 02-07-2015, 05:03 PM   #2 (permalink)
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Don't forget about Gene's brief foray into the world of Garage Rock!

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Old 02-09-2015, 08:56 PM   #3 (permalink)
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Old 02-09-2015, 08:59 PM   #4 (permalink)
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From 1957, with Buck Owens on guitar.
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Old 02-10-2015, 07:58 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Cliff's guitar was a black Gretsch Duo-Jet semi-hollowbody (hollow but had no soundholes) model 6128. One of Gretsch's best-selling models because of Cliff:

George Harrison loved the black Duo Jet because of Cliff and when he found a 1957 model for sale in a Liverpool newspaper for 75 pounds, he ran out and bought it from the guy. George kept that guitar for the rest of his life.

In fact, George had his own signature model:

Jeff Beck uses the same guitar, amp and even picks that Cliff used:

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