Gene Vincent

TrackAlbum / Single
Be-Bop-A-LulaCapitol F3450
Who Slapped JohnBluejean Bop
Race With The DevilCapitol F3530
Cat ManGene Vincent And The Blue Caps
You'll Never Walk AloneGene Vincent Rocks & The Blue Caps Roll
Frankie And JohnnieGene Vincent Rocks & The Blue Caps Roll
Baby BlueCapitol F3959
Blue Eyes Crying In The RainCrazy Times
Lonely StreetBorn To Be A Rolling Stone
Ain't That Too MuchBorn To Be A Rolling Stone

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Gene Vincent photo

 

Contributor: Dave Stephens

I have this vision of Gene. Sometime in the very early 60s. In a Woolwich Odeon or a Tooting Granada or some other South London fleapit. Peter Jay and the Jaywalkers, or some similar band, standing motionless waiting for the cue. And Gene, centre stage, in full black leathers and swinging chain. Left profile, clutching mike stand at an angle, left leg – the one in irons – straight back. Right leg, bent at the knee, with the occasional twitch. Probably in pain. Eyes lifted to the gods with that haunted El Greco look. And he starts, very, very, slowly and deliberately,

We————–ell, Be Bop a Lula, she’s mah baby

and so on, with the band thundering in, and Gene, commanding, sometimes throwing his left leg right around, pointing, declaiming, passionate.

Well that’s the memory I have of the man, playing to what became his favourite audience, us, the Brits. (And I have to own up to some plagiarism here; I first used these words on a Vincent best-of set on Amazon. But I would add that that splendid clip from the 1964 Granada TV special on Gene wasn’t there when I put those words together – or, if it was, I didn’t find it.)

To a Vincent fan who just wasn’t old or lucky enough to have seen Gene when he was criss-crossing the UK, seemingly oblivious to whatever might have been happening on the pop music scene, that vision might focus instead on the marvellous clip from The Girl Can’t Help It showing Gene and the Blue Caps rehearsing, observed initially through an upstairs window. Both visually and aurally this is probably the ultimate Blue Caps. Perhaps the first time rock stars had been portrayed as punks. The song, of course, was Be-Bop-A-Lula. It had to be.

And that immediately raises the question: was Vincent a one-hit wonder? To which, with some reluctance, I have to answer in the affirmative, at least in the US where only one other of his singles, Lotta Lovin’, breached the Top Twenty. In the UK he did somewhat better with eight singles getting into the Top Forty but only half of these reaching the exalted heights of the Top Twenty, albeit low end. All of Gene’s Capitol albums sold reasonably well in the UK at the time of release, with one, Crazy Times, spending a couple of weeks in the LP Top Twenty. This, of course, was during a period where success was almost totally measured by singles sales with LPs viewed as little more than an opportunity to buy a collection of singles plus some added filler. This wasn’t the case with Vincent and any career overview needs to take account of his albums.

Any critique of Vincent’s oeuvre has to start with Be-Bop-A-Lula. The American position on Gene is well represented by Dave Marsh who gives the record a lowly position of #626 in his 1001 Greatest Singles and remarks that it “… represented a significant early step on the road toward rock-as-product”. He also comments that the attributes that would appear to have made Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel a success would seem to have been studied by Gene (and maybe his producer – my addition). The words ‘damning with faint praise’ tremble on the tongue – he does at least give credit to Cliff Gallup’s guitar work and the fact that the Blue Caps were used in the Nashville studio rather than the standard session musicians – but the impression one is left with is that he sees the record as little more than a copycat release.

Which it is and it isn’t. It does have the stop/start blues format of HH plus the bass only opening. Indeed I think it’s also in the same key. However, after that the similarities seem to evaporate. HH continues the blues infatuation that Presley had shown from his debut but this is noticeably lacking in BBAL. I would agree with Marsh that the record shows less debt to roots music than Presley’s early singles and most rockabilly records. Instead, there’s almost a light jazzy feel but coupled with an air of menace, if that’s not an oxymoron, and it’s this, in part, which gives the record such a distinctive sound. The other part of course is the Vincent voice. Regardless of the presence of Presley vocal characteristics and, yes, Gene had been listening as had all the other budding rockabilly heroes, that voice would have won through. In its own unique way the Vincent vocal was as magnificent as that of Elvis. Superficially both these guys did the same things – swoops, melisma, exhortations to the band (a particular Vincent specialty), etc. – but somehow it came out differently.

As a rider I’d add that in his sixties stage shows, Gene slowed the song down even more and increased the drama quotient as in the above clip. Strange in a way when one considers that the lyrics were on the light side, perhaps not warranting this approach, but somehow the whole thing worked. The radical reinterpretation of the song as a bubbly country rock affair from the Everlys on their first album in ’58 might be seen as a better lyrical match.

Gene’s Capitol albums were somewhat different than those from many of his peers in that on the one hand they looked back or sideways to collections of songs (often standards) from dance band singers, and on the other, they could be said to look forward to those from Beatles onwards with the result of only limited overlap between singles and album tracks. To an extent the ‘missing’ singles have been added as bonus tracks on the man’s current CD releases. On Gene’s first, Bluejean Bop, Capitol slightly chickened out by alternating rockabilly tracks with standards. And even the standards were given relatively light treatment with little trace of the rockaballads to come. In contrast some of the rockabilly tracks are pretty full-on resulting in an album with bipolar disorder! By album #2, Gene Vincent And The Blue Caps, Capitol would seem to have learned their lesson. There’s a greatly improved flow with plenty more rockers, most, but not all, rockabilly, and the few ballads are either country oriented or in the case of Unchained Melody, have a rockaballad styling. As an album this one stands up very well against those from any of the first generation rockers.

The Vincent rockabilly tracks are, if not quite up there with those first five Presley Sun singles and a handful of his early RCA singles, head-and-shoulders above most other rockabilly contenders. They have a number of characteristics that shout out as being Vincent/Blue Caps and no one else. These include highly emphatic drumming, Vincent’s very identifiable vocal, loads of yelling, and, above all, the highly imaginative guitar work of Cliff Gallup. The majority of rockabilly guitarists during this timeframe modelled themselves on Presley’s sideman, Scotty Moore. Gallup brought more of a jazz sensibility due to his background in Western Swing. It was far from unusual for Vincent rockabilly tracks to feature a double helping of Gallup, with each solo featuring rapid flurries of notes which even now aren’t really heard anywhere else in the rock’n’roll genre.

I’ve selected a couple of the Gene/Blue Caps tracks as representative of the rockabilly period and I’ve included ‘Blue Caps’ in that statement since they were arguably as important as Gene on these records. The first is Who Slapped John in part for the title because in content it doesn’t vary significantly from several other tracks on LPs 1 and 2, e.g. Red Blue Jeans And A Pony Tail, Double Talkin’ Baby, Pink Thunderbird, and more. All those characteristics that I noted in the previous para are here, and the boys whip up the excitement superbly in the two minutes and fifteen seconds or so they are allocated.

John Peel stated more than once that Gene Vincent was his favourite first generation rocker and, if pressed for examples, he’d usually mention Who Slapped John and/or Race With The Devil. The second named is my other rockabilly selection. It was Gene’s second single and, like the first, was penned by Gene himself plus “Sheriff” Tex Davis. The latter was Gene’s first manager and all-round music man down in Norfolk, Virginia. I would presume that the addition of his name to the writing credits was just carrying on a prevalent practice in those days – think Norman Petty with Buddy Holly – but I could be wrong. The song, a fast rocker, benefited from considerably more creative lyrics than usual. Gene announces at the start that “.. I’ll outrun the devil on judgement day” and so runs the theme with Gene out on the highway when “here come the devil doin’ a hundred and one.” The boys throw in a key change on Cliff’s second break, a device that they were to use on several songs to up the ante.

Cat Man, from Gene’s second album, moves away from the rockabilly template and takes on the Diddley beat and a minor key to quite some effect. Embellished with descending flurries of notes from Gallup it’s unusual in that it’s a one chord song, something that was rare in those days. Again it’s from the pens of Vincent and Davis whose names appear six times either jointly or in association with someone else on the album.

Album #3, Gene Vincent Rocks And The Blue Caps Roll, saw major changes in the make-up of the band. Of most significance was new man Johnny Meeks replacing Cliff Gallup on guitar – Cliff had in fact left the band prior to the second album but was persuaded to briefly rejoin to contribute. In addition, Gene added two male back-up vocalists he called the Clapper Boys who supplied that function as well as some rather minimal dance routines. The resulting album sound was dramatically different than its predecessors. Rockabilly had gone out the window. There were no more rebel yells, instead there was more of a doo wop approach. One would surmise that Gene had made these changes after observing other groups at work whilst on tour. The guitar sound was also totally different, much more electricity which almost shimmered at times. There were only a few straight rockers of which Rollin’ Danny, a continuation of the Hank Ballard Work With Me Annie saga with rather non PC lyrics, was the best. There was a straight country number, Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart, but done with a rock sensibity. There was a Little Richard cover in By The Light Of The Silvery Moon – yes, I know it’s a standard but Richard included it on his third album and you know perfectly well that Gene must have heard Richard from the (very effective) rasp in his voice.

And there were two ballads cum oldies. My next selection is one of that pair (though they’re both excellent). You’ll Never Walk Alone from Gene and his new Blue Caps has to be the best version I’ve ever heard of the song. It’s a power ballad before anyone had thought of the term. Gene deploys a whole battery of vocal techniques including a splendido, almost caressing, melisma but there’s nothing remotely gimmicky about the performance. In any collection of rock ballads from the late fifties and early sixties (which would have to include Orbison), I’d put this in the Top Ten. I would comment that it’s my firm belief that Gerry Marsden, who was a fan of the old rockers, modelled his version on this one, though I’m only too aware that I’m going to get shouted down by fans of Liverpool F.C. And, I’d add, that I too am a Liverpool fan.

Before leaving this album I’d draw your attention to another track, Frankie And Johnnie (more commonly spelt Frankie And Johnny), which, if you have any familiarity at all with American roots music, you’ll know as a traditional number based on a real murder. Frankie was the lady with the gun, Johnnie her unfaithful lover. It’s been recorded by almost everyone you can think of, from Mississippi John Hurt to Elvis, and from Fats Waller to Stevie Wonder. But I doubt whether anyone on the long (and largely illustrious) list did it the Vincent way. With minimal backing from, initially, guitar, piano and hand clapping from the Clapper Boys, and a deliberate beat, the tension is gradually increased by gradual and subtle addition of percussion plus Gene’s technique of increasingly catching his breath (which he may have got from Little Richard). His southern accent also seems to get more prominent as the song progresses – ‘hardboard’ gets three syllables. For the purpose of this Toppermost I’ve listened to the track again several times trying to pin down what makes it so special to me. I’ve not really done it but I do know I’ll never forget Frankie and her long forty-four.

The sessions for Gene Vincent Rocks And the Blue Caps Roll also produced one of Gene’s best singles, Baby Blue, a slow bluesy effort with an overall air of menace. It’s credited to Vincent and a member of the band. While Gene wasn’t as prolific a songwriter as, say, Chuck Berry or Buddy Holly, he actually wrote far more songs than most people realise.

Gene’s next two albums, A Gene Vincent Record Date and Sounds Like Gene Vincent, continued with the broad approach of …And The Blue Caps Roll though it’s noticeable that there was no credit given to the Blue Caps in the second of this pair, effectively a combination of gradual takeover by session musicians and the departure of key members from the Blue Caps, like Johnny Meeks. There’s a mix of song styles across the albums including rockers (sometimes covers), ballads, standards (which Gene seemed to have a liking for) and the odd bit of teen fluff. On the subject of standards and/or show tunes I would draw your attention to a version of Summertime with a distinctive latin beat. Only numbers prevented this one going on my list. A single which typifies this period is the up tempo rocker Say, Mama, released in the UK in January 1959. Its sax driven approach is unlike anything on the first two albums (and it’s another that very nearly made the list).

To illustrate just a little of the diversity of this pair of albums, take a listen to Git It wherein Gene and the Clapper Boys enter the world of Doo Wop and return as conquering heroes!

Gene’s last real Capitol LP was Crazy Times in March 1960. He’d picked up a guitarist, Jerry Merritt, in Spring ’59 and much of the content of the album was material they’d been featuring in the stage act. Musicians used were some of the standard LA session guys like Sandy Nelson (drums), Jackie Kelso (tenor sax) and so on. With some exceptions, saxes featured strongly on the album. They’re relatively understated though on the country standard Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain. Indeed, understated is an adjective that applies to the whole performance here, from Merritt’s blues based but restrained guitar to Gene’s vocal which has some great swoops but otherwise sticks pretty closely to the tune, conveying a kind of resigned emotion. I didn’t come across the song again until it appeared as a key track on Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album in ’75 (which is probably where many of you folk first heard it).

I used the word ‘real’ above. Gene’s last Capitol album The Crazy Beat Of Gene Vincent didn’t even see release in the US; it only came out in the UK and France (in 1963). In my Amazon UK review I referred to it as containing “scraps from the cutting room floor” and I see no reason to change that. Mind you I gave it three stars since Gene’s scraps were better than most other people’s scraps.

In recognition of his European audience Gene toured the UK and France in December 1959/January 1960 where he was received rapturously. Putting to one side the disastrous aborted tour of the UK by Jerry Lee Lewis in 1958 due to the ‘child bride scandal’, Gene was one of the earliest of the big name rockers to set foot on this side of the pond and he was treated accordingly. A second tour followed in March/April 1960 on which he shared the top billing with Eddie Cochran. There was already a friendship between the two artists which had started on US tours. It was on April 17th 1960 that the car which had been rented to take the two performers from Bristol to Heathrow, crashed just to the west of Chippenham on the A4. Cochran died shortly afterwards in hospital in Bath. Vincent sustained further injuries to his already crippled leg.

Back to the records. From now on virtually every LP issued by the man was effectively a ‘comeback’ album. Other rockers (Presley, Lewis) managed to obtain late sixties career fillips, or gained new audiences (Berry, Diddley). This didn’t happen with Vincent. Although he had a faithful audience in the UK and mainland Europe it was, in relative terms, small, and record buyers were increasingly moving elsewhere as the group sound led by the Beatles and the Stones ruled the roost.

There were several comeback records. To these ears the one entitled simply Gene Vincent which came out in 1967 was the best. It’s appeared on CD much more recently with titles like The Challenge Sessions. I’ll come back to that one but just mention a few more first.

1964 brought us Shakin’ Up A Storm wherein our hero was backed by a little known Brit R&B band. It had its moments. 1970 saw John Peel getting in on the act. He sponsored – I wouldn’t say produced though maybe that was the original intent – I’m Back And I’m Proud, with Kim Fowley in the production booth. Unfortunately, Fowley turned out to have little empathy with the music and the record was marred by poor backing. A shame because it had augured so well and the opening track, a version of Rockin’ Robin, (one of the better ones) kicked off with a little monologue from Gene wherein he told us how happy he was to be back.

The last albums released in Gene’s lifetime were If Only You Could See Me Today (1970) and, The Day The World Turned Blue (1971), both produced by Gene’s then manager, Tom Ayres (and now available on CD as a twofer). On the first of this pair, members of the Sir Douglas Quintet are included in the session team though the sound isn’t markedly different on the second. The songs on these albums are varied with soul featuring as strongly as country. While there was nothing really standout it was good to hear Gene connecting with the songs (particularly on tracks like Oh Lonesome Me) so late in his career – he was to die from a ruptured stomach ulcer on the 12th of October, 1971.

Returning to the material recorded for the small LA based Challenge label after the mid-sixties (and originally released on the London label in the UK as Gene Vincent), Born To Be A Rolling Stone: The Challenge Sessions 1966-1968 benefited from better production values than any of the other late period Vincent records with the cream of the LA session world involved. There’s a fascinating mix of material: no fifties rockers (but one gets close – see below), some straight country, near Byrdsy folk-rock – AllMusic even compares one track to Gene Clark – and one, by now almost compulsory standard in Hi-Lili Hi-Lo. For me, the best track was Lonely Street, a country slowie, with blues overtones. The song fits Gene to a T; his voice soars, floats and swoops; he includes that long upwards move to a high note as on Blue Eyes. It’s hard not to get the impression that that was Gene’s existence, “where broken dreams and memories meet.

In contrast, Ain’t That Too Much starts off like a country rock chugger propelled by a rather neat bass line. By the time we get to the end of the first verse, memories of those ancient rock songs start to swim to the front of the brain. Gene is enjoying himself heartily as are the boys. There’s even a harmonica break a la early Stones – it’s that good – and at that stage the ghosts of the Clapper Boys appear to round off a great performance, and one that you immediately play again.

I had to close with rock’n’roll. That was what Gene was known for. And rightly so:

Dog gone my soul, I just love that rock and roll

– a personalised version of Mickey Newbury’s How I Love Them Old Songs, from Gene’s last official release.

 

Anecdotes

I was burgled a couple of times when I lived in a North London basement flat in the late sixties/early seventies. On one of those occasions the visiting policeman saw a couple of rock’n’roll posters on the wall (along with the Michael English psych ones). He commented re the Gene Vincent one, that Gene used to stay in a particular cheapo hotel in Southampton Row. I was aware of the hotel and was somewhat shocked. This was well before I’d read about Gene’s later days.

In 1970, Gene made appearances in the UK in order to promote I’m Back And I’m Proud. I saw him at the Country Club at Belsize Park, a place I associate more with the likes of Fairport Convention and Principal Edwards Magic Theatre (what were they about?). Gene was still wearing black leather but he was carrying a lot more weight than that skinny gaunt-looking youth in The Girl Can’t Help It so the outfit didn’t do a lot for the image. He performed pretty well in the circumstances but one wondered, at the time, how much of a future there was for him.

 

 

Footnotes

I can’t claim credit for the phrase ‘El Greco look’. The marvellous Jack Good used it in his column in the weekly music paper Disc way back in the early sixties and it’s stuck with me ever since.

The only book I’ve read on Gene is “The Day The World Turned Blue” written by Britt Hagarty.

Be-Bop-A-Lula and Race With The Devil are bonus tracks on the Bluejean Bop CD, Baby Blue is included on The Absolutely Essential 3CD Collection.

I may have been a little mean on some of Gene’s ‘comeback attempt’ recordings. Both the performances below merit interest. Firstly, we have Gene, from the Challenge sessions, entering the territory of Scott ‘Flowers in your hair’ McKenzie with a little studio chat before the start.

And, secondly, from I’m Back And I’m Proud, Gene in Hank Williams country. This one is almost worth hearing for the intro alone.

 

Postscript

 

Vincent Eugene Craddock (1935–1971)

 

Rockabilly Hall of Fame – Official Gene Vincent Web Site

Gene Vincent Fan Club

Gene Vincent discography

Cliff Gallup (1930-1988) of the Blue Caps – the guitarist’s guitarist

Wee Willie Williams (1935-1999) rhythm guitar, Blue Caps

Jack Neal (1930-2011) bass player of the Blue Caps

Dickie ‘Be-Bop’ Harrell, original drummer of the Blue Caps

Spent Brothers website dedicated to Gene Vincent

Gene Vincent biography (iTunes)

Dave Stephens had a long career in IT – programming, consultancy, management etc. – before retiring in 2007. After spending time on the usual retiree type activities he eventually got round to writing on one of his favourite subjects, popular music, particularly, but not only, the sort that was around in his youth. He gained experience at ‘the writing thing’ by placing CD reviews on Amazon. This led to his first book “RocknRoll” which was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks” in July 2016. You can follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

TopperPost #529

12 Comments

  1. Keith Shackleton
    Jun 11, 2016

    I am a bit biased towards the more rockin’ selections. For that ridiculous Gallupness, I’d have to have Cruisin’. Say Mama would be in there, stripped of horns, so maybe one of his radio session versions, just like a band I was in used to do it. And from the later years, Poor Man’s Prison, which was the name of another band I was in. Chugs along very neatly indeed.

    • Dave Stephens
      Jun 11, 2016

      Cruisin’ was very nearly in there. Indeed I’d have taken any of the rockers from that second album which I rate as good as any from Gene’s rocking peers (with the possible exception of the Killer). Say Mama takes me right back to my schooldays – used to do that in the band – no sax, which almost goes without saying. Re. Poor Man’s Prison, I have a soft spot for much of the Challenge stuff – I still have the original London album. As with many Toppermosts it was incredibly difficult to reduce the selections to ten. (And apologies to the incomparable Cliff for not featuring more of him).

  2. Andrew Shields
    Jun 11, 2016

    Dave, thanks for this excellent and remarkably thorough list on one of the greatest singers ever in the history of rock music. Speaking for myself, I would have to find a way to include ‘Git It’ in the top ten, but what to leave out…?

    • Dave Stephens
      Jun 12, 2016

      Git It was another goodie that that didn’t quite make it but there were so many. Thanks Andrew.

  3. David Lewis
    Jun 12, 2016

    Excellent list. I think he was more prominent in the UK than here (Australia) but Be Bop A Lula is essential listening for any understanding of rock and roll, along with Heartbreak Hotel, Peggy Sue, Tutti Frutti, Great Balls Of Fire and Johnny B Goode. That’s obviously not final not definitive. But it’s a start. Interesting too that Gene is much bigger in the UK.

  4. Dave Stephens
    Jun 12, 2016

    Thanks David. Both Gene and Buddy Holly were more popular in the UK than the US. I could say that Gene’s level of approval here was in part due to the touring he did in the early sixties, both in the UK and in mainland Europe, but that still wouldn’t explain how well his records sold here in the late fifties.

  5. Keith Shackleton
    Jun 14, 2016

    We should also perhaps mention another subtle influence on the Beatles, apart from the rock and roll one.. they were nervous about, but ultimately comfortable with, doing so many show tunes and standards (Ain’t She Sweet etc) in their early sets “because Gene had done them so that made it alright” 🙂

    • Dave Stephens
      Jun 15, 2016

      Shrewdly observed Keith and could well be elements of truth in what you say. I’m guilty of making slightly snide remarks about the ballads and showtunes in Gene’s first LP – more in “RocknRoll” than here – but they did have a certain charm about them.

  6. Peter Viney
    Jun 21, 2016

    Excellent article. Don Arden managed him from 1960-64 and his autobiography “Mr Big” has the worst of the bad boy tales. He says he was working him two shows a night, six nights a week, mainly in Britain over five years. Arden says Gene was locked into his US Capitol contract, and they weren’t interested. He reckoned if he could have recorded him on a British label then, they could capitalize on the touring. Gene’s best years were in a period when EPs were important in the UK and France, where LPs were too expensive for the market. Judging by Buddy Holly and Little Richard EPs (Decca group had pressing codes on the sleeve), these EPs were repressed again and again over a 5 or 6 year period. I suspect Gene did better comparatively with EPs than 45s or LPs.

    • Dave Stephens
      Jun 21, 2016

      Thanks for those kind words Peter. Ref. Don Arden, there was no love lost between the pair. I managed not to mention above that Gene dedicated the song “Our Souls” on “The Day The World Turned Blue” to Don. Slur the “Our Souls” together and you’ll see what he was on about. Ref. your observation on EP’s – it’s one that hadn’t struck me but would account for the shedload of excellent EP’s from London American in the late 50’s/early 60’s.

  7. John Denton
    Dec 20, 2016

    Could I suggest a recommendation for Dance in the Street? That EP of “Hot Rod Gang” is tremendous ; Dance to the Bop and Baby Blue are also terrific but ,in my opinion, Dance in the Street is as good a slab of rock’n’roll that Gene ever gave us. Do treat yourselves to another listen.
    Meanwhile thanks to Toppermost for a superb selection.

    • Dave Stephens
      Dec 21, 2016

      Another great track and splendid example of the mid period Clapper Boys style. This piece was penned early on in my Toppermost “career” and I hadn’t got to grips with arguing the case with the Editor for having more than ten selections.

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