Original line-up :
The Fireballs' recording career lasted just over a decade (1958-1969). Hailing from Raton, New Mexico, they were one of the few instrumental groups to adapt successfully to becoming a vocal band when singer Jimmy Gilmer joined them in the early 1960s.
The group took their name from Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls Of Fire", a song they performed endlessly during preparations for a talent contest in January 1958 (which they won). The Fireballs pioneered an economic and highly distinctive Tex-Mex instrumental sound led by guitarist George Tomsco. George had met fellow musician / singer Chuck Tharp back in 1955 and by the autumn of 1957 they had recruited Danny Trammell on rhythm, Eric Budd on drums and Stan Lark on bass.
Tomsco had his mind firmly set on a musical career and he managed to book an audition for the group at Norman Petty's studio in Clovis, New Mexico, in August 1958. They performed a guitar piece called "Fireball" (written by Tomsco) and a vocal number "I Don't Know". This became their first record, issued on Kapp 248, and although sales were minimal, it did establish what was to become a lasting relationship between Petty and the band. Their next single, this time released on Top Rank, again coupled an instrumental ("Curious") and a vocal ("Cry Baby"). The head of Top Rank liked "Curious", but he insisted on changing its name to "Torquay", an English resort he had recently visited which he claimed the song reminded him of. One wonders if the man was tone deaf, since "Torquay's" Tex-Mex sound is a far cry from the English seaside. But in spite of the misleading title, Torquay" went to # 39 on the Billboard charts in the autumn of 1959 and established the Fireballs' style. Trammell was hit with serious asthma and they continued as a four-piece with Chuck Tharp taking on the rhythm guitar as well as vocals. Stan Lark traded in his upright bass for a Fender Precision, which gave the group more punch.
The third single, "Bulldog" (Top Rank 2026), reached # 24 in early 1960. The group toured all over the country, appeared on the TV shows of Alan Freed and Dick Clark, and recorded intensively in 1960. Their first LP, simply titled "The Fireballs", was split 50/50 between instrumentals and vocals. A second album, "Vaquero", with a traditional Mexican flavour, was ready by the autumn of 1960 and was also to be their first UK album (and the last until the CD era). The same year they even recorded a third LP, "Blue Fire" (with Vi Petty on piano, who also played on the "Vaquero" LP), but then Top Rank went bankrupt and the album was shelved until 1993, when it finally came out on an Ace CD in the UK. "Blue Fire" was conceived as a concept album, because all 12 tracks had the word "Blue" or "Blues" in the title. Of these, only "Blacksmith Blues" was released in the 1960s (1963, to be exact), on a Hamilton single.
In 1961 Chuck Tharp resigned from the group and was replaced by Jimmy Gilmer (born 15 September 1940, Chicago) as vocalist and rhythm guitarist. After Top Rank's demise, Petty placed the group with Morty Craft's Warwick label. The Fireballs had one hit on Warwick, "Quite A Party", which peaked at # 27 in the summer of 1961.
In 1962 the group moved to the larger Dot label and Norman Petty decided to market them as Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs from that point. That year Petty acquired the famous Buddy Holly apartment tapes and used the Fireballs to overdub most of the tracks. After recording the LP "Torquay" for Dot, Eric Budd went into the army and was replaced by Doug Roberts, who would remain the group's drummer until the end of their long career. Roberts died on November 18, 1981.
Late in 1962 Jimmy Gilmer got a song from Keith McCormack, a member of the String-A-Longs, who also recorded guitar instrumentals in Petty's studio. Titled "Sugar Shack", it turned out to be a crowd-pleaser wherever the Fireballs played. They recorded the song with Gilmer on vocals in April 1963, with a prominent place for the Solovox, a small keyboard instrument played by Norman Petty himself that gave the record a distinctive sound. Released in May, "Sugar Shack" had a slow start, but once it entered the Hot 100 on September 21, 1963 (at # 65) there was no stopping the record and three weeks later it was # 1, staying there for five weeks. By the end of the year, Billboard ranked "Sugar Shack" as the # 1 song of 1963. The follow-up, "Daisy Petal Pickin'", also from the pen of Keith McCormack, made # 15. Following the British Invasion of 1964, instrumentals went out of fashion and from this period on the Fireballs concentrated on vocal sides, though they still recorded the occasional instrumental, like "Torquay Two" (1966).
The first record for their new label Atco, the Tom Paxton song "Bottle Of Wine", returned them to the Top Ten (# 9 in early 1968). By then Jimmy Gilmer's sweet tenor had roughened into a Barry McGuire-like baritone, with all the Fireballs singing backup. There followed three further minor chart singles in 1968-1969, including the politically-charged "Come On, React!", but the Fireballs' time had clearly run out, and they disbanded at the end of 1969. Tomsco and Tharp revived the band in 1989 and today in 2012 the Fireballs are still performing. Tharp died in 2006 and the nucleus of the four-piece band now consists of George Tomsco and Stan Lark.
More info (including a discography) on the official Fireballs website : http://www.fireballs-original.com/main.html Interview with Tomsco : http://www.classicbands.com/FireballsInterview.html
CD's : Ace Records in the UK has reissued the entire Fireballs catalogue on eleven CD's, with some overlaps. If you are primarily interested in their instrumental recordings, the best CD's are
Acknowledgements : Trev Faull, Jerry MacNeish, Fred Bronson.
Dik, August 2012
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