Born Eugene Vincent Craddock, 11 February 1935, Norfolk, Virginia
Gene Vincent was one of the most influential rock & roll pioneers. That influence manifested itself even more after his death than during his too short, tortured life. The rockabilly revival of the 1970s and early 1980s elevated his status to legendary proportions. His main assets were his unique, high-pitched voice that could handle ballads equally well as rockers and his backing band, the Blue Caps, which has served as a role model for rockabilly groups over the past 60 years. The guitar licks of Gene’s first lead guitarist, Cliff Gallup, deserve special mention.
Gene Craddock was born in the naval town of Norfolk, Virginia. His musical influences included country, rhythm and blues and gospel music. At the age of twelve he acquired his first guitar. He dropped out of high school when he was 17 and enlisted into the U.S. Navy (lying about his age), but he would never see any military action. In July 1955, while on shore leave in Norfolk, a motorcycle crash shattered his left leg. He refused to have it amputated. The leg was saved, but the crash left him with a limp and much pain. Gene wore a steel sheath around the leg for the rest of his life.
Craddock became involved in the local music scene in Norfolk. He changed his name to Gene Vincent and formed a rockabilly band called the Blue Caps, with Cliff Gallup on lead guitar, Willie Williams on rhythm guitar, Jack Neal on upright bass and Dickie Harrell on drums. They soon gained a reputation in Norfolk and won a talent contest organized by local DJ “Sheriff" Tex Davis, who became their manager.
Early in 1956, Gene co-wrote the song “Be-Bop-A-Lula” with one Donald Graves, who sold his rights to Tex Davis for a quick 25 bucks. Tex took Gene and his band to WCMS studios on April 9, 1956, where they recorded “Be-Bop-A-Lula” and two other songs, “Race With the Devil” and “I Sure Miss You". Davis sent the demos to Capitol producer Ken Nelson, knowing that Capitol was searching for their own rival to Elvis Presley. Nelson responded after three weeks with an invitation for a session at Bradley Studio in Nashville on May 4. Gene and the Blue Caps re-recorded the three numbers that had been sent to Nelson as demos, plus a Jack Rhodes song, “Woman Love”, previously recorded by Jimmy Johnson on Starday. Initially, “Woman Love” was promoted as the A-side of Gene’s first single, but deejays gave more airplay to “Be-Bop-A-Lula”. That was the side that quickly rose to # 7 on the charts and made Gene an instant star. “Be-Bop-A-Lula” is now considered an immortal classic of rock ’n’ roll. His first LP, “Bluejean Bop”, was released in August 1956 and peaked at # 16 on the Billboard album charts.
The second single, “Race With the Devil”, spent only one week at # 96 on the USA charts, but made # 28 in the UK (where “Woman Love” had been banned by the BBC for being too suggestive). But the next 45, “Bluejean Bop”, did better, peaking at # 34 in Billboard (# 16 UK). The near constant touring proved too much for Gallup and Williams who both decided to quit the Blue Caps in September, though Gallup still played on the four-day October session that resulted in Vincent’s second LP. In Gene’s brief but famous appearance in “The Girl Can’t Help It”, where he sang “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, we see Russell Willaford taking over Cliff Gallup’s lead guitar role whilst the rhythm guitar vacancy had been filled by an eager Paul Peek. A second movie role would follow in 1958, in “Hot Rod Gang”. By early 1957 only Dickie Harrell had remained from the original Blue Caps. Paul Peek was instrumental in helping Gene shape the second Blue Caps line-up, with the impressive Johnny Meeks as new lead guitarist. Peek himself switched to backing vocals and became one half of the famous “clapper boys”, with Tommy Facenda.
“Crazy Legs” and “B-I-Bickey-Bi, Bo-Bo-Go” were strong singles, but failed to chart. After an absence of eight months, Gene returned to the studio (his first session at the Capitol Tower in Hollywood) for a two-day session in June 1957 with his new band, augmented by Buck Owens on rhythm guitar. Bernice Bedwell’s wonderful rocker “Lotta Lovin’” was coupled with the Bobby Darin ballad “Wear My Ring” and this strong combination took Gene back into the American Top 20 (# 13). The follow-up, “Dance To the Bop”, also sold well (# 23), but it would be Vincent’s last American chart entry. His short chart career - only 20 months in the USA - does not reflect his importance. There was nothing wrong with his 1958 singles - “Walkin’ Home From School”, “Baby Blue”, “Rocky Road Blues”, “Git It” and (best of all) “Say Mama” - but they didn’t sell. After many personnel changes in 1958, the Blue Caps split up at the end of the year. Gene went on to work mostly with pickup bands.
In August 1959, Gene cut his sixth album, “Crazy Times”, with his new guitarist Jerry Merritt and session musicians like Jackie Kelso and Sandy Nelson. It spawned two hit singles in the UK, “Wild Cat” in 1960 and “She She Little Sheila” in 1961. America had largely forgotten him, but he was still popular in the UK and arrived there in December 1959 for an extensive tour, on which he was later joined by Eddie Cochran. Jack Good, who had booked Vincent for his “Boy Meets Girl” TV shows, changed his image by dressing him in black leather and encouraging the star to accentuate his limp. Gene survived the car crash (near Chippenham, England) that killed his friend Eddie Cochran in April 1960. In May he recorded a single in London (“Pistol Packin’ Mama”), which went to # 15 in the UK. His last session for American Capitol took place in October 1961 ; thereafter he recorded for British labels for several years, taking up residency in the UK from 1963 until 1965. He was also very popular in France, where he toured regularly.
After returning to the USA in late 1965, Gene recorded albums for Challenge (1966), Dandelion (1969) and Kama Sutra (1970). With all the touring, his leg never had the chance to heal properly. The often intolerable pain he suffered turned Gene into a alcoholic. His private life was a mess and his behaviour became erratic and unpredictable. On October 12, 1971, his abused body finally succumbed to a bleeding ulcer and rock and roll lost one of its genuinely rebellious spirits. Gene Vincent was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998, at least a decade too late.
Official site :
Acknowledgements : Steve Aynsley, Roger Nunn, Susan Van Hecke, many others.
Dik, March 2016
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