Born Donald Edgar Backus, 12 September 1937, Southampton, Long Island, New York. Died 21 February 2019, Germering, Germany.
Unless you live in one of the German-speaking countries, there is a chance that you have never even heard of Gus Backus. He is one of those odd American musicians who found their stardom far from home.
Born in the village of Southampton on Long Island, Donald Backus was called Gus by his father (also named Donald), a foreman on a potatoe plantation. At 14, Gus ran away from home when his parents divorced. Among his earliest musical favourites were Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and Little Richard and under their influence he began to write and play his own music.
Then he got drafted and was stationed in Pittsburgh, where he joined a vocal group, the Del(l)-Vikings, around March 1957. They were racially mixed, a rarity in those days, and were jumping up the charts with "Come Go With Me" when Gus joined as a replacement for Don Jackson. The story of the Del-Vikings is too complicated to summarize here. Gus was a member when their second hit, "Whispering Bells" (# 9, Dot) was recorded and he sings lead on their third and last hit, "Cool Shake" (# 12, Mercury). But he wasn't with the Del-Vikings for very long. On July 28, 1957, he was transferred to Wiesbaden, Germany. He was still in uniform when he founded a singing group called the Vidells, who found some limited popularity among military audiences, but weren't permitted to perform off their base. While on leave in the USA in June 1958, Gus recorded a single for the Carlton label (471), produced by Chuck Sagle (aka Carl Stevens). One side, "My Chick Is Fine", was pure rock n roll, but Joe Carlton decided to make the ballad side, "You Can't Go It Alone", the plug-side. In its genre, this was quite good too, but it didn't make too many waves and on top of that, Gus wasn't around to promote it, so he wasn't invited back.
Meanwhile, Backus got married to a German girl (they had four children) and decided to stay in Germany after his compulsory military service was finished in early 1959. His brother-in-law suggested him to record German language versions of US hits for the German market, as Backus had become quite fluent in German. One of the first labels Gus contacted was Polydor. Producer Gerhard Mendelson invited him to cut a demo session and starting June 1959, Gus was a Polydor recording artist. Recorded at the Austrophon Studio in Vienna, his first record featured German language versions of Elvis Presley's "A Fool Such As I" ("Ab und zu") and Lloyd Price's "Have You Ever Had the Blues" ("Ich bin traurig wenn du gehst").
The first records were unsuccessful, but in July 1960, Gus made the German Top 20 with "Brauner Bär und weiße Taube", a cover of Johnny Preston's hit "Running Bear", soon followed by a # 2 hit with "Wooden Heart" (another Presley number). Between 1960 and 1963, Gus scored one hit after another, including a # 1 with "Der Mann Im Mond" ("The Man In the Moon", 1961). His popularity in Germany was comparable to that of Cliff Richard in England and he also scored hits in Switzerland, Austria, Denmark and Holland. Between 1959 and 1965, Gus appeared in almost 25 German entertainment films. The Germans pronounce his name as Goose Buckoos.
>From 1961, Backus also started to record in English. His first English language single was a revival of Eddie Cooley's 1956 hit "Priscilla", coupled with "Queen Of the Stars", an English version of "Der Mann Im Mond". Both Polydor and Gus hoped that he would be able to translate national success into international success. It didn't happen, though. In 1963, Gus went to New York and Nashville to record. The Nashville session produced an excellent record, "Short On Love" (written by John D. Loudermilk), coupled with "Big Willie Broke Jail Tonight" (written by Boudleaux Bryant). It did nothing in the USA (MGM 13134) and Germany (Polydor NH 52912), but "Short On Love" was a # 1 hit in Japan in 1964.
In that year, Gus recorded the Mort Shuman composition "Turn Around" in London and went back there in 1967 for some songs by English composers, trying to keep up with the times. The people at Polydor also tried an English version of Peggy March's hit "Memories of Heidelberg", but all to no avail. In December 1967, he cut his last English language record (in Munich), although the results weren't issued at the time.
In 1973 he decided to return to the USA and went to work as a foreman in the Texan oil fields, but in the 1980s he returned to Germany to surf the Oldies wave of the period. He settled with his family in Munich, where he still lives today. He now performs his old hits with the group Teddy und die Lollipops.
Colin Escott concludes his liner notes for the Bear Family CD with : "Gus Backus's story is among the most interesting in pop music. He has crossed more borders - musical, racial, and national - than most of us will ever dream of."
CD : My Chick Is Fine (Bear Family BCD 15769). Released in 1995, annotated by Colin Escott (acknowledged). 30 English language recordings from 1958-1967. A mixed bag, but the collection certainly has its moments.
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