RUSSELL WILLIFORD (By Kevin Carey)
The Best Known, Unknown Blue Cap.
Born 2 April 1933, North Carolina
It's one of the most iconic images from early rock n roll cinema. Gene Vincent, his face contorted, an acoustic guitar slung theatrically across his waist, miming to his recent hit Be Bop A Lula whilst past US presidents look on in disdain from the walls of a recording studio. Behind Vincent, his band, The Blue Caps - Dickie Harrell standing at his snare drum, screaming his trademark impromptu chorus line; Paul Peek, the gum chewing kid who looked so tough, Jack Neal, smiling amiably as he slaps his doghouse bass...And then there was the lead guitarist.
The film, of course, was The Girl Can't Help It and for just over one edited minute, cinema goers would get to see Vincent and his band mime their way through their signature hit. Whether too many of Gene's fans, British or American, were really aware of who the names behind The Blue Caps were at that time, is questionable. Quite reasonably they might have assumed that the skinny blonde guy playing the Fender Esquire was indeed the guitarist on Be Bop A Lula. What they wouldn't have known was that this young guy had actually only been a Blue Cap for five days, had played with the band on no more than two occasions prior to the film recording and would ultimately not feature on any of the Gene Vincent recordings - even while he was still officially a Blue Cap.
Russell Williford (note spelling) was born on 2nd April 1933 in North Carolina, where the family remained until moving to Virginia in 1943. His mother, who played piano, encouraged him to take up music and he learned to play steel guitar before switching his attention to electric guitar. By his mid teens he was already playing in a local Country band, The Sunset Valley Boys, until he found himself drafted into the US Army in 1953.
Williford was posted to Seoul in South Korea, but continued playing guitar and entertaining his friends and comrades, leading to him forming a band and starting their own local radio station - Vagabonds Radio, which transmitted across the Seoul area. For about a year the band was joined by a 17 year old Roger Miller who would go on to international fame with hits such as King Of The Road, England Swings and songwriting credits for Billy Bayou. Upon his discharge from the army in 1955, Russell decided to settle in Norfolk, Virginia and was soon playing lead for local country bands until one fateful day in August 1956. The Virginia music scene was a close knit community. Williford knew Cliff Gallup well as they would regularly find themselves sharing the bill with their respective bands. No doubt Vincent's manager, "Sheriff" Tex Davis was also aware of Williford and so it was perhaps logical that, having just received news that Cliff Gallup was quitting The Blue Caps, Davis 'phoned Russell and asked him: "Do you want to be a Blue Cap?" If that question wasn't enough to make Williford sit up and take notice, Davis went on to say that he would need to get to Washington DC immediately to complete an 18 date gig, before heading to Hollywood to appear in a movie with Jayne Mansfield. No pressure there, then!
Packing his gear, Russell arrived in Washington the following day and went straight into rehearsing with Vincent and the band for the final two nights at The Casino Royale. Williford did not know Vincent or the other band members personally. Paul Peek, who had himself only joined the band in the past few weeks (replacing Wee Williie Williams on rhythm guitar) recalled Williford as "a shy young guy". Although past experience had been playing country, it seems Williford felt at home playing rock n roll. Following the two nights in Washington, Gene and the band flew to Hollywood for the filming for The Girl Can't Help It. Williford recalls that Elvis was flying out as they arrived and that Elvis and Gene spent some time fooling around before Vincent and the band headed for the studio. Filming was scheduled for one day. No rehearsal, just straight to the set and the cameras rolled. One take. The following day was taken up with a photo shoot at the Capitol Tower, resulting in some excellent "live" shots of Gene and the band which would later appear on the second Vincent LP, Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps. Again, it's ironic that Williford would feature so prominently on the front cover of the album, without actually taking any part in the recording of it.
Instead of heading straight back to Virginia from Hollywood, a number of ad hoc bookings had been made for Vincent and The Blue Caps, even though their own equipment had been crated up and sent ahead to Virginia. Jack Neal would later recall the band having to use borrowed instruments and how he managed to break the stand up bass during one wild set. This mini package tour took in dates across the mid-west before heading east to New York and then up to Canada where they played The Casino in Toronto.
The band were scheduled to return to Owen Bradley's Studio (not, as often quoted, Bradley's Barn or Quonset Hut) on October 15th and while it would seem logical that Williford would have stepped in to fill the lead, Vincent's producer, Ken Nelson, really wanted to retain the same sound the band had produced at their first sessions and managed to talk Gallup into returning just for the four day session (*). This decision must have been a disappointment to Williford, even though he readily acknowledges Cliff Gallup's ability on guitar. As he wasn't required, Russell volunteered to drive Vincent's new Thunderbird back to Virginia.
(*) Ken Nelson was hugely impressed by Cliff Gallup's musicianship and upon hearing that he was leaving Vincent had offered Gallup the opportunity to work for Capitol as a session musician, which Gallup declined. The fifteen recordings over these four days remain as some of the finest guitar work recorded in the 1950's and it is impossible to speculate what these recordings would have sounded like with Williford taking lead, as there is simply too little for real comparison purposes. Gallup was a true genius, a one-off and it is difficult to imagine anyone coming close to matching his unique contribution.)
Immediately after the recording sessions, Gallup returned to his family and job as a maintenance man in Virginia, while Gene and The Blue Caps headed to Canada for a one week residency at The Criterion Theatre in Toronto. An unknown Bostonian guitarist stepped in to play lead guitar for the week. Returning to Virginia following their successful Canadian tour, Vincent and the band were still in demand and a week later were booked for a four week residency at The Sands Hotel and Casino in Nevada. Once again, "Sheriff" Tex Davis called on Russell Williford to reunite with the band. The Sands Hotel was a massive gig for any musician, but in many ways, totally unsuited to a wild rock n roll act. It didn't take long for the casino's management to notice a drop in their takings as the gamblers deserted the tables to witness Vincent and the Blue Caps and there were "requests" made for them to tone down their act so that the customers would remain at the tables. This caused further friction in what had become a fractious relationship between Vincent and Davis, with Vincent refusing to tone down. Williford recalls Vincent being in constant pain from his leg injury and coming off stage on a number of occasions with blood seeping from the cast on his left leg. It was clear that further medical attention was needed, but Vincent's request to end the tour early to allow him to return to the naval hospital were turned down by Davis. However, a few nights later the tour ended abruptly after Vincent slipped on stage causing further damage to his already injured leg.
Returning to Virginia in December proved a watershed in the history of The Blue Caps. Law suits had been filed against Vincent which effectively prevented him from working and he was scheduled to return to the US Naval Hospital for further treatment on his leg early in 1957. By now, Dickie Harrell was the only remaining original Blue Cap and as soon as he became able, Vincent would set about creating The Blue Caps Mk II. Rather than attempt to clone what had gone previously, Vincent was aiming for a different sound. While still hard edged rock n roll, there would be no room for a stand up bass, while the Gretsch guitar was replaced by the Fender Stratocaster of Johnny Meeks.
Williford already had other plans to form his own band and has no regrets that he didn't join the "new" Blue Caps and by 1958 had formed Russ and the Go Boys, with their one release on the DC label being the instrumental Ramble/Flippin'. Ramble was in part inspired by Williford's friendship with another guitarist he was friendly with, Link Wray. Russell and the band would also go on to back Dudley Callicutt (Get Ready Baby/Heart Trouble), also on DC. Further recordings followed when Russell and his band provided the backing for Phil Gray on Marty Robbins' label. Although Gray's best known rockabilly numbers are credited to 'Phil Gray and the Go Boys', Williford is emphatic that he didn't back Gray on the earlier 'Pepper Hot Baby', but was definitely involved in the follow up, Somebody Got My Baby, which also featured Chet Atkins and Floyd Cramer. While there were hopes that Phil Gray would go on to find wider success, Williford recalls his appearance on American Bandstand being cancelled because Robbins had raised concerns about having to pay an "appearance fee."
In 1961, Russell formed his second band, The Palisades and enjoyed local chart success with their TV series inspired 'Lean Hornet'. The band's follow up, 'Anchor Rock' received some airplay but according to Williford the navy were unimpressed with what they saw as a blatant copy of 'Anchors Away!' and had the radio stations stop playing the record. The band remained popular touring across the USA and enjoyed residencies at The Copacabana and The Peppermint Lounge. In between playing with his own band, Russell was also in demand as both a session and touring musician, playing with many country greats such as Patsy Cline, Tommy Cash and Lefty Frizzell.
In 1970, Russell was playing with his band at the Harris Lounge in Virginia Beach. In the audience, Russell recognised a familiar face; Gene Vincent had come to see his old friend play and took the opportunity to join them on stage to sing a few of his own hits. Vincent told Williford that he had hopes of re-forming The Blue Caps to tour again, asking him whether he would be interested. Before leaving, Vincent gave Russell a copy of his recent album, "Gene Vincent", which Williford still owns. Whatever plans he might have had, within a year Vincent would be dead. In later years, further success came from touring with Tex Ritter, Randy Parton and Stonewall Jackson, enjoying further chart success with the 1977 recording 'Walk Out On Me', which featured the Stonewall Jackson Band, with vocals by Charlie Borchert.
Russell Williford still lives in his native Virginia and still finds time to both play locally and record; his latest CD, a collaboration with Rick Mann (Pickin' and Peddlin') features some fine instrumentals, while at the time of writing, there are plans to return to the studio to record a further CD which will include Russ's instrumental versions of Be Bop A Lula and Lotta Lovin'.
Acknowledgements: Derek Henderson; Rob Finnis
Kevin Carey, February 2009
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