by James Ray Deaton 8/31/15
Forty-four years ago this October Gene Vincent lost his race with rock ’n roll and the devil. October 12, 1971, talented and troubled Vincent Eugene Craddock, known as rock and roll’s original bad-boy Gene Vincent, fell and vomited blood in his parents’ trailer house in southern California. Hours later he died in the hospital from liver disease complicated by hemorrhaging stomach ulcers. He was 36 years-old.
Gene had challenged the devil, sang with the Beatles, drank excessively, took too many pain pills, wore a metal brace on one leg, lived with constant pain, married four times, survived the 1955 motorcycle wreck that crushed his left leg and the 1960 car crash that killed his dear friend and fellow rocker, Eddie Cochran. He lived his life hard and paid the price. He struggled in his personal and professional life and real success always seemed as elusive as his next big hit.
But he could always draw a crowd and wow them on stage. Nowadays Gene would probably be labeled as “self-medicating” and “dysfunctional” with a little PTSD thrown in. Back then he was considered just too rough, raw and unpredictable. But maybe that’s what his fans liked about him. European youth “got” Gene more than the Americans did. Maybe he fit their idea of what an American rocker should be — handsome but not pretty, rough around the edges, fighting inner demons, dangerous and menacing.
From his signature first hit “Be Bop A Lula” in 1956 to his ballads and later country-themed recordings, this black leather clad, limping, grimacing, sweating, lilting vocalist defined for generations what it meant to be a real rock ’n roll singer. He had the music and he had the attitude. His influence is more than the sum of his (relatively modest) success on the charts. His tours in England and Europe in the early 1960s galvanized an army of youth who later conquered America as the British Invasion in the mid and late 1960s.
It may be hard for people who didn’t come of age in the 1950s to appreciate what Gene Vincent and his songs — and the way he sang those songs — meant to teenagers. Paul McCartney has said Vincent’s “Be Bop A Lula” was the first record he ever bought. In a 1983 interview Paul Simon said “Be Bop a Lula she’s my baby” is the smartest thing anyone ever said in rock and roll. In Simon’s 2011 song “The Afterlife” the narrator, standing before God in heaven, is so overcome and tongue-tied that he can only ask the Lord: Is it Be Bop a Lula or Ooh Poo Pah Doo? When the Beatles dressed in their Hamburg black leathers and shook their heads side-to-side while singing, they were copying Gene Vincent. When The Who got just a little too rambunctious on stage, Gene Vincent And His Blue Caps (Gene and his backing band) had shown them how to do it a decade earlier. Jim Morrison spent time with Gene in Los Angeles and Morrison’s leather outfits and onstage stance behind the microphone are pure Gene Vincent. When Elvis (even Elvis!) made his famous 1968 television “comeback special” dressed all in black leather, he was sporting a look Gene had developed years before. In 1993 British rocker Jeff Beck released his album “Crazy Legs” as a tribute to Gene and his band.
Gene Vincent embodied, for good and for bad, straight-up rock and roll in the 1950s and after. Even today when you envision a real rock ’n roll singer on stage in front of the crowd — the real yip-yelling, jumping in the aisles, blocking the fire exits, sweaty palms, slapping feet, time of your life, tears in your eyes, stealing a kiss, copping a feel, getting-your-money’s worth rocker — you are more than likely seeing Gene Vincent in your mind’s eye.
He talked in a twangy Virginia whisper and sang like a lilting, crystal-voiced angel. Those who saw him on stage say it is something they will never forget. “Woman Love” was a low and rumbling earthy delight; “Race With The Devil,” a hard-driving, high-decibel force that scared the old-folks. Just what did “Be Bop A Lula” really mean? Was it some code that only young people understood? His take on “Blues Stay Away From Me” is a slow-strolling, hip-rolling masterpiece. “Lotta Lovin,’” and “Dance To The Bop” got the kids just too worked up.
Gene also sang ballads in his sweet strong voice. His slow, wistful take on “Over The Rainbow” is how it should be done. He released “Over The Rainbow” as a single in 1959 and it later became popular in England. He released “Weeping Willow,” dedicated to his mother, in 1963. Ballads such as “Over The Rainbow,” “Unchained Melody” and “For Your Precious Love” were a popular part of Gene’s stage shows. He would often ask audiences to sing along with him on “Summertime.” Gene could sing country as well and he often closed his shows with a rockabilly update of the bluegrass classic “Rocky Road Blues.”
Gene Vincent had a presence, a force, hard to describe, but easy to feel. Even when his body was failing later in life, his beautiful clear singing voice was there to the end. When Gene was in his groove on stage, all was right in the teenage world and there seemed to be a sense that just about anything might happen — and sometimes it did.
Born in 1935 Norfolk, Virginia, a young Gene soaked in the confluence of music there — country, rhythm and blues and gospel. The “Grand Ole Opry” played on the home radio and Gene sang in local radio talent shows and had his own guitar by age 12.
When he was a 20 year-old sailor recovering in the naval hospital from the 1955 motorcycle accident that ruined his left leg, Gene co-wrote the song “Be Bop A Lula.” Doctors wanted to amputate his leg, but Gene refused.
His left lower leg, crushed when a driver ran a red light and struck Gene on his Triumph motorcycle, never really healed. The wound would often open up and leak blood and fluids and in years following the bone became exposed. It would cause him pain and trouble the rest of his life and was re-injured in the 1960 car crash in England. Gene always refused recommendations to amputate. His left leg was either in a cast or an iron leg brace from the accident until he died in 1971. He walked with a limp and sometimes used crutches to get around.
Out of the hospital, leg in a big plaster cast, Gene sang an impromptu audition at WCMS radio in Norfolk which led to Capital Records and a 1956 single with “Woman Love” backed by “Be Bop A Lula.” “Woman Love” was considered too racy for radio, but “Be Bop A Lula” began to get airtime. RCA Victor had Elvis, Decca had Buddy Holly and now Capital had their newly renamed Gene Vincent.
Soon Gene Vincent And His Blue Caps were touring the country with the hit “Be Bop A Lula” which spent an amazing twenty weeks on the charts rising to # 7. Over the next few years Gene and an ever-changing Blue Caps line-up toured the U.S. and abroad, charted some hits, recorded albums for Capital in Los Angeles, appeared in the Hollywood movie “The Girl Can’t help It,” and other movies, appeared on the The Ed Sullivan Show in New York and other TV and radio shows across the country and at the Sands in Vegas.
Gene’s Blue Caps were just about as wild as he was on stage (and off) and their clapping, jumping and thrashing about, stage antics (including exploding cherry bombs) and yips and yells in the middle of songs were the stuff of legend. Drummer Dickie Harrell’s spontaneous primal scream during the recording of “Be Bop A Lula” startled everyone in the studio (even Dickie), but they later decided to leave it in. Cliff Gallup’s lead guitar riffs define the rockabilly sound to this day.
Sales of “Be Bop A Lula” and “Lotta Lovin’” earned gold records. Although no other Gene Vincent recording reached the same heights or had the same impact as “Lula,” his song “Lotta Lovin’” spent nineteen weeks on the Billboard Pop Chart and reached # 13. “Bluejean Bop” reached # 49 and also sold more than a million copies. In 1958 after Gene performed the song on the Sullivan show, “Dance To The Bop” spent nine weeks on the charts and reached # 23.
But tastes were already changing and charting hits were hard to come by. “Dance To The Bop” would prove to be Gene’s last American hit single. He released singles and albums with songs like “Race With The Devil,” “Woman Love,” “Say Mama,” “Baby Blue,” “Crazy Legs,” “ Right Now,” “Git It,” “Bop Street,” “Five Feet Of Lovin’,” “Who Slapped John,” “Five Days, Five Days,” “Right Here On Earth” and “Gonna Back Up Baby.” Many of these efforts are now considered rock and roll classics, but were not big commercial hits.
In the late 1950’s American rock and roll drifted to tamer performers like Pat Boone, Fabian, Frankie Avalon and the “Bobbys” (Vee, Vinton and Rydell). By November 1958 the latest version of the Blue Caps had disbanded and for the rest of his career Gene relied on a succession of temporary backing bands and musicians while on tour and in the studio.
But somebody forgot to tell the rest of the world that loud and hard-rocking rock ’n rollers were past tense. Gene had a three-week tour of Japan in 1959 which sold-out every night. Upon arrival in Japan he was greeted by 10,000 screaming fans at the Tokyo airport.
In December 1959 Gene traveled to England and Europe for a series of concerts and television appearances and was, essentially, reborn. This American rocker had developed a huge and fanatical following across the pond. He was greeted by fans there as a living icon of rock and roll. British and European kids did not dig the newer “Teen Idol” version of rock. To them Gene Vincent embodied original, real, flat-out, pedal-to-the-metal American rock ’n roll. He came straight from the wellspring.
Gene played up his bad-boy image and began dressing in black leather pants, black leather jacket — black, black and more black. He wore a silver chain and medallion around his neck. His tours packed the house and became legend; his albums and singles sold well. “Pistol Packin’ Mama” reached # 15 in the UK, “My Heart” reached # 16. “Wild Cat” topped at # 21 and “She She Little Sheila” reached # 22.
On stage Gene clutched the microphone stand, sometimes with a single black glove, and seemed ready to use the stand as either a crutch or a club — or both. Iron-braced left leg straight behind, right leg bent at the knee, he would bend forward over the stand, sometimes rocking his upper body back and forth. Gene gazed up and to one side as if looking at something only he could see. He would shake his head side to side and would pound the stage with the microphone stand — sometimes using it to direct the band to speed up or slow down. He would drop to one knee and hold the base of the stand straight up toward the spotlights while singing. He would swing his left leg, brace and all, up and over the microphone and then twirl around away from the audience, then spin back again, sweat flying. All this while in pain and wearing either a cast or metal brace on one leg. Gene Vincent gave his all on stage — everything he had, and the people knew it and responded.
If you were a teenager in England in the early 1960s, the only thing you could do was scream and marvel at Gene Vincent, buy his records immediately, talk about him with your friends, play his songs over and over and dream of being a rock ’n roll singer yourself one day. Man, it was the living end.
But even in England Gene’s star eventually dimmed and by 1965/66 he was based back in the U.S. trying to make ends meet. His contract with Capital expired and wasn’t renewed and Gene began recording on a series of smaller labels. Throughout the 1960s with some sabbaticals, he continued to tour and record songs and albums that were appreciated by the critics, but never sold well. Gene just could not reignite that spark of 1956. The 1960 car crash in England in which he was injured and his brother in rock ’n roll, Eddie Cochran, was killed, also stayed on his mind. For the rest of his life he would speak of it to friends.
During these times Gene’s drinking and frustrations sometimes surfaced. He was in an English court in 1963 for pointing a loaded pistol at his (third) wife. There are also stories of Gene once firing a shot at singer Gary Glitter while in Germany and of Gene using a knife he carried to slice up a tour manager’s shirt during an argument. He reportedly would become paranoid and accuse other musicians on tour of wanting to sleep with his wife. A 1969 BBC documentary called “The Rock and Roll Singer” followed Gene during a UK tour; his money problems and reduced circumstances are sad to see. But even then, at probably his lowest career point, Gene steps on stage, calls forth some kind of inner reserve, and becomes the rock and roll force he is.
Some of his last songs released on two albums in 1970 reveal an older, more mature, but still clear and strong-voiced Gene. In his take on “There Is Something On Your Mind,” Gene sings and speaks a soulful story about a cheating woman, too many “very best” friends and a loaded .44. He reaches back to his rockabilly roots with a lively cover of Carl Perkins’ “Boppin’ The Blues” and sings a hard-driving and funky “Slow Times Comin’.” “The Woman In Black” is a fine up-tempo rocker and “Geese” a poetical country ballad. He covers the country classics “500 Miles (Away From Home)” and “Oh Lonesome Me.” “The Day The World Turned Blue” which he wrote and “A Million Shades of Blue,” which he co-wrote with his fourth wife Jackie Frisco, feature her distinctive backing vocals and reveal a possible new musical direction for Gene. He still had the voice and it’s amazing how many good songs are on these last two albums that went nowhere commercially.
Gene Vincent was the first person inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame upon its founding in 1997. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998 and his Blue Caps in 2012. He has stars embedded in the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the Norfolk, Virginia, Legends of Music Walk of Fame.
Gene Vincent was not a role model. He was a whole lot of contradiction. Gene could have come from no other place on Earth except America and from no other part of America except the South. He had many gifts and many flaws — but that’s what made him who he was and what he was. If you wanted the sweet voiced singer who could be the Southern Gentleman, you also got the unpredictable, drinking, rock ’n roller who carried a knife. Gene was a hard-assed, sentimental, pistol-packing, big-hearted, confident, insecure, hard-rocking, singer of ballads. In the 1950s they nicknamed him “The Screaming End” and he really was.
In his song “Race With The Devil” Gene Vincent said that he intended to hide from the devil on judgement day. That plan didn’t work out too well. But maybe, just maybe, Gene was forgiven his sins and transgressions. Perhaps if a person can sing in just one lifetime both “Be Bop A Lula” and “Over The Rainbow” the way Gene did, maybe he deserves absolution by whomever grants such things. Gene Vincent lived his life his way, paid his dues complete and in full, and created a unique sound that plays on unto the present day.
James Ray Deaton, one of six known conservatives living in Berkeley, Calif., is a graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.
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