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Gene Vincent

As much an innovator and pioneer as his late, great buddy, EDDIE COCHRAN, rock’n’roll bad boy GENE VINCENT secured his place in history with one of the era’s greatest songs: `Be-Bop-A-Lula’. Together with his Blue Caps, greaser god Gene stretched rockabilly beyond the 50s, while managing to also hit the higher end of the charts with `Lotta Lovin’’ and `Dance To The Bop’.
Born Vincent Eugene Craddock, February 11, 1935 in Norfolk, Virginia, he cut his teeth listening to the sounds of country, gospel and blues, while better post-WWII times guaranteed him the present of his first guitar. A high-school dropout at 17, Vincent enlisted in the US Navy, but after suffering serious leg injuries from a crash in his motorcycle (bought from the proceeds of his re-enlistment bonus), his life in the forces was over. Incidentally, the shattered, near-amputated leg never fully healed, and after a year in plaster, he had a leg-brace fitted. With an ever-constant limp, he took up singing during his recuperation, often sitting in with WCMS Radio house band, The Virginians.
Early in 1956, and changing his name to GENE VINCENT, he briefly married 15 year-old Ruth Ann Hand, while also gaining a contract on Capitol Records that April. Taking their name from a term to describe sailors (or, indeed, a reference to President Eisenhower’s favourite golfing headgear), The Blue Caps augmented the singer for tour work, while other live commitments became more extensive after the US Top 10 success of his aforementioned debut single, `Be-Bop-A-Lula’ – the initial B-side to the raunchy and suggestive, `Woman Love’, which saw ELVIS’s mother reportedly thinking it was her own son on the mic.
GENE VINCENT & HIS BLUE CAPS (namely Cliff Gallup on lead guitar, Willie Williams on acoustic rhythm guitar, Jack Neal on upright bass and Dickie Harrell on drums) continued to maintain a steady cult appeal through hit singles, `Race With The Devil’ and `Dance To The Bop’; Britain had also cottoned on to Gene’s threatening black leather-clad image, which, by all accounts, only fuelled the “bad boy” myth spread by his manager, “Sheriff Tex” Davis.
Not only were the combo a singles band (albeit a tad sporadic in chart appearances), garnering exposure on the Ed Sullivan Show and cameo-ing in rock’n’roll movies, The Girl Can’t Help It! and Hot Rod Gang, Gene and crew were also prolific long-player exponents. However, only their inaugural set BLUEJEAN BOP! (1956) {*8} cracked the US Top 20, others such as GENE VINCENT AND THE BLUE CAPS (1957) {*7}, GENE VINCENT ROCKS! AND THE BLUE CAPS ROLL (1958) {*7}, A GENE VINCENT RECORD DATE (1958) {*5} and SOUNDS LIKE GENE VINCENT (1959) {*5}, all floundered.
Media attention at the time also focused on his drinking bouts, which was said to make him irritable to everyone, with the exception of his great friend, EDDIE COCHRAN. Late in 1959, Gene (with his Blue Caps) toured the UK with the young Eddie, resurrecting his chart status in due process with `Wild Cat’ (spawned from CRAZY TIMES (1960) {*5}), plus the non-LP `My Heart’ and `Pistol Packin’ Mama’. Tragedy struck however, on April 17, 1960, when COCHRAN was killed after their after-gig taxi hit a lamp post; both VINCENT and his pal’s fiancee, Sharon Sheeley, sustained broken-limb injuries. Shaken, but vowing to continue, Gene had his final UK chart singles entries in 1961 with `She She Little Sheila’ and `I’m Going Home (To See My Baby)’.
The following year, VINCENT appeared on a bill at the Cavern Club, showcasing an up and coming fresh-faced combo, The BEATLES; ironically his Capitol Records contract expired in ‘63 and was not renewed. There was indeed new kids on the block – the same one at Capitol, and one of them was surplus to requirement. He married for a fourth time in 1965, signing to US label, Challenge, although a move into country rock’n’roll in 1966 was treated with apathy.
Nearing the turn of the 70s, Gene’s career took off again when BBC Radio One DJ, John Peel, contracted him to his newly formed Dandelion imprint, releasing the KIM FOWLEY-produced I’M BACK AND I’M PROUD {*5}, to a bemused public. Although featuring the likes of Skip Battin (bassist of The BYRDS), Jim Gordon (drums), Mars Bonfire (rhythm guitar), Red Rhodes (dobro) and LINDA RONSTADT (backing vox), GV sounded a little jaded on BOBBY DAY’s `Rockin’ Robin’, and C&W staples such as `Scarlet Ribbons’, `I Heard That Lonesome Whistle’, `Circle Never Broken’ and `In The Pines’; a cheeky revision of `Be-Bop-A-Lula ‘69’, `Lotta Lovin’’ and GEORGE JONES’ `White Lightning’, soaked up the punk-ish quality of the set.
Gene duly inked a deal with Kama Sutra Records in the US and released his final albums, GENE VINCENT (IF ONLY YOU COULD SEE ME TODAY) (1970) {*5} and THE DAY THE WORLD TURNED BLUE (1971) {*6}. Although critically well received in some quarters, the LPs failed to sell. After more hard-living and domestic problems, VINCENT died (in Newall Hospital, California) of a ruptured stomach ulcer on October 12, 1971.
Many had copied his image and the savage spirit of his sensitive soul; among them:- The BEATLES, DAVE EDMUNDS, ALVIN STARDUST and The STRAY CATS, plus there were many tributes, none more poignant than IAN DURY’s classic new wave anthem, `Sweet Gene Vincent’.
© MC Strong 1994-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS May2013

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