A Record Date With Gene Vincent (deceased)
In 1993, She She Little Sheila and I decided to embark on a pilgrimage which did not, for a change, involve camping at high altitude, yaks or dysentery, and so we turned our eyes towards the USA. In July, we flew over to Miami and hence on to savour the many delights of New Orleans, including Tipitina’s, and then made a visit to Memphis to stand in that famous little recording studio at 706 Union Avenue, and take a nostalgic stroll down Beale Street. Moving on to San Diego, we began a leisurely drive up Highway 1 to visit friends in San Jose, and hang out in San Francisco, one of our favourite cities. Following publication of my Gene Vincent Discography, I had been invited whilst in Los Angeles to tour the old studios in the famous Capitol Tower, where Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps recorded a wealth of classic tracks in the late 50s.
One sunny morning in August, we drove up to Hollywood from our hotel in the Korean district, and went looking for Gene’s star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. This did not take long because it is directly opposite the Capitol Tower, near where we had parked.
Derek and Gene Vincent’s star
Mario Lanza’s star is to the north and Russ Morgan (?) to the south. The top of the Tower was not showing its normal Capitol logo as it was cloaked in a huge Beach Boys banner.
Derek in Vine Street opposite the Tower
Going into reception, we were directed to Michael Frondelli’s office. He was the Director of Studio Operations, who had sent us the invitation. We were warmly greeted by Paula Salvatore, the Recording Studio Manager, and chatted for a while about Gene whilst Michael was being found. Paula mentioned that there had been a big function for The Beach Boys in the studios the night before, celebrating their 30th Anniversary. For the occasion, loads of sand had been trucked in and poured on the studio floors to create a “beach party” ambience. I remarked that this could only happen in America and Paula narrowed that to “LA”. She mentioned the possible bio-pic on Gene and asked if I knew anything about it. When Michael arrived, he was also most friendly and helpful. I asked him whether he had had any input into the 6CD Box Set, but he didn’t seem familiar with it, as it would have been put together by the record company archive department. In his office, Michael showed us a large enlargement of one of the famous black and white publicity shots of Gene and The Blue Caps in Studio B, where Gene appears to have no legs because they are hidden by Paul Peek’s and Tommy “Bubba” Facenda’s. There is another large copy of this in the corridor leading to the old studios. This has since been autographed by Johnny Meeks, Paul, Bubba and Dickie Harrell, during their California tour a year or so back. I mentioned that I had always been amused by the hole in Gene’s guitar in the picture, and Michael said that this was for the insertion of a microphone. This seemed unlikely to me as Gene did not play on any of his Capitol recordings. A few months later Dickie Harrell wrote to me saying that he had caused the hole in the guitar by throwing a cherry bomb at Gene during some typical Blue Caps’ horseplay. In his office, Michael also has an original Fender guitar amp as used by Johnny in the pictures.
After this discussion, we were given a tour of the old studios by Curt Anderson, who worked in Studio Set Up, a cordial young man who is a fan of the “old music”, as he described it. It was a thrill to stand in Studio B and the control room in which so much great music has been produced. Although the studio has been modified by being knocked through into Studio A, the original wall panelling, as seen in the photographs, is easily recognisable. I asked Curt’s opinion about the missing backing vocal overdubs on “Lonesome Boy”, “You Are The One For Me”, and “I Might Have Known” in the Box Set versions. I had already confirmed with Johnny at Keighley in July, that he and Clifton Simmons “and maybe Grady (Owens)” had “sung that ooh-wah stuff” on the sessions of October ’58, after the “Clapper Boys” Paul and Bubba, had parted company with Gene. Curt’s suggestion was that these recordings would have been done on a three track tape, with lead vocals on one, instrumental backing on the second, and the backing vocals over-dubbed onto the third track of the master. Somehow the third track must have been ignored during copying, transfer or re-mastering for the CDs. Although Curt was an Eddie Cochran fan, he was not aware that Eddie had sung backing vocals on the sessions on 25th to 29th March 1958, and he was gob-smacked that I had seen Gene and Eddie perform in London in April, 1960.
Derek in Studio B
Derek in Studio B Control Room
After the studios, Curt showed us some original microphones from the ’50s and the old metal stools, still favoured by bass players apparently. Ever helpful, he then took us up to meet the longest-standing studio employee, Senior Recording Production Engineer, Jay Ranellucci, who joined the company on April Fool’s Day, 1957. Jay was present on some Gene Vincent sessions, although as he said, “36 years is a long time”, and his memory of them was not vivid. He did recall Gene pestering Producer Ken Nelson for money, using “some story about hurting his leg in an accident”. Curt had passed on this piece of Capitol Tower folklore earlier. I got the impression that they were not aware that Gene had genuinely been crippled for life in the earlier motorcycle crash. I asked Jay if he still enjoyed the job. “Mostly - except the Rap”. I had been keen to talk to Ken Nelson during the trip, but had been unable to get a contact address. Jay told me that Ken, now in his 80s, was living in Oxnard, a town north of Los Angeles and directly on our route. Not having his phone number, Jay very kindly called directory enquiries there and then and got it for me.
Derek with Jay Ranellucci
During our visit, everyone had spoken warmly and respectfully about having Aaron Neville, another of my musical heroes, in the studios recently to record his Christmas album, Curt describing him as “a national treasure”. We were thrilled a few days later, to find that our friends had got us tickets to see The Neville Brothers playing live near San Jose. But that’s another story. Having voiced our thanks and said our goodbyes, Sheila and I went for a wander along Hollywood Boulevard for a while amongst the hordes of rubber-necking and camcorder-toting tourists. After a Mexican lunch and a quick trawl round Tower Records, we headed out of Los Angeles into the hills to Newhall and the Eternal Valley Memorial Park. Although we arrived after official closing time, a congenial and conducive lady found the location of Gene’s grave for me, and chatted for a while about him. She was only vaguely aware that someone who “had been famous” was buried there, and surprised to hear that he is still remembered in Europe. We found the grave after a short search. It is on a slope facing north towards the busy Highway. The cemetery is well maintained and the stone in good condition, if in questionable taste. There is a musical notation in the inscription of the first two bars of the chorus of “Be-Bop-A-Lula”.
Derek pays tribute at Gene Vincent’s graveside
I left copies of both editions of my book at the graveside as my small tribute to the great performer, and washed the dust off the stone with the remains of my beer. It seemed an appropriate gesture. Afterwards, we drove into the tiny town of Newhall and drank a bottle of their best bubbly out of plastic cups in a self-service Italian deli whilst I imagined Gene in his decline, driving in to pick up his groceries and booze at the beginning of the ’70s.
Back at our hotel, I telephoned Ken Nelson. His wife answered and I was excited when Ken came on the line. Yes, it was Ken Nelson, but no, he had never worked for Capitol Records. Wrong Ken Nelson! That night, we ate dinner in a nearby, popular Korean restaurant where we were the only Caucasian customers. The waitress didn’t speak English and her small brother was hauled in to translate for us. The food was great, complemented by cold Korean beers, but the ambience was transformed by a resident DJ loudly playing such Korean favourites as Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven”. The next day, we drove through Oxnard, stopping for lunch, and keeping an eye out for elderly gentlemen with golf clubs, as we set out on the long, spectacular drive northwards on El Camino Real.
(Adapted in 1998 from a piece originally published in NOW DIG THIS June 1994)
©Derek Henderson 1994 & 1998