Gene Vincent in South Africa 1965
The original article submitted to the magazine, later slightly modified by the editor Trevor Cajiao
Gene Vincent’s performances in South Africa in late 1965 have hitherto been somewhat shrouded in mystery. Recently new information has come from one of the musicians who backed him during that period. Contrary to the previous received wisdom, Gene actually spent a considerable time in the country, performing many times, before he returned to the USA.
The above cutting from the 3 December 1965 edition of the Daily News in Durban reports that ‘the popular American vocalist currently appearing at a local hotel, heads the bill of a “packaged show” at Durban’s Icedrome’ skating rink the following day. The photograph shows Gene with Jackie Frisco and members of The 004, “one of the leading pop bands in the country”. Jack Russell, who still has one of the studs from Gene Vincent’s leg brace as a keepsake, has revealed many more details about Gene’s visit to South Africa. “Gene came to The Al Fresco lounge in October 1965. I was a member of a British band called 004. We had been offered a six month contract to appear at the Al Fresco by Trevor Boswell as a result of the failed Dusty Springfield tour of 1964 when Dusty was deported for refusing to play to segregated audiences. Pete Clifford was Dusty’s lead guitarist and put 004 together to satisfy the opportunity presented by the South African market which at that time was starved of outside talent. 004 consisted of Pete Clifford on lead guitar, Brian Gibson lead vocal and guitar, Jack Russell bass guitar and vocals with Pete Stember on drums. We had been resident at The Al Fresco since June when Gene arrived in late September.” Once the band had met Gene, they “rehearsed with him once or twice but most of his stuff was well known to us by ear even if we had never played it…And we were all competent professional musicians with lots of UK and foreign experience anyway.”
Jack thinks that local entrepreneur Joe Fusco, who he describes as a “dodgy…slimy little man but a lot of fun too” who “was always on the lookout for a fast buck”, was responsible for Gene’s trip to South Africa. On 19th September, Gene finished his three month summer season at the Rainbow Theatre on Blackpool’s south pier. Joe Fusco’s daughter Jackie, sister-in-law of Michael Hayes (better known as Mickie Most), who had adopted the stage name Frisco, was Gene’s partner at the time. They had first met when Gene played some dates in South Africa with Mickie Most in May 1961, when she was a young teenager. They got together when Jackie went to the UK in 1964. She had been with Gene in Blackpool and travelled to South Africa with him. Once they had settled in, the Al Fresco, a night club “bolted on to the Esplanade Hotel in Durban”, hosted a new show every night except Sunday, plus a matinee on Saturdays. The show comprised The 004’s own set, a set by Jackie Frisco (“thank goodness it was short” says Jack), followed by the headliner Gene. The show “started at 7.30 and closed at about 11.00. Gene would come on around 10 ish” and “would do about half an hour sometimes more depending on how he felt.” Songs performed by Gene in the shows included Bluejean Bop, What’d I Say, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, Susie Q, the Roger Miller ode to Moonshine whiskey Chug-A-Lug, Corinne Corinna, and the inevitable Be-Bop-A-Lula. “There was no list, he just called out songs”. Gene usually sang “5 or 6 songs with some patter between…Typical evening audiences would be fifty to a hundred with more at the weekend. Saturday mornings could be 200 youngsters 16 to 25 ish…you could be playing to two people and still have to go on!” Gene was still in robust form on stage, Jack remembers that he “broke one of my mike stands doing Be Bop a Lula, smashing it repeatedly on the floor.”
On Saturday, 4th December, Gene closed the show, compered by Jack Briant, at the Icedrome. Other performers were The 004, Jackie Frisco, and Dunny and the Showmen. “It was a cavernous place with 6000 seats!! I seem to remember we got about 2000 people in and they were dwarfed by the size of the place. It was a good night however and the press reports were generous as I remember.” Jack recalls that Gene remained resident in Durban until 1966. “Gene stayed on until early in January, we certainly did Christmas and New Year with him.” Christmas Day in 1965 was on a Saturday, so there were the usual two shows that day.
Jack has fond memories about his time with Gene. “He was utterly charming to work with, a perfect gentleman, no airs and graces, one of the boys. He drank quite a few beers but I never saw him drink any hard liquor (unlike the rest of us)”. Gene also had a fund of tall stories. Gene, who “would regularly bind up his leg in our small suite of rooms at the hotel where we lived and worked…told us that the injury that caused his disability was caused while he was a young sailor in the US Navy. He claimed he was on a covert mission to the coast of North Korea intended as a rescue for some downed pilots. He was aboard a submarine and went ashore in an inflatable. There was an exchange of fire and Gene was hit in the leg. His problems began there. It always seemed an outlandish story to me but there was something about his telling of it that made one half believe it.” “Another story concerned Gene, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash. They had been booked on a tour and the trio decided that Carl Perkins should play guitar on the tour…The trio went looking for Carl and found him ploughing a field. They were in a brand new car just bought by Johnny Cash who had recently had one of his first hits. The car had white wall tyres. They called across the field to Carl who came over covered in mud and dust. When they asked him to come on the tour his response was to urinate on Johnny Cash’s white wall tyres as a means of saying no! He was by all accounts so disillusioned by the Rock scene at the time that he wanted to stay on the farm. They did eventually persuade him to join them however and left the plough right where it was.” A rather less amusing alleged incident had Gene shooting a man in the rest room of a gas station in the southern states of the USA, who he thought was bent on robbery. “He said he was arrested for shooting the black guy but released without charge.”
Another odd story concerning Gene was when he “stayed at a block of flats near the Durban beachfront…Because Gene didn’t like climbing stairs the block manager persuaded an old resident who lived on the ground floor to let Gene have his flat for the duration…What no-one took into account was the old man’s dog. The dog was in the habit of jumping out of the flat window whenever it needed a wee. Of course the next time its bladder called the dog jumped 12 storeys to its death. Gene was upset but you can imagine how everybody laughed at the story.”
Towards the end of his stay in South Africa, Gene told the band that he wanted them to go to the USA with him. “But frankly we thought that…he was a spent force and no good could come of it for us. He was flat broke when he arrived. He told us that in the months leading up to his arrival in SA he used to go along to other artists concerts in order to get fed at the after show party, where he was of course an honoured guest. Again it was easy to write him off but…he was one of the architects of Rock and Roll…and a great stylist in many ways. He also had a good voice, quite quirky but instantly recognisable, I never heard him sing a bum note”. Jack did not know where Gene went after he left in January, “although there was some talk of going to his sister back in the USA.”
I am greatly indebted to Jack Russell for his time and memories, and to Nick Warburton who brought us together.
Photographs used by kind permission of Jack Russsell
©Derek Henderson 2012