GENE VINCENT and THE BLUE CAPS
The Lost Dallas Sessions 1957-’58 Dragon Street Records DCD-70198 (USA) Rollercoaster Records RCCD 3031 (UK) 1998
The following is a slightly adapted version of the CD Liner Notes:
By January 1957, Gene Vincent was a veteran of the rockabilly life. His drag strip ride in six months from humble beginnings to a recording contract with the major Capitol record label leading to the instant world-wide fame brought by the mega-success of his first, self-penned, single Be-Bop-A-Lula (c/w Woman Love, a number considered unsuitable for airplay) had been followed by a gruelling round of touring (mainly open-air Summer Fairs characterised by mobbing induced by his dynamic stage act and the exciting backing from the now legendary Blue Caps). He had conducted eight further recording sessions in Nashville, and had performed on Alan Freed’s radio show and in the Hollywood film The Girl Can’t Help It. A residency at the Sands Hotel, Las Vegas had been terminated early, according to Dickie Harrell, because the band was attracting customers away from the tables.
It had all been too much for rhythm guitarist Willie Williams (replaced by Paul Peek), and the great lead guitarist Cliff Gallup, who both returned to the sanity of regular employment at the WCMS radio station in Norfolk VA (where the story had begun with the help of DJ “Sheriff” Tex Davis). Upright bass player Jack Neal quit the music business entirely! Gene was also in legal dispute with L & B Management over his business relationship with Davis, with whom he had by now also parted company. Although his first album Bluejean Bop (also released on 3 EPs) sold well, two further strong single releases (Race With The Devil/Gonna Back Up Baby and Bluejean Bop /Who Slapped John) failed to become major hits in the States (although Bluejean Bop reached #12 in UK charts).
Eager as always to get back on the road, Gene started putting together a new Blue Caps line-up. Recalling drummer Dickie “Be Bop” Harrell and Paul Peek (who he switched from rhythm guitar to backing vocals), Gene added teenager Tommy “Bubba” Facenda as second backing vocalist (these two would be later dubbed by Gene as his “Clapper Boys”), and at Paul’s suggestion auditioned the guitarist from his old group Country Earl and the Circle E Ranch Boys, a band that would serve as training school for no less than five Blue Caps. Thus, Johnny Meeks was duly ushered into future legendary guitarist status. Bill Mack was drafted in on electric bass, and the band embarked on a 10 day “Rockabilly Spectacular” tour of Ohio, with Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Sanford Clark. Falling out with Bill Mack, Gene replaced him with another of Country Earl’s players, Bobby Lee Jones, and they played up a storm at a 30,000 seater Howard Miller Show in Chicago at the end of April.
Being manager-less, Capitol in-house producer Ken Nelson (who had overseen the 35 tracks Gene had recorded in the previous year) put Gene in touch with Ed McLemore in Dallas TX, who already managed Capitol artist Sonny James. McLemore also ran the Big “D” Jamboree, a mostly C & W show similar to the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride, which was broadcast every Saturday night from the Sportatorium on radio station KRLD. By the mid ’50s, the Big “D” had begun to experiment by featuring nascent rock ‘n’ roll acts such as Sid King and the 5-Strings, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, a controversial move calculated to attract the lucrative youth audience who increasingly thought country music “square”. McLemore set Gene up with an experienced road manager named Larry Thacker (a man not popular with musicians, Ronnie Dawson describes him as “a vulture…the ultimate…you know, typical old sleazy guy…he was always selling something”(I)), transport for the band, and new stage uniforms for the Blue Caps. He was also provided with a ranch-style house in what was then far north Dallas at 6551 Dyke’s Way, into which he moved his parents and two younger sisters. The Dallas days had begun. Two further single issues, featuring the original Blue Caps line-up, Crazy Legs/Important Words and B-I-Bickey-Bi Bo Bo Go/Five Days, Five Days again failed to make any significant national impact. Although there is a long-standing hypothesis that Capitol’s refusal to engage in Payola was the basis of this post Be-Bop-A-Lula hiatus, Gene’s discomfort as interviewee, leading to his reluctance to take on promotional activities with radio DJs, may also have been a contributory factor in inhibiting airplay, essential to the success of new releases.
Earlier, local oilman-turned-music entrepreneur Tom Fleeger, who had been very impressed by Be-Bop-A-Lula, had come across a song by Dallas songwriter Bernice Bedwell that he was sure would be perfect material for Gene. According to Tom, he tracked down Gene at home in Portsmouth VA, and played him a demo over the telephone of Lotta Lovin’ cut at the Sellers Studios in Dallas by Norton Johnson (included on this CD), with Gene responding “Man, that’s a smash hit!”(I). Gene told Tom that he and The Blue Caps were due in Dallas two weeks later to play the Sportatorium, and assured him that they would get together with him. When they arrived, Fleeger carted them across town for a makeshift demo session of home recordings, made at Fleeger’s mother Jan’s apartment at 5921 Sherry Lane, the results of which are included here in their entirety. Two songs written by Bedwell, Lotta Lovin’ and In My Dreams, as well as Mary Tarver’s Nervous (later to be a regional hit for Gene Summers), were amongst those Fleeger had Gene rehearse and record on his newly purchased home reel-to-reel recorder. Gene’s instinctive ear calls a halt to the second attempt at Lotta Lovin’ (”Somebody’s off there, man”), and his authority over proceedings is subtly obvious throughout. Seemingly happy with the Bedwell compositions (Jan Fleeger can be heard exclaiming “That’s good!” in the background), Gene is uncomfortable with Nervous, and, after a couple of attempts to get a feel for the lyrics, abandons it. Coincidentally, Gene also failed to successfully record another Gene Summers record School Of Rock and Roll at another home recording session in Ronny Weiser’s LA apartment in 1971. Also included here is a recording of Gene whistling a tune listed on the tape box as On My Mind, a song that has not appeared on any other Gene Vincent release. Fleeger recalls “I think we had a break and so Gene…just thought he wanted to show everybody he could whistle”(I). This historic tape was to turn up decades later at a garage sale held by Tom Fleeger’s ex-wife, when it was bought in a box of JAN singles and a number of other reel-to-reel tapes.
Within a day or so, Fleeger made arrangements for a proper recording session at Sellers Studios and Gene went in with the full band and cut the demo of In My Dreams featured in this compilation, the first studio recording by the new Blue Caps. Another recording of Lotta Lovin’ included here is claimed by Fleeger to be a studio demo, but it sounds remarkably like an excerpt from the home tape with added echo. On 11th May, the band played the Big “D” Jamboree (tickets 30 cents and 60 cents) and shortly afterwards, Tom Fleeger, Bernice Bedwell and Gene met Ed McLemore and played him Gene’s demo of Lotta Lovin’. Ed was suitably impressed and demanded that Fleeger relinquish his entire share of the publishing to his Big “D” Music publishing company. Fleeger and Bedwell refused and left. Undeterred, Tom waited for Gene to emerge from the meeting and persuaded him to play the song to Ken Nelson at his forthcoming Capitol sessions. In June, the band drove to Hollywood to cut their first recordings at the famous Capitol Tower studios, with Buck Owens sitting in on acoustic rhythm guitar. On the 19th, at the 9th take, they recorded the master of Lotta Lovin’ that was to secure Gene’s second major hit record, peaking a month later at #13 in the Billboard charts. Fleeger claims that McLemore was so incensed at the success of this song, published by Fleeger’s Song Productions Inc, that he attempted to blackball Fleeger’s independent record company JAN by turning his distributors against him, which lead to the relative failure of Gene Summers’ Nervous and eventually to the demise of the JAN label itself.
The success of Lotta Lovin’ was just the career boost needed, and Gene and The Blue Caps were once more embroiled in big rock ‘n’ roll package tours. In September, they made their only excursion abroad, joining a hugely successful tour of Hawaii, Fiji and Australia in the company of Little Richard and Eddie Cochran (who Gene had met on the set of The Girl Can’t Help It and would become very close to). On their return to the States in late October, the band was as hot as ever and caused tremendous scenes wherever they performed. In one incident at a 32,000 seater in Chicago (where Ken Nelson was to present them with a gold record for Be-Bop-A-Lula), a riot ensued where reportedly even Nelson had his clothes torn off by over-enthusiastic fans. During a tour of the west coast, Gene met a young divorcee Darlene Hicks, was quickly smitten, and they became “an item”. Capitol rush-released Dance To The Bop in November, Gene performed the song live on the Ed Sullivan TV show (now with Max Lipscomb on rhythm guitar)(Fleeger claims that “Ed McLemore was so mad about Lotta Lovin’…being played on every radio station…told Gene…he’d have to sing Dance To The Bop”(I)), and the single duly peaked at #23 in the Billboard charts. For further recordings at the Capitol Tower, Gene decided to re-equip the group, and Leo Fender provided the band with three new Fender Stratocasters, a bass guitar and the latest Fender 50 watt speaker/amp combo. The sessions produced the classic rocker Baby Blue. Gene returned to Dallas for a Christmas respite, taking Darlene and her small daughter Debbie with him.
1958 was to be a year of big changes. In December, Paul Peek and Tommy Facenda had left to pursue solo careers, and Max Lipscomb decided to return to school. Gene, a big Jerry Lee Lewis fan, wanted to add piano to his line-up, so Country Earl promptly lost the services of Clifton Simmons. Ed McLemore’s booking agent Ed Watt (who didn’t get on with Gene but readily admits “he could sing…he was a Showman…he was great…just super great”(I)), contacted Dallas songwriter Grady Owen (whose demo of his I Don’t Feel Like Rockin’ Tonight is included here for flavour, he was later to pen Lovely Loretta for Gene) and offered him the job of Blue Caps’ rhythm guitarist. Within a few weeks of touring, Dickie Harrell, who had become serious about Tommy Facenda’ s sister back in Portsmouth VA, quit the band. This was less than convenient, as McLemore had secured a part for Gene and the band in the forthcoming teen movie Hot Rod Gang, and more Capitol Towers sessions were booked for March. Gene was able to persuade Paul and Tommy to return to fulfil these engagements, but Dickie refused. Whilst playing a gig in Fort Worth, using Dude Kahn (Sonny James’ drummer) as fill-in, Gene caught the opening high-school group’s act and was so impressed by 15 year-old drummer Juvey Gomez that he sent Larry Thacker to ask him to join the Caps. After making arrangements with Juvey’s business-like mother and his teachers that would enable his continuing education, Juvey came on board. The band put up in a Dallas motel and rehearsed for a few days at the house in Dyke’s Way, which Gene’s parents had vacated by now (Darlene and Debbie remaining in residence), and then drove out to Hollywood.
The Capitol Tower sessions of March 1958 are the most legendary of Gene’s recording career. Joined unofficially by an un-credited Eddie Cochran on bass backing vocals, on 25th to 29th March (except the 28th, when he was at Goldstar Studios cutting Summertime Blues) 16 superb masters were produced. Amongst these were great rocking tracks like Dance In The Street and Lovely Loretta (to be featured in the oncoming movie) and the classic Git It (the original, surprisingly well-formed demo of which by writer Bob Kelly is also included in this CD), Gene’s lyrically altered version of Bob’s Somebody Help Me (the original demo by Kelly is also included here for comparison), and the affecting gentle ballad Peace Of Mind . On 30th March, they went into American-International Film Studio to film their performances in the movie, to be released on 2nd July. It double-billed with High School Hellcats. Gene and the band’s (mimed) performances of Dance In The Street and Baby Blue in the film were particularly striking. The movie was not. After the filming, Juvey returned to school to complete his exams whilst the band took a break, and then re-joined them for a riotous West Coast tour (”It was an experiment to see how his music would actually appeal to the black people…so they had to hire a black sax player…Hayworth…a good player”(I)). This proved enough for the young drummer (”I mean, these guys are crazy…they’re acting like a bunch of kids…I didn’t like that part of it”(I)), and he quit to join Buddy Knox and The Rhythm Orchids, a more sedate outfit. Gene returned to Dallas to re-group.
It was possibly during this period that some more of the tracks included here were recorded at the Sellers Studios. The spine-tingling solo rendition of My Love (later re-titled In Love Again) that opens this set probably has Gene accompanying himself on acoustic guitar. Surprisingly, although penned by Johnny Meeks, the demo of Hey Mama (later to be re-titled Say Mama and become one of Gene most popular songs), has Texan “Blond Bomber” Ronnie Dawson on guitar (”I was there doing something…Gene just came in and…said ‘You want to play with me…I got this little song I want to demo?’…It was just like it sounded, it was a short-sleeve thing”(I)). It seems that Johnny was simply not around at the time Gene was hot to cut the track. He was back, however, for a further session where two cuts of the beautiful ballad The Night Is So Lonely, the latter with backing vocals by Johnny, Cliff and possibly Grady, were laid down. Two other tracks, the engaging country-styled Lonesome Boy and Johnny Carroll’s Lady Bug may possibly have also been cut at this session. Gene now suffered another blow. With a 40 day tour of Canada lined up, Johnny Meeks and Bobby Jones decided to return to Greenville NC. Auditions were held at Ed Watts’ office, and local player Howard Reed was hired for the lead guitar job. The band now consisted of Reed, Cliff Simmons, Grady Owen (on bass), a restored Max Lipscomb on rhythm guitar, and Dude Kahn back on drums. Kahn only lasted a few dates (”we played one time at a beautiful concert hall…we had this gorgeous full-sized grand piano…and one of the guys went sliding across the piano and his belt buckle tore the finish…I just didn’t like stuff like that”(I)), and ex-Elvis Presley drummer D J Fontana was flown in. During the tour, Gene decided he wanted to re-introduce the Clapper Boys into the act, so Grady and Max moved to this rôle and Bill Mack came back on bass guitar. After the usual riotous on and off stage carryings on, at the end of the tour the group played a few gigs in the USA and then disbanded.
Gene’s luck took an upswing in September, however, when Johnny Meeks called and, refreshed by his vacation from the road life, asked to re-join. Country Earl now lost his drummer Clyde Pennington. It seems that Country Earl never resented losing musicians, but was rather proud to be providing them to a “big name”. Grady Owen came back on bass, and after more touring, the band checked into the Capitol Tower for the final time. Supplemented on some tracks by saxophonists Jackie Kelso, Alexander Nelson, Gil Bernal and Herbie Stewart, Gene made his last recordings with The Blue Caps. The first song recorded was Lonesome Boy. The sessions produced a jaunty rendition of Who’s Pushing Your Swing (the original demo by Darrell Glenn is included here), the ballads The Night Is So Lonely and In Love Again, and the classic rocker Say Mama, a number Gene would continue to perform for the rest of his short life. The final recording by the band was the self-penned Vincent’s Blues.
Perhaps the most exciting discoveries to be found on this CD are the live recordings of Gene and The Blue Caps in action on the Big “D” Jamboree, probably recorded immediately after the October sessions. David Dennard had long suspected that there might be such gems amongst the archives of the radio broadcasts held by the US Library of Congress in Washington DC. His patience and diligence eventually paid off in a visit to the Library in September of 1997, where they came to light. These finds more than double the number of issued live recordings by Gene with his famous band, and bring us the first recording by Gene of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, one of his favourite Jerry Lee Lewis records. David describes the discovery of these recordings thus: “I got one of the greatest thrills of my life when, after a long day at the Library of Congress cataloguing discs from the Big “D” Jamboree series, my engineer and I dropped the needle on disc number sixty-eight to hear MC Johnny Harper say ‘…and featuring tonight’s guests, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps!’. At that moment it was all worth it.”
In November, the band played around the LA area for a while, and then suddenly found themselves leader-less and broke with an unpaid hotel bill. Back in Dallas, Gene’s house had been re-possessed for non-payment of taxes. He broke with McLemore, and moved, with Darlene, to Vancouver WA. He continued to work with pick-up bands, whilst Capitol released records that few seemed to want to air or buy. In early 1959, Gene moved to Seaside OR, home to his new manager, local promoter Pat Mason (who had introduced him to Darlene). On a disastrous four date tour of Oklahoma and Missouri, where the promoter had booked a ten piece guitar-less black band to back him, Ronnie Dawson, also on the bill, stepped into the breach and backed Gene on guitar for the dates. The tour ended, after an all-night drive, with the entire troupe being dumped by the bus driver, in freezing conditions, outside the final venue before dawn. Ronnie and his fellow performers the Belew Twins clubbed together to get a hotel room, but “the band, Gene…went in there and started finding them a place to lay on the floor…I remember Gene was laying there…in the foetal position and all these guys were all over…” (I). After cleaning up and resting during the day, Ronnie came back about six o’clock to find Gene “still on the floor…I’ll never forget that…We played a show and actually about a hundred people showed up for that last one…It was pretty good.” (I) None of the musicians were paid for this fiasco, but “Gene had gone to the promoter and just says ‘Hey, give me a ticket to Seaside, Oregon, and I’ll see you, that’s all you owe me’, and that’s what happened…Gene left and that’s the last time I saw him.” (I)
Gene now moved to Anchorage AK. Darlene joined him at his insistence, and on 27th April his first daughter, Melody Jean, was born. In May, they moved back to LA. Gene had been performing during the Spring with guitarist Jerry Merritt. Although rock ‘n’ roll seemed virtually dead in the USA, overseas fans were still clamouring for more, and Pat Mason was able to arrange with Capitol and Japanese counterpart Toshiba for Gene to do a three week tour of Japan. Gene once again tasted adulation as he and Jerry played to sell-out audiences of enthusiastic fans. Unpredictable as ever, Gene got homesick and abandoned the tour before the end, leaving Jerry to impersonate him for the last four dates. In August 1959, Gene returned to the Capitol Tower to make his first stereo recordings, with Jerry and some illustrious session musicians, that would become Crazy Times, his sixth album. Later in the year, he was invited by Producer Jack Good to appear on a series of Boy Meets Girls TV shows in the UK. To tie in, there would to be radio broadcasts and live gigs. His arrival in Europe in December (shortly to be joined by Eddie Cochran) was to prove sensationally successful, and his new all black leather image was perfect for his role (in European eyes) as the King of Rock ‘N’ Roll. He was again instantly the big star, and was to prove the biggest live draw in Europe until the arrival of the Beatles. But that’s another story…
Rob Finnis & Bob Dunham - “Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps” mimeographed booklet, 1974
Britt Hagarty - “The Day The World Turned Blue” Blandford Press, 1984
Derek Henderson - “Gene Vincent - A Discography” (Revised 2nd Edition), Spent Brothers Productions, 1998
(I) Interviews with David Dennard, Jan/Feb 1998
© Derek Henderson 1998 & 2007