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"WAS GENE VINCENT TOO WILD FOR AMERICA?"

by Steve Aynsley. (Posthumously still enjoying legendary status in Europe and as far away asJapan and Australia.)



In a pop climate where Mitch Miller was still riding high and Pat Boone was 'stealing' hits from the likes of Little Richard and Fats Domino, it would seem unlikely that a skinny white punk from Virginia could have any impact on the charts. However, with The Hillbilly Cat from Tupelo gaining so much ground on crooners like Andy Williams, it would seem more hopeful that an almost novelty rock n roll song could become a million-seller. The song was 'Be-Bop-A-Lula' but the artists were no novelty act - they were the wild and frantic Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps!!

So wild and frantic were they that within six months of the record peaking in the Billboard charts, the band was almost burnt up. They had played Vegas in front of an audience within which a very appreciative Liberace and Lena Horne echoed the crowd's enthusiasm. So much so that Mr. Vincent, 'The Screaming End', and his merry band of Blue Caps were told by the Casino management to tone down their act ... the punters were too busy watching the awesome rockers to play the tables - Bring back Pat Boone ... all isforgiven!

Earlier, Vincent had shared the bill in New York with Red Foley's nephew, the enigmatic Mr. Boone who insisted, because of his popularity, on closing the show. Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps took so much from the kids that night with their antics that they had nothing left to give Pat Boone. He played to an empty house after the police had to be called to calm down the almost riotous audience. Such was Gene Vincent's impact in 1956!

During those first six months, Gene Vincent recorded with his Blue Caps, 27 tracks at Owen Bradley's famous studio in Nashville, from which came two million-sellers: 'Be-Bop-A-Lula' and 'Bluejean Bop' followed by the best selling 'Bluejean Bop' album. He appeared in the classic rock 'n' roll movie with Jayne Mansfield, 'The Girl Can't Help It' alongside Eddie Cochran,Little Richard, Fats Domino and The Platters and his records appeared in the best sellers all over the world. His recordings spanned diversities from the highly provocative 'Woman Love', 'Race With The Devil' and 'Cat Man' to the emotively tender 'Unchained Melody' and 'I Sure Miss You'.

From the earliest days, Vincent's persona was split between Devil and Angel with, I fear, to the horror of the parents of middle class America's teenagers, the Devil most often coming out on top! In fact, he was almost too wild, not only for America, but also for himself. By the end of 1956 not only had his worn-out Blue Caps disbanded and gone back to their country homes, but his own body began to weaken too. His already damaged left leg began to worsen.

In the summer of 1955 Vincent broke his leg in an accident whilst riding his powerful Triumph motorcycle from the Naval Base in Portsmouth where he was stationed on the USS Tutuila. Gene's passion for motorcycles was as strong as his passion for girls and on his 21st birthday in February 1956 he married his current fifteen (going on sixteen) year old sweetheart Ruth Ann Hand. They separated soon as Gene started to become popular and the divorce settlement gained her a Cadillac and a thousand dollars. Ruth Ann was a nice "down home" girl ... definitely not the sort to fit into Gene's wild lifestyle for long.

Gene spent the first few months of 1957 in and out of hospital having his leg cared for. It should have been amputated after the accident but Gene begged his mother not to give the doctors permission to do so. During this hospitalisation Gene planned his next assault on the 'wide eyed and innocent' rock 'n' roll teenagers of America. Paul Peek, who later in his own right dented the Billboard Hot 100 with his Columbia release 'Pin The Tail On The Donkey', had stepped in to play rhythm guitar during the Las Vegas stint after the departure of Wee Willie Williams. Paul was originally pedal steel man with the South Carolina based Country Earl and the Circle E Ranch Band. The late legendary lead guitarist Galloping Cliff Gallup showed Paul the chords just prior to his own departure (hence the appearance of Russell Wilaford in 'The Girl Can't Help It') and Paul became a Blue Cap. He's the manic gum-chewing rhythm guitarist in that very same picture. Paul managed to persuade lead guitarist Johnny Meeks and bass player Bobby Lee Jones from the Ranch Band to join him in the Blue Caps. Gene took to Johnny straight away identifying a kindred spirit and was also taken with Johnny's rare three-neck guitar. The 'new' band of Blue Caps were completed by Virginian Tommy 'Bubba' Facenda and the original drummer Dickie 'Be Bop' Harrell. Tommy Facenda was later to find fame as a solo artist on Atlantic records with his hit 'High School USA' but in The Blue Caps he, alongside Paul Peek, became a backing vocalist, dancer and 'clapper-boy'.

In the Summer of 1957 the band travelled to the Capitol Tower in Hollywood and recorded four tracks, two of which became a million selling double sider coupling the powerful hand-clapping rocker ėLotta Lovin" with the tender Bobby Darin song 'Wear My Ring'. During the same session Gene recorded the very risquČ 'Rollin' Danny', once again echoing his 'split' musical personality.

Gene and his new, even wilder Blue Caps tore up the Mid West with their crazy stage act coupling Gene's demonic image with Tommy Facenda's exaggerated posing. Tommy was a good-looking boy of Italian decent and was accordingly very popular with the girls. With the rest of the band laying down a solid rockin' beat there was no stopping them ... or so they thought...

Success continued with 'Dance To The Bop' and appearances in the film 'Fury Unleashed' (alternative title 'Hot Rod Gang') and on National Television with Dick Clark and Ed Sullivan, but the demise was imminent. Behind the scenes stories of girls, wild parties and wrecked motel rooms gave them an image so wild that it made the much later Rolling Stones look like kindergarten children. This, however, was 1958 and America was not quite ready for such behaviour and despite some epic Capitol releases like 'Walking Home From School', 'Baby Blue', 'Rocky Road Blues' and 'Say Mama', Gene and The Blue Caps could not even nudge the Hot 100. A new breed of clean- pretty boys had come along. Nice chaps like Frankie Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell and Bobby Vee were becoming increasingly popular in the teenage market. They wore smart suits and sported neat hairstyles and did not burn down motels. They were the standard 'boy next door' which every good girl could take home to meet mother.. and father. In America in 1958, kids whodid not seek their parents' approval were classed as delinquents. Vincent and his Blue Caps were definitely delinquents in the eyes of America's parents and despite a drastic change of image with the release of tender ballads like 'Over The Rainbow' and 'The Night Is So Lonely', Gene just could not compete. His final US Capitol release of 1959 was aptly named 'Wildcat'.

In the United Kingdom and other parts of Europe, however, the story was much different. Here, as in Japan, where Gene toured to record-breaking audiences with guitarist Jerry Merritt, the teenagers were starved ofauthentic American rock ėn roll artists. Elvis was having his image cleaned up in the US Army serving in Germany whilst Ricky Nelson basqued in the glory of temporarily taking over his crown. Bobbies Vee and Rydell were as popular as they were in the States but still the rock hungry British audiences wanted more. And they got it. In 1960, Gene Vincent toured the UK with Eddie Cochran after exciting television audiences in the rock ėn roll show 'Boy Meets Girls' produced by Jack Good (of Shindig fame). Rather than clean up Gene's wild image, Jack got him to amplify it by dressing him entirely in black leather, draping a silver chain medallion around his neck and getting him to exaggerate the limp caused by the leg injury. He looked very like a modern day Richard lll - the twisted and deranged evil British monarch whom Shakespeare had given immortality.



The cast was now moulded and Gene could never again become the 'Angel'. Forever more he would be the 'Devil'. 'Wildcat' became a hit in Britain and Gene and Eddie Cochran became rock 'n' roll legends. Unfortunately Eddie did not live long enough to enjoy such status as he was killed in a car crash as the two friends were being driven to the airport so that they could fly home for a week's Easter break during the tour.

Gene Vincent had more hits in Britain including 'Pistol Packing Mama', 'She She Little Sheila' and 'I'm Goin' Home'. He appeared in two British movies: 'It's Trad Dad' in 1962 and 'Live It Up' in 1963. By the mid sixties his success was eroded. Not by his wild behaviour however (for by this time he'd almost become a parody of his former self), but by the very people who had started out copying the likes of him and Little Richard ... the new beat generation spearheaded by The Beatles.

In the late sixties Gene would find himself back in the States recording some excellent country rock. His performances were artistically stylish but tinged with a hint of sadness reflecting his former glories. Gene Vincent died with a bleeding ulcer attributed to excess alcohol and drugs to kill the extensive pain in his damaged leg. He was 36. He died in California in October 1971.

He is buried at the Eternal Valley Memorial Park close to the San Fernando Highway not far from Newhall where he died. He died, save for a few close family friends and associates, a forgotten man in America yet he had enjoyed three gold discs, has a sidewalk star on Vine Street in Hollywood, toured Japan and Australia and appeared in four movies. A rock and roll legend around the world yet only now in 1998 has Gene been recognised by his own country with his inauguration into the Cleveland 'Rock & Roll Hall Of Fameī . He was, until now, sadly neglected by his own country, his only crime being that he reflected the REAL spirit of teenage America and not the watered down, squeaky clean image that their parents wanted the world to see.

Yes, Gene Vincent WAS too wild for America but if the people of this great continent had realised the full talent of the 'Black Leather Rebel' they would have added to their roster an artist whose act was more visual than Michael Jackson, James Brown and Tina Turner combined. His vocal range have inspired ornithologists to create a new species of the bird family. He was indeed; the most talented yet most underrated artist ever to leave the shores of America.

The 1957 line-up of Gene's Blue Caps still occasionally play today. Johnny Meeks, Tommy Facenda, Paul Peek, Bobby Lee Jones and Dickie Harrell re-formed in 1982 After 25 years to complete a ten day UK tour and record an album of both old and new songs ("Blue Caps Unleashed" - Magnum Force MFLP 019). To date they have toured Europe on five different occasions and have appeared in both Clear Lake and Hollywood in the U.S.A. A further album was recorded in 1993 and released to coincide with their appearance, in London, at the ROCKERS REUNION in January of 1997. 'Hep To The Beat' is available on Pollytone Records (PEPCD 119).

STEVE AYNSLEY




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