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Tommy "Bubba" Facenda
One of the original Gene Vincent "Clapper Boys"
A CD containing 30 versions of "High School USA" by Gene Vincent's Blue Cap/Clapper Boy Tommy Facenda has been released by the Legrand label of Norfolk, VA. The catalog number is 17002-2. "High School USA" peaked at #28 on Billboard's pop singles chart in 1959. The original version came out on Legrand and mentions area high schools by name. Other versions were recorded for most other areas of the US and were released on the Atlantic label. Those versions are heard on this CD in this order: 1-Virginia (the only stereo version on this CD), 2-New York, 3-Nashville, 4-North & South Carolina, 5-Los Angeles, 6-Indiana, 7-Washington, DC/Baltimore, 8-Philladelphia, 9-San Francisco, 10-Chicago, 11-Detroit, 12-New Orleans, 13-Texas, 14-Pittsburgh, 15-Minneapolis/St. Paul, 16-St. Louis, 17-Florida, 18-Newark, 19-Alabama/Georgia, 20-Boston, 21-Cleveland, 22-Cinncinatti, 23-Memphis, 24-Buffalo, 25-Seattle, 26-Hartford, 27-Denver, 28-Oklahoma, 29-National version, 30-original Legrand version (with a distinct Bo Diddley beat). I got my copy from: Rock Classics, 1511 E Babydoll Rd., Port Orchard, Washington 98366 USA, telephone: (360) 769-0456, fax: (360) 769-0441, website: www.portorchard.com/rockclassics.
2324 Haverford Road
Ardmore, Penn. 19003
8211 Cloverleaf Road
Millersville, MD 21108
Tommy and Ricky trade their shirt and jacket. - Tommy with Harry Bellafonte - Dick Clark remembers Tommy's birthday with an autographed picture.Tommy and Ricky were very close friends and Tommy would often hang out at the Nelson home. "They were just like on TV," he recalls. "Once when David just got his new home in Malibu, Ricky wanted to go over and listen to David's new Hi-Fi system. The house was locked, so Ricky crawled out on a ledge near a window in order to gain entry. Darn near killed himself, but he had to get in!"
Ricky's passing, as well as Gene's hit Tommy quite hard. One night, about 2:30 in the morning, shortly before Gene died, Tommy's wife Gail answered the phone, "It's Gene," she said. "Gene who?" Tommy asked. "Gene Vincent!" Tommy took the phone only to hear a sad voice on the other end begging Tommy to get the boys back together again so things would be all right. The half-awake Tommy told Gene that he was a firefighter and hadn't been on stage in years and didn't even know if the other guys were around. It just wouldn't work out. Tommy still carries that conversation around with him...(but Tommy, there's nothing you could have done.) When the Blue Caps get the stage nowadays, the performance is always dedicated to Gene. When they close with "Be-Bop-A-Lula" they look upward and say, "This one's for you Boss!"
Tommy cracked the Billboard Charts for 13 weeks in 1959, peaking at number 28, with "High School U.S.A." on Atlantic Records. The lyrics were changed to conform to the school names in a given area of the country. Tommy recalls singing the verse over each time in the studio to add the name changes. Around 40 different versions were made. On tour, he often got confused what version to sing in the town he was going to at the time, "Everyone else in the tour package could just sing their same hit recordings all the time. I had to study the upcoming town's high school name list using a pen light on the bus. If I ever forgot the names, I'd just sing the original Virginia version."
The ID tag Tommy wore at the 1994 Buddy Holly gig in Clear Lake, Iowa. Bubba was famous for his "Facenda Freeze" when performing with the Blue Caps. He'd stand along side Gene with hands held upward and begin to shake and vibrate. Tommy said, "Once I almost got locked up the freeze. Thought I might go into convulsions or something. Man, it was scary." But Tommy knew the girls loved it.
EVENTS IN TOMMY'S LIFE THAT GENERATED HEADLINES:
"HIGH SCHOOL U.S.A. NATIONAL SMASH,"
"HIGH SCHOOL U.S.A. IS DECIDEDLY UNIQUE" and
"TEENAGERS WELCOME 'BUBBA'"
(when Tommy's single hit the national charts in 1959).
"SINGER'S DEATH A PERSONAL LOSS FOR LOCAL FIREMAN"
(when Ricky Nelson died in a plane crash in 1989).
TWO PART INTERVIEW IN 'NOW DIG THIS'"
(UK's top Rockabilly Magazine featured Tommy in their July and September 1987 issues.)
THE PORTSMOUTH, VA. CURRENTS NEWSPAPER
Special Supplement, Sept. 27, 1996.
Nice feature story on Tommy...
"A retired firefighter and a member of the Blue Caps rock group, works on the security force at Sentara Norfolk General Hospital." Article that states how Tommy quit show business and came home to work as a firefighter 31 years ago. "I'm proud to be part of a team. We clean up chemical spills and help with the helicopter flights. I use a lot of what I learned as a firefighter. It's exciting."
Tommy Facenda: The Actor
Recently Tommy did a stage play called JUST US. He had a co-starring role as he portrayed "Jocko" a southern small town sheriff. There was some music in the production so Tommy had a chance to sing.
Acting has always been a dream of Tommys. Gene used that to his advantage when time came to film the movie "Hot Rod Gang." Tommy had just left the band, but Gene wanted him in California as part of the group in the film. To get Tommy here, Gene called and said there was a great acting part in the film if he'd only show up. The scene was to be where Tommy gets to beat up an old man with a bike chain. Tommy agreed to come and stayed up all night practicing his killer swing in front of a mirror. One afternoon on the set, Tommy and Eddie Cochran took off to see Elvis' "Loving You" movie and when they returned Gene announced that they had cut the scene because Tommy was off somewhere. In other words, there really was no scene for Tommy, just a ploy by Gene to reunite The Blue Caps for "Hot Rod Gang." And now you know the rest of of the story.
Tommy and wife Gail with Luciano Pavarotti - Jeff Beck and Tommy meet in England - Tommy poses with Ricky's daughter Tracy Nelson.
THE TOMMY FACENDA STORY"Hey! Hey! I'm A Blue Cap Man" by Roger Nunn & Bob Erskine
1956 came a knock on my door, Gene Vincent said, "Bubba let's go on tour." Threw back my covers, jumped outta bed. Next two years I wore a blue cap on my head. Hey! Hey! I'm a Blue Cap Man! Made my living singing with a 5-piece band.
Though the words of Tommy Facenda's 'Blue Cap Man' may not be an entirely accurate description of how he joined the Blue Caps, his song does serve to illustrate something of his meteoric rise from schoolboy to clapper boy with Gene Vincent's band. The Tommy Facenda story is a near classic tale of wild times alongside Gene Vincent; a burst of solo success with his own hit record; the inevitable struggle to find a follow-up and the final realization that a life on the road was not the most ideal way of spending the early years of marriage and family life.
Tommy Facenda was born the son of Olivia and Milio Demasso Facenda on november 10th, 1939, in Portsmouth, Virginia - Portsmouth being virtually the twin town of Norfolk where Gene Vincent had been born some 4-3/4 years earlier. Tommy's father was of Italian descent. Apart from his times on the road in the late '50's and early '60's, Tommy has always remained a resident of Portsmouth and is quite proud of the fact that he went right through school from 1st to 12th grade at St. Paul's in Portsmouth. And it was straight from St. Paul's that Tommy was catapulted into the dizzy heights of the rock 'n' roll age early in 1957. His young friend Dickie Harrell had already been whisked from Portsmouth as a 15 year old the previous year to play drums for Gene Vincent. So Tommy already knew Gene through Dickie and, following the break-up of the short-lived original Blue Caps, he was invited to join the band as a background singer and dancer. On account of "young" looks, Tommy was immediately hailed as 'Bubba' by the other members of the Blue Caps - and the name has stuck right though to the '90's.
To Tommy, 1957 and early '58 must have seemed something like being caught up in a kind of crazy whirlwind after the initial quiet of the first few weeks with the Caps spent rehearsing and fooling around in Gene's house. After a spell on the road trying out the new band, the Blue Caps found themselves in Hollywood for their first recording session. On the first day alone, classics like "Lotta Lovin'," "Rollin¹ Danny" and "I Got It" were recorded and if you add "Dance To The Bop," (which was recorded on the following day) you end up with a pretty sensational debut session on which the young Tommy Facenda was prominent on vocal backing and hand-clapping routines. So already Bubba had come a long way from high school to Capitol Tower career-wise and also in terms of actual distance since it's a continent's width from Portsmouth to Hollywood!
"Lotta Lovin'" b/w "Wear My Ring" was, of course, a double-sided smash hit for Gene Vincent & The blue Caps - sales eventually earned Gene his third Gold Record. it¹s success also gave Gene's career much needed impetus after the brief but worrying hiatus that followed the huge success of "Be-Bop-A-Lula" the previous year in 1956. Tommy Facenda was perhaps the most visually prominent member of the new Blue Caps. Standing usually to Gene's right, he is frequently to be seen in those classic Blue Cap Capitol Studio shots looking incredibly cool with upturned collar, slicked-backed dark hair, sideburns and smooth 'boyish' looks. Together with Paul Peek, the two became know as the Clapper Boys because of their stylish and clever routine of handclapping during Gene's numbers. But it wasn't simply a case of standing there looking pretty and clapping hands! Alongside Gene, they had a whole crazy routine worked out which included leaping around on stage, dancing as well as providing that particular brand of Blue Cap backing vocals. In fact, the clapper boys frequently almost stole the limelight from Gene who would constantly have to remind them, in no uncertain terms, that HE was the star!
The peak of Tommy's act would come in numbers like "Baby Blue" when during a Johnny Meeks guitar solo with Gene crouched low on the floor and staring upwards, Bubba would perform his famous "freeze" as he calls it. Standing, legs slightly apart and arms raised out front as if sleep-walking, Facenda would shake from head to foot with his dark hair falling over his forehead as if in some kind of trembling trance, possessed and taken over with the music! A great spectacle - a classic Blue Cap routine which set them miles apart from so many other bands on the circuit at that time. Continuing through 1957, Tommy remembers the Australian tour and the Blue Caps association with Eddie Cochran as particular highlights. Bubba has fond memories of Cochran both as a performer and friend of the Blue Caps and frequently refers to Eddie as "an honorary Blue Cap". "Git It" has to be my favorite Gene Vincent number because Eddie Cochran was there with us for that session and I have to believe that if there was ever a classic in the rockabilly field, or whatever you want to call it, then that was it. Eddie just about took over on "Git It" and "Lovely Loretta" and a lot of people didn't realize it was Eddie that did those things with us. But "Git It" stands out because the clapper boys had such a nice role in that and Eddie sang the bass line - but Liberty Records won't want to hear about that."
Oddly enough, Tommy might well have missed out on those famous sessions with Eddie Cochran in March 1958 because, technically speaking, he and Paul Peek had already split from the Blue Caps to pursue solo careers. Dickie had also left because he had been dating Tommy's sister in Portsmouth and wanted to get back east to see more of her. So, at the beginning of 1958 Gene Vincent's Blue Caps were in a pretty depleted state. With the chance of a movie appearance coming up and further recording sessions, Gene wanted his 1957 Blue Caps around him and so he persuaded all three to rejoin, if only for a temporary period. As well as "Git It" another superb batch of Vincent classics were recorded in those March '58 sessions - "Dance In The Street," "Rocky Road Blues" and some excellent slower numbers like "Peace Of Mind," "The Wayward Wind" and "Summertime." The movie that followed was, of course, "Hot Rod Gang" shows us some superb footage of Gene Vincent and The blue Caps at their very peak. "Baby Blue" (cut from the U.K. version is performed on a tiny stage but Gene and The Caps made the most of their confined platform, producing a marvelous performance, complete with the "Facenda Freeze. "So, with some great memories to take with him, Tommy headed back to his home town to reflect the past and anticipate the future. Bubba had the urge to go solo -to do it on his own. By this time, mid-1958, the first wave of rock 'n' roll had passed and the door wa opening for the "pretty boy" image typified by the Frankies and Bobbys of the late '50's. Tommy Facenda justifiably considered he had every chance of making it - he certainly had the good looks, if not the voice and he is the first to admit that the latter was a little bit lacking. "I wasn't a singer or anything like that. Paul Peek would tell you that - I was the one who always went flat and he would always give me a helping hand. But there were so many guys out there who weren't worth ten cents either - so I said I'll give it a go."
Tommy had written a few songs himself and he began to send dubs to various record companies in the hope that one would offer him a recording contract. It was Nasco Records in nashville that first showed interest and Tommy says he hitched all the way down to Tennessee to cut his first solo record. The result was "Little Baby" b/w "You Are My Everything" (Nasco 45-6018). The record was a resounding flop and Bubba would be the first to admit that they were not the greatest couple of songs ever committed to was but, at least, Tommy had achieved his first objective - to get his name on a record label. "Little Baby" is a fastish rocker which somehow never seems to take off - both the guitar and piano solos seem to get lost in the background and Tommy's vocal seems rather frail. Both titles were written by Bubba.
The way you walk, eat
Everything you do,
why you sure do it neat.
Yeah, yeah you're sweet.
The flip is a sugary teen ballad with a pretty familiar set of lyrics:
You're an angel from heaven
You're a gift from above
You're the light of my life
My own true love
You're a fabulous dream,
You' re everything -
Every little thing to me.
It says something of Tommy's character that he wasn't at all discouraged by the Nasco failure. Instead, Bubba decided to try his luck elsewhere. Still only a teenager he headed north-east to New York City and it was here that he met Frank Guida. Guida, originally a record store owner in Tommy's home town of Portsmouth, had formed the Legrand Record label and was looking for someone to record a novelty song "High School U.S.A." that he partly penned himself. The story goes that Guida wanted a black doo-wop group to do the number, but then had visions of Facenda becoming Legrand's answer to Chancellor's fab duo Frankie Avalon and Fabian or Cameo's Bobby Rydell! So Tommy cut "High School USA" for Legrand Records in Virginia and it eventually turned out to be one of the most unusual record releases of all-time. Guida, realizing that he could have a big hit on his hands which a small independent label might not be able to handle adequately, took his record to New york and persuaded Atlantic Records to take it on. So "High School USA" was recut by Atlantic who put out no fewer than 28 different versions of the song! The idea behind it was to mention as many major high schools in the lyric as was possible in the hope that kids hearing mention of their local on record would rush out and buy it! And what's more it worked! Each regional versions was issued with its own individual record number by Atlantic from Virginia (51) to Oklahoma (78). Tommy insists that they cut more than 28 versions. As he says, "The biggest mystery of 'High School USA' is how many versions they really cut. The magic number they seem to come up with is 28. There were more. They might not all have been released, but I cut a copy for every state in the U.S.A. Maybe 28 were released, but I know what I cut. It was just about the most awful thing to go through - I mean while everyone on the tour was asleep in the bus I was writing with this little pen, you know ...it was more than 28 but 28 is the magic number." Record files do appear to confirm the 28 figure as being the number that were actually released - probably one for each region served by an Atlantic distributor. So who know, there might well be another 20 or so versions locked away in the Atlantic vaults! it must have been a mammoth task seeking out all the high school names from U.S. school directories, let alone having to cut the actual masters. It wasn't just a case of over-dubbing the school names in the relevant places -- each master had to be separately recorded from start to finish! The Cincinnati version, for example, crams in just short of 30 high school names - repeat this for the other 27 versions and you¹re talking about nearly 850 names!
The Atlantic versions seem superior to the Legrand release - there's a little more urgency about the whole thing, more bit to it with a zippier vocal backing and Bubba's voice comes through much clearer. The Legrand versions (45-1001) was backed with "Give Me Another Chance" (another Frank Guida composition but printed under the name of "Leader" on the record label - a pseudonym that he frequently used). All the Atlantic versions have "Plea Of Love" on the flip - fortunately Tommy didn't have to cut 28 different "B" sides! "Plea Of Love" sounds remarkably like "You Are My Everything" set to different words but it was the top-side that mattered!
Come Friday 'noon' bout half-past three
I drop my books and my misery,
Stroll on down to the soda shop
Drop a coin in the old juke box
Lookin' around what did I see
Every school kid there could ever be
They came from...
Tommy modestly plays down his contribution into making "High School USA" a Top 30 American hit. "I was real fortunate and lucky because it was just the idea of the song - it sure wasn't me. Anybody could have made it a hit." Possibly so, but Bubba now found himself gaining quite a bit of publicity and in demand in New York City playing with jackie Wilson and Connie Francis, Annette, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Fabian and a hellava lot of places that I'd played with Gene. It brought back a lot of good memories. The only thing that was missing was ol' Paul Peek, Johnny meeks, Bobby Jones and Dickie all being by my side. It was a little lonely when I went back and they weren't there and really when I had my own record out and it was a hit, I was not as happy as when I was a side-man with The Blue Caps." Tommy did a chance to meet many of the music industry giant while hanging out at the Altantic offices. He'd run into fellow performers like Sammy Davis Jr., Ray Charles and Jackie Wilson on a regular basis. One night while on tour Tommy took sick and Wilson give up his dressing room (the only person who had one) to Tommy to rest...something Tommy will never forget.
But then came the inevitable problem of finding a follow-up to "High School USA" - never an easy task. There must have been quite a few discussions in the Atlantic offices as to which path Tommy's career should follow. The competition was getting pretty fierce around the turn of 1959-60 though good honest rock 'n' roll was on a marked decline and we were often dished up watery substitutes. Frank Guida was unable to come up with anything suitable but this was probably because Bubba was now on Atlantic¹s books rather than the smaller Legrand Records. Guida was, in fact, to write and make some incredibly exciting and innovative recordings with Gary U.S. Bonds towards the end of 1960 so perhaps Tommy might have fared better with Legrand - who knows? U.S. Bonds, by the way, is supposedly helping out on vocals on the original Legrand version of "High School USA."
Bubba, in fact, ended up writing his own follow-up, a number entitled "Bubba Ditty." Released on Atlantic (2057) in 1960.
They call me Bubba Ditty
I'm from the windy city
Love is my profession
Girls are my possession.
I'm the greatest champ around
And I'm coming to your town
I'm Bubba Ditty.
Testin' kisses is my business
Pretty girls are my witness
I won't be just a-teasin'
Hmm mighty mighty pleasin'
They call me Bubba Ditty
And I'm coming to your city,
I received my degree from High School USA
And I'll be coming to your town just any old day
I'm the greatest, the coolest and I'm the most
I'm gonna spread my kisses from coast to coast.
Tommy's spell in the U.S. Army was completed in 1962. He took a job with the Fire Department in Portsmouth and has remained there ever since - seemingly perfectly content with the way things have turned out for him - no regrets about having turned his back on a life on the road nearly 25 years ago. Finding himself on tour again with The Blue Caps in 1982 must have seemed like turning the pages back to a lost era! "After hearing we'd been invited to tour England, we were gonna practice for a week or so at Paul Peek's place in Georgia - but it didn't work out that way at all. We thought originally that a week wouldn't be enough but in the end we didn't practice for much more than two hours! When we got together we just talked and talked, reminiscing. The music just fell into place - we didn't need to rehearse. When you go out there night after night and do the same things over and over as we did with Gene in 1957 and 1958 you just don't forget something like that. It all fell into place - we didn't need to rehearse - it was like we'd never been away!"And when you say Bubba up there on stage in 1982 you knew exactly what he meant. Loving every minute of it and still displaying those cool good looks (though with a slightly more rounded face) Tommy was back in '57 again playing the role of clapper boy alongside of Paul Peek and the others. In fact, no one worked harder than Tommy on that tour - he really gave us 101%with some frantic vocals and typical Blue Cap stage antics. And we were even treated to the famous "Facenda Freeze" during "Baby Blue" - nothing had changed! Clearly Bubba had lost none of his original enthusiasm for Gene Vincent's music and that lost 25 years simply vanished into thin air - it was 1957 all over again!
When you ask Tommy to name the highlight of his career he's hard pushed to give an answer, "I don't know how I can put a highlight on my time with Gene Vincent and The Blue Caps - every night was a highlight for me...the Australian tour, sell outs in Des Moines, Iowa, Canada, the Prom Ballroom in St. Paul, Minnesota, Eddie Cochran - I can't single out one highlight -' it was all great, right down to the time when we did the Howard Miller Show in Chicago and the fans tore my clothes right off -- I was standing there in my underpants hollaring for my mother! They tore everything off me! It was just wonderful to stand along side Gene, almost cheek to cheek at times, hearing his wonderful voice each night. What a thrill!"
Time doesn't appear to have dimmed the memory of Tommy Facenda, but then his memories are what most of us dream about. Though he may not have set the world alight as a solo artist he gave it a great try and he certainly contributed in no small measure to making Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps the greatest recording and stage act that the Fifties (or any other decade) ever witnessed. Below Tommy is pictured still hard at work in the 1990's.
TOMMY "BUBBA" FACENDA in 1993
courtesy Sue Smallwood.
Thirty-five years after their crazy rehearsals in vocalist Tommy Facenda's bedroom and Gene's house, the 1958 lineup of Gene Vincent's backing band were together again. The occasion? A month-long summer tour which saw the group storming the stages of France, England and Germany, including the international Festival of Rock 'N' Roll and Rockabilly in Munich. Headlining a rockabilly/roots rock concert package entitled "The Full Gene Vincent Experience 1993," Blue Caps Johnny Meeks (guitar), drummer Dickie Harrell and vocalists/clapper boys Paul Peek and Tommy Facenda, along with Vincent collaborator Jerry Merritt (guitar) and dead-ringer Vincent-sound-alike Graham Fenton, thrilled sold-out audiences with their recreation of the authentic Vincent experience, cira 1958.
"We've always done the UK," Facenda explained prior to leaving for Europe. "1982 was our first reunion and then we went in '87 and '91, so it hadn't been that long and we weren't going to go again. But we really never had a chance to play the continent, except the last time we did do Spain. We're always getting mail from France and Germany, so we had a chance to do that this time."
Though Facenda and company were aware of the esteem with which Vincent is held in Europe, nothing prepared them for the tumultuous response they received from the "real wild crowds." In fact, Tommy related upon his return to the US, "Germany was a bit too wild! They broke through security and got to the stage" at the Munich Festival, presented at an abandoned airport that "holds a ton of people... and there were a ton of people! We just told security to back off, let us handle it, which is the best thing, instead of them throwing the fans around. We handled it okay. Of course, they just stripped everything off of you, we didn't have any shirts or anything left! And it wasn't really kids, it was adults -- late twenties, early thirties."
Tommy, who enjoyed a brief solo career after leaving the Blue Caps, with the 1959 hit single "High School USA," can still recall the circumstances of the first Blue Caps reunion in 1982. "For 25 years I was out of the business." he remembers. "I was a firefighter and I was sitting at the station one night. A phone call came and the voice on the other end said, 'Hey, this is Johnny.' 'Johnny who?' 'Johnny Meeks.' 'What! Where the hell are you?' He was in California and was the first one this British promoter had contacted about doing this sort of thing."
"I said, 'Damn, Johnny, I ain't never thought of stepping back on stage again, man, much less with you guys. Are we still alive?' I hadn't seen one of them, expect for Dickie (because he lives here in Portsmouth, Virginia). The rest of them I hadn't seen for 25 years until we opened in London that night. You want to talk about an emotional night, because they are my best friends, they were my best friends and we did lose touch because we all had our separate lives to lead. Everybody had went their separate ways with families. You got your family problems, career problems, I just never thought about show business again. I was happy as a fire fighter, I'd never thought about performing anymore. You never think you're going to do this and then you turn around and there's the same guys, except for Gene. It was one hell of an experience."
Tommy continued, "Now, we've covered all of the UK, Spain, France and Germany, so we've really got to decide if we're going to hang it up. I think they kind of want us to do some more there in France and Germany and then hit Finland, Holland, Denmark, but I don't know, we might let this be it. It's different when you're not looking for a career, it's a lot more fun and there's no pressure. We just want the people to be happy. If they're happy, we're happy, amd that's all that matters. Posted 3/97.
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