By Mike Greenblatt
One of the greatest rock ’n’ roll songs of 1956 is “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” which also is Gene Vincent’s only major hit of his career. But the song had many lives beyond its time with Vincent. The Beatles, Carl Perkins, The Everly Brothers, Foghat, Jerry Lee Lewis, John Lennon (solo), Paul McCartney (solo), Queen, The Stray Cats and Suicide all recorded notable cover versions.
Vincent was no one-hit-wonder, though. His 1950s output is among the strongest and most captivating examples of rockabilly music in its most pristine, hiccupy, dangerous, bass-poppin’ best. His onstage charisma was, in a word, animal. (Check out his performance in the 1956 Jayne Mansfield film “The Girl Can’t Help It” for a brief taste of what he brought to the stage.)
Vincent was the prototypical bad boy: always wearing a leather jacket, greasy hair falling into his face, profane and drunk most of the time. Onstage, though, you couldn’t take your eyes off of him. He reeked of sex and violence to the point of utter chaos, and his shows always were filled with sexual innuendo and utter longing.
After singing in numerous local country bands in the early 1950s, it was Vincent’s manager who got the bright idea to outfit him with a rockabilly band in an effort to give Elvis some competition. Thus Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps were born, so named for then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s trademark blue golf cap.
The key to their syncopated surprise was balls-to-the-wall guitarist Cliff Gallup, who rivaled Presley’s Scotty Moore in terms of sheer exuberance and technical know-how. Rhythm guitarist Willie Williams, bassist Jack Neal and drummer Dickie Harrell rounded out the group. Signed To Capitol, Vincent offset his onstage strut, sneer and hip-swiveling with a soft, tender side. That, and the slap-back echo of “Be-Bop-A-Lula” — complete with a totally sexual, breathy vocal — made him a star.
Why such terrific songs as “Race With The Devil,” “Bluejean Bop” and “B-I-Bickey, Bi, Bo-Bo-Go” weren’t hits is anybody’s guess, but it was the loss of guitarist Gallup that presaged a downward spiral. The 40 tracks the band cut prior to his defection stand today as prime examples of pure rockabilly hellfire spirit. (One song, “Lotta Lovin’,” did reach the Top 20 in 1957.)
Vincent Eugene Craddock was born Feb. 11, 1935, in Norfolk, Va. At 20, while in the Navy, he almost died in a horrible motorcycle crash that shattered his leg and left him with a severe limp and chronic pain. He escaped death a second time on a 1960 tour of England with Eddie Cochran, when the taxi they had hired to take them to the airport crashed. Cochran died at the age of 21, and although Vincent survived, he was left with an even more pronounced limp and additional chronic pain.
Vincent’s 1960s work settled into a formulaic groove, devoid of the histrionics that made his earlier output so visceral, but it still contained some gems. Forays into folk-rock and country-rock seemed limp in comparison to his groundbreaking early career, despite the presence of guitarist Glen Campbell on some of the sessions.
In 1968, while touring in Germany, Vincent tried to murder Gary Glitter, but his gunshot went wide right. His 1969 album, “I’m Back And I’m Proud,” for Dandelion Records in England, was produced by Kim Fowley, arranged by Skip Battin of The Byrds and had Linda Ronstadt on backing vocals. But it went nowhere. Of course, Vincent didn’t do his career any favors, as he would frequently appear onstage drunk. (His final stateside recording session had been for Rolling Rock Records.)
Vincent’s life was cut abruptly short on Oct. 12, 1971, when he died at age 36 from a ruptured stomach ulcer while visiting his father in California.
In 1997, Vincent was the first person inducted into the Rockabilly Hall Of Fame. The following year, he was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame by one of his biggest fans, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival fame. GM