Teenagers in mainstream America who followed pop music in the 1950’s had a lot of choices, but most could be classified in one of two groups — the good guys or the bad boys. The former were those singers who were perceived as clean-cut, well-dressed, respectable, and – well – safe. The poster boy was Pat Boone, but there were others. Parents loved them…or at least, liked them better than the alternative.
The bad boys – personified by Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, and their brethren – presented a completely different image. Sullen personas, well-oiled hair combed into a DA, clothes that seemed to gravitate to strange styles and black leather. Parents hated them, but – not surprisingly – teenagers soon began to turn them into the dominant force in early rock and roll.
One of the best of the bad boys is seldom remembered these days, although his biggest hit is familiar to many. Gene Vincent (born Vincent Eugene Craddock), whose rockabilly masterpiece, “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, became a classic, was a significant influence in early rock and later too. It would be tempting to dismiss him as a one-hit wonder but he was more than that, and he’s honored by many past and current stars who have covered his songs. Some names that might be familiar include the Everly Brothers, Lennon and McCartney (separately), and Jeff Beck, who generated a complete album of Gene’s music in 1993.
Gene’s story was typical of the early rockabilly singers, although it started out a little differently. During his term in the navy, he was in a motorcycle accident that severely injured his leg and caused him pain – and a limp – for the rest of his life. Returning to civilian life, he found himself turning to country music and began to build a modest career.
It was a time of turmoil and change in popular music, and smart promoters were all keeping an eye out for the next Elvis. Gene had the look, the intensity, and the ability, and soon found himself teamed up with guitarists Cliff Gallup and Willie Williams, drummer Dickie Harrell, and bassist Jack Neal, who were subsequently given a name – the Blue Caps.
Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps were signed by Capitol Records and began to make recordings. Ironically, “Be-Bop-A-Lula” was not chosen for their first album, but it did show up as the “B” side of a later single. It was one of Gene’s own compositions, and after some well-placed promotion it began to draw attention. It was a breath of fresh air to many listeners, with it’s echoing, sexy style that was perfect for Gene’s voice and drive, and it became one of the seminal songs in early rock.
The boys generated a lot of memorable, vibrant songs in those early days, including “Cruisin”, and “Race With The Devil”. They were a talented bunch, and are now considered among of the best of the early groups. The music was first class, and lead guitarist Gallup was one of the best strummers around. But he was also the first to move on, as seemed to happen so often in those days. It began a period of several years in which personnel changes became the norm, but Gene and the group continued to put out solid sellers — unfortunately though, none approached the popularity of their first hit.
As time passed, Gene began to move away from the early rockabilly sound and into a softer style with more ballads, and his second-biggest seller, “Lotta Lovin”, is an example of that sound. He continued to perform well, and many of his songs in that stage of his career are solid, if not quite as exciting as his earlier style. Gradually though, his popularity slowed and he entered a period of decline.
In the 1960’s, his fame revived somewhat as he began performing (and at one point, living) in England, and it was here that his friend and touring partner, Eddie Cochran, died in an auto accident. Gene was injured too, and although he survived he began a downward spiral, both physically and professionally, helped along by drinking problems and marital difficulties. He died in 1971 at age 36, the victim of complication from a bleeding ulcer, and joins the roster of legends of early rock.