Music

Gene Vincent in 1960

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The plane touched down at Heathrow airport in the early morning of the 5th of December, 1959. It was a Saturday. Gene Vincent sauntered out, his bum leg a constant cruel companion and reminder of that bad motorcycle accident just before fame and stardom came for him. Looking out, he was shocked at what he saw. His life would never be the same. Although it was the crack of dawn on a weekend morning, a huge crowd had amassed. Newspaper photographers snapped shots. Executives from radio, record companies, and television all jockeyed for attention. Best of all, fans screamed and cheered on their genuine rock ‘n’ roll idol, come to conquer and hold court.

 

This was a fantastic relief, for pickings back in the American homeland were growing leaner by the day as the decade grew to a close. As fast as it had come on the scene, rock ‘n’ roll in all its rebellious fury had cooled to freezing temperatures. After that other plane had crashed and extinguished the lives of Buddy, the Bopper, and Ritchie Valens, after Elvis joined the army and let them cut his hair, after Jerry Lee’s controversial marrying habits hit the public scene, after Little Richard made his first flip flop back to the church, after Chuck got arrested on trumped up Mann act charges, after the top of the charts got free and clear to be populated by pre-fab cats like Fabian…well, by the time the Payola scandal hit, it was almost like overkill. Things got tough, gigs dried up. The Blue Caps were a large band with a lot of members, and Gene couldn’t pay them all. It got ugly. The taxman, always a mortal enemy to rock, loomed large over the home of Gene Vincent.

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Home just then was the American northwest. Gene had been living in Oregon with his second wife and first child, Darlene and Melody, respectively. By all accounts, he loved his family and tried to do right by them, but as was often the case, Gene’s self destructive streak caused problems. Booze and pills were as ever present as milk and bread are in most homes. He waved guns around. Sometimes, they went off. Gene would get pick-up gigs in the surrounding area, showing up and playing with bar bands for a few hundred bucks, but that was just another let down. The more time elapsed between Be-Bop-A-Lula, his lone big hit, and the present tense, the worse he got. A new manager named Norm Riley knew just the thing to get traction under Gene’s raggedly spinning ass- somehow, he found out that England wanted rock ‘n’ roll, even if America had given it up and only wanted to fill its ears with milksop. As Gene stepped foot in the United Kingdom for the first time, it was like destiny fulfilled. The crowd needed Gene as much as Gene needed the crowd.

 

The day after he landed, Gene was guest star on a bill with some of England’s best efforts at capturing the spirit of rock ‘n’ roll; Terry Dene, Vince Eager, Dickie Pride, Johnny Gentle, and the ostensible main attraction, Marty Wilde. If you guessed that those names were probably not on the birth certificates of any of the above, you would be correct. Every act on the line-up was in the employ of one Larry Parnes. Parnes, a self styled show-biz impresario and Svengali, later a hero to Malcom McLaren, who would make a name managing his own outrageously named boys Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious in the Sex Pistols, had been spending most of the previous decade grooming young men into “all-around entertainers” with a hint of sordid danger and drama. They were designed to scratch the itch young rock fans felt when those hit records from America weren’t often followed by world tours from most of their performers. Parnes wasted no time booking the genuine article when the chance emerged.

 

“We want Gene! We want Gene!” the audience chanted, and then they absolutely erupted when the man himself limped on stage. Marty Wilde’s band backed him up, after only one single rehearsal. There was really no need for more, since knowing Gene Vincent’s tunes was de riguer for any band worth its salt. The lead guitarist was one Joe Brown, and it was unlike anything he had seen or been a part of. “Gene’s voice was great and much louder than the band. There were lots of screaming girls,” Joe recalled, “and as a musician, I couldn’t understand why they didn’t just listen to the music.”

Photo of Gene Vincent

Impressed by Joe, Gene would take him along to join the house band as he appeared on Boy Meets Girl, a television series produced by Jack Good, a man who would later find great success with the programs Ready Steady Go! and Shindig. Gene appeared on the show, snarling, howling, and waving his microphone stand around like a madman in what would become his trademark, a full eight years before Elvis and his comeback: black leather. Rockers of Europe paid close attention, including the Beatles, who later mimicked his shiny, dark as midnight wardrobe. Previously, Gene favored bright reds and greens in stage wear, wild patterned shirts and white pants. Good would take ultimate credit for the sartorial switch, with a very British sense of origin: “Gene wore a leg iron,” Good would say, “so he hobbled a bit. I was a Shakespeare fan, so hobbling to me meant Richard III. I even thought of giving him a hunchback, and I’m glad I didn’t! Then I thought, ‘He can also be moody like Hamlet’, so we’ll dress him in black from head to toe and put a medallion round his neck.”

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At the start of the show, Gene came on without an intro and ripped through 11 songs. Be-Bop-A-Lula, Summertime, Baby Blue, Frankie And johnny, Blue Jean Bop, Say Mama, Five Days, I Got a Baby, Rocky Road Blues, Right Here On Earth, and Wild Cat came exploding out like bullets from one of Gene’s guns. The tape would be divided and aired over the course of three decidedly better than average episodes of the series over the course of a month. Meanwhile, Gene enjoyed one concert after another in which crowds went wild at his antics. Joe’s mind continued to be blown. “Gene liked me to crouch down so that he could swing his bad leg over my head,” Joe reminisced. “He was very accident prone and at one stage he was in plaster up to his thigh. He swung his leg up in the usual way, but caught me on the side of the head. It knocked me flat and squashed my guitar.”

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Memories of indifferent American crowds and other tribulations and indignities faded like a bad dream as Europe unfolded and opened up for him as easily as unwrapping a piece of candy. Another TV show in Paris led to another maddened crowd, and then Gene wrapped up the end of December with a string of shows in Germany. Once back in England, he played a show in Kingston where a young fan named Adrian Owlett saw him for the first time. “After that there was no one else,” Owlett would later say, ‘Presley? Forget it. When he got out of the army, we went to see G.I. Blues, and it was just total disbelief watching Elvis turn into a wimp….Gene never became a wimp.”

 

With time, Owlett would become a producer and manage Gene in the UK, but unfortunately, not before Don Arden beat him to it. Becoming known since as “Mr.Big,” “the English Godfather,” “the Al Capone of pop,” and by any number of less printable monickers, Arden began a notorious career as a rock music manager with Gene. He would cheat him and suck at his income like a vampire, and then in the years to come go on to do the same to the Small Faces, the Move, the Electric Light Orchestra and Black Sabbath. In that final case, his antics cost him his relationship with his daughter, Sharon, the future wife of Ozzy Osbourne. Interestingly enough, Arden had begun his career as a performer himself before he went on to screw them over- he had sang for crowds in black face and impersonated Elvis Presley before the post mortem trend to do so. Ever attracted to the spotlight, once he got his hooks in Gene, he would even serve as MC at his shows.

 

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Gene’s old friend -or what would count as one to a man living fast in his mid-twenties- Eddie Cochran soon made the British scene, there at the end of that January. As has been celebrated in print, film, television, and song, few could hang as tight with Gene as Eddie, and vice versa. Darlene visited about the same time that Eddie came over to play, she would say “him and Gene would stay up half the night, playing their guitars and acting crazy.” Joe Brown was with the duo constantly, he remembers “Gene was extremely strange. He had a very strong death wish. He was always buying guns and knives, and he was in a lot of pain with that leg…He was sort of a natural lunatic. He never shot anybody with those guns he had, but he sure frightened a lot of people. Me and Eddie Cochran used to keep an eye on him. Eddie was sort of an older brother to Gene and looked after him.” This was perhaps particularly telling, as Gene was the elder of the two, and Eddie was really hardly more than a lad.

 

Joe continued, “Gene would be sitting there looking sort of maudlin, and Eddie Would ask ‘Are you OK, Gene?’ and Gene would say ‘Eddie, tell Hal (that’s Hal Carter, the road manager) to get me a hamburger.’ Or if someone was bothering him, he’d say ‘Eddie, get this guy outta here! He’s buggin’ me!” Perhaps Gene said it best, in an interview years later: “Eddie and I were as close as two guys can get without being queer.”

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As tough as things had been for Gene, they were equally rosy for Eddie. He had won the heart of a songwriter named Sharon Sheely. They were quite a talented couple- she had written Poor Little Fool, which was based on her experience dating one of the Everly Brothers. Ricky Nelson had his first hit with that track, putting a nice paycheck in her purse. Her and Eddie worked together in the studio, and they were a good fit. They were well on their way to great things. Increasingly, the studio was the domain of Eddie Cochran. Following the legendarily tragic plane crash that took away the immortal trio, Eddie lost interest in doing much traveling. Touring in those days was a shady proposition for those young entertainers. The record labels saw them as part of a fad at best, potential public relations problems at worst. Town to town they would face angry protesters, backwards minded people resented  “race music” becoming pop music.  Promoters left them out to dry in horrible conditions, shoddy vehicular accommodations were entirely too common. The law of averages was against anybody traveling like that so frequently back then. Perhaps one scrape too many and losing friends and contemporaries left Eddie with premonitions of an early death. And besides, he wanted to stick around the studio. He had been producing sessions. Instrumentals, pop tunes, doo wop, it was all wide open. The outtakes of recordings from that period are revelatory. Here was a kid, no more than 20, calling the shots with men twice his age. His skills at over dubbing were uncanny; on one recording, he cut both guitar parts and finishes recording the Third Man Theme with just a few more seconds to spare than it takes to listen to it, start to finish.

 

When the long distance call came from a very excited Gene, Eddie was initially reluctant, but the stories of the glory happening in the Land of Avalon were finally enough to convince him. He had one major condition that needed to be met: he flew over on a for real jet airliner and not a small plane, and then travel by land for his time there.

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Gene and Eddie would co-headline England’s first ever total rock ‘n’ roll tour, a Larry Parnes production billed as “A Fast Moving Anglo-American Beat Show” with Tony Sheridan (who would record with the Beatles a few years later), Joe Brown, and Eddie Cochran in the first half, then George Fame, Billy Fury, Billy Raymond, and Gene Vincent to close the show. Gene was billed as “The Rock ‘N’ Roll Idol Of Millions.” Audiences often merely tolerated their countrymen on the bill, who were as in awe as they were jealous of the yanks. “The first thing I noticed about Eddie was his complexion,” Marty Wilde recalled,  “we British lads had acne, and Eddie walked in with the most beautiful hair and the most beautiful skin – his skin was a light brown, a beautiful color with all that California sunshine, and I thought, ‘You lucky devil.'”  George Fame was astounded at Eddie’s talent. He would tell the press years later “we were told to report to this club in Soho to meet them. I remember Eddie playing guitar and we were astounded. Apart from his own stuff, he could do all that brilliant finger-style stuff that Chet Atkins did. Then he played this amazing intro to What’d I Say, and apart from a few blues enthusiasts who had the Ray Charles record, nobody had heard it before. He played What’d I Say every night and within six months, every band in the country was playing it.”

 

The first night of the tour would be the worst, as the gang faced Glasgow, often called “The Death Place” by those in show biz. The crowd was reverent towards the American rockers, but Billy Fury faced a hail of glass bottles. Undaunted, the tour rolled on. London, Cardiff, Manchester, Leeds, they took them all by storm as the months flew by. Jack Good captured for posterity a number of great performances of and between Gene and Eddie, principle among them an absolutely scorching rendition of White Lightning. The moments were fleeting, more than anyone knew.

 

Darlene left for home. “There was no way I could be a real mother, living out of a suitcase,” she said. Plus, Gene had knocked her up again. “Gene thought it was great. He was happy and wanted to have a boy. But I wasn’t so sure. We had a lot of problems. Gene sort of had a split personality.One side was an angel, the other side was the Devil.” Just as Darlene left, Sharon arrived to join her young love. As much as Darlene disliked the wild life on the road, Sharon seemed to embrace it, staying up late with the fellas and cutting up with them, ever devoted to Eddie. As fate would decide, she would be with him on a horrible night in April. Spring had arrived, the boys and the girl were taking a few days to return to the States and take a look around before returning to Britain to tour around the land that had become their new home away from home.

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The three piled into the back of a cab in the late night of the 16th of April, 1960. It was a Saturday. They were on their way from Bristol to London and the Heathrow airport. The driver lost control of the vehicle, and, it is said in an effort to protect her, Eddie moved over Sharon, slamming his head on the car’s ceiling. He would never regain consciousness, and he died the next day.

 

Gene Vincent would never be the same.

 

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Music

The Last Day of the Rock & Roll Era

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Rock & Roll and an early grave. “Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.” It’s been fetishized, glamorized, and became the biggest Pop Culture cliche of the 20th Century, even as it continued a centuries old poetic obsession with romanticizing young death. There’s no more major and maudlin a date in that morbid history than February 3, 1959, when Rock’s first fatalities hit in triplicate. The die was cast, lives were ended, legends began.

The night the the plane carrying Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens crashed into that cold, hard Iowa ground, shockwaves were sent that still resonate today,over half a century later. The beginnings of Rock & Roll and the post-war invention of the teenager as marketing target had dovetailed nicely, creating fat cash for everyone from label presidents down to A&R men, even as the young artists creating the commotion saw minimal kickback and were sent out to tour in dodgy transportation. It’s hard to fathom today that three top pop performers would be huddled together on a shoddy late night flight in a weathered plane in frozen conditions, a situation seen as optimal compared to riding to the next night’s tour destination with the rest of the band in a school bus with busted heat. We can conjecture that these three men with top ten charting records weren’t considered to be the vanguard of much more than a fad by the big money men who wrote their paychecks, out on a haggard winter tour as the end of the fifties hurtled near.

It was dubbed “The Tour From Hell,” even as it was the extreme cold that took its toll instead of fire. A row of one nighters, one after the other, all across the frozen winter of the American north. The bus broke down a number of times, and the musicians were only saved by fateful passer-bys. All the band members for all the acts were crammed together. Some ended up with frostbite and, with nowhere to bathe or wash their clothes, smelled like barnyard animals. Valens from California and Holly from Texas were particularly shocked by the brutality of the cold, Ritchie hadn’t even thought to pack a coat. After the crash, the next show in Moorhead, Minnesota wasn’t even canceled. A kid who called himself Bobby Vee and his band the Shadows simply filled in. Vee (It says “Robert Velline” on his license) was just 15 years old.

Bopper and Valens were formidable talents to be sure, but history has taught us that the harshest loss that day was Buddy Holly. Although now retroactively considered one of the first major purveyors of Geek Chic thanks to his appearance, he was still considered part of the wild pack. No one in ’59 found the Crickets leader to seem particularly square just because he wore glasses. Thanks to rhythmic adventures like Peggy Sue, with its beats like jungle drums and a “drive it like you stole it” freewheeling chorus, Buddy was lumped in with the rest as a potential riot inciting and pre-wedlock conoodle encouraging hero to leather jacketed juvenile delinquents. However, his ability to sling out an airtight ballad like True Love Ways kept him in the same rarefied air as the likes of Elvis Presley, who managed a similar dynamic duality. Even the hardest nose in the establishment couldn’t fathom anyone who could sing that sweetly had to be all bad.

In fact, Elvis has departed the active scene and fallen in line himself. In March of 1958, he joined the army and let the buzzing of his famous greasy head become an international photo-op, making the papers everywhere. Rock disciples as varied as John Lennon and Sex-Pistols founder Malcom McLaren would later say that moment felt like nothing less than a betrayal. They believed in the rebellion heard in Hound Dog, but it was still a good boy who sang Love Me, and Elvis wasn’t about to burn his draft card. It wasn’t so dramatic or tragic as death, but it was still a heavy blow to Rock & Roll, and one of several that landed in quick succession.

Sun Records founder and head Sam Phillips famously sold Elvis cheap to RCA. That was partly because his operation was too small to keep ahead of production. Supply generated from the small Memphis operation of Elvis singles couldn’t keep up with demand, and money was left on the table. It was also because Sam didn’t figure Elvis was the future- Jerry Lee Lewis was. The literal fair haired boy in the sun, JLL became Mr.Phillips’ main meal ticket and great white hope all the way back to 1955. This plan seemed solid until ’58, when it hit the fan that not only was his blushing bride under-aged, but she was also a blood relation, and his second concurrent wife to boot. Any one of those details would’ve been enough to hobble any career in that age, all three at once was like comical overkill. He was blacklisted, his popular career was ended, no DJ but Alan Freed would still spin his records.

It wouldn’t be long until Freed’s name turned up on that same blacklist. Also in 1958, Freed was arrested for inciting a riot at one of his shows in Boston after telling a packed out and rowdy audience “It looks like the police don’t want you to have any fun” once their raucous antics led to the event being canceled in the middle. The teens ripped the theater apart, giving the press exactly what they wanted- headlines about Rock And Roll fueled delinquents acting out. The establishment had enough. Freed was fired from the New York station he had been spinning records for, and then found himself the primary figure in the Payola scandal, which would insure that he was banished from the airwaves altogether and forever, fortunate to narrowly avoid doing time. An ignoble end to an important career, his influence was pervasive and important, even if his methods were shady. He first coined the term “Rock & Roll” and helped artists like Chuck Berry find his audience. All Chuck had to do was give up half of his songwriting royalties to Freed.

Not even a month after Buddy, Bopper, and Ritchie Valens died, Chuck Berry found himself in the slammer. On trumped up charges implying (but not outright stating) that he had intercourse with a minor, Chuck went straight down the river. Freed was able to duck when they threw the book at him, Chuck caught it square in the face. Once sentenced, he wouldn’t see freedom again for five years. Once released, he wasn’t the same man.

Little Richard was lost to us as well, but rather than being pushed, he simply turned away. His reasons were internal and not external, unless you count Russian rocket science. During an October 1957 show in Sydney, a fireball appeared in the sky as he was performing. As it turned out, it was Sputnik hurtling over, but Richard would have none of that. He was certain it was a sign from God to renounce Rock & Roll, which he did. For a few years, anyway- by the early 60’s, he was back. However, the world was a very different place by then.

In the vacuum created by the loss of so many top Rock names, prefabricated pop stars and producer driven acts became the order of the day in the early 60’s. The likes of Fabian would prove easier for labels to control, and girl groups with interchangeable members cut out a lot of risk. Bobby Vee even became part of this machine, as a teen idol he was known for the saccharine sound of Take Good Care Of My Baby.

Then the Beatles arrived fully formed, and that was that. Although they loved and owed a great debt to the fifties Rock & Roll that they wore on their sleeves (The name “Beatles” was even a play on Buddy Holly and the Crickets), it was clear that they were the new thing, and very quickly took their idols’ influences in other directions. What we call Rock & Roll moved on and became a different entity entirely.

There’s many ways to look at it and all are valid, but it would seem that the Vintage Rock era ended very neatly by 1960, with so many practitioners of the craft subtracted from the scene, and punctuated by that awful loss in the second month of 1959. Losing Eddie Cochran in 1960 at 21 years of age would drive the last nail, with a timing that would seem too on the nose, were it a fictional story. The heyday handful of years preceding became a moment frozen in amber, and artists who came after who played in that style would often do so adhering to a set of rules that the men who made them did not intend to.

Nostalgia took over. When Sha-Na-Na performed at Woodstock, it had only been 10 years since the era they were evoking (some might say parodying) had ended, but they might as well have been dressed in medieval costumes and performed lute music for how much the world had changed after the turbulence of the sixties. Not just musically, but in every way imaginable. The rebelliousness of early Rock & Roll felt positively quaint at this point, and the sense of nostalgia for a “simpler time” was immense as the 70’s rolled in over a punch drunk populace. American Graffiti led to Happy Days, where the actors playing the characters generally didn’t even bother to get haircuts to reflect the 50’s. Sha Na Na got their own variety show, and the early rockers who were still alive and able went on “Remember When” tours. Ricky Nelson commented on the tenor of the reception he received from these times in the song Garden Party, after he took the stage with long hair and had the nerve to try new material out for an audience that didn’t want anything but the Ozzy And Harriet kid. He finally stated plainly in the tune that “if memories were all I sang, I would rather drive a truck.” Although the original sound evolved, the original artists were expected to perform their dated greatest hits like human jukeboxes.

Out of this environment came 1979’s film, The Buddy Holly Story. It was a hit, and a DJ in Iowa decided to start an annual tribute show at Clear Lake’s Surf Ballroom, the venue that hosted the fateful last show. It has run every year since, featuring a record show, sock hop, poodle skirt contests, and live music from acts that are sometimes only tangentially associated- this year, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas played. Bobby Vee used to be a fixture, until a few years ago when Alzheimer’s set in. Probably a bit of a head scratcher for many, the show is sort of Mecca spot for fans and devotees. People come from all over the earth to be a part of the event. In a very real way, the Surf Ballroom has survived because three men died. It has become a a historic sight, kept preserved and unchanged where so many similar spots have been unceremoniously demolished. Tellingly, most of the other venues on that tour no longer stand.

Many more young fatalities would add to the narrative. Valens was 17, Holly was 22, and Big Bopper was a comparative old man at 28 at the time of their deaths, but the age of 27 emerged as a common one for others. Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Mia Zapata, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse, and many other stars of music, art, and screen would lose their lives at that age. “The 27 Club” became the name, a moniker made by those who study and consider such things.

The question always lingers about any creative person who dies young. What would they have done, had circumstance not intervened? Would Buddy Holly have in turn been influenced by the performers who came after, those who had been influenced by him? Would he have continued to make vital music? Would he have invented something altogether new? Maybe not. Maybe he would’ve just been another one for the nostalgia tour circuit.

Even so, it would’ve been nice to have him around.

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