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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.