Gene Vincent: The Black Leather Rebel
The following blog is taken from an article I wrote in the March 15, 2004 issue of Wadi Magazine. Wadi was a Bi-weekly free magazine in my hometown of Richmond, Va. We can hardly keep anything like this going for too long here, and this magazine was short-lived. However, I had a blast as one of two music journalists for the magazine!
Gene Vincent: The Black Leather Rebel
The Sex Pistols. The Clash. The Ramones. They are often considered to be among the most famous names in punk music. But what would punk music be without Virginia’s own Gene Vincent? Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps should not only be thought of as protopunk, but as one of the wildest bands you’ll ever hear.
The band not only features top-notch musicianship, but with all their screaming and yelling, you can tell they’re having the best time of their lives. Lead by Gene’s almost orgasmic hyperventilating vocal, the rest of the band features:
Cliff Gallup playing a Gretsch Duo Jet guitar with a hybrid of jazz, country and rockabilly licks I can only dream of.
“Wee” Willie Williams on rhythm guitar, Jack Neal on upright bass, and Dickie “Be-Bop” Harell on drums. The band took their name from the blue cap that Dwight D. Eisenhower wore to play golf. They liked Ike!
Gene Vincent was born Vincent Eugene Craddock on February 11, 1935 in Nofolk, Va. He showed his first interest in music at an early age, and was given a guitar by a friend (the guitar was originally owned by the friend’s sister).
When he came of age, Gene dropped out of school to serve in the military. In February of 1952 he joined the U.S. Navy, but would never see any military action. Three years later, during a July weekend while still in the Navy, Gene had an accident while riding his brand new Triumph motorcycle. A woman in a Chrysler ran a red light, hit Gene, and put him in the naval hospital with a severely smashed leg.
By all accounts, the doctor should have amputated Gene’s leg, but he begged his mother not to allow the operation. He was released from the Navy, and was to spend the rest of 1955 in and out of the hospital. His leg remained horribly damaged for the rest of his life (causing a pronounced limp), and eventually a steel brace was attached.
As Gene was recovering a brand new rock & roll singer was causing a big stir around the country. His name was Elvis Presley, and every label was out to cash in. Capitol Records had an Elvis sound-a-like contest and out of all the records sent in only two were originals. Gene’s song was better. It became the now classic Be Bop A Lu La. Written while Gene was drunk and reading a Little Lu Lu comic book, the song became very popular very fast. In fact, Elvis’ own mother once called him and angrily asked her son why he hadn’t told her about his “new record”!
Throughout the summer of 1956 Gene was able to capitalize on the success of Be Bop A Lu La to the extent that the failure of his second single Race With The Devil was of little consequence. Perhaps a referance to the devil failed to get airplay at a time when rock & roll was getting such bad press.
Towards the end of summer, the constant touring proved too much for Willie Williams and Cliff Gallup, who both decided to quit the Blue Caps. After they left Gene and the Blue Caps made their film debut in the Jayne Mansfield movie The Girl Can’t Help It. If you look closely you can see Gene is still wearing a plaster cast on his leg in his scene. They follwed this film up with Hot Rod Gang in which Gene helps a hot rod club raise money.
The music world started to crumble in 1958. Little Richard left music for the church, Elvis was drafted, Jerry Lee Lewis caused an uproar with his marriage to his 13 year old second cousin, Chuck Berry was arrested for violating the Mann act, and the next year Buddy Holly Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper all died in a plane crash in Iowa. Like all other remaining stars, Gene was forced to go to England to make money. While on tour with his friend Eddie Cochran (who made it big with his hit Summertime Blues) tragedy struck. As they neared the end of the tour they were tired, and homesick. On April 16,1960 Eddie, his fiance Sharon Sheeley, and Gene got into a taxi on it’s way to Heathrow airport. The taxi driver was driving very fast and took a hairpin turn, crashing into a lamp post. Eddie, who through himself over his fiance to protect her (no seatbelts) was thrown from the car and suffered a brain injury. He died the next day. Gene suffered even more damage to his leg, and broke his collar bone. Eddie’s fiance suffered a broken pelvis. Sharon Sheeley went on to write hits for Ricky Nelson including Poor Little Fool.
(The wrecked taxi cab)
Gene became depressed as a result of his friends death, and sank even further into the bottle. Once while in Hamburg he dragged his backing band (a then unknown group called the Beatles) up to his hotel room. He kicked open the door as John, Paul, George, and Pete looked on and he began to yell “I know you’re fucking my wife” and began to shoot. Quite a way to meet your idol!
Later while Gene was living in L.A. he came home one night to find a young man sitting in his living room. Gene asked what the man was doing in his house, and came to find out the man was a big fan and had followed him home. The young man’s name? Jim Morrison, and the two became good drinking buddies.
Sadly on October 12, 1971 all the drinking and partying came to an end. While staying with his parents he suffered a ruptured stomach ulcer. He was on 36 years old. Gene Vincent February 11, 1935 – October 12, 1971.