Gene Vincent – The Road Is Rocky

Mar 10, 2021

Liner notes for Gene Vincent, The Road Is Rocky, Bear Family Records

Originally published in 2004

Fans have long admired the technical excellence of Gene Vincent’s recordings, especially the Capitol albums from 1956 to 1962. But besides the fact that they are great-sounding records with amazing musicianship, the documentation and details of how these recordings came about have been somewhat shrouded in mystery, and what little has been written about them has been plagued with false facts and inaccurate modern views toward old-school techniques of making records. This addition to the Vincent boxed set is for those who yearn to know more about these recordings, and who thirst for more technical information about how these great rock and roll records were made.

The most important thing about understanding early rock and roll is knowing that all the recordings were done live in the studio, with no overdubs. This means the entire band was playing live in a room with Gene singing at the same time in the same room. Unlike today, where recordings are done one instrument at a time on multitrack recorders and mixed later on, these records were made on an extremely limited time schedule and then mixed on the spot to glorious mono by the producer. The first five Vincent albums were mono only; only the sixth LP, Crazy Times, was issued in both stereo and mono, and the last Capitol LP, Crazy Beat was a UK-only release available in mono only. Understanding this fact makes one realize just how incredibly talented the musicians and recording engineers were—these are still some of the best-sounding records of all time!

“Mono” has often been understood to mean “low fidelity,” and nothing could be farther from the truth. Mono simply means that there is only one channel representing the sound. A popular term in the 1950s was “high fidelity,” which meant that the recording was of a high-standard, mono, source. When stereo came into use in the late 1950s it was intended to represent a binaural, three-dimensional, realistic picture of the sound spectrum, much like the human ears hear naturally. In reality, few understood true stereo then or now, but it was a great gimmick for the electronics stores to sell two amplifiers and two speakers with each turntable, thus doubling their profits (shades of today’s “latest gimmick” mentality). The term stereo was soon hijacked, however, and a realistic binaural three-dimensional representation was abandoned by most recording engineers (save for a few jazz purists, like Rudy Van Gelder, who continued to record incredible stereo imaging on his LPs for Blue Note) in favor of goofy “ping-pong” stereo effects and gimmicky stereo panning: for example, guitar only in the left speaker, and vocals only in the right speaker. In this regard, many of the transitional records from 1958-66 actually sound much better in mono than they do with these artificial-sounding stereo mixes. Knowing these general facts, one should appreciate that the mono Gene Vincent records represent the very best in 1950s recording quality, and that the term mono in and of itself does not mean anything in terms of fidelity.

Gene’s first two albums and his first batch of singles were recorded at the famed Owen Bradley studios in Nashville, Tennessee. The correct name for the studio located at 1804 16th Avenue South was Bradley Film and Recording Studios, not to be confused with Owen Bradley’s later Quonset Hut (located in an actual Quonset hut set behind the original studio house) and Bradley’s Barn (built in the early 1960s, outside the Nashville city limits, and the only studio of the three that still exists today), which have been incorrectly listed in other liner notes as the studios in which Gene cut his early recordings.

The original 16th Avenue studio was in a two-story house that Owen Bradley had converted into a recording studio by removing the floor from the first story, thus creating a sunken studio with a high ceiling in the basement. There was a long stairway leading down to the recording floor, and behind it were a bathroom and a utility room, the latter of which was converted into a small echo chamber.

1956 recording technology was primitive by today’s standards, but much of the equipment that Owen Bradley used was state-of-the-art at the time. In fact, fifty years later, that type of gear is still highly sought out for use in today’s digital studios, because those microphones, preamps, compressors, etc. are acknowledged to be some of the finest of their kind ever made.

Bradley used Ampex 300 and 350 tape recorders (a 300 for the master recorder and a 350 for tape echo) along with a custom-made mono mixing console. He didn’t switch to his famous three-track recorder and three-buss mixing board until about 1958. The most obvious effect on the Gene Vincent recordings is the liberal amount of slap-back tape echo on Gene’s voice and Cliff Gallup’s guitar. Bradley and engineer Mort Thomasson’s obvious affection for slap-back tape echo can be heard throughout, especially on tracks like “Catman,” where the echo on the guitar is louder than the original signal, a great defining effect that has been imitated by rockabilly bands ever since. There is obviously compression and limiting on these tracks, but it is unknown whether or not Bradley had a compressor in his studio or if this was added during the mastering phase. The only other effect Bradley used was reverb, which came from the small echo chamber in the utility room by the stairs. This short, unusual reverb is the distinctive sound heard on Dickie Harrell’s snare drum. Bradley used utilitarian RCA 77 and 44 ribbon microphones on the guitar amp and upright bass and rhythm guitar, but he used exotic (for the time—Bradley was among the first to obtain them in the U.S.) German condenser microphones made by Schoeps and Neumann for the vocals and drums. (It’s possible that at this time, Bradley was also using an Altec M-11 condenser microphone for the drums.) It should be noted that some of the promotional photos shot during the first session were set up by Capitol producer Ken Nelson, especially the one showing Gene singing three or four feet away from an RCA microphone with the Capitol logo on the front. Anyone who has ever used an RCA ribbon microphone knows that you wouldn’t hear much from a vocal recorded that far away, and anyone with a technical ear can also plainly hear that Gene is singing into a condenser microphone. So beware of false impressions based on the Capitol promotional photos!

When Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps came into Bradley’s studio in May of 1956, they were among the first rock and roll acts, but Owen Bradley had previously recorded several early rockabilly sessions for Roy Hall (September ‘55), Jimmy and Johnny (December ‘55), Buddy Holly (January ‘56), Johnny Horton (January ‘56), Bobby Helms (April ‘56), and Johnny Carroll (April ‘56). It was apparently Johnny Carroll’s suggestion to Bradley that he use exaggerated amounts of slap-back tape echo, though there was already quite a bit of the slap-back echo in evidence on the January ‘56 Buddy Holly session (which yielded “Love Me” and “Blue Days, Black Nights”). Engineer Mort Thomasson devised the setup for the slap-back tape echo, which producer Bradley used with glee. He continued using slap-back echo on such rockabilly acts as the Johnny Burnette Trio and many others, helping define the rockabilly sound more than anybody else besides Sam Phillips.

An interesting footnote about the echo: The first session that Gene did at Bradley’s was recorded dry (no echo), with tape echo added later to the entire mix (unlike today, they had no post-session mixing capabilities). The original dry tape surfaced recently and is included here, and it’s very interesting to hear the difference! By the time Gene and the Blue Caps returned for their next session, Mort Thomasson had devised a more controlled method of utilizing slap-back echo only on certain instruments through the use of a second slap-back echo machine placed directly next to the master recorder (more on this below).

Unlike Sam Phillips, Owen Bradley almost always used his A-team of session musicians, a group of the best players in the world that included Grady Martin and Hank Garland on lead guitars, Harold Bradley (Owen’s brother) on rhythm guitar, Bob Moore on bass, and Buddy Harman on drums (among others, but these five men represented the nucleus). They were called to the studio for the first Gene Vincent session, but after hearing the Blue Caps play (especially Cliff Gallup’s lead guitar work), Owen Bradley and Capitol producer Ken Nelson agreed that this time, Gene’s band should be on the session. It should be noted that not even Johnny Horton and the Johnny Burnette Trio were afforded this courtesy, and their recordings were augmented with studio musicians. In fact, to my knowledge, Owen Bradley never recorded any other rock and roll act without help from the session men.

Using Gene’s band was not without problems, however. Harold Bradley recalls that young Dickie Harrell hit the drums so hard, it was the first time they ever needed to use baffles (room dividers) at the studio! In addition, Gene sang quietly, so in order to avoid leakage from the loud drums into Gene’s vocal microphone, Bradley kept moving Gene further away from the drums until eventually he was singing behind the staircase, out of view of the rest of the musicians! This is also why on the first session, before they could sort out the baffles, Dickie Harrell used brushes instead of sticks to tone down the volume. It’s funny to think about in the context of today’s loud rock music, but this was the dawn of rock and roll recording and there was a lot of trial and error.

For many Gene Vincent fans, there are two distinct “sounds” of his recordings: the era with Cliff Gallup on lead guitar, and the era with Johnny Meeks on lead guitar. These two eras also fit neatly into the recording history, since Cliff Gallup recorded only at the Nashville Owen Bradley studio, and Johnny Meeks only recorded at the Hollywood Capitol Tower studio.

Cliff Gallup’s sound was defined by several key elements. First and foremost, he was a musician of staggering technical proficiency. He obviously listened to a lot of Les Paul and George Barnes, and he stated in his only interview that he was a fan of Chet Atkins but had a style that was all his own. His jazzy runs complemented Gene’s style, not only on the fast songs, but also on the ballads. It is safe to say that Cliff Gallup’s lead guitar work has influenced every aspiring rockabilly guitar player since. However, if you’ve heard him playing live on the Alan Freed show recording, the tone of which was completely different, it is also obvious that the choices of the producers and engineers who recorded him also heavily influenced the sound of Gene’s records.

1956 recording technology was primitive by today’s standards, but much of the equipment that Owen Bradley used was state-of-the-art at the time. In fact, fifty years later, that type of gear is still highly sought out for use in today’s digital studios.

Cliff played a Gretsch Duo-Jet guitar with DeArmond pickups. It was a cheaper imitation of the black Gibson Les Paul Custom Black Beauty, and Cliff bought the guitar to have an instrument similar to that of his idol, Les Paul. The DeArmond pickups in particular gave a distinctive, clear, ringing tone, and they figured heavily into his sound. Cliff later recalled that he played a Standel amp at Bradley’s studio, but if studio pictures are to be believed, he was actually playing a Tweed Fender Pro amplifier, which had been modified with a JBL fifteen-inch speaker to replace the stock Jensen. It is possible that Chet Atkins’s Standel amp was in Bradley’s studio for one or more of the sessions, but the only picture we have of Cliff in the studio plainly shows the tweed Pro with an RCA microphone in front of it. Regardless, the two amps both had JBL fifteen-inch speakers, so at the low volumes involved in studio recording, they probably sounded very similar. Every bit of the tape echo heard on the guitar tracks came from Bradley’s control room, utilizing the Ampex tape recorders. This was before the era of stand-alone guitar effects; with the exception of the 1955 Echo-Sonic amp, which had a built in tape echo, external tape echoes were not available until the release of the Ecco-Fonic in 1958. On these recordings, Cliff played dry, directly into the amp, and the echo was applied in the studio’s control room.

In order to clear up a few misconceptions about how Bradley used slap-back tape echo, we have to step back into a different era of recording technology. Unlike today, the mixing boards back then did not have “echo sends” for each channel. Echo was achieved by placing a second, separate microphone on each source (in Gene’s case, the vocal and the guitar amp) and running those not through the main mixing board, but instead straight into the second Ampex machine, which was set on playback monitoring mode during recording to achieve a slap-back echo effect. The slap-back echo was actually an accident of design; the Ampex machine had three recording heads (erase, record, and play) situated slightly apart from each other, and when monitoring off the playback head during recording (achieved by setting the monitor knob to playback), it was slightly delayed from the real-time signal that was being recorded on the record head. This slap-back effect from the second machine was then fed back into the main mixing board on a separate channel and mixed together with the dry signals from the vocals and guitar, then finally put down on the master tape recorder with a balance of the dry signal and the echo. The reverb on the drums was achieved the same way, with a separate microphone running into the echo chamber, folded back into the mixing board as a separate channel. It was a primitive yet effective way of achieving these effects, and one with unique tonal characteristics, since there were different types of microphones being used for the dry signal and the echo signal. Among the first things that Bradley built into his famous three-track mixing console were echo sends, but before that, all sessions (including the Gene Vincent sessions) were done in the earlier, more primitive way.

One last important factor in Gene’s Nashville recordings was the presence of Capitol producer Ken Nelson. Many of the pioneering techniques used during the Gene Vincent sessions—the choice of material, and ultimately the decision to use Gene’s own band—can be attributed to the enterprising spirit of Ken Nelson. He was truly a father figure for rock and roll and was directly responsible for much of Capitol Records’ success in the new genre. The great sound of Gene Vincent’s Nashville recordings can largely be attributed to the amazing chemistry between Ken Nelson, Owen Bradley, and engineer Mort Thomasson, not just any one of them.

The year 1957 brought about a complete revamping of Gene’s band, and Ken Nelson decided to record them in the newly constructed Capitol Tower recording studios in Hollywood, California.

Previous to recording at the Capitol Tower, Capitol’s West Coast acts had been recording at a small studio on Melrose Avenue. The Melrose studio produced great results for smaller jazz and country music bands, but the honchos at Capitol wanted a larger studio for recording big bands and orchestras, so the new facilities at the Tower were rather enormous, with a technical and engineering setup specifically geared toward recording large bands.

As a result, the Capitol Tower never really got a reputation as a great rock and roll studio. Lots of great material was recorded there, from Gene Vincent to Skeets McDonald to Tommy Sands, but the classical and big band approach to making records there never produced truly great rock and roll recordings. Most historians agree that the warm sound of the Capitol Melrose studio lent itself much better to country and rockabilly. For example, compare the sound of “Shotgun Boogie” by Tennessee Ernie Ford recorded at Capitol Melrose with Speedy West and Jimmy Bryant with the later version of the same song recorded at the Capitol Tower with big band accompaniment, and you’ll have a rough idea. Wanda Jackson’s classic Capitol recordings were done at Gold Star Studios in Hollywood, not the Tower. In fact, the Capitol Tower had such a stodgy reputation that by the 1960s, Capitol’s top acts such as the Beach Boys were using other studios because they didn’t like recording there.

That said, no classical or jazzbo engineer could hold back the youthful enthusiasm of Gene Vincent and his new group of young and rowdy Blue Caps. Thankfully, some of the wildest rock and roll of the era escaped intact. Tracks like “Lotta Lovin’” and “Dance to the Bop” positively sizzle, with Johnny Meeks’s great guitar work taking no back seat to Cliff Gallup, but instead leading the group in a new, original direction.

Johnny Meeks was a country musician who had played in Country Earl’s band with Paul Peek back in South Carolina. Like many other country musicians of the era, he made the crossover to rock and roll easily and brought along with him a memorable and unmistakable tone. What is interesting about Johnny Meeks’s recordings with Gene Vincent is that he apparently used both a Gretsch 6120 Chet Atkins model guitar and a white Fender Stratocaster with little or no difference in the tone on the records! His trademark was a trebly, biting tone with lots of vibrato (whammy bar) crashes. Gene and the Blue Caps were sponsored by Fender Musical Instruments, and during this period they used Fender guitars and amps exclusively. There is one famous picture from the Capitol Tower that shows the entire band, two electric guitars and the electric bass, all plugged into one Fender Twin amplifier, but it’s hard to imagine that they actually recorded in this manner!

The Capitol Tower sessions also used electric bass exclusively, and Gene would never use upright bass on record again.

Gene’s sessions at the Capitol Tower were done the same way as the Bradley sessions, all recorded live at one time. Capitol used much of the same equipment as Bradley, including Ampex recorders and Neumann and RCA microphones, but the approach was completely different.

The Capitol Tower engineers barely used tape echo, which is the most notable difference between the Nashville and Los Angeles recordings. There were ample amounts of reverb, courtesy of Capitol’s huge live echo chamber. However, the long reverberation time of the Capitol chambers did not lend itself well to rock and roll music, as they had been designed for classical and big band music. The Capitol Tower used a lot more compression than Owen Bradley, resulting in a “thick” sound, which sometimes bordered on the unnatural (most notably the saxophones, which ended up sounding like kazoos!). Nevertheless, Gene still recorded great music at the Capitol Tower.

The introduction of stereo recording and multitrack recorders around 1958 or 1959 didn’t affect Gene’s recording process too much. At most, we can only find evidence of background vocals being overdubbed later, as Gene still preferred to record with a live band and live vocals. Stereo mixes for “Crazy Times” were probably done live on the fly at the same time they were recording the mono mix, with little thought put into it. The sessions were not done on separated multitrack tapes, so it would have been impossible for them to make stereo masters after the fact.

The last phase of Gene’s tenure with Capitol in the years 1960 and 1961 saw him recording both at the Capitol Tower and at Abbey Road Studios in England (known at the time as St. Johns Wood EMI Studios, Abbey Road, London), to capitalize on Gene’s emerging stardom in Britain.

Great Britain in the early 1960s was a hotbed of musical activity. With their economy stunted in the immediate postwar years, they took a while to catch up to the United States as far as rock and roll was concerned. But when they did, they took off in leaps and bounds, culminating in the success of the Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion. Gene Vincent was in England during this time, enjoying huge popularity in the wake of his American slump.

Technology in Britain in the early 1960s was also experiencing significant advances, and Abbey Road was one of the best-equipped studios in the world when Gene recorded there in the early ‘60s. It was a huge facility with live echo chambers and state-of-the-art equipment; in many ways it was the British counterpart to Owen Bradley’s Nashville studio.

Abbey Road used top-quality microphones like Coles STC and Neumann and custom-made mixing boards that were the world’s most advanced at the time. The sessions were recorded onto BTR mono reel-to-reel recorders, which were enormous custom-built machines made for the BBC. They also utilized custom compressors and limiters, and like Bradley’s studio the only effects they had were tape echo and reverb. It’s worth noting that Abbey Road used much of the same equipment that famed British producer Joe Meek used in his Holloway Road studio.

Gene recorded at Abbey Road with large groups like the Norrie Paramor Orchestra and Sounds Unlimited, and with a small combo called the Beat Boys. Both sessions sound great (whether or not you like the songs is a matter of opinion, but the recording fidelity is impressive), demonstrating the expertise of the engineers at Abbey Road.

“Be Bop a Lula ‘62,” with its flute solos, may have been a low point with which to end Gene’s Capitol recording career. But Gene’s reputation as a top-notch act was partially built on the truly world-class studios that he had the good fortune to record in, and it was also due to the great producers behind the glass. For the rest of his career he would have second-tier contracts with albums hastily recorded at studios such as Olympic in London and Challenge in Los Angeles. Thankfully, his Capitol records stand alone not only as some of the most sonically excellent and technically superior recordings of the era, but also as some of the best rock and roll recordings of all time.