The Ballads of Gene Vincent

Apr 17, 2021

Liner notes for The Ballads of Gene Vincent , Bear Family Records

Originally published in 2006

Gene Vincent: the ultimate 1950s rocker. Referred to as the Screaming End or the Black Leather Rebel. Certainly Vincent was one of the most iconic of the first wave of rock and rollers, with his tortured facial expressions, classic greasy coif, perfect cat clothes. The brace on his leg was a literal, physical representation of his wild-man status. And yet, from his very first session to his last, Gene Vincent loved to sing ballads. His high, sweet vocal style was perfectly suited to love songs, and he left behind an equally impressive legacy of ballads, never before collected on one disc until now.

I’m sure that countless rockers have brought home their first Gene Vincent record only to discover that nearly half of the songs on the album are ballads. Perhaps they express confusion and consternation at first listen, but over time most fans grow to love Vincent’s ballads—when the right mood hits or behind closed doors. This collection contains ballads from throughout his career, from his first session at Capitol in May of 1956 to one of his last sessions in 1969 (he died in 1971). We hope you enjoy it.

Gene Vincent was a straight-up hillbilly boy from the Portsmouth, Virginia, area who grew up listening to country music. The local heroes were a western swing and cowboy act known as the Phelps Brothers, who had a stranglehold on the area from the 1930s well into the 1960s. While the Phelps Brothers played raucous western swing and dance music, they also played a lot of smooth songs—ballads, western campfire songs, even pop hits of the day—and some of this influence must have rubbed off on Vincent in his formative years. It was in fact the Phelps Brothers who spawned two of the most beloved Blue Caps (Vincent’s eventual name for his band). Both guitar virtuoso Cliff Gallup and drummer Dickie Harrell played with the act in the years leading up to the formation of the Blue Caps.

The story of how Vincent got signed to Capitol Records has been recounted often—how he won a local talent contest singing Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” and wrote the hit song “Be Bop a Lula” with local DJ “Sheriff Tex” Davis, who got him signed to Capitol Records by being in just the right place at the right time to cash in on the new rock and roll craze. He was literally an overnight sensation, going from local act to the top of the pop charts in less than a few months, and it was enough of a splash to give him a career in music, through good times and lean times, until the end of his life.

The important thing to remember is that given his historical context, Gene Vincent absolutely had to record ballads. Although rock and roll artists were breaking through the charts with some wild and fast numbers, the truth of the matter is that 95 percent of the music business in 1956 was still rooted in the past. Patti Page, Perry Como, Pat Boone, and their ilk were still the most popular artists in America. It was only to be expected that Gene would have to alternate his rockers with ballads. After all, the flip side of Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” was a ballad called “I Was the One,” a fact that was not lost on anyone when the Blue Caps ventured to Nashville to record their first session in May of 1956.

“I Sure Miss You,” the first number on this disc, was recorded at the same session as “Be Bop a Lula,” “Woman Love,” and “Race with the Devil.” What’s amazing is that the band that could rock as hard (and with such convincing authority) as it did on those three numbers could then turn around and record such a sweet ballad, with musicianship that was as sophisticated and refined as it was raw and breakneck on the rocking tunes.

At the second session for Capitol, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps only recorded one rocker, “Crazy Legs,” while laying down several ballads at producer Ken Nelson’s behest. Nelson freely admitted that he knew little about the new rock and roll sound, and his ideas to have the group cover such standards as “Unchained Melody” and “Up a Lazy River” could have been disastrous if handed to any other young rockabillies of that time. Thankfully, due to the excellence of the Blue Caps and the smooth, tasteful guitar work of Cliff Gallup in particular, these ballads wound up being interesting and memorable when they easily could have been dismal.

We have Ken Nelson to thank for the number of sessions Vincent was allowed to record during his early years. Most groups were relegated to one or two sessions, resulting in a few singles, but on the strength of “Be Bop a Lula” Nelson was already envisioning Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps as an album act in a singles era. One story has Vincent and the Blue Caps raiding the local Norfolk radio station library for 78 rpm records, looking for suitable covers to pad out their albums. Other sources suggest that Ken Nelson handed them many of these songs to learn. At any rate, it was an interesting collection of songs that the group chose to cover. One of the most arcane and disturbing activities of obsessed Gene Vincent fans (such as this author) is the research and debate over which version of these old standards the group must have been listening to when they created their cover version. For instance, “Wedding Bells (Are Breaking Up that Old Gang of Mine)” dates back to 1929, when it was written by Tin Pan Alley songsmiths Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, and Willie Raskin. The most popular version was by the Four Aces on Decca Records, but it was also recorded by several other groups, including Steve Gibson and the Red Caps, who were a popular black jump blues and vocal harmony group in the early 1950s. One can only assume that it was the popular Four Aces version that Vincent was covering, but the Red Caps moniker (the group formed many years before the Blue Caps) makes one wonder if it was actually the Red Caps version they appropriated. In the same way, “Up A Lazy River” was an old standard written by Hoagy Carmichael and Sidney Arodin in 1931, made into a hit by the Mills Brothers in 1948 and again by Bobby Darin in 1961. However, evidence points to Vincent and the group getting their inspiration from Louis Armstrong’s (brand-new at the time) 1956 recording of the song. It is hard to say with certainty because Cliff Gallup’s magnificent solo on “Up a Lazy River” was the product of his own inspired original genius.

“Unchained Melody” unfortunately became part of the public consciousness when the Righteous Brothers’s blue-eyed soul version was used in the movie Ghost. What most people don’t know about this song is that “Unchained Melody” was written in 1936 by Hy Zaret (a pseudonym for William Albert Stirrat) and Alex North, and it was fresh in the American psyche when Vincent and the boys recorded it, since it had been the theme song for the 1955 Hollywood formula picture Unchained.

Since they are not included on this disc, details will be spared on this author’s opinions with respect to where the Blue Caps found other cover material. Perhaps if you too become truly obsessed and find yourself scouring old boxes of 78s for yet another version of “Jump Back, Honey, Jump Back” we can compare notes in the future, but for the sake of the normal souls we’ve already lost, we’ll move on.

Given his historical context, Gene Vincent absolutely had to record ballads. Although rock and roll artists were breaking through the charts with some wild and fast numbers, the truth of the matter is that 95 percent of the music business in 1956 was still rooted in the past.

“Important Words” was another Gene Vincent and “Sheriff Tex” Davis collaboration (at least on paper; the reality is that no one knows if either one actually wrote it), released as the flip side to “Crazy Legs.” This was one of the best Elvis-styled ballads Vincent ever recorded, with the actual Jordanaires contributing backing vocals. It was recorded in October 1956 in between the Jordanaires’ trips to New York for Elvis’s first and second appearances on the Ed Sullivan show in September and late October. Again Cliff Gallup rises to the occasion and plays one of the most memorable solos of his short career.

Sadly, Cliff Gallup had had enough of the touring musician’s lifestyle by this last session in October 1956, and he quit the group to lead a quiet family life and play occasional local gigs. Most bands would have been absolutely derailed by the loss of such an important member, but Blue Cap Paul Peek came through when he suggested a guitar player from his band back in South Carolina, a skinny young hillbilly picker by the name of Johnny Meeks. Like Gallup, Meeks had played in country bands and was new to rock and roll music. What he brought to the table was a new style, less sophisticated but more rocking than Cliff Gallup’s, with a biting and trebly tone that would dominate Gene Vincent’s recordings for the next few years. Meeks was also excellent at coming up with interesting parts to play on lead guitar behind Vincent’s ballad material. For instance, “Wear My Ring,” from Meeks’s first Capitol session in June 1957, was an east coast Brill Building bit of bubblegum written by Bobby Darin and Don Kirschner. In other hands it could have been rotten filler, but Meeks’s guitar parts make it a successful recording, interesting from a purely musical standpoint.

Many of the tracks on this collection are from the Johnny Meeks era of the Blue Caps, circa 1957 and 1958. Vincent tackled tons of ballads during this time, in a period when rock and roll was shifting from its primitive wild birth to a teen idol-oriented landscape with more ballads than rockers dominating the charts. It’s not hard to see what direction Vincent was attempting to push his career in; he was following the trends and trying to have more hit records. Once again, luckily for us listeners, he made memorable ballads, some of which are equal to his rockers in terms of originality and goose-bump factor. Added to the mix during this era were the harmony backing vocals of the Clapper Boys: Paul Peek (who had started out as a rhythm guitar man) and Tommy “Bubba” Facenda. Their voices blended well with Vincent’s and added a new dimension to many of the ballads from this era.

Most of the ballads were new songs pitched to Vincent through Ken Nelson and his interest in the Central Songs Publishing Company, but a few more old standards received the Gene Vincent treatment. “You Belong to Me,” a Pee Wee King and Redd Stewart chestnut from the 1940s, was given a superb Elvis-style treatment, with the Clapper Boys providing a lush foundation for Vincent’s soaring falsetto. Love or hate the song, Gene’s version of “Over the Rainbow” will be remembered by some as his finest ballad moment. His gentle reinterpretation is a world away from his pounders like “Baby Blue,” but his vocals are impeccably on the mark. Bernice Bedwell, the Dallas-based author of “Lotta Lovin’,” contributed another memorable ballad, “In My Dreams,” which was not released as a single but stuck as album filler on the Gene Vincent Rocks and the Blue Caps Roll album. It remains a favorite to Vincent fans and is included here.

Vincent would occasionally record material penned by the various members of the Blue Caps, for instance Johnny Meeks’s “Say Mama.” Mostly the Blue Caps kept submitting rockers for Gene’s consideration, but the exception was talented pianist Clifton Simmons, who came from the same group back in South Carolina that Paul Peek and Johnny Meeks had been plucked from. Simmons wrote several great ballads for Vincent, including “The Night Is so Lonely,” and “You Are the One for Me,” both included here.

Most fans know that Vincent moved to the Dallas area during 1957 and 1958 and that he used several Dallas area musicians in his band, including “Juvie” Gomez, Max Lipscomb (aka Scotty McKay), and Howard Reed, among others. On a few occasions he even took songs from local Dallas area artists and recorded them. Included here is a very catchy number written by Johnny Carroll (of “Crazy Crazy Lovin’” fame), a great rock-a-ballad called “Maybe,” recorded in 1958 and not to be confused with the Chantels’ doo-wop hit of the year before.

1958 ended with the Blue Caps all quitting the band and splitting in opposite directions, mostly due to the rigors of the road and Vincent’s inability to take directions from his agents and managers. Thus began a gradual state of decline for the now solo, drifting singer, who first moved to Oregon and then Alaska, using pickup bands wherever he landed. Various memories of Gene Vincent during this time paint a dark picture of a falling star with little promise of any future. He was able to cobble together a fairly decent group to record his Crazy Times album, including Johnny Meeks-soundalike guitarist Jerry Lee Merritt and some great Hollywood session musicians, but no tracks from 1959 are included here on this ballads collection.

What happened next probably surprised Gene Vincent more than anyone else. He toured in Britain and discovered that the fans there were rabid for savage rock and roll. He became a black leather-clad idol to a new crop of greasy-haired hooligans who worshipped his earlier recordings. He began a pattern of moving back and forth between the United States, England, and Europe for the rest of his life. Dropped from Capitol USA but signed to Capitol/EMI (based in the UK) thanks to his popularity in England, Gene began recording with British groups such as the Norrie Paramour Orchestra, the Beat Boys, and Sounds Unlimited. The next batch of ballads that we present to you here were recorded in 1960 at Abbey Road Studios in London.

“Weeping Willow,” “There I Go Again,” “Love of a Man,” and “Where Have You Been All My Life” are wonderful examples of pre-Beatles British music production and Vincent’s voice is in top form, yet it still seems strange to hear him doing ballads that should have been done by Petula Clark or Gerry and the Pacemakers. What makes it even stranger is that the audience in Britain, which was really going for him during his stay there, truly despised this sort of teenybopper British pop music, which was aimed at young girls in the suburbs rather than the rough, motorcycle-riding Teddy Boys in the inner cities, who began tattooing images of Vincent on their bodies.

Predictably, these records did not sell, and Vincent was dropped from Capitol Records by the end of 1962, just in time for the Beatles (who were rabid Gene Vincent fans) to come in and change the musical landscape completely, making it nearly impossible for the rockers of the 1950s to continue making a living. Amazingly enough, he managed to stay in the business and remain a commodity of small to medium value for the rest of the 1960s. He had a one-off album for Columbia in the UK, from which the ballads “Lavender Blue” and “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)” are included here.

Back in the United States he had comeback attempts in 1966 and 1967 for Challenge Records in Hollywood, who arranged for several big-budget sessions with A-team session musicians, resulting in a string of singles that also failed to click. From these recordings (which produced at least one memorable rocker, “Bird Doggin’”) came the countryish ballads “Lonely Street” (written by Carl Belew and covered by Dave Rich and Don Gibson in the 1950s) and “Hi-Lili Hi-Lo,” both included here.

The last track on this compilation comes from one of Vincent’s last sessions, produced by Kim Fowley for Dandelion Records, for yet another album that failed to recapture past glories. “Scarlet Ribbons” is, however, a nice way to end things, with Vincent’s pretty voice disguising the pain and failure that was plaguing his life at the time. He would die from a bleeding ulcer two years later.

Gene Vincent will always be remembered for his rock and roll music and for his image as one of the wildest and most tortured singers of the first rock era. We hope, however, that this compilation has shed a bit of light on his other side—the sweet-voiced ballad singer who could put real emotion and feeling into a well-written ballad the same way he could tear the hell out of a nonsense-lyric rocker. There was definitely more to this man than met the eye—a complex blend of city and country, sweet and profane, mysterious yet accessible. We hope you enjoy this other side of Gene Vincent.