Born Vincent Eugene Craddock, February 17, 1935, in Norfolk, VA; died October 12, 1971, in Newhall, CA, of a seizure attributed to a bleeding ulcer. Married four times: Ruth Ann, Darlene, Margie, Jackie; children: Melody, Gene Jr., Sherri Ann. Military/Wartime Service: Served in the U.S. Naval Service 1953-55; served in Korea and was awarded two Distinguished Service Medals.
In Timothy White's anthology, Rock Lives, White recalled a 1983 interview with singer/songwriter, Paul Simon. When Simon was asked the smartest thing he had ever heard anybody say in rock-and-roll, his response was simple: "Be-Bop-A-Lula, she's my baby." With that quote, Simon gave a nod to Gene Vincent and his 1956 hit, "Be-Bop- A-Lula." Whether Simon was sincere about Gene Vincent's first and biggest hit reaching the height of profundity, in 1956, the song did reach the height of popularity. Driven by a rockabilly beat and featuring Vincent's raw, Presley-esque vocals, "Be-Bop-A-Lula" took Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps to the top of the rock world. Vincent's stay at the top, however, was shortened both by his excessive drinking and his addiction to pain pills. The pills were the result of a 1955 motorcycle accident which necessitated the use of a heavy metal leg brace for the rest of his life. Vincent would achieve fame in England during the early 1960s, but to Americans, he was another aging rock-and-roller who sang recycled versions of his old hits with pick-up bands. A final American comeback attempt in the late 60s was stunted by his ill health and the changing music climate. Vincent died in 1971 at the age of 36.
Born Vincent Eugene Craddock February 17, 1935, in Norfolk, Virginia, his birthdate is usually quoted as February 11th, a result of his mother's handwriting being misread on his birth certificate application. In 1942, the Craddock family moved to the rural Munden Point, Virginia, where parents Kie and Louise Craddock opened a general store. At this point in young Gene's life--everyone always called him Gene--he had only heard country music. The racially mixed area of Munden Point, however, initiated him to the sounds of blues and gospel. The mix of Grand Ole Opry music emanating from the family radio with the spiritual sounds of the neighborhood gospel singers proved irresistible to Vincent, and he begged his parents for a guitar and music lessons. Soon, people began to notice the skinny kid with the big guitar on the porch of the Craddock's store. "There was lots of colored folks around there and they'd sit on the porch and sing and sometimes Gene would play his guitar for them," Vincent's younger sister Evelyn told Britt Hagarty, author of Vincent's biography, The Day the World Turned Blue. "That's where his sound came from."
When Vincent was 13, the Craddocks sold their store and moved back to Norfolk. Small and thin, Vincent would often be the subject of taunts and teasing at school and would always end up in fights. Frustrated by his size and the fact he wasn't doing well in his classes, Vincent quit school during the ninth grade and decided to join the Navy. His father, who'd been in the coast guard during World War II, signed the permission papers to let the seventeen- year-old enlist during the height of the Korean War. Vincent would often sing and play guitar with the other sailors and soon found another interest that would rival his passion for music-- motorcycles.
In March of 1955, with a year of service left, Vincent re-enlisted for another six years in order to receive a reenlistment bonus. With this $612.39 bonus, Vincent bought a big Triumph motorcycle. In July of that year, while on leave in Norfolk, Vincent was hit by a car while riding his Triumph, leaving his left leg crushed. After being rushed to the hospital, doctors decided to amputate the leg, but Vincent begged his mother not to sign the forms permitting them to do so. Although she granted her son's request, years later Louise Craddock would admit to Hagarty, "I tell you, when I looked into his eyes, I knew I couldn't do it.... But now I wish I had." Vincent would spend the next six months in and out of the Portsmouth Naval Hospital and the rest of his life in a heavy metal leg brace.
While in the hospital, Vincent tried his hand at songwriting and penned "Race with the Devil" and "Be-Bop-A-Lula," a song inspired by a popular comic strip, "Little Lulu." Following his release, Vincent met and married his first wife, Ruth Ann, and with the encouragement of his new wife and his mother, he auditioned for a local talent show put on by Norfolk's WCMS radio called Country Showtime. For his audition, Vincent sang Elvis Presley's current hit, "Heartbreak Hotel" and brought the house down. "I never heard such sweet sounds," "Sheriff Tex" Davis, a WCMS-DJ, talent show judge, and soon-to-be Vincent manager, told Hagarty. "He was great!"
Davis, WCMS station manager Roy Lamear, and booking agent Sy Blumenthal knew record companies were looking for the "new Elvis." They thought Vincent had a chance and formed a band for Gene to play with. Soon, Vincent was rehearsing with rhythm guitarist Willie Williams, bassist Jack Neal, drummer Dickie Harrell, and lead guitarist Cliff Gallup. After the group made a demo recording of "Be-Bop-A-Lula" at the WCMS studios, Davis sent it to producer Ken Nelson of Capitol Records. Less than a month later, in May of 1956, Vincent and the band were signed to the label and found themselves in a real Nashville recording studio. Producer Nelson was unsure of the young musicians from Norfolk and brought in some of Nashville's finest session musicians to back up Vincent, but that plan was scrapped as soon as they heard Cliff Gallup on lead guitar. Considered one of the greatest guitarists of 50s rock-and- roll, Gallup influenced guitarists such as Jerry Garcia, Jeff Beck, Dave Edmunds, and Bryan Setzer.
The band played so loudly in the recording studio that Vincent had to record his vocals in a stairway so he could hear himself over the band. After the recording, Nelson suggested using Vincent instead of Craddock as a surname, and to also find a name for the band. Drummer Harrell, who'd taken to wearing small hats when he played, suggested "The Blue Caps." One month later, "Be-Bop-A- Lula" was released as the B-side to the single "Woman Love," on Capitol Records by Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps.
For a short while, no one paid much attention to the record until a DJ in Baltimore started playing its B-side. By the end of June, "Be-Bop-A-Lula" had sold 200,000 copies, and Capitol rushed the band into the studio to record four more songs. Vincent and the Blue Caps were also touring steadily as "Lula" raced up the charts. By September, the song was in the top ten and Capitol released the group's first album, Blue Jean Bop. Although the album sold well, a second single, "Race with the Devil," faded quickly.
By the end of 1956, Blue Jean Bop was still selling well, but Vincent's marriage was ending, his management team had broken up, and two Blue Caps left the band. Ruth Ann, tired of her husband's constant traveling and rumors of infidelity, left Vincent during what would be the height of his career. On the business side, Vincent sided with Davis in a management dispute that left Lamear and Blumenthal out of the picture, although Davis himself was out of the picture a short time later. Guitarist Willie Williams and lead guitarist Cliff Gallup left the band because of the strain of touring on their family lives. Vincent, however, loved to travel, perform, and the money, but he admitted that it all came too fast. "Listen, I never wanted to make money," he's quoted as saying in Hagarty's book. "I never wanted it. I'm a singer, man. My only thought was just to make a living singing. But all of a sudden I was getting $1500 a night.... It shouldn't have happened on that first record. I just didn't know how to handle it."
On stage, however, if there was anything wrong with Vincent and the Blue Caps, no one knew it. Even with his near-crippled leg, Vincent was an exciting, enthusiastic performer who never let an audience down, unless he was drunk. To handle the pain Vincent found refuge in pain pills, which he often washed down with a bottle of whiskey. The changing musical landscape of the late 50s was also a source of pain for Vincent. Although he scored another hit with 1957's "Lotta Lovin," the rockabilly sound of rock-and- roll had all but disappeared, replaced with new hitmakers like Frankie Avalon, Fabian, and Bobby Rydell. Even Elvis, with songs like "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" began to record songs in a pop vein. Soon, the Blue Caps were gone and Vincent began to tour England where there was still an audience for American rock-and- roll.
By 1960, Vincent and his second wife, Darlene, had a home in Portland, Oregon with Darlene's daughter from a previous marriage, Debbie, and their own daughter, Melody. But Vincent would often be touring in Europe, once again straining the relationship with his wife. On one tour with fellow American rocker and his best friend, Eddie Cochran, in April of that year, Vincent and company were in a car crash. Vincent suffered a broken collar bone and broken ribs, and Cochran was killed. "Gene was really shook up," Darlene told Hagarty. "He and Eddie were very close. He talked a lot about Eddie and sent flowers to the funeral. But he didn't go because he didn't think he'd be able to handle it." Six months later Darlene gave birth to their son, Gene Jr., but by the next year, she and the kids were gone. Vincent's drinking, mood swings, and his erratic life on the road resulted in another divorce.
With no one to go home to in America, Vincent moved to England and toured Europe almost constantly with a variety of backup bands. At one show in Hamburg, Germany in 1962, he was backed up by the then-unknown Beatles when his regular touring band failed to arrive on time. Vincent's drinking was at an all time high, as was his reliance on pain pills. For the remainder of the decade, he still, he managed to perform to enthusiastic audiences in Europe, while in America he was all but forgotten. Married and divorced two more times during the 1960s, the only relationship Vincent seemed able to sustain was with the audience. By the end of the decade, his health left him in awful shape.
Simon Frith, in a 1970 Rolling Stone article heralding the release of two greatest hits packages and an American comeback album, I'm Back and I'm Proud, recalled a then recent performance by Vincent. "He was in pain throughout and sang kneeling, his bad leg stretched out straight behind him.... He was fat, ugly, and greasier than Joe Cocker. There were no girls in the audience but for the assembled rockers he was the ultimate in rock and roll-- offering nothing but music and sacrificing everything to that music, their music. I've never seen another rock star so worshipped and held in such awe by an audience." In talking about the albums, Frith held the most enthusiasm for the vintage recordings of the 1950s. "Nobody makes records like that anymore," Frith declared, "not even Gene Vincent."
The next year, Vincent died in his parents' home after a fall caused a seizure brought on by a bleeding ulcer. He was 36 years old. Though to some he's just the guy who sang "Be-Bop-A-Lula, she's my baby," his imprint on the early days of rock-and-roll goes far beyond that, even though that particular tune had sold nearly nine million copies by the time of his death. A number of later musicians named him as a primary influence, and British rock guitarist Jeff Beck recorded an entire album of Vincent and the Blue Caps songs on his 1993 album, Crazy Legs. Additionally, the resurgence of rockabilly in the 1980s with bands like the Blasters and the Stray Cats introduced new fans to the style of Vincent and his contemporaries. Members of the Blue Caps still get together to celebrate the music they made forty years earlier with the skinny kid from Norfolk. Though not every detail of his legacy remains impressive, Vincent's awareness of the impact of the music secures him a prominent place in the history of rock-and-roll.
by Brian Escamilla
Gene Vincent's Career
Began professional career after singing on Country Showtime, in Norfolk, VA, 1956; recorded "Be-Bop-A-Lula" with the Blue Caps, 1956; appeared in film The Girl Can't Help It with Jayne Mansfield and Little Richard, 1957; had a hit with "Lotta Lovin," 1957; appeared in film Hot Rod Gang, 1958; moved to England, early 60s; toured Europe throughout the 1960s; returned to America, 1969; released comeback album, I'm Back and I'm Proud, 1970.
- Selective Works
- Blue Jean Bop, Capitol, 1957.
- Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Capitol, 1957.
- Gene Vincent Rocks and the Blue Caps Roll, Capitol, 1958.
- A Gene Vincent Record Date, Capitol, 1958.
- The Best of Gene Vincent, Capitol, 1970.
- I'm Back and I'm Proud, Dandelion/Elektra, 1970.
- If Only You Could See Me Today, Kama Sutra, 1970.
- The Day the World Turned Blue, 1971.
- Capitol Collectors Series, Capitol, 1990.
- Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, Curb, 1993.
- Screaming End: The Best of Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, Razor and Tie Music, 1997.
- Encyclopedia of Rock, edited by Tony Russell, Crescent Books, 1983.
- Encyclopedia of Rock, edited by Phil Hardy and Dave Laing, Schirmer Books, 1988.
- Hagarty, Britt, The Day the World Turned Blue: A Biography of Gene Vincent, Talonbooks, 1983.
- The New Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock and Roll, edited by Patricia Romanowski and Holly George-Warren, Rolling Stone Press, 1995.
- Perkins, Carl and David McGee, The Life and Times of Carl Perkins, Hyperion, 1996.
- Periodicals Rolling Stone, March 7, 1970, p. 52; November 11, 1971.
- Los Angeles Times, August 17, 1996, p. F2.