Gene Vincent - Biography
Gene Vincent was probably the most talented rockabilly performer that was never able to successfully crossover to another genre after the rockabilly crazy subsided. Born Eugene Vincent Craddock in Norfolk, Virginia in 1935, he began playing the guitar as an adolescent. He joined the Navy in 1952 and arrived in Korea a few years too late to fight in that country’s divisive war. While home on leave in 1955 he was struck by another vehicle while riding his motorcycle and suffered severe injuries to his left leg. His doctors wanted to amputate the badly injured limb but Vincent refused. For the rest of his short life he wore a leg brace, and suffered from pain which he increasingly treated with alcohol as the years passed.
The motorcycle accident ended his military career. Inspired by the success of rockabilly king Elvis Presley, he set about forming a band of his own with musicians in the Norfolk area. He named the band the Blue Caps, (formally known as His Blue Caps), inspired by the trademark blue caps worn by Bing Crosby, an often-overlooked vocal influence on rock vocal styles. (Presley himself admired the crooner, and Bob Dylan has long cited his admiration of Crosby.) Craddock also dropped his last name and became Gene Vincent.
In the wake of Elvis Presley’s incredible success, record companies were scrambling to find their “own” Elvis, and Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps were soon signed by Capitol Records. Their first release was the song that would define Vincent’s career: “Be Bop a Lula.” Forsaking Presley’s rave-up style, Vincent offered a slow, sultry blues, with leering echoed vocals and the occasional orgasmic hiccup. The talented band provided backup vocals and screams, and lead guitarist Cliff Gallup showed himself at least the equal of Presley’s Scotty Moore.
The single went to #7 in America; it would be the highest chart success the band would have. The follow-up 45 “Race With the Devil” a hot-rod anthem featuring more great guitar work by Gallup, barely made it into the Billboard Hot 100. The band’s first album, Bluejean Bop! (1956 Capitol) for some reason contained neither single. The album also saw Vincent and the Blue Caps saddled with poorly chosen cover material, including such cornball songs as “Peg O’ My Heart” and “Ain’t She Sweet,” which further blunted its impact on the buying public
In was also in 1956 that Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps made an appearance in one of the first rock ‘n’ roll movies, Frank Tashlin’s The Girl Can’t Help It. The film starred Jayne Mansfield and Tom Ewell as a gangster’s moll and her alcoholic manager. The film also brought the world’s attention to the cream of that year’s rock 'n' roll crop, including Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, Fats Domino and the Platters. Vincent and band are shown miming to “Be Bop a Lula” in a recording studio, with Vincent’s cast visible on his left foot.
Vincent had significant chart success in Europe and began to tour extensively there beginning in 1959. Playing in Hamburg, Germany he made the acquaintance of up-and-comers the Beatles. Some sources see Vincent’s sartorial influence in the Beatles’ pre-moptop, early leather-jacketed stage wear. Years later John Lennon would cover “Be Bop a Lula” on a solo LP (John Lennon, Rock n Roll). On a second tour, in 1959, Vincent was again seriously injured in an auto accident; a cab taking Vincent and his tour-mate and friend Eddie Cochran to the airport crashed, leaving Vincent with numerous broken bones and killing the 21-year-old Cochran.
Vincent returned to the US to recuperate, and the shock of Cochran’s death and his own painful injuries caused him to drink more heavily. By this time, moreover, rockabilly had ceased to be a popular genre and Vincent found his US career largely over. Still a superstar to England’s faithful teddy boys, Vincent moved to England in the early 60s and became a fixture there, a striking, half-tragic figure, his ballooning weight squeezed into tight leather pants and jacket, his thinning black hair greased back over his head, sweating his way through his old songs. Still, when he swung his crippled leg high over his microphone and leaned hard into the best of his material, he remained a compelling performer.
He made some attempts at crossing over into country music, a la Presley label-mates Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash, but he never achieved significant success in this pursuit. His two final albums, both countrified affairs, are notable for the backing of cosmic country cowboy Doug Sahm and some of his Sir Douglas Quintet bandmates, (If Only You Could See Me Today, 1970 Kama Sutra) and the Vincent-penned “The Day the World Turned Blue,” (The Day The World Turned Blue, 1971 Kama Sutra) a semi-autobiographical song that ruefully examines his drug use and speaks to the now long-gone rockabilly star of his youth — “Look at what they’ve done to you/The day the world turned blue.” Indeed, his life and career had been beset by pain, injury, alcoholism and his increasing lack of relevance to the music listening public. Retreating ever more deeply into alcoholism, he died from a perforated ulcer brought on by his heavy drinking, on October 12, 1971. Only 36 at the time of his death, he looked decades older.
He remains a favorite of rockabilly fans the world over. Numerous artists recorded covers or tributes to him, most notably John Lennon’s cover of “Be Bop a Lula” and the deeply moving “Sweet Gene Vincent” by Ian Dury, a tender yet rocking song that captures both the melancholy of Vincent’s life and his all-out hell-bent-for-leather rockabilly songs. In 1993, guitarist Jeff Beck recorded an entire album of Vincent covers with the English rockabilly band The Big Town Playboys, playing faithful renditions of the great Cliff Gallup’s guitar solos.
Gene Vincent is buried in Newhall, CA, a small town about an hour drive north of Los Angeles. He had moved some of his family there a few years prior to his death. His tombstone reads “In Loving Memory of Eugene Vincent Craddock. Husband, Father, Son. Known as Gene Vincent, recording star.” There is a musical staff engraved into the stone, showing the first 9 notes of the vocal melody to “Be Bop a Lula.” To the left of this is a hand-colored tile, with an image of a later-period Vincent in black jacket and white shirt, clutching a microphone, his eyes gazing upwards toward a single white star in a Gene Vincent blue sky.