The rockabilly rebel encapsulated his era with the hit song “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”
Decked out in leather, roughed up by circumstance, Gene Vincent was an unsinkable, unruly, unrestrained rockabilly maverick.
Though he landed his contract with Capitol Records largely because he sounded like Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent quickly established himself as a rockabilly pioneer and the very personification of rock and roll rebellion.
Born Vincent Gene Craddock, he grew up in Norfolk, Virginia. He loved country music, and he began playing guitar in his teens. In 1952, after the Korean War broke out, he dropped out of school at the age of 17 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He would entertain his fellow servicemen by playing guitar and singing country tunes.
In July 1955, Vincent, who had planned to reenlist in the Navy, injured his left leg in a motorcycle crash in Norfolk. His injury was quite serious, but he refused to have his leg amputated. Later in his career, Vincent would claim that he had injured the leg while serving in the Navy in Korea, either when he stepped on a mine or was shot in the leg. No matter how his leg was injured, he left the Navy and, at the suggestion of his mother, he began to pursue his musical interests.
A radio station—WCMS in Hampton Roads, Virginia—solicited talent for Country Showtime, a Grande Ol Opry–style showcase aired live from a local theater on Friday evenings, and Vincent showed up. He won a spot owing to his uncanny covers of Elvis Presley songs. He also had a song of his own called “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” Capitol Records was searching for its own counterpart to RCA Records’ Presley, and they would ultimately give Vincent a contract. In May 1956, Vincent and his band the Blue Caps, who took their name from President Eisenhower’s trademark blue golf cap, were sent to Nashville for a recording session. The group included lead guitarist Cliff Gallup, rhythm guitarist Willie Williams, bassist Jack Neal and drummer Dickie Harrell.
Vincent and the Blue Caps struck paydirt with “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” a simmering, reverb-drenched rocker that Vincent and Don Graves had written while on a train. “Me and Don Graves were looking at this bloody comic book,” Vincent said. “It was called Little Lulu, and I said, ‘Hell, man, it’s bebopaLulu.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, man, swinging.’ And we wrote the song. Just like that.”
The song made it to Number Seven. A rockabilly classic, “Be-Bop-a-Lula” ranks with “That’s All Right,” by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” as pure rockabilly gold.
Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps followed “Be-Bop-a-Lula” with a string of hits, including “Lotta Lovin’,” “Race with the Devil,” “Bluejean Bop” and “Dance to the Bop.” The Blue Caps’ work is revered by discriminating rock and rollers to this day. No less a disciple than guitarist Jeff Beck paid tribute on an album of covers entitled Crazy Legs (1993). Capitol released six albums by Vincent and the Blue Caps between 1957 and 1960, all of which rank among the priciest and most collectable LPs of the rock and roll era. Original copies of Vincent’s Capitol albums routinely change hands for $400.
Vincent appeared in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), one of the earliest rock and roll films, alongside Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran and others. An archetypal Fifties rocker with a souped-up sound and disheveled look, Vincent embodied the image of rebellion. Over in England, he appeared dressed in black leather on a British TV show—the first rock and roller to be so attired. Though he toured and recorded incessantly, Vincent’s popularity waned at home as the rockabilly era gave way to that of manicured teen idols. He nonetheless remained a revered star in Britain and Europe throughout the Sixties.
In 1960 Vincent was seriously hurt in the same car crash outside London that killed Eddie Cochran. The car, which was being driven by a chauffeur, hit a lamp post at high speed. Cochran was thrown from the vehicle and killed. Vincent suffered injuries that sidelined him for several months. When he recovered, he made London his home base and continued to tour throughout the U.K. and Europe.
Vincent recorded intermittently in the Sixties while remaining an in-demand live performer, especially when listeners rediscovered the roots of rock. In 1969 he signed with Dandelion Records, a label owned by legendary British disk jockey and producer John Peel, and released I’m Back and I’m Proud (1970). It was the best of several attempted comeback records. The album was released by Elektra Records in the U.S.
Vincent’s later years were troubled ones that found him plagued by chronic pain and drinking problems. In 1971 he returned to the U.S. and began living in California. Later that year he tripped in his parents’ house and ruptured a stomach ulcer. He was taken to the hospital, where he died on October 12, 1971 at the age of 36.
In the years since Vincent’s death, his reputation has continued to grow. In 1977, for example, British artist Ian Dury had a hit with a song called “Sweet Gene Vincent.” In 1997 Vincent was the first artist inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Rolling Stone magazine placed “Be-Bop-a-Lula” at number 103 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Inductee: Gene Vincent (vocals, guitar; born February 11, 1935, died October 12,1971)