Vincent Eugene Craddock was born in 1935 in Norfolk Virginia. His early musical influences were country, R&B and Gospel music and he was given his first guitar as a gift, aged of 12. Gene dropped out of school in 1952 and joined the Navy spending some time stationed in Korea. However Vincent was involved in a motorcycle accident which left him with a permanent limp and in considerable chronic pain for the rest of his life. Discharged from the navy and his leg still in plaster Gene hung out at the local radio station occasionally singing with the staff band, The Virginians on the WCMS's Country Showtime program. In 1956 he performed a song called "Be Bop A Lula."
It is not exactly clear who actually wrote the song although it was always credited to Gene Vincent. One version supports Gene co-wrote the song with fellow hospital patient Donald Graves, and another he bought the song for $50 from Graves who was the solo author. Yet another version is local DJ, Sheriff Tex Davis, recognizing Gene’s potential and bought Graves' rights to the song for a mere $25. Sherriff Tex Davis did sign Gene Vincent to a management deal and they co-wrote songs together which would give credence to the claim Gene and Sheriff Tex Davis wrote the song together. In any event the song was supposedly inspired by comic strip heroine, Little Lulu. The Virginians eventually became the Blue Caps and consisted of Wee Willie Williams (rhythm guitar), “Jumping” Jack Neal (upright bass), Dickie “Be-Bop” Harrell (drums), and Cliff "Galloping" Gallup (Lead guitar). Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps recorded Be-Bop-A-Lula in 1956 as a demo for Capitol Records. Capitol liked the song and Gene and the Blue Caps recut the song but put it out as the B side with "Woman Love", Gene’s first single.
Djs played the B side for preference and the record sold over 200,000 copies. Back in the studio Gene cut sixteen tracks including "Bluejean Bop" which became not only the title of his first album, but also the A-side of his third single and which, like "Be-Bop-A-Lula," also went Gold.
The spontaneous "whoops" and "yells" of Dickie Harrell during the session gave the album a “live’ feel which became the trademark of the Blue Caps. A second single "Race With The Devil" was released but failed to impact.
This may have been in part due to DJs reluctance to play it because of its title. The constant touring in 1956 took its toll and Willie Williams and Cliff Gallup quit the Blue Caps. Russell Wilaford took over Gallup's lead guitar role, while the rhythm guitar vacancy had been filled by Paul Peek. Wilaford’s stay was short and never played on any Blue Cap recording sessions. Cliff Gallup returned to do the studio work for their second album which included original numbers like "Cat Man," "Pink Thunderbird," "Cruisin'" and "Double Talkin' Baby."
The Jordanaires were used as backing vocals to some of the tracks. By the end of 1956 Jack Neal left the group and Gene and his manager Sheriff Tex, parted company. Partly through ill health and partly due to a management wrangle Gene was forced to rest and reluctantly returned to naval hospital. In 1957 a new Blue Caps were reformed with original Dickie Harrell, Paul Peek, Johnny Meeks (lead guitar) and Bill Mack (later replaced by bassist Bobby Lee Jones. The new line up was complete with Tommy "Bubba" Facenda. Under new management and with a new band, Gene had another two hits with "Lotta Lovin” and "Dance to the Bop. "
The same year he toured the east coast of Australia with Little Richard and Eddie Cochran. By 1958 the band were falling apart and made their last recording, the Blue Caps name was never used again. In the summer of 1959 Gene took on a three week tour of Japan with a makeup band then later in the same year, Gene Vincent had his last USA hit single with "Dance To The Bop". Tax problems that contributed to the Blue Caps break up meant Gene needed to leave the US and try his hand in Europe. In 1959 the rocker found a huge following, especially in England and France. As a suggestion from Jack Good, Gene adopted the trademark leather stage outfit with a silver chained medallion around his neck. His UK and European fans loved the black leather "biker" image and Gene's popularity soared. He enjoyed some chart success in the UK with "Wild Cat" and “My heart” in 1960.
In the same year Gene was riding a wave of popularity with a tour of the UK with Eddy Cochrane, called "Anglo-American Beat Show." An impulse return to the US for Thanksgiving, in the middle of tour found Eddie Cochrane and Gene sharing a taxi to the airport. Tragically the car blow a tyre and crashed killing Eddy Cochrane and leaving Gene seriously injured. A version of "Pistol Packin' Mama" was later recorded by Gene as a tribute to his friend.
The two musicians had worked on the composition but Eddie did not survive to record it. Gene’s backing band in the studio was The Beat Boys which featured a young piano player called Georgie Fame. "Pistol Packin' Mama" was released almost immediately and gave Gene his biggest UK hit at No. 15. Eventually Gene relocated his home to England in 1963 and his stage performances were legend. He enjoyed more chart success with "She She Little Sheila" which had been recorded 1959.
Gene continued to tour backed by Sounds Incorporated. They recorded “I am going home (to see my baby)” in Abbey Road Studios which gave Gene his last chart success on either side of the Atlantic.
He tried to relaunch his US career with folk rock and country-rock styles but this proved unsuccessful. In 1967 he was back in Europe working on punishing tours, still in pain and his health deteriorating not helped by his self-destructive lifestyle style. His final UK tour in 1971 featured The Wild Angels, a British band who had previously worked at the Royal Albert Hall with Bill Haley & the Comets and Duane Eddy. Gene worked until his health completely gave out and was flown back to California. Gene Vincent died from a bleeding ulcer on October 12, 1971 at the age of 36. Gene Vincent appeared in several films: The Girl Can't Help It together with Jayne Mansfield (1956), Hot Rod Gang (1958), It's Trad, Dad. (1962), and Live it up (1963).
His music has been featured on many movie sound tracks.
Worth a listen:
Be Bop A Lula (1956)
Race with the devil (1956)
Blue Jean Bop (1956)
Crazy Legs (1957)
Lotta Lovin (1957)
Dance to the Bop (1957)
Spaceship to Mars
She she Sheila (1960)
Pistol packin Mama (1960)
Lucky Star (1961)