Rock and Roll Rebel
Biography (1935 – 1971)
Gene Vincent, Vincent Eugene Craddock in real life, was an American musician who pioneered the styles of rock and roll and rockabilly. His 1956 top ten hit with his Blue Caps, “Be-Bop-A-Lula”, is considered a significant early example of rockabilly. He is a member of the Rock and Roll and Rockabilly Halls of Fame.
Gene Vincent grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and performing with local black musicians. He served in the Navy from 1952-55, then was released from duty after he shattered his left shin bone in a motorcycle accident. While recuperating in a veterans’ hospital in Portsmouth, he passed the time playing guitar. Gene paid a fellow patient, Don Graves, $20 for the song “Be Bop a Lula.”
In September 1955 he saw an up and coming singer named Elvis Presley perform at Hank Snow’s All Star Jamboree in Norfolk, and this experience changed his life.
There was Elvis Presley, and then there was Gene Vincent. Gene Vincent saw Elvis and immediately launched out of his hospital bed and onto the stage moving, bopping, shaking, singing and straining every nerve in his body to move every person in that audience to total hysteria. Suffering from a severely broken shin bone from a motorcycle accident, Gene Vincent came into the Rockabilly scene and moved everything up more than just a notch – more like degrees. He invented “hot” as a commonality in Rockabilly music. Teenage girls swooned and screamed, and teenage boys dreamed and grooved. Blue jeans, white tee shirt and black leather jacket became the must-have wardrobe for every young man in Gene Vincent’s world. They didn’t just dress like him–they became entrenched with him. The music? The music was hypnotic. Buddy Holly loved Gene Vincent and tried to sing like him. That’s where that little hiccup came from. Elvis’ mother thought Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop a Lula” recording was Elvis under a different name. Vincent knocked the lights out of every stage he hit, and his Blue Caps picked up the pieces and threw them out the window.
After performing locally as Gene Craddock and the Virginians, Vincent signed a management contract with local DJ, Sheriff Tex Davis, who sent a demo to Ken Nelson, a staff producer at Capitol Records in Nashville. By 1956, Capitol needed their own Rockabilly “Elvis” to compete against RCA, and they agreed to do a session with Vincent at Bradley’s Barn recording studio.
Although Ken Nelson had lined up the finest Nashville musicians for the session, Gene Vincent, like Buddy Holly before him, wanted to record with his own home-grown band, now called the Blue Caps and featuring the stunning guitar work of Cliff Gallup. Nelson disagreed with this at first, but allowed Gene and the Blue Caps to set up on one side of the studio to rehearse the “Be Bop a Lula” song before the session. When Nashville’s elite, A-list studio musicians heard the group romp into the unknown song, they arose in unison and told Ken Nelson that he didn’t need them ‘cause these rockers were doing something better than they could ever do. Nelson agreed, and the session players left. “Be Bop a Lula” was recorded during this session and released as Vincent’s first single on July 2, 1956. Gene Vincent’s legendary Rockabilly influence inspired the Beatles, Rolling Stones and scores of other superstar acts who followed.
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.
By this time Vincent had plunged into all-out rockabilly, capable of both fast-paced exuberance and whispery, almost sensitive ballads. “The Blue Caps” were one of the greatest rock bands of the ’50s. Gene’s swooping vocals, led many to mistake the singer for Elvis when the record first hit the airwaves in mid-1956, on its way to the Top Ten. The Elvis comparison wasn’t entirely fair; Vincent had a gentler, less melodramatic style, capable of both, whipping up a storm or winding down to a hush.
While Gene Vincent only had one really big hit, “Be-Bop-a-Lula,” which epitomized rockabilly at its prime in 1956, his place as one of the great early rock & roll singers is secure, backed up by a wealth of fine smaller hits and non-hits that rate among the best rockabilly of all time. The leather-clad, greasy-haired singer was also one of rock’s original bad boys, lionized by romanticists of past and present generations attracted to his primitive, sometimes savage style and indomitable spirit.
Vincent continued to rock the house with reckless intensity and showmanship, and he became particularly popular overseas.
Vincent moved to Britain where he was a cult figure in 1959 and remained there for a decade 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.
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.
Vincent returned to America in 1969 with a new record deal and enjoyed a brief revival amongst the hippy teenagers in California who revered him as a legend. His new found fame was cut short by his death on October 12, 1971 at the age of 36 years.
In the years since Vincent’s death, his reputation has continued to grow. In 1997, Vincent was the first artist inducted into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. And Rolling Stone magazine placed “Be-Bop-a-Lula” at number 102 on its list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
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.
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.
“Be-Bop-a-Lula”, a rockabilly classic, ranks with “That’s All Right,” by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” as pure rockabilly gold.
Vincent’s awareness of the impact of the music secures him a prominent place in the history of rock-and-roll.
Excerpt from The Rockabilly Legends DVD Documentary 2-DVD Set.