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Rockabilly’s Gene Vincent Made Some Of The Wildest Contributions To Rock And Roll
Gene Vincent isn’t exactly a household name to modern pop music fans. But for Rockabilly fans, he is one of the greatest idols of all time. Vincent and his band, The Blue Caps, represented some of the wildest moments in the history of rock and roll, with total and impeccable style. So much so that Rolling Stone magazine called Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps “the world’s first rock and roll band.”
While that statement may not be technically true, it is true that the band was one of the first to really let loose with their music. Vincent cultivated a fat image in a leather jacket while his Blue Caps were a bunch who looked like they were simply out looking for the most fun they could find.
The first years
Vincent, born Vincent Eugene Craddock in 1935, grew up (like so many other rockabilly artists of the time) poor in the American South. The country music he heard growing up mixed with the rhythm and blues feel he also heard and perfectly prepared him to become a rockabilly musician. He started playing the guitar and singing when a friend gave him his first guitar at the age of 12.
A life-changing accident
In 1952 Vincent joined the United States Navy. Three years later, while riding his motorcycle, he was hit by a car that had run a red light. His left leg was badly mangled and the doctors wanted to amputate it. His parents convinced them and saved Gene’s leg, but he was never able to walk properly again. He used a leg brace for the rest of his life and experienced severe episodes of leg pain.
However, as fate would have it, it was this bad leg and his orthopedic leg that gave him a very unique stage presence. Vincent was as wild on stage as his leg would allow and often took a peculiar stiff-legged stance while singing. It became something of a signature for him.
The big moment
Vincent hit the big time in 1956 with the smash hit “Be Bop a Lula,” which was unlike anything anyone had heard before. He followed it up with a wonderful rocker called “Race With the Devil.” While that song didn’t do particularly well on the charts, it’s a magnificent song that really showcases Blue Caps lead guitarist Cliff Gallup, who many consider the greatest rockabilly guitarist of them all. Vincent’s third single, “Blue Gene Bop”, was another big hit and his career looked very bright.
Vincent continued to have commercial success throughout the 1950s, but struggled with the near-constant personnel changes in his band. That, coupled with the ongoing problems he constantly had with his leg, slowed him down a bit. In the late 1950s, Gene’s record sales declined considerably. However, it was still a big draw for concerts, especially in places like Japan, Australia and Britain where they still loved the original rock and rollers.
Another great tragedy
Eventually Vincent met another singer who would become his close friend: Eddie Cochran. The two went on several tours together around the world in the late 1950s. It was on one of these tours in 1960, when the two were playing all over England, that tragedy struck. When they were riding in a taxi one night, the driver, who was speeding, lost control of the car and crashed into a cement pole. Gene was seriously injured and his friend Eddie Cochran was killed.
The final chapter
Devastated by the loss of his friend and now experiencing more pain in his leg than ever, Vincent continued his career. He recorded some great material during the 1960s, but never again had the big hits he had in the mid-1950s. Gene’s health deteriorated further and his battle with an unhealthy lifestyle didn’t help. He was touring England once more in 1971 when his health took a definite turn for the worse. He returned to California where he died just a few days later. He was only 36 years old.
Vincent’s story is tragic. He was a brilliant singer and performer, and although he had several hit songs, poor management, a constantly revolving door of changing band members, failing health and bad life decisions prevented him from staying at the top. His severe physical problems made it difficult for him to work as often as he would have liked. And the tragic accidents that first paralyzed him and then killed his good friend Cochran eventually led to severe depression and struggles with substance abuse.
But Gene Vincent nevertheless left behind a work unlike any other. His style was strong, wild and fun. His talent was incredible and we can all be thankful for the musical legacy he left behind. If you haven’t heard much of Vincent’s music besides “Be Bop a Lula”, do yourself a huge favor and check out some of his other recordings. You will not be disappointed!
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