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Propagating the Rockabilly Gene

'Be-Bop-A-Lula' Style Was Born in the '50s, but Vincent's Blue Caps Are Still Firing in Their 50s

August 17, 1996|BUDDY SEIGAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

For every fan of early rock 'n' roll, there's one act that stands above the rest. For some it's the young, hip-swaying Elvis, for others the demonically inspired Jerry Lee Lewis, and for still others, it's the outrageously salacious Little Richard.

For my money, it's Gene Vincent & the Blue Caps. This explosive, novalike unit played with all the thunder of the classic black rhythm & blues acts. It also boasted chops to equal most be-bop jazz groups but still had the fire of young rebels that burned so brightly it was inevitable it couldn't last.

Vincent, of course, lived fast, loved hard and was only 36 when he died in 1971 of alcoholism and complications from injuries he received in the same 1960 car crash that killed Eddie Cochran. Cliff Gallup--the Blue Caps' revered original guitarist--died of a heart attack two years ago.

But other members of the Blue Caps are alive and well--a young Buck Owens played on some of Vincent's recording sessions--and will headline a rockabilly extravaganza Sunday at the Foothill club in Signal Hill. The bill also includes Buddy Knox, Jerry Lee Merritt, Russell Scott, the Sun Demons plus other guests that haven't been announced.

Erroneously billed as "1958 Blue Caps," this is in fact the 1957 edition: drummer Dickie Harrell, guitarist Johnny Meeks and background singers-clappers Paul Peek and Tommy Fascenda. L.A.'s Russell Scott replaces '57 Blue Caps bassist Bobby Jones, who was unavailable for this tour.

Over the years, Vincent's reputation as the original bad rockabilly cat has, if anything, grown. But Harrell knew a different side of him during his two-year stint with the Blue Caps.

"I'll tell you something: When I was with Gene, you couldn't meet a nicer person," he said. "He went out of his way to do things for people, especially the public. This was his life. If he could have died on that stage, he would have been tickled to death. He was very devoted.

"But as time went on, changes in management, changes in the band, trouble with record labels, promoters, women messed him up," Harrell said. "All that drinking he did--it all takes its toll. I've heard people say he got pretty rowdy toward the end."

Speaking recently from his home in Portsmouth, Va., a very enthusiastic and youthful-sounding Harrell agreed there was something special about the Blue Caps, whose catalog includes "Be-Bop-A-Lula," "Lotta Lovin'," "Hold Me, Hug Me, Rock Me," "B-I-Bickey-Bi-Bo," "She She Little Sheila" and "Wear My Ring." Harrell gives Gallup much of the credit for the group's enduring legacy.

"Cliff was the best," Harrell said in a thick accent. "He was a very serious musician, he was dedicated, and he didn't go in for a whole lot of playing around and goofing off. . . . I guess that's why he was so good, because he was a perfectionist.

"We used to do a lot of jumping around. Jackie [Neal, the original bassist] would throw his bass up in the air and all kinds of stuff, but Cliff never went in for that."

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Harrell's jazzy, popping snare work added much to the Blue Caps' distinctive sound. Harrell was not only among the genre's finest drummers, but he also originated what has become a rockabilly cliche--standing up while playing the drums. It was his wild, hackle-raising rebel yell that punctuated the instrumental breaks on Blue Caps sides, bringing an extra maniacal edge to those records.

"It started when we made 'Be-Bop-A-Lula,' " Harrell recalled. "I don't know what happened, I just felt like screaming. When it happened, Cliff stopped playing and said, 'What the hell was that?' Gene said, 'I don't know, but I liked it--let's keep it.' "

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In addition, Harrell was always a marvel to watch, smashing at his snare as if pounding an enemy into submission. The whole group played at times with an intensity that could make Satan shake in his hooves.

"We had a good time," he said. "It made us feel good to play like that. And when you were on one of those shows with a number of artists who all had hit records out, you had to do something so you'd stand out, so people would remember you."

Among the signs of continuing interest in Vincent and his band is a new album, on the tiny, Venice-based Skizmatic Records, "Turning the World Blue: A Tribute to Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps." It's scheduled to hit stores this week and features performances by veteran and modern-day rockabilly performers including Ray Campi, Levi Dexter, Johnny Legend, James Intveld, Russell Scott & the Red Hots, the Sun Demons and Hot Rod Lincoln. ( [310] 462-8593.)

Various editions of the Blue Caps have been reuniting since the early '80s, when the popularity of the Stray Cats brought about a rockabilly revival that has endured in varying degrees to this day.

Harrell, 56, has kept his government job in a supply factory but enjoys the periodic returns to the stage.

"Some people seem to think we'll all be in wheelchairs," he said. "I had one fellow call up and ask me if this was the answering service for the nursing home. I've heard fellows say that people just come out to the shows to see if we're really alive. I can't understand what the problem is."

* The Blue Caps, Buddy Knox, Jerry Lee Merritt, Russell Scott, the Sun Demons and others play Sunday at the Foothill, 1922 Cherry Ave., Signal Hill. 7 p.m. $10. (310) 494-5196.

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