Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps
Gene Vincent is a “woulda-been” story. He woulda been great had he been well managed, not been preyed upon by his record companies, had he written some more hit songs, and if he hadn’t gone from the bottle to the bottom. What he didn’t squander himself, others were kind enough to squander for him.
“Be-Bop-A-Lula” is his shining moment, though, a moment brighter than most people ever see in life.
It’s a simple Rock-A-Billy song crossed with the Blues. Its roots can be heard easily in Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” although “Be-Bop” is, as the title implies, quite a bit cheerier in outlook. Its influence can be heard loud and clear in “Yer Blues” from The Beatles’ White Album.
The Blue Caps, Vincent’s backup band were a seminal influence on (mostly) British bands, especially the great guitar-god-led ones. Vincent and His Blue Caps (named for the caps U.S. Navy personnel wore in the mid-’50s) never caught on as big in America as they did in the British Isles. Astoundingly, they have stayed big and are probably one of the chief early R&R groups in the public consciousness in Great Britain.
Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and Jeff beck all cite Cliff Gallup, lead guitarist of the Blue Caps, as a major influence. Confounding as it seems, Gallup spent the last 30 years of his life in various capacities with the Chesapeake, VA, maintenance department. He continued to play guitar but as a hobby rather than professionally.
Drummer Dickie “Be Bop” Harrell is often recalled as the inspiration for the next generation of Rock drummers like Keith Moon. Harrell was a master of showmanship. At times he would take his snare drum and walk among the audience still playing madly with the one stick in his free hand.
Harrell emits the startling scream in the middle of “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”
Vincent’s faraway echoey vocals express the heat the singer feels toward Lula, a fictional gal. And the title of the song is more more than a set of nonsense syllables that are reflective of Jazz and Scat singing. Ultimately, it’s meant to reflect cool. Be-Bop cool. Dark, smokey-club cool. Spliff-and-highball cool.
But also a very simple kind of cool. Teenage cool.
Well, she’s the girl in the red blue jeans
She’s the queen of all the teens
She’s the one that I know
She’s the one that loves me so
Say be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby
Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe
Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby
Be-bop-a-lula, I don’t mean maybe
Be-bop-a-lula, she’s my baby love
My baby love, my baby love
You’re not getting Abbey Road here. You’re getting one of the peppercorns that went into the broth that eventually was used to mix and stir subsequent great albums.
It has the earmarks of great old Rock-N-Roll. It’s sexy, funny, alien and has great guitars and a hammerhead rhythm section.
Vincent died at 36 in 1971. Very young, although his star was very faint by then.
He nearly bought it in England in the car crash that killed Eddie “Summertime Blues” Cochran back in 1960. Both men had been rising talents in Europe and the crash ended both careers. Vincent had to live through his own long decline, whereas Cochran went straight to Rock-N-Roll Heaven. (A gunshot killed rhythm guitarist Wee Willie Williams in 1999.)
Gene Vincent was the epitome of the old Rock-N-Roll life. Live fast, die young, get ripped off. It’s a shame because the promise of “Be-Bop-A-Lula” dangles like a fruit in a long-ago garden, tempting us to wonder what might have been.
- Rave on, it’s a crazy feeling… In an interview late in his short life, Gene Vincent said:”Listen, I never meant to make money. I never wanted it. I’m a singer, man. When I put out a record called “Be Bop-A-Lula,” my only thought was to just make a living singing. But all of a sudden, I was getting $1500 a night. And you take a 19-year-old boy and put him in those circumstances… I had a Cadillac and all. It was a bad scene. It shouldn’t have happened on that first record.”