In some ways Gene Vincent, born 11 February 1935, had a similar character to the recently deceased producer Phil Spector. Both were musical pioneers, with Spector being the spark behind many hits with his legendary ‘wall of sound’; while Vincent was at the vanguard of rock n’ roll and rockabilly. Both, on the other hand, had a dark side that involved an obsession with guns. Spector ended up being caged for shooting a woman in the head, while Vincent’s terrifying CV included Paul McCartney witnessing him pull a pistol on his girlfriend while they were together in Hamburg. Two years later Vincent was taken to court for pointing a gun at his wife and threatening to shoot her, and this was followed by similar acts towards, for example, Shadows’ bassist Jet Harris and Glam singer Gary Glitter; which understandably left them terrified. Ironically, these incidents helped introduce Vincent to a whole new audience in 1977 when Ian Dury released Sweet Gene Vincent, which contained the lyric: “Sweet Gene Vincent, There's one in every town, And the devil drives 'till the hearse arrives, And you lay that pistol down.”
In fact Vincent’s hearse arrived in October 1971 after he died from heart failure and internal haemorraging. He was 36 years old. Despite his obvious flaws, however, he left behind a body of work that was hugely influential and that endures to this day. Here are Guitars Exchange’s pick of his 10 best songs.
10. My Heart
My Heart was written by Johnny Burnette and released by Gene Vincent in 1959 on Capitol Records. Kicking off with a catchy drum beat and a Duane Eddy style guitar sound, Vincent memorably sings: “My lips just can't kiss enough of , My arms just can't squeeze enough of, My heart just can't love enough of you (wo-ho woa-a-ho)”; though it is the line “Oh, Don't care for a diamond ring” that makes one wonder about the extent of his influence on the later Beatles’ hits.
9. Dance to the Bop
In 1957 Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps released Dance to the Bop which entered the top 30 in the US Billboard charts, propelled by their appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. The track contains a fine guitar solo at around 1’ 30” but starts with reference to the musical genre that was to make Vincent a legend: “We'll dance a little bit to the bop, to the bop, Dance a little bit to the bop, Well, dance a little bit to the bop, Well, now dance to the rock 'n' roll.”
8. Wild Cat
Wild Cat was a much more pop-oriented song, written by Wally Gold and Aaron Schroeder and released in December 1959. “Don’t ever try to tame a wild cat,” Vincent sings. On the 15th of the same month, Vincent appeared on Jack Good's TV show, Boy Meets Girl, which represented his first UK appearance. It was on this show that he wore a black leather suit, gloves, and a large circular medallion; all of which he would forevermore be associated with.
7. I'm Going Home
I’m Going Home, written by Bob Bain, was released in 1961 and only made 36 in the UK charts, which is surprising because it is an enormously catchy song. The lyrics - “I'm goin' home, To see my baby, I'm goin' home, To see my gal, Don't you know, She really loves me, Don't you know, She really care,” won’t win any poetry competitions, but Vincent’s deep and lonesome voice at the beginning help us appreciate why the man nicknamed The Screaming End became such a heart-throb.
6. She She Little Sheila
Written by Jerry Merritt and Whitey Pullen She She Little Sheila, also released in 1961, is a hook laden song that conjures up the image of teenagers enthusiastically be-bopping in a dance hall, as it is hard not to move your feet while listening.
5. Pistol Packin' Mama
Pistol Packin' Mama was written by Al Dexter and first made popular by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters in the 1940s. Vincent then re-released the song in 1960, with Georgie Fame on piano, and took it to number 15 in the UK charts. Personally I much prefer Vincent’s version of the song, though one wonders if the gun-toting icon saw any irony in hearing himself sing: “Lay that pistol down, babe, Lay that pistol down, Pistol packing mama, Lay that pistol down.”
4. Race with the Devil
The legendary Cliff Gallup, who played lead guitar on Race with Devil, released in 1956, was initially doubted by producer Ken Nelson, who reportedly had session musicians on standby in case his playing was not up to the mark. However as Sheriff Davis (who managed and co-wrote the song with Vincent) commented later: "When they heard Cliff go off on all those runs, they turned to each other and went, 'Whaaat! Whaaat!'" In his brief but highly influential time playing with the Blue Caps Gallup became known for his love of the 1954 Gretsch 6128 (Duo-Jet); and it was to serve him outstandingly on many of Vincent’s most famous songs.
3. Bluejean Bop
Blue Jean Bop was also released in 1956 (what a year for Vincent and his band!) from their debut album of the same name. Like many of the songs on the record it only came in at around two and a half minutes long… but each of those 180 seconds rocked! It is hard to believe that Vincent’s leg was wrapped in steel and that he was in constant pain from crashing his Triumph motorbike shortly before.
2. Lotta Lovin'
Lotta Lovin', written by Bernice Bedwell, hit the US top twenty in 1957, boosted by Vincent’s performance on his first appearance on Dick Clark’s TV show American Bandstand. The lead guitarist in that moment was Johnny Meeks, who had replaced Cliff Gallup on this track.
Wile there are a number of stories told about the source of this mythical song, Dickie Harrell, The Blue Caps’ drummer, told Mojo magazine in 2000, that "the song was written by a guy from Portsmouth named Donald Graves."According to Harrell, Vincent and his manager Sheriff Davis bought the song from Graves for $25 dollars. "It happened a lot in those days. Guys would take the sure money," he said. Harrell spontaneously screamed during an early performance of the song, and Vincent liked it so much that he hollered every time the group performed it thereafter.
Be-Bop-A-Lula sold 200,000 copies immediately upon its release in June 1956 and rapidly gained Vincent a devoted following. Aside from Vincent, Gallup, and Harrell, the song featured Willie Williams on rhythm guitar and Jack Neal on string bass. Capitol, Vincent’s record label, were looking for someone to rival Elvis at the time, and it is said that the similarities were so great that Elvis’s mother herself confused the two when she first heard the song. It peaked at number 7 in the US Billboard charts and number 16 in the UK; but here it is number one on our list of Gene Vincent’s top 10 songs.