Cliff Gallup, running with the devil

By Sergio Ariza

The approximate time that Clifton E. Gallup, better known as Cliff Gallup, was in the front line of rock & roll was eight months, from February 1956, when he was part of Gene Vincent's backing band, until October 18 when he had his last recording session with the singer. In those eight months he recorded 35 songs with Vincent that form, along with the Elvis Presley and Scotty Moore sessions at Sun and the Ricky Nelson singles with James Burton, the Holy Trinity of rockabilly guitar.   


Never has a guy who hadn't even spent a year of his life in the limelight had such a great subsequent influence. Not only did all the guitarists interested in the genre, such as Brian Setzer, hold him in high esteem, but Gallup was the original source of inspiration for giants such as Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page and, above all, Jeff Beck.

The guitarist was born in Norfolk, Virginia, on June 17, 1930, and started playing the six string at the age of eight. His first electric came to him as a teenager; possibly one of the cheap models from the Sears & Roebuck store. His main influences were Les Paul and Chet Atkins, with Gallup being the one who would carry their imprint into rock & roll. But the guitar with which he would go down in history would come in 1954 when he got his hands on a Gretsch Jet Duo 6128 from that same year. Note the serial number, 15654, because it is one of the most important early rock & roll guitars, close behind Chuck Berry's ES-350T and Scotty Moore's Gibson L-5. The guitar cost him $274.50; and he just finished paying for it shortly before meeting the man with whom he was to revolutionize rock & roll.


Gallup had made a name for himself playing in various clubs with The Virginians, so he was the first chosen for the group with which Tex Davis was going to surround the guy who had surprised him in a talent contest on his radio station, WCMS: his name was Eugene Vincent Craddock. It was early 1956 and the US was living under a new hurricane named Elvis Presley, whose Heartbreak Hotel was fast heading for the top of the charts. The band that was formed would go on to be called the Blue Caps and Gallup was the oldest in the band, about to turn 26, married with a daughter on the way. Yet when he met Vincent he saw that they had a lot in common, they both liked Sun's Elvis and had been blown away by
Carl Perkins' Blue Suede Shoes.

Vincent had a song he had written with his friend Don Graves called Be-Bop-A-Lula, and together they learned it and played it on a Norfolk radio show. The song caught the attention of Capitol which, like all the major labels, were looking for their own answer to the Elvis phenomenon. So they called the artist to do a session with them in their famous Nashville studio.


It was May 4, 1956 and Capitol producer Ken Nelson had his team of top session musicians ready, among them guitarists like Hank Garland, who would play on several Elvis Presley hits, and Grady Martin himself, who also made his mark with his recordings with Johnny Burnette, (again) Elvis and Roy Orbison. But Vincent had taken with him the Blue Caps, and Gallup was not a guy to be intimidated. So he plugged his Duo Jet into Martin's amp, a Standel 25L15, and waited for Vincent's cue. The first song they played that day was Run With The Devil, another Vincent original, but the secret weapon came when Vincent yelled, "Let's drag now!" and Gallup launched into a cascade of notes played at a speed unheard of for the time. By the time the singer shouted, "Let's drag again!" and Gallup again demonstrated his incredible dexterity, Garland, Martin and the rest of the session musicians were tucking their instruments into their sockets ready to abandon a session in which it was clear they were not needed.

That same day they also recorded Be-Bop-A-Lula, Woman Love and I Sure Miss You. Incredibly the company chose Woman Love as the A-side of the first single, relegating Be-Bop-A-Lula to the B-side. Nonetheless the DJs decided to play the latter and when the single was released in June of that same year, it was that song that would make them stars. The song went through the roof and sparked comparisons to Elvis himself: Gallup again had two moments of glory, with two more magnificent solos.


Things were going wonderfully and that same month, June 1956, in four sessions, from June 24-27, Gene Vincent and the Blue-Caps - Gallup himself on lead guitar, "Wee" Willie Williams on rhythm guitar, "Jumpin'" Jack Neal on bass, and Dickie "Be Bop" Harrell on drums - recorded 16 songs for the band's first album, Bluejean Bop! which was released on August 13, 1956. It is one of the best rock & roll records of the 50's, with such incredible songs as Bluejean Bop, Who Slapped John? (with another wild solo by Gallup), Jump Back Honey Jump Back, Wedding Bells (Are Breaking Up That Old Gang Of Mine), Jumps, Giggles and Shouts and Bop Street, composed by the guitarist.

The band was playing daily during the days of the recording, while at concerts Gallup opted for a Fender Tweed amplifier, and that shows in those sessions, one of the most spontaneous of that first rock & roll, as they have a direct sound: furious, spontaneous and without any 'overdub'. It is the closest thing to listening to a live rock & roll concert. Gallup has an incredible sound of his own, full of echo; and he just knows intuitively how to insert the work of Les Paul and Atkins into rock vocabulary.   


But life on the road was getting tough for Gallup, who was homesick for his pregnant wife, so in the fall of '56 he decided to quit the band and return to his hometown to work as a high school janitor. Still, his sound was so important to the band that he was persuaded to record some final sessions in October '56. Between the 15th and 18th, Gallup reunited with his old band to record the 15 songs that would make up Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps' wonderful second album, simply called Gene Vincent & the Blue Caps.

The Duo Jet gave lessons again on songs like Red Blue Jeans and a Ponytail, Hold Me, Hug Me, Rock Me and Cruisin,' in which Gallup launched himself down a cliff of wild descending notes at lightning velocity, as well as leaving the band with another song written by him, You Better Believe. It is incredible to see the level he had, playing with a speed and clarity that would not be repeated until his most advanced student, Jeff Beck, began his period with the Yardbirds.

The fact is that Cliff Gallup's passage through the history of rock & roll was brief but left a tremendous mark. In the UK a generation of teenagers got their hands on electric guitars after hearing his bursts of electricity on recordings with Vincent. When they took the world by storm, a decade after Gallup retired, he continued to prefer anonymity and family life in his small town, though he never stopped playing, including on the same evening of the day he died on October 9, 1988. There were no big headlines, nor did he appear on the news, but all those who appreciate the guitar and rock & roll were certain that one of the greatest ever had just departed.