He is the king; if it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I would have never picked up a guitar.” — Pete Townsend
by john pinamonti
Hey there and welcome back down to the Root Cellar. Sorry I didn’t hear you knockin’, but I had Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps cranked up and was busy jumping up and down and hopping all around. What’s that you say – you could hear it all the way down the block?! Well, I guess I’d better turn it down a bit then! Let’s talk about Gene and Link Wray for a bit, and then we’ll turn it back up and no, I don’t care what the neighbors say! I know you’ve probably heard of Gene and his biggest hit Be Bop a Lula (“She-ee-eee’s my baaaay-bah”), but maybe you don’t know about some of his other great performances or his fantastic band. The best way to hear and learn more is to get a disc put out by those great folks at Razor & Tie called The Screaming End: The Best of Gene Vincent (Razor & Tie – 2123) They have managed to put together a great song selection AND they used all the original mono mixes. Why is this such a big deal? Well, there no clunkers or filler material AND the mono mix centered around Gene’s vocals only enhances the amazing energy these lads generated. The most notable member of the band is lead guitarist Cliff Gallup. Cliff was a huge influence on many great players such as Jeff Beck, George Harrison and Brian Setzer, and if you recognize parts of his solos and fills, it’s only because he has been widely emulated and his influence continues to this day (Note Beck’s CD Crazy Legs (Sony International – 505479), recorded in 1993, which is Jeff’s cool homage to his hero, or any number of Vincent songs and Gallup-tinged solos recorded by Setzer). While it is true that Cliff could and did “rip it up” with the best of them, one thing that I think is often overlooked about him and the rest of the Blue Caps is how they played around Gene, and how each part perfectly compliments and rides with the vocals. Seems to me it’s sort of the musical equivalent of driving a ’57 T-Bird. You start out cruising along, sometimes you rev it up, sometimes you shift down, then punch it up coming out of a curve, and sometimes you coast it into a nice easy stop. Listen to the third track “Woman Love,” where the band plays smooth and lean (led by bassist Jack Neal), then rocks out during Cliff Gallup’s solos, and finally pulls off a cool fade for a cushy end. You can talk all you want about Vincent’s gripping stage presence and rebel image or Gallup’s guitar heroics – yes, these things were a big part of the whole. But don’t forget that as a whole this band was a great band, and none of these tracks would’ve happened without the whole band. Check out this story about their first major recording session. The well-known producer Ken Nelson was all set to record Gene, and he had a bunch of top-rate studio pros standing on call. Seems he wasn’t sure if the Blue Caps were “professional” enough to cut it, and he wanted to make sure the playing behind Gene was solid and the songs were decently recorded. Well, the Caps drove out to Nashville (from their hometown of Norfolk, VA), set up in Owen Bradley’s studio, and proceeded to blow the roof off the joint! The stand-by guys were never used, and the Blue Caps created some classic tracks that are the very essence of rock and roll. Clearly things would’ve sounded a lot different had those studio pros been used, but Ken Nelson was wise enough to realize that he had a solid band at hand. If you want to know more about Gene, check out this nice bio on the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and Official Gene Vincent website:
Muchas muchas gracias to Bob Timmers and Craddock family for the link and for all the helpful info and pictures. The site has a wide variety of stuff about Gene, including his post-Blue Caps career and his huge influence on rock and roll. It’s a compelling and often tragic story, but it’s one that people should be aware of. The real tragedy is that Gene and the Caps have never received the recognition they deserve. Gene gave all he had when he performed, and for that he should always be remembered and rediscovered.
Another great disc in a similar vein is Rumble! The Best of Link Wray (Rhino – 71222). Link is one of the first guitar heroes along with the likes of Gallup, Duane Eddy, Chuck Berry, Scotty Moore, Carl Perkins and Buddy Holly who helped bring the electric guitar to the forefront of popular music and create rock and roll. He and Eddy stand apart because most of what they recorded was instrumental, so there was nothing to focus on except the guitar. While it is true that Eddy was a bigger instrumental hit maker, Link was unique in that he approached instrument in an aggressive and almost primitive manner, using slashing power chords and funky blues like to create songs like “Rumble”, “Jack the Ripper”, “Rawhide”, “The Black Widow” and “The Swag”. Just like with Gallup, when you hear Link, you will hear things that sound familiar because he was required learning for all budding guitarists in the late 50’s/early 60’s. One of the best pieces I’ve read about Link is the liner essay of the CD by the late great Cub Koda. He put it best when he wrote:
“Though rock historians always like to draw a nice, clean line between the distorted electric guitar work that fuels early blues records to the late-’60s Hendrix-Clapton-Beck-Page-Townshend mob, with no stops in between, a quick spin of any of the sides Link recorded during his golden decade punches holes in that theory right quick. If a direct line from a black blues musician crankin’ up his amp and playing with a ton of violence and aggression can be traced to a young, white guy doing a mutated form of same, the line points straight to Link Wray, no contest. Pete Townsend summed it up for more guitarists than he probably realized when he said, ‘He is the king; if it hadn’t been for Link Wray and ‘Rumble,’ I would have never picked up a guitar’.”
Final note: You blues fans out there will love hearing Link’s version of the Jimmy Reed classic “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby,” his over-the-top version of Willie Dixon’s “Hidden Charms,” and his own tune “Climbing a High Wall.” These tunes feature Link’s own, shall we say “unique” (!) vocal style and some guitar pickin’ that gives a heavy metal blues guy like Hendrix a run for his money.
Now go slip on your leather jacket, light up a Marlboro, put on your shades and your best sneer, pop these discs on your stereo and rock ’til you drop. Or just stand there looking cool, if you prefer.
Catch you on the flip side!
John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.