Gene Vincent isn’t exactly a household name to modern fans of pop music. But to Rockabilly fans, he’s one of the all-time great idols. Vincent and his band the Blue Caps accounted for some of the absolute wildest moments in early rock and roll history with an all-out, go-for-broke style. So much so that Rolling Stone magazine has called Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps “the first rock and roll band in the world.”
While that statement may not be technically true, it is true that the band was one of the first to really let loose with their music. Vincent cultivated a leather-jacketed greaser image while his Blue Caps were a rollicking bunch that seemed simply to be out looking for the most fun they could find.
The early years
Vincent, born Vincent Eugene Craddock in 1935, grew up (like so many other rockabilly artists of the time) dirt poor in the American south. The country music that he heard growing up mixed with the feel of the rhythm and blues he also heard and primed him perfectly for becoming a rockabilly musician. He began playing guitar and singing when a friend gave him his first guitar at the age of 12.
A life-changing accident
In 1952 Vincent joined the US Navy. Three years later while riding his motorcycle, he was hit by a car that had run through a red light. His left leg was severely smashed and doctors wanted to amputate it. His parents talked them out of it and save Gene’s leg, but he was never able to walk properly again. For the rest of his life he wore a leg brace and experienced serious bouts of pain with the leg.
As fate would have it though, it was this bad leg and his leg brace that gave him a very unique stage presence. Vincent was as wild on stage as his leg would allow him to be and often struck a peculiar stiff-legged stance as he sang. It became somewhat of a signature for him.
The big time
Vincent hit the big time in 1956 with the smash hit “Be Bop a Lula” which was quite unlike anything anyone had heard before. He followed that up with a wonderful rocker called “Race With the Devil”. While that song didn’t do particularly well on the charts, it’s a magnificent song that really showcases the Blue Caps’ lead guitarist Cliff Gallup who many consider to be the greatest rockabilly guitarist of them all. Vincent’s third single, “Blue Gene Bop” was another big hit and his career was looking very bright.
Vincent continued to have commercial success during the 50s, but had trouble with almost constant personnel changes in his band. That, coupled with the continuing problems he was constantly having with his leg, slowed him down a bit. By the late 1950s, Gene’s record sales were slowing down considerably. However, he was still a major concert draw, especially in places like Japan, Australia, and Great Britain where they still loved the original rock and rollers.
Another great tragedy
Eventually Vincent met another singer who would become his close friend: Eddie Cochran. The two were on several tours together throughout the world during the late 50s. It was on one of these tours in 1960, when the two were playing all around England, that tragedy struck. As they were riding in a taxi late one night, the driver, who was driving excessively fast, lost control of the car and smashed into a cement post. Gene was badly injured and his friend Eddie Cochran was killed.
The final chapter
Devastated by the loss of his friend and now experiencing more pain in his leg than ever, Vincent carried on with his career. He recorded some great material during the 1960s, but never again scored any big hits like he had in the mid 50s. Gene’s health deteriorated even more and his battle with unhealthy living didn’t help matters. He was touring England once again in 1971 when his health took a final turn for the worse. He returned to California where he died just a few days later. He was only 36 years old.
Vincent’s story is a tragic one. He was a brilliant singer and performer and though he had several successful songs, bad management, a constantly revolving door that kept his band members changing, deteriorating health, and poor life decisions kept him from staying at the top. His severe physical problems made it difficult to work as often and as hard as he would have liked to. And the tragic accidents that first crippled him and then killed his good friend Cochran eventually led to sever depression and struggles with substance abuse.
But Gene Vincent nonetheless left behind a body of work unlike any other. His style was strong, wild, and fun. His talent was amazing and we can all be thankful for the musical legacy that he left behind. If you haven’t heard much of Vincent’s music beyond “Be Bop a Lula”, do yourself a huge favor and check out some of his other recordings. You won’t be disappointed!