Inductee: Gene Vincent (vocals, guitar; born 2/11/35, died 10/12/71)
Though he landed his contract with Capitol Records largely because he sounded like Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent quickly established himself as a rockabilly pioneer and the very personification of rock and roll rebellion. Born Vincent Gene Craddock, he grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, and served in the Korean war as an enlisted navyman until a motorcycle accident resulted in a crippling leg injury. Vincent listened to country music as a youngster and picked up the guitar in his teens, so it was a natural progression for him to embrace rock and roll. A radio station-WCMS in Hampton Roads, Virginia-solicited talent for Country Showtime, a Grande Ol Opry-style showcase aired live from a local theater on Friday evenings, and Vincent showed up. He won a spot owing to his uncanny covers of Elvis Presley songs. He also had a song of his own called “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”
A tape sent to a Capitol Records A&R man landed Vincent a contract, and he and his band found themselves recording in Nashville in May 1956. They struck paydirt with “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” a simmering, reverb-drenched rocker that rose to #7. A rockabilly classic, “Be-Bop-A-Lula” ranks with “That’s All Right,” by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” as pure rockabilly gold. Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps recorded prolifically for Capitol in the late Fifties and were rewarded with such hits as “Lotta Lovin’” and “Dance to the Bop.”
The original set of Blue Caps of lead guitarist Cliff Gallup, rhythm guitarist Willie Williams, bassist Jack Neal and drummer Dickie Harrell. Their work is revered by discriminating rock and rollers to this day. No less a disciple than guitarist Jeff Beck paid tribute Vincent-and, especially, to Gallup’s fiery fretwork-on an album of covers entitled Crazy Legs. Capitol released six albums by Vincent and the Blue Caps between 1957 and 1960, all of which rank among the priciest and most collectable LPs of the rock and roll era. Original copies of Vincent’s Capitol albums routinely change hands for $400.
Vincent appeared in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956), one of the earliest rock and roll films, alongside Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran and others. An archetypal Fifties rocker with a souped-up sound and disheveled look, Vincent embodied the image of rebellion. Over in England, he appeared dressed in black leather on a British TV show-the first rock and roller to be so attired. Though he toured and recorded incessantly, Vincent’s popularity waned at home as the rockabilly era gave way to that of manicured teen idols. He nonetheless remained a revered star in Britain and Europe throughout the Sixties.
Vincent was seriously hurt in the same car crash outside London that killed Eddie Cochran in 1960. Even before the accident Vincent walked with a limp as the result of a 1955 motorcycle mishap. There was even talk of amputation at a Veterans Administration hospital in 1966. Vincent recorded intermittently in the Sixties while remaining an in-demand live performer, especially when listeners rediscovered the roots of rock. John Peel, a legendary British disk jockey and producer, released I’m Back and I’m Proud in 1969 on his Dandelion label, and it was the best of several attempted comeback records. Yet Vincent’s later years were troubled ones that found him plagued by chronic pain and drinking problems. He died in 1971 of a bleeding ulcer at age 36.