Song 71 – Be-Bop-A-Lula

SONG: Be-Bop-A-Lula

ARTIST: Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps

YEAR: 1956

Listen to it here: 

THE SONG:

Be-Bop-A-Lula was written by Gene Vincent and his manager, Bill “Sherill Tex” Davis in 1955. Vincent started writing the song as he recuperated from a motorcycle accident at the US Naval Hospital in Portsmouth, Virginia with his hospitalized friend Donald Graves, who allegedly wrote the lyrics. Bill Davis then allegedly bought out Graves’ rights to the song for $50 and had himself credited as the lyric writer. Shady. 

The story Vincent sometimes tells of this song is that it was influenced by the comic strip “Little Lulu”: “I come in dead drunk and stumble over the bed. And me and Don Graves were looking at this bloody book; it was called Little Lulu. And I said, “Hell, man, it’s ‘Be-Bop-a-Lulu.” And he said, “Yean, man, swinging.” And we wrote this song.”

THE ARTIST:

Vincent Eugene Craddock was born in Norfolk, Virginia and grew up listening to country, rhythm and blues, and gospel music. He also loved Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. He got his first guitar as a gift from a friend at twelve years old. 

Vincent dropped out of school at age seventeen and enlisted in the US Navy. He ended up deploying to the Korean War, but did not see combat. Vincent’s plan was to be a career Navy man and used his $612 re-enlistment bonus to buy a new Triumph motorcycle in 1955. In July of that year, he shattered his leg in a crash on said motorcycle. He refused to allow his leg to be amputated, but then walked with a permanent limp and pretty bad pain. He actually wore a steel sheath around that leg for the rest of his life. Shortly after recovering in hospital, he was discharged from the Navy. 

At this point, Craddock became involved in the local music scene in Norfolk, where he changed his name to Gene Vincent and formed a rockabilly band, Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps. They played mainly in country bars for their first year, but then they won a talent contest put on by a local radio DJ, “Sheriff Tex” Davis, who then became Vincent’s manager. 

Be-Bop-A-Lula was Vincent’s first big hit, and drew comparisons between him and Elvis. The song got picked up by radio stations across the US and eventually saw 17 weeks on the Billboard charts. 

Shortly after Vincent’s newfound stardom, he encountered some tax problems. Vincent ended up selling the band’s equipment to pay the tax bills. At that point, Vincent left the US for Europe. He had some television appearances in the UK, France, and the Netherlands, but his stay in Europe was cut short when he was involved in a high-speed traffic accident which broke his ribs and collarbone, and further damaged his weak leg. It also killed one of the others in the accident. At that point, Vincent moved back to the States. 

Vincent had some anger issues, and had to appear in court in 1963 for pointing a gun at his then wife and threatening to kill her. A couple years later, Vincent pulled a gun on Jet Harris. Many have speculated that Vincent was struggling with alcohol abuse at this time. Then in 1968 after a fairly successful tour, Vincent tried to shoot Gary Glitter in a German Hotel. Several other stories involving Vincent and guns also float around. 

Gene Vincent died at the tragically young age of 36 on October 12, 1971, from a combination of a ruptured ulcer, internal haemorrhage and heart failure, in Saugus, California. 

FACTOID CORNER:

Gene Vincent was the first inductee into the Rockabilly Hall of Fame in 1997.

KELLY’S REVIEW:

I love me some Rockabilly, and this is a great example!  I’ve heard this song a thousand times, but never really listened to it within the context of a critical ear or a cultural touchstone.  Anyway, you can totally hear Buddy Holly in this song, and I guess that was the sound at the time – the hiccup style of singing, the brushes or super light drum sound, the heavy duty reverb on the vocals.  It reminds me of sitting in the chair at the tattoo shop I frequent, listening to the modern surf/rockabilly music and staring at the American Traditional-style of tattoo art on the walls as a way of eschewing the seemingly unending burning-scratching duo of the needle on my arm or these days, leg.  Anyhow, I think there’s something to be said that modern day rockabilly bands STILL emulate this guitar and drum sound some 60 something years later.  The guitar solos are actually pretty decent in this song and Gene Vincent vocally sounds pretty good.  Is there bass in this song?  If there is, the engineer did a great job of absolutely burying it in the mix.  You can hear the blues influence and how it probably influenced a lot of other musicians of the time, but I think it’s…ok.  Maybe it’s because I’ve had this life long love affair with Buddy Holly and I just think he does rockabilly better, but this song for me lands in the ‘good not great’ category.

HOLLY’S REVIEW:

This is just such a fun rockabilly song that I’ve never really listened to critically. You can totally hear Buddy Holly’s influence in this, but unfortunately, I think it’s just not as good overall as a Buddy Holly song. I do love the sound of that guitar, and think it’s great, and Gene Vincent’s voice sounds pretty good. I also kind of like that yell that comes out every once and again. I wish there was more bass, and I wish the drums sound better overall. The thing I really don’t like is the reverb and the balance. To me the reverb sounds incredibly artificial and kind of spooky, which is weird, and Buddy Holly just had maybe a better sound engineer or something. Also, I miss those background vocals. I like this song, it was fun to listen to. I don’t love it, though. 

Average mark out of 10:

Holly: 7/10

Kelly: 7.5/10

Other notable versions of this song:

Brian Setzer and The Stray Cats do their modern take:

Paul McCartney just really enjoying performing this song:

The Everly Brothers, once again proving my theory that just because you CAN harmonize something doesn’t mean you SHOULD:

Listen with us!

Link to 1,001 Songs to Hear Before You Die spotify playlist:

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