The Drummer from Gene Vincent & The Blue Caps
is Alive and Well in Virginia
by Michael Buffalo Smith
The most exciting rock and roller of the 1950's may have been Elvis, but running a close, close second was Gene Vincent, the original "bad boy" of rock and roll. And right behind Gene on the drum kit was a 15-year old fireball named Dickie Harrell. I spoke with the drummer by phone from his home in Virginia.
What do you think about that big show they're having up in Wisconsin? (Ed. Note- A once in a lifetime week long event. See rockabillyhall.com for info.)
Wow. I think that's gonna be great.
Yeah, that's gonna be the "monster of music."
Are the Blue Caps gonna play?
We had talked to some people about being on it, but I don't know. They said that they didn't need any more entertainers. I guess not, with all of them bands! But I heard Wanda Jackson cancelled out for one reason or another, so I don't know.
Well the two main groups I wanted to see were The Comets and The Blue Caps! You know, Johnny (Meeks) lives about 30 miles from me!
Really? Where do you live?
Greenville, South Carolina.
That's right! Well you know Bobby Jones lives in Greenville. He played in the second batch of Blue Caps. He's the one that wrote "Baby Blue." He had that J&J Sandwiches, he and his wife. They just sold it recently to Country Earl.
Country Earl's Stomp and Chomp!
Yeah! That's it. In fact, I think his wife still works there.
Cool. Let's go to the questions. Your fans await.
Tell us where you were born and raised.
I was born in Portsmouth, Virginia. August 27, 1940.
When did you start playing the drums?
Oh, I picked it up when I was real young. I had just turned 15 when I went to work with Gene. I had been playing for about four or five years before that. Just playin' in the school band, and goofin' off - playing with some of the country bands around here. That went on for a while.
How did you first meet Gene Vincent?
I was working at a radio station-WCMS. They had this thing every week called Country Showtime. Local people would get up there and do their thing and try to win the talent contest. It turned out to be a pretty big thing. One day I was up at the station, and Bill Davis, he was a DJ, he told us there was a boy coming in that was in the Navy and was coming in on crutches to play. I said, well, this I have to see! He came on up there and that Friday night he got up to sing and everybody went crazy! He was crazy anyway. Especially with a cast and everything! He brought a lot of his sailor friends in their from the hospital too. It just progressed from there. Next thing you know, he was winning the contest every week!
Bill knew ol' Ken Nelson from Capitol Records, and he sent him some tapes. You know how it is. Somebody sells something, then everybody tries to find somebody similar and sell them too. That was the last of it. We didn't hear no more about it. Then one night we were having the Country Showtime thing, and after Gene got through singing he came out there and said he had heard back from Capitol. They wanted Gene to come out there and cut some records. The deal was, they didn't want the band, see? They had the best musicians in the country. They didn't need no more musicians. Bill told 'em he'd like to take the band too. He talked to Nelson, and Nelson said bring 'em on. If they don't work out we'll just send 'em back home. We talked about that when we were in California last month. We went by and saw Nelson.
We got together, and got a name for the band, and went out there and did our thing. They had musicians that were out there. From what I gathered, they were just sitting around waiting to see if we could cut it. After we played a couple of songs, Nelson told 'em they could go on home. I thought he was talking to us! (Laughs) I was getting ready to get packed to go.
So we made the record of "Be Bop a Lula." Actually, "Woman in Love" was supposed to be the "A" side. But we recorded "Be Bop a Lula," and for some reason I decided to scream. So I screamed and we stopped. And they turned around to me and said 'What the hell's going on here? We got a session going on here man!" I said I don't know, I just felt like it belonged in there. So Nelson asked Gene what he thought, and Gene said he liked it. So they kept it in there. See, they didn't know what they had. This was brand new stuff to them. Everything Capitol was cutting was country- and then they had Sinatra, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Sonny James and all them. This was something entirely different for them. I guess that's how they got that sound in the studio. Just trying something new.
Around what time period was this?
I would say 1956.
Tell us a bit about Gene. A little insight.
Well, he had a lot of talent. and a lot of people in the business, they can't sing unless they got all this technology and a million dollars worth of equipment. Be he wasn't like that. I've seen times when he would just get the guitar and sing by himself. He was gifted with a great voice, I'll tell you that.
Who wrote "Be Bop a Lula?"
From what I was told, him and Bill Davis wrote the song. But the rumor I have heard is that the song was bought while he was in the hospital. But it's like anything else, it happens everyday. Like this friend of mine is a writer up in Nashville. Once they write the song and sell it, I mean that song is yours to do what you want with it.
Put your name on it.
That's right. Or change a little something in it. Add a word, or change a verse. That's show business. I mean, it's being done every day. I don't know, but that's what I heard happened. They bought it and him and Bill got together and changed the words around. It's just one of them things, ya know.
Was Gene fun to be around?
Oh, yeah. And we kept him going, because he was always in pain with that leg. they were supposed to remove that leg when he was in the service.
What happened to his leg?
He got hit broadside on a motorcycle. His mama wouldn't let them remove his leg from what I understand. So by not doing it, he had to put up with all that pain all his life. But he was a lot of fun. We'd all get together and act like a bunch of crazy folks. It was hard to get Chris to act crazy like that in the stage, because Chris was strictly business. He was really tied to his music. I guess that's why he was so good. I used to get Jack to act crazy all the time. Chris didn't like that. We were playing one time in Vegas, and I got Jack to throw the bass fiddle up in the air while we were playing, and the bridge snapped off! They had to stop the show. Chris was...umph! But they liked it though. They thought it was part of the show.
Well, you've got to put on a show!
Yeah! That's what happened with all this country stuff. It was all just get up there and do your thing and get of the stage. Then they had Garth Brooks come along, and he started jumping into the audience on a rope and all that other stuff, and that did it! Now everywhere you go today everybody's got some kind of a show going on.
When we used to play on the shows we had Johnny Cash, we had George Jones, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Bob Luman- and they'd just look at us as if we'd lost our minds! They'd say 'what the hell are they doin?'
Well, rock and roll was just getting geared up.
And that Roy Orbison, I tell you, he didn't need nothing. What a voice. He was a good ol' guy too. All of 'em was. George Jones and all of 'em. I remember one night George Jones was opening for us and he opened up with "Be Bop a Lula." He told the audience, "if you think I'm gonna lay down on this ground, you're crazy! I'm gonna let him do that when he gets out here!" (Laughs) Then when Gene went out there, he opened up singing one of George's songs. (Laughs) They used to do that mess all the time. But we had some good ol' times though, we really did.
What would you say were some of the highlights of your time with Gene?
Oh man. I remember one time we were going to another town and we were up on top of this mountain, and it was real foggy and everything. So we got out of the car to see what we could see. Carl Perkins and his brothers were there. You couldn't see your hand in front of your face. Come to find out, if we would have went about two more feet, we would have been over the mountain.
We had some good times. It wasn't like it is today. We used to have seven, eight, ten acts on one show. But now today you got a star act and you got one opening act, and that's it. But the way we did, there was something for everybody.
I would have loved to have lived in that time.
I tell you, it was wild! It was really wild.
Were you in the band when they did that movie The Girl Can't Help it?
Yeah. I sure was.
I first heard about the movie from Bobby Lowell. Bobby turned out to be a good friend of mine.
Yeah, Bobby was alright man. I liked him. He was a good ol' guy. He always talked about you too, as a writer and a blues singer. He hung in there as long as he could. It surprised me. He called me one day and said, "Dickie they told me I should have been gone two months ago, but I fooled 'em!"
How did you guys come up with the name The Blue Caps?
Well, we were just sitting around one day yakin' and talking. At that time, the little golfing hat was popular. When we first started, the blue hat was what you call navy blue. As we went on, we switched to the baby blue ones. So we were sitting around talking, and I said "Let's just call the band The Blue Caps." So they decided to try it on for size, and it fit.
Your thoughts on another good one we lost recently. Paul Peek.
Paul was another good one man. Paul was dynamite man. Paul was dedicated. He'd have pneumonia and he'd get up there and sing anyway. Just like Gene. Gene could be dying and in pain and everything, and he'd go out there and sing anyway. Paul was a great showman. he knew just about everybody in Atlanta. I think one time there he got a musician of the year award from the city. But he had a lot of liver trouble. He was coming back strong when he had a relapse and I think that's what took him away from here.
He was really talented.
And he was hell in that movie too! Chewing that chewing gum. Chompin' to the beat!
What did you do after you left Gene?
I got married and went to work in the ship yard over here working for the government. I just retired from there about three years ago. I had 37 years with 'em. Then in the 80's we got together for a reunion, the second bunch of Blue Caps. I can't say we had a comeback 'cause we never went no where! (Laughs) But we started going over to England every two or three years and playing. Then this past December we went out to California and played.
You had Bob Timmers sitting in.
He does a great job!
I know it was a thrill for him. The Blue Caps are his number one band I believe.
Not only that but Johnny (Meeks) was one of his idols. Kay Wheeler was out there. And Lee Rocker (Stray Cats) played. He got up there and we all sang "Be Bop a Lula."
Do you think rockabilly music will ever come back like it was in the fifties again?
I'll be truthful with you. It'll never be like it was in the 1950's. That era is gone. You can bring it back with something that sounds like it. The main thing in rockabilly music was that thumping bass. That stand up bass. A lot of the bands today that are playing rockabilly music, they sound good, and all that, but I don't think it's strong enough for the young people to pick up on it. It's like jazz. You're always gonna have people who want to hear jazz. It'll never be like it was with Duke Ellington and Sachmo and all that, but these guys will carry it. Just like with rockabilly. Some of it is real good, but it's not the main stream stuff the kids are listening to now. And for them to change and go back to it would take a hell of a lot. Now, I could be wrong. A lot of kids today might like Brian Setzer, but they might like him because he's got all the tattoos. When we were out there, I never seen guys with tattoos all over 'em. You got o that rockabilly thing they have out in Vegas and you see girls with the tattoos. I never saw anything like that in '56. So, it's still rockabilly, but it's different. It's just what's happening. They've all got their own stuff.
Yeah. A lot of the stuff my kids are listening to today, I just have to shake my head. But I'm sure my parents felt the same way.
I know y'all did a lot of shows with Jerry lee Lewis. What is he like?
The first time we met him, he had just put out "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On." I think it had been out a week or whatever. He came out on stage, he walked out there. He never said hello, never said goodbye. He sat down and hit a couple of notes on his piano. Gene looked at me and said, "I sure hope he's gonna do more than that!" he had just put that hit single out. He went on first. When they opened the curtain and they yelled his name, "Here's Jerry Lee Lewis," that's all it took son. He went crazy. I mean, I ain't never seen nothin' like it. He's always been moody, but musicians are moody anyway. Some of 'em are a pain, and some of 'em are nice. Just like Bobby. You couldn't get no nicer than him! And then there are some that ain't even worth talkin to. They the big "stars." But there's a lot of pressure there. Always has been. When you put out a hit record, they expect another one, and the first time you don't deliver one they get rid of you. But as for me, we always had fun. That was our main function, to have fun. We were just having a good time, man.
Special Thanks to Bob Timmers, http://www.rockabillyhall.com