Sunday, August 14, 2011

August 14: Gene Vincent, "Be-Bop-A-Lula"

Artist: Gene Vincent
Song: "Be-Bop-A-Lula"
Album: Be-Bop-A-Lula (single)
Year: 1956

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While many may believe it is a relatively new tactic, the idea of record labels seeking out artists that sound similar to the given "hot trend" goes back as far as one can imagine.  Though the way in which the labels marketed such individuals may have been slightly different, the practice can clearly be seen across the decades, and in at least one case, it has led to one of the most common "mistaken credits" in history.  The incident in question occurred during the mid-1950's, when the sounds of country and western music were fusing together with r&b and blues, resulting in what is not terms "rockabilly."  There were a number of legendary artists that had their own unique taken on this blend of styles, and there is no question that one of the finest was Gene Vincent.  On many levels, one can argue that it was Vincent that embodied the entire rockabilly sound and style better than any other artist, and yet even though he fit this description at the height of the style's popularity, Vincent only managed to gain a single "big" hit, though a number of songs across his recorded catalog are equally representative of the period in music history.  Strangely enough, this lone hit is often improperly credited to his biggest rivals, as their voices sound similar, and yet there is no mistaking the superior take on the rockabilly sound that one can experience on Gene Vincent's magnificent 1956 classic, "Be-Bop-A-Lula."

Though the lyrical content of "Be-Bop-A-Lula" remains somewhat up for debate, there is no question that it was Vincent that wrote the songs' now-iconic musical arrangement.  After hearing the song only for a few moments, it becomes clear that on many levels, the music defines the entire era and genre, led by the moody, jerky guitar from both Willie Williams and Cliff Gallup.  It is Gallup that takes the solo mid-way through the song, and this performance in many ways set the standard for guitarists within the rockabilly style.  Compared to most other recordings of the time, the solo is rather aggressive, and yet it fits perfectly with the mood of the song.  Bassist Jack Neal provides much of the darker tones that run throughout "Be-Bop-A-Lula," and it is the way that his playing perfectly compliments the vocals that pushes the song to greater heights.  Rounded out by drummer Dickie Harrell, the band is in top form throughout the entire song, and it is Harrell that screams on the track, as legend says he did this so his family could "hear" him on the record.  Yet even this move manages to work perfectly with the overall flow and tone of the song, and one can easily picture the song ringing forth from a drive-in burger joint or in nearly any film from the era.  This feeling remains strong even after hearing the song countless times, and it is this fact that proves not only the timeless nature of the song, but the absolutely perfect performance from each member of the band.

However, while one can easily argue that without this group of musicians "Be-Bop-A-Lula" would not have found the success that it did, there is never any question that the most important element of the song is the vocal performance from Gene Vincent.  There are few other voices of the era that are as definitive of the time as one can hear in Vincent's singing, as he strikes the ideal balance between crooning and the swagger that would form the basis for the "rock" singer.  Throughout the song, Vincent works the entire vocal scale, from smooth higher notes to a deep vocal strut that surely lit up dance halls all across the country.  It is this somewhat dark, perhaps menacing sound that Vincent deploys all across "Be-Bop-A-Lula" that sets the song apart from others, and yet there is an authenticity within this element that pushes it far beyond other singers attempting a similar approach.  The source of the lyrics to "Be-Bop-A-Lula" remains somewhat up for debate, as a number of different parties have taken credit for the words over the decades, and yet on many levels, they are secondary when compared with how Vincent delivers each line.  Much like the music and singing, the words to "Be-Bop-A-Lula" have a classic 1950's feel, as it is a more subtle ode to the beauty and allure of a woman, and yet the way that Vincent's singing seems to imply a bit of an ulterior motive makes the song far more enjoyable than nearly any other single of the entire era.

Truth be told, both Gene Vincent and "Be-Bop-A-Lula" owe much of their success due to the reality of the fame of a rather similar performer at the time.  Capitol Records was actively seeking an "answer" to the overwhelming success of Elvis Presley, and one can easily see why they chose both Vincent and this song as their attempt to match his runaway triumph.  In a number of ways, both the label and Vincent succeeded in this quest, as "Be-Bop-A-Lula" it broke into the top ten on three different sales charts in the U.S., as well as a strong showing on similar charts in the U.K.  Due to the large sales and notoriety of the song, Vincent was asked to perform the song in the film The Girl Can't Help It, and as the years have passed, it has been featured in countless other films and television shows.  Furthermore, the range in bands that have covered "Be-Bop-A-Lula" places it far beyond almost every other recording in history, as everyone from Suicide to Foghat to The Beatles have recorded their own takes.  The song is also referenced in Dire Straits' "Walk Of Life," and the title was famously written on the back of George Harrison's trademark Fender Stratocaster.  Yet even with all of these accolades and tributes, the song itself remains largely unrivaled in terms of both musicality and historical significance, as there is not another recording in history that is quite on par with Gene Vincent's phenomenal 1956 single, "Be-Bop-A-Lula."

1 comment:

Stogie said...

Thanks for that! Gene Vincent was a great contributor to Rock and Roll and will forever be atop its pantheon of heroes.

Yes, the lyrics were not deep or profound, but who cares? The purpose of rock is joy, and "Be Bop a Lula" gave us that.

I linked to you at

I will visit regularly.