Woods Awakes

Gene Vincent – 11th Feb 1935 to 12th Oct 1971

I grew up around music. For as long as it is possible to recall I possessed an interest, albeit passing, during childhood through to early teen age. Throughout the 1950s my mother worked at the Tottenham Royal and the names of big bands that came to play became familiar to me. She also played the piano competently, possessing a record collection of Sinatra, Nat King Cole and people of that ilk. Around the mid-Fifties the house piano stool became increasingly occupied by a ragtime piano player. His ragged but enthusiastic playing could be heard most evenings of the week when my sister began courting the man who would become her first husband, Denis Cooper (who penned the leader article on Louis Armstrong in the August edition). Soon she was being taken to the 100 Club in Oxford Street where those tender young ears were picking up names like Chris Barber and in particular a young banjo player called Lonnie Donegan.


‘Rock Island Line’ hit big when I was in the third year of Junior School and about to break up for the Christmas holiday. The elderly, matronly teacher (Miss Sturgeon if my memory serves me correctly) allowed each child who chose to volunteer, as an end of term treat, to stand up in front of the class to sing a song, carol, or whatever took their fancy. Sweet little girls with screeching, tuneless voices interpreting ‘Silent Night’ and ‘Away In A Manger’ and the like. More volunteers? My hand shot up much to the amazement of all. This was some while before I began to develop the gigantic ego that you have all learnt to know and love. So out I meekly crept in front of the class, my mate Roger springing to his feet and joining me at my side. His contribution was to play an imaginary guitar and go “twang, twang, twang”, the world's first air guitarist. I first lectured the class of nine and ten year olds that ‘Rock Island Line’ was performed originally by Leadbelly – blah, blah, blah - naturally all repeated parrot fashion from what I had learnt from Denis. “This is the story of the Rock Island Line,” I began hesitantly, both Roger and I gaining confidence as the song progressed and gaining tempo the wilder we became, Roger at my side as we jumped around the class room bumping into desks, shaking our heads and gyrating like maniacs.


For a while I was the hit of the class, having kids crowd around me in the playground as I related the Lonnie Donegan songbook - ‘Bring A Little Water Sylvie’, ‘Lost John’, and so forth. Alas my 15 minutes of fame was soon up. For the remainder of the decade my passing interest continued, tuning into Radio Luxembourg, watching ‘Six Five Special’ and ‘Oh Boy!’ on the telly without developing any great passion. That is until the time the man 'Tales From The Woods' is paying tribute to appeared on early Saturday evening television on the legendary ITV Rock'n'Roll show ‘Boy Meets Girl’.


Gene Vincent made his first appearance of many on ‘Boy Meets Girl’ during the legendary Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran tour that ran from January through to April 1960. 'Tales From The Woods' contributor of Winkles In The Mud fame has often related the story of how he was sitting eagerly awaiting Vincent’s appearance in the company of friends and soon to be local Southend musicians (e.g. Gary Brooker of ‘Paramounts’ and ‘Procul Harum’ fame). With me it was somewhat less exotic. Simply my grandmother, sister and yours truly. Vincent's face suddenly hitting our 17 inch black-and-white screen. Greasy curls cascading over his forehead, black leather outfit, pasty faced and crows feet eyes. To me, a barely 14 year old kid, he looked like a million years old. Me - eyes wide open, jaw dropped, I was spellbound. Oh no, Kats, that armchair could not contain me, leaping to my feet, yelping and hollering, falling down on my knees, shaking my head, much to the horror of my grandmother. An expression of fear spread across her face. “What's the matter with him? Is he having a fit?”


Big sister just shrugged her shoulders not sure what to make of it. To say I broke out of my shell overnight would be an understatement. I literally tore out of it. The quiff was born, insisted on curlers inserted to create the curls, dressed in black, soon I was limping to school much to the dismay of the P.E. instructor who saw the school's potential Middlesex schoolboy champion runner (220 yards) with a newly acquired gammy leg!

Vincent performed live on Brian Matthews’ ‘Saturday Club’ along with a brief interview, me hanging on to every word of his Southern drawl, Dad looking at me with a bemused expression, glued to the radio. “What the bloody hell is he saying? Can’t even understand him when he is talking, let alone singing,” before disdainfully storming out of the living room.


The early months of 1960 saw Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran booked for a week-long engagement at the Finsbury Park Empire. Along with two like-minded mates I excitedly took the bus the few miles to the famous old variety theatre, which incidentally was nearing the end of its life (before a year was it was bulldozed to the ground). Also on the bill that night were Tony Sheridan and Peter Wynne.


Eddie Cochran closed the first half of the show. Curtains parted, our hero’s back towards the audience. He swung round, then lifted his guitar, whipping off his shades straight into ‘Something Else’. The set included ‘Come On Everybody’, ‘Summertime Blues’ and ‘Hallelujah I Love Her So’ as well as Little Willie Johns’ ‘Fever’. Can you imagine the effect this had on this 14 year old? Vincent hit the stage backed up by Marty Wilde’s ‘Wildcats’, with Big Jim Sullivan on lead guitar. ‘Say Mama’, ‘Rocky Road Blues’, ‘Summertime’, along with ‘Blue Jean Bop’ which I don't recall him doing too often on live gigs. Obviously ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’. He also included Jack Scott’s ‘What In The World’s Come Over You’ which was in fact in the charts at the time. It’s difficult to relate now, all these years later, the sheer excitement that I felt as Vincent gave it his all, his eyes transfixed high above the audience, a vision that that only he could see. The demented expression, totally lost on stage in a world of his own, slamming the mike stand on the stage floor, dragging it around like a crutch, falling down on one knee, kicking his bad leg over the mike stand. The archetypal Vincent Stage Act.

For the encore of ‘Shake Rattle And Roll’ and ‘What’d I Say’, Cochran rejoined the stage, lifting his leg up, guitar held out in front as he hopped on one leg towards where Vincent was jumping up and down centre-stage. I tell you Kats, I don't think the stage had been swept since the days when Gypsy Mabel Cable and the Great Goosetti had played there decades before as they became almost obliterated by the dust. Awestruck and mesmerised by the events of the evening on the bus home barely able to speak. That was it. That's what started it all. 40 odd years of gig going followed. (Hopefully another 40 more to come).


On the last night of the tour, returning in a taxi from a gig in Bristol on route for Heathrow Airport, the taxi crashed into a lamp-post near Chippenham in Wiltshire. Eddie Cochran died in hospital a few hours later, Vincent was badly injured. Some would say he never mentally recovered but Vincent was back within a few months. Jerry Keller was brought in as a replacement for Eddie Cochran (if you can call it that). Also in support and obviously much better were Billy Fury, Joe Brown and a black American G.I. who went by the name of Davy Jones. (I wonder what happened to him?) I saw the show at the long gone Romford Odeon, the only time I saw him include ‘Dance In The Street’ in his act.


By the time I saw him next, either late 61 or early 62 at the East Ham Granada, ‘Sounds Incorporated’ were by far the best British backing outfit he ever had. Vincent was now living semi-permanently in the UK and would remain so until 1965. This was one of the wildest Vincent gigs ever. He was positively demonic. In support on this occasion were Emile Ford and the Checkmates and Rory Blackwell and the Blackjacks. Next up was Walthamstow Granada with Brenda Lee, ‘The King and Queen of Rock’ tour as the publicity machine chose to call it.


By the time the black leather wildcat hit the Majestic Ballroom in Finsbury Park it was a different me. The greasy forelocks had been shorn to be replaced by a college boy haircut. Peg slacks, black shirt and leather jacket had all gone. Now I was a Mod boy. Sharp tonic, mohair suit and Hush puppies. My first really serious girlfriend on my arm (Anne Clark - any relation Bryan?) And it was much easier to get the chicks as a Mod than it was being a rocker. My lifelong love affair with the Blues had begun. To a far lesser extent I was collecting Ska records, as well as everything I could lay my hands on of my Rock'n'Roll heroes Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley etc.


‘Sounds Incorporated’ had now gone off to pursue their own career, replaced by what was being billed as the English Bluecaps which in effect where Chris Wayne’s ‘Echos’. Gene included ‘Over The Rainbow’ as a tribute to Eddie Cochran. I only saw him perform that a couple of times.


And so it went on. The Continental club Edmonton twice. The first occasion… well, I suppose everyone has a right to make a prat of themselves at least once during their lifetime. That night was my night. If you want to know ask Ken Major. I ain’t gonna incriminate myself. In quick succession the Granada Edmonton, and by now his regular backing band were the ‘Shouts’ who were with him when he played the Club Noreik in Tottenham during 1964. Despite the shortcomings of the ‘Shouts’ this was truly one of the great Vincent gigs. A stunning version of Little Richard’s ‘Send Me Some Lovin’. The voice bled every bit of emotion from the song. He drained it. ‘High Blood Pressure’ included that night. How often did he do that in his act? ‘I'm Going Home’ along with the most impassioned ‘Baby Blue’ ever. If you weren't there you should have been. Not being born? Sorry, that is not a good enough excuse.


It would be several years before I would get to see Vincent again. By 1965 he had returned to live permanently in his home country. The following year, 1966, he had an album out on the Challenge label. A country flavoured affair, which in the humble opinion of this writer was one of his best efforts. Two singles were pulled from the album. ‘Lonely Street’ and ‘Bird Doggin’. Little was heard from the man for the remainder of the Sixties. With just weeks of the decade left he was back in the UK for a nationwide series of gigs including the London Palladium. If you were there you cannot have failed to spot me. I was the only one there in kaftan, beads and purple crushed velvet trousers (oh yes Kats I have always been a chameleon. Eat your heart out David Bowie). Come 76 I would have been a punk but at 30 it would have been pushing the boundaries of believability). So this idealistic hippy took an evening off from changing the world to pay homage to his hero along with a couple of thousand Teds and rockers. Sitting centre front of the circle receiving the evil eye from all the Teds around me as I sat stony faced throughout the first half, while an array of pretty dire Rock'n'Roll revival outfits took the stage.


“Why has he come if he doesn't like it?” I heard a drape nearby say. Irritating them all the more as I tapped my foot through the ‘Nashville Teen's’ set. By far the most professional act during the first half in truth they should have been backing Vincent and not the ‘Wild Angels’. I even shook my below shoulder length hair around just to wind them up even more. By the time Vincent finally hit the stage I was both impatient and over-excited. I leapt out of my seat so high into the air I nearly lost my balance, almost sending myself head first into the stalls. “Rock it Gene!” I screamed at the top of my lungs. “He is one of us after all,” some Ted remarked, the evil eye replaced by a knowing smile.


Along with ‘Say Mama’, ‘Rocky Road Blues’, ‘Wildcat’, ‘Baby Blue’ and naturally ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’, we also got an excellent version of Delaney and Bonnie’s ‘Get Yourself Together’ and a spine tingling version of Hank Williams’ ‘I Heard The Lonesome Whistle’. Backstage after the gig I finally got to meet my hero after standing in a long queue for over an hour. The autographed photo still takes pride of place above my piano at my home in Bromley.


In the early months of 1971 I faithfully made the trek to the Coronation Hall in Kingston upon Thames. What I saw that fateful night was indeed a sad reflection of the man that once was. It was impossible to believe that so much physical deterioration could take place over a period of less than 18 months. So okay, he always looked far older than he actually was but on this night he looked many, many years beyond his mere 36. You could see the pain etched into his eyes with every movement he made. He looked like a man close to death, as indeed he was. Despite this, the voice was still basically intact. Backed up by an outfit called the ‘Houserockers’ (no, not Rob and Wayne). When he sang ‘The Day The World Turned Blue’ from his very recent 1970 Kama Sutra album, gut feeling told me it was virtually over for the years of hard living, endless touring, alcohol and painkiller abuse had taken their toll.


‘How I Love Them Old Songs’, the Mickey Newbury penned song (which incidentally is one of my favourite Vincent tracks) was also performed that night. Taken from the same Kama Sutra album, a Rock’n’Roll road song if ever there was one. Vincent was never embarrassed to display emotion. He tore the song to pieces like a man who knew time was running out on him. A few months later in October 1971 he finally ran out of both road and time.