At 60 years old, the song “Be-Bop-a-Lula” still seems improbable. Written by a hospital patient now lost to history, sung by a Norfolk sailor with a crippled leg, performed by a ragtag group of country radio musicians, the two-minute, 34-second “Lula” is an acknowledged rock ’n’ roll classic, celebrated the world over (Rolling Stone ranked it #103 on their Greatest Songs list). The story behind the tune, recorded by Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, is also a potent piece of Coastal Virginia history.
The Beatles, Bob Dylan and Jeff Beck are just a few of the rock ’n’ roll legends sent on their career paths by the unabashedly aggressive sound of Vincent, a Norfolk singer who, in 1956 with his band, defined and personified the loud ethos of early rock ’n’ roll. Their signature “Lula” has been sung by Bruce Springsteen, the Beach Boys, even Elvis himself, covered by everyone from The Everly Brothers to Queen to Suicide, featured in films as varied as Wild at Heart, Pleasantville and Flaming Creatures.
Gene Vincent was born Vincent Eugene Craddock on Feb. 11, 1935 in Portsmouth. His parents, Ezekiah Jackson and Mary Louise Craddock moved to Munden Point near Virginia Beach when “Gene” was a boy. It was there that a friend gave him his first guitar. His family eventually moved back to Norfolk, and he dropped out of high school to join the Navy in February 1952. Three years later, in July 1955, not long after signing up for another hitch, Gene and his new Triumph motorcycle crossed paths with a woman in a Chrysler running a red light. The smashup left his left leg in a steel brace, a near-lifeless husk that doctors initially wanted to amputate.
Recuperating, the discharged sailor struck up a friendship with another hospital patient, Donald Graves, and co-wrote “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” He recounted years later: "I come in dead drunk … and me and Don Graves were looking at this bloody [comic book]; it was called 'Little Lulu'. And I said, "Hell, man, it's 'Be-Bop-a-Lulu’ … and we wrote this song."
In September 1955, the aspiring singer, on crutches, attended a package bill at Norfolk’s Municipal Auditorium that included Elvis Presley and His Blue Moon Boys. It was a revelation. The promoter behind the gig, disc jockey “Sheriff” Tex Davis, also saw possibilities in the new rock ’n’ roll music. Davis, who started each installment of his WCMS radio program by audibly dismounting from Candy, his make-believe horse, also served as station manager, overseeing emerging on-air talent like the young Joe Hoppel. “We decided that we were going to do a live country music show,” says Hoppel, now a revered Coastal Virginia radio legend.
Auditions were held. Elvis Presley’s debut RCA platter, “Heartbreak Hotel,” was hot on both the country and pop charts, so WCMS was besieged with would-be Elvi. Hoppel recalls that “Gene really stood out doing ‘Heartbreak Hotel.’ He had his leg in a cast … accompanied himself on guitar. We scheduled him to be on ‘Country Showtime.’”
“By that time, everybody was singing Elvis stuff,” says Dickie Harrell. “That’s what people wanted to hear.” Harrell, then a 15-year-old student at Portsmouth’s St. Paul’s Catholic School, would hang out at WCMS and play drums with the musicians. As resident “teenager,” he was also a sounding board. “[Davis] says, ‘We’ve got a boy coming up here on ‘Country Showtime,’ and he’s on crutches because he was in a motorcycle accident. Just listen to him, and we’ll see if we can put him on the show. I’ll never forget—Gene had on a baby blue shirt and jeans, his foot was in a cast, and he was on metal crutches.”
Gene won over the audience and won the show’s talent contest. After a few more appearances, “word got around about this new singer and new style,” Harrell remembers. “And the place was packed. You couldn’t get in.” Joe Hoppel hadn’t seen a reaction like this since Elvis played the area. “He started doing ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ on the show … and we had a lot more teenage females.”
Gene soon caught the notice of Capitol Records—claiming that he had won a big contest. Hoppel says the story wasn’t true and that Sheriff Tex was a friend of Capitol Records’ producer-executive Ken Nelson. After the “WCMS Artist Bureau” signed Gene to a (later controversial) contract, he remembers, “We cut a demo record on ‘Be Bop-a-Lula’ in the station’s studio and sent it to Ken Nelson at Capitol. Ken called back, and, as I recall, his question was, ‘Do you guys have my office bugged? We just had a meeting this morning about how we need to get an Elvis Presley.’”
The band that cut the WCMS demo with Gene on April 9, 1956 wasn’t the Blue Caps just yet. Along with Dickie Harrell, who had learned to play drums by beating on pots and pans along with Jack Holmes’ black gospel radio show on WLOW, there was standup bassist Jack Neal, who worked at the Ford plant in South Norfolk and played on local TV’s “Hometown Hoedown.” Neal had already dipped his toe in rockabilly waters by performing with a 15-year-old Elvis acolyte from Portsmouth named Phil Gray. The lineup also included 20-year-old Willie Williams on rhythm guitar. “Wee” Willie fronted a country trio, The Virginians, which had a daily radio show on WCMS, co-hosted by his bass-playing wife Robbie.
Pedal steel player Darrell Whitehurst was also on hand, as was lead guitarist Roy Wilder. Now living in Chesapeake, Wilder recalls his role in recording the audition tape of “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” “I got a call from Bill ‘Tex’ Davis stating that he needed a lead guitar player to cut a promo record with a young singer … I remember I said, ‘Who?’” The original demo of “Be-Bop-a-Lula” was not like the popular version known today, he says. Harrell agrees: “It was country. This was strictly country man, dead, dead country. I wish I had a copy of it because you would not believe it. They had a steel guitar … it was slow.”
Capitol must’ve heard something. They called for Gene to come to Nashville and record at Owen Bradley’s studio on May 4, 1956. By that time, Whitehurst was jettisoned and Wilder was unavailable. “Davis contacted my good friend Cliff Gallup to make the trip, and the rest is history,” he says.
Indeed. Clifton “Cliff” Gallup would become one of the most revered and enigmatic pioneers of rock ’n’ roll through his brief association with Gene Vincent. The cantankerous Gallup preferred a 9–5 job as a maintenance man for Norfolk public schools to touring in a world-famous band (he reportedly hung up on an admiring Eric Clapton because he didn’t know who he was). Nevertheless, “Galloping” Cliff’s wiry, feisty, always-unpredictable guitar style was a huge influence on a generation of players across the world. British guitarist Jeff Beck told the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame that “Cliff Gallup was the biggest influence on my playing—the cut was pretty deep, and the scar has never healed! It was just so radical … if you were back in June '56 and turned the record right up … Boy!”
“I knew he was a helluva guitar player,” Harrell remembers of Gallup, who passed away in 1988. “But Cliff didn’t really like rock ’n’ roll.”
At first, Cliff and the other WCMS musicians weren’t welcomed by Capitol, drummer Harrell recalls. “‘That voice is what I want,’ Ken Nelson said. ‘I don’t need the band. I got the best musicians in the world [here in Nashville].’ And he did. But Tex said, ‘Give the boys a chance.’ But when they arrived, they found musicians sitting around in the studio. I was thinking, ‘Did we come in on someone else’s session?’ Nelson was strictly business, and he said, ‘Well, you fellas ready to get something down? Play a song for me, and let me see what you can do.’”
After Gallup played a few licks, the producer told his Nashville musicians to pack up; he didn’t need them. In a 1975 interview with the Country Music Foundation, Nelson recalled the session: “I was scared to death. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I was impressed with the record and the song, so I said, ‘Oh, the heck with it. We’ll take a chance.’ Well, we got into the studio and set up and everything, and I knew I made a good decision.”
The band kicked it off with a stuttering, breakneck Gene Craddock original called “Race With The Devil,” quite an opening statement. It was not only a blistering and sophisticated new approach to Elvis Presley’s rockabilly sound but a defiant, almost nihilistic, statement of purpose: “I’ll out run the devil on Judgment Day.”
Next up was “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” and what was once a slow country number has been transformed into a spellbinding paean to lust and desire, rendered with copious amounts of slapjack by Capitol’s engineer Mort Thomasson. It took 12 takes to complete. One inspired component was Dickie Harrell’s improvised shriek.
“Right there in the middle, I just decided to scream for some damn reason,” Harrell says. “I don’t know why. And the music stopped dead. Cliff says, ‘What is that?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, man, I just thought it belonged in there.’ By that time, Ken Nelson says, ‘What did you stop for? What was that noise?’ They played it back, and they asked Gene, ‘Is that part of the song? Do you like it?’ and he said, ‘Yeah’ so they kept it in there.”
Gene had also brought along a mid-tempo rocker, “Woman Love,” written by singer Jack Rhodes. At the end of the session, according to Harrell, Nelson delivered a prediction: “He said the number one side was going to be ‘Woman Love.’ And the jockeys started playing it, but then they stopped because they thought Gene was saying something suggestive. They switched the record over and played the B-side, which was ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula.’”
By this time, Gene Craddock had become “Gene Vincent” and his band, “The Blue Caps.” The group name had come from Dickie Harrell, who was fond of wearing a popular style of golfing headwear favored by then-current U.S. President Eisenhower. Once the entire band started sporting matching Eisenhowers onstage, they co-opted Ike’s conservative, affluent style and turned it into something racy, dangerous—this wasn’t just a band, this was a gang.
Released on June 4, 1956, “Be-Bop-a-Lula” was originally championed by a deejay in Baltimore before jocks across the country (and in the U.K.) began saturating the airwaves with it. It entered the Billboard Top 100 at #78, sold 200,000 in its first month and would barnstorm the top 10 on the pop, R&B and country charts, staying alive and kicking on the radio until October. The next year, Capitol would announce that “Be-Bop-a-Lula” had already sold 2 million. The song was copyrighted and credited to Gene Vincent and Tex Davis, with no mention of Donald Graves, who has never resurfaced. “Gene and Tex bought it from [Graves]. I think they paid him $25 for it,” Joe Hoppel says.
The song galvanized impressionable U.S. teens like Minnesota’s John Bucklen and Bobby Zimmerman. The friends were overtaken by the forbidden atmosphere and bought a couple of Eisenhower hats, lip-synching to “Be-Bop-A-Lula” over and over again in front of a full-length mirror. One of them, Zimmerman, later Bob Dylan, found out through this role playing game what he wanted to do with his life.
“Be-Bop-a-Lula” set off huge reverberations. Paul McCartney was a 13-year-old Liverpool Institute student when he heard about the new record. The future Beatles bassist made a special trip to a record shop and took the Capitol 45 with the purple label into a listening booth. “The echo and the whole atmosphere of it was so fantastic that I had to have it then and there,” he recalled to Beatles biographer Mark Lewisohn. It was the first record McCartney ever bought.
His future Beatles bandmate and songwriting partner was also mesmerized by “Lula” and the Virginians who created it. “That beginning—‘we-e-e-e-l-l-l” always made my hair stand on end,” John Lennon recalled in 1969. Lennon loved the record so much that he was performing it with his original band, The Quarrymen, on the day he first met McCartney. When they later joined with guitarist George Harrison, the new “Silver Beatles” would all acquire Eisenhower hats and pretend to be the Blue Caps. “We bought leather pants and looked like four Gene Vincents, only a bit younger,” Lennon recounted. A few years later, the struggling Liverpudlians would open up for their American idol in Hamburg, Germany and would later return to “Lula” on post-Beatles solo albums—it was a song that meant something.
It’s easy to hear why it connected: Vincent’s voice was not only chameleonic in the way that Elvis’s was—it was schizophrenic. Going from a drawling croon to a piercing cry, he was volatile, loving, temperamental, soothing; the ultimate “tough” teenaged child-man. His brooding performance, aided by deep, cavernous slapback echo, perfectly matched up with the tortured teenage fantasia being played out on theater screens at the time, in movies such as The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause and Blackboard Jungle.
Oddly, for a young performer trafficking in wild, teenage music, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps’ debut album largely consisted of vintage pop standards—“Jezebel,” “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Up a Lazy River.” They were songs culled from Hoppel’s digging in the WCMS music library looking for material and brought Vincent’s talent for ballad singing to the fore. As for Cliff Gallup—“Cliff’s eyes lit up because that was his thing,” Harrell says. The sessions also incorporated some classic rockabilly, including a song brought in by Nelson, “Bluejean Bop,” designed to milk the “Be-Bop-a-Lula” formula.
To promote the record, Davis and WCMS booked the group on a three-week stint of mostly country fair dates, starting in mid-July 1956. After the musicians were fitted in official band uniforms at Clayton’s clothing store on Granby Street—tan pants, rust-colored coats and matching blue caps—they were off to their first professional gig in Folly Beach, South Carolina. “We ended up on tour with George Jones, Warren Smith, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash,” Harrell says. “These were country shows.” Cash, the drummer recalls, would watch the group backstage and shake his head as Jack Neal rode his big bass fiddle like a pony and Dickie charged into the audience with his snare drum. “It was pandemonium. Cash asked me, ‘What were you doing out there?!’”
After dates in New York, the band appeared on Perry Como’s TV show and Alan Freed’s radio program and sweated through a six-week tour with Johnny Burnette and a still-recuperating Carl Perkins. Immediately following his appearance at the Norfolk Auditorium months earlier, Perkins had been in a car crash that killed one man and left the Memphis guitarist with a broken collarbone. Now he was watching Elvis Presley take his “Blue Suede Shoes” to the top of the pop charts and trying to pick up the pieces of his career.
Vincent and his group were discovering that show biz can be a rough life. After two months plus of constant touring, the stay-at-home WCMS musicians were fed up.
The original Blue Caps busted up close to home, when Willie Williams quit the band after a Fredericksburg gig. Cliff also gave notice. Tommy Facenda, not yet in the band but pivotal to the next stage in Vincent’s career, was there for the first band’s final gigs at the Casino Royale in Washington, D.C. “We sat in the audience; the old band was there. But they needed a rhythm guitar player.” Facenda says that Vincent ventured across the street to another club to hear a country band, the Tunetoppers, and nicked their steel player, Paul Peek, an energetic redhead who lied when he told them he could play rhythm guitar, but fit right in.
At Ken Nelson’s insistence, Cliff Gallup returned to help record Vincent’s second LP but didn’t participate in the group’s iconic appearance in the big budget rock comedy, The Girl Can’t Help It. Paul Peek was barely in the band two days, and he found himself on the set of a major Hollywood movie. Harrell says, “Cliff had quit, so they used this other boy, Russell Wilaford … people today still think that it’s Cliff in the movie, but it’s Russell.”
The film featured an all-star lineup of emerging rockers, performers such as Little Richard and Gene’s new pal Eddie Cochran. “Everyone treated us nice,” Harrell recalls. “The only thing I didn’t like about it was that we started around 6 in the morning, and we did the same damn song, ‘Be-Bop-a-Lula,’ over and over and over.”
Gene Vincent’s career continued with a revamped lineup of the Blue Caps, which included Dickie Harrell, Tommy Facenda, Paul Peek and guitarist Johnny Meeks. He later became a star all over again in the U.K. but never had another hit as big as “Be-Bop-a-Lula.” He died in 1971 and was posthumously inducted into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1998. The Blue Caps were inducted in 2012.
The author is indebted to researcher Brent Hosier, the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum College and Susan Van Hecke, author of Race with the Devil: Gene Vincent’s Life in the Fast Lane.