Posted April 18, 2001
A conversation with Dickie "Be-Bop" HarrellThe original drummer for Gene Vincent's Blue Caps remembers life in one of rockabilly's rowdiest bands, and his friend Paul Peek.
By King Kaufman
April 12, 2001 | Dickie "Be-Bop" Harrell was the original drummer for Gene Vincent's Blue Caps. His restrained brush playing and background screams on Vincent's first and most famous hit, "Be-Bop-A-Lula," gave that record -- one of the signature records of early rock 'n' roll -- much of its tension and feel.
Like Vincent a native of Norfolk, Va., Harrell began playing with Vincent when he was only 15 years old. Vincent, then in the Navy, had badly injured his leg in a motorcycle accident, and was recuperating at a Navy hospital. Harrell stayed with the Blue Caps for a little more than a year before quitting, bored with life on the road. Vincent and the Blue Caps had a falling out over money at the end of the '50s, and Vincent, already crippled from his earlier injury, was hurt again in the car accident that killed Eddie Cochran, a friend and fellow early rock star. His fortunes faded in the United States, but he remained a popular live act in England, where he was a hero to, among others, the Beatles, whose early black leather look was an imitation of Vincent.
Vincent died in 1971, alcoholic and mostly forgotten. He was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1998.
Dickie Harrell worked in hazardous materials for the government for 37 years before retiring two years ago. He now sells Blue Caps-related merchandise. Over the years, four of the surviving Blue Caps -- Harrell, guitar player Johnny Meeks and singers Tommy Facenda and Paul Peek -- have occasionally reunited to play Vincent's hits at rockabilly festivals and other shows. I met them when my band played on bills with them during a weeklong tour of California in 1996. This week Harrell spoke with me by phone from his home in Portsmouth, Va., about Vincent and Peek, who died recently at age 63.
How'd you hook up with Gene when you were only 15?
Well, I was playing music at that time with one of the bands at the radio station, WCMS. I used to go over there all the time after school. They used to have this show, and Sheriff [Tex] Davis, he was the one that was in charge of it, and he told me one day, he said, "We got this sailor comin' over here wants to sing this weekend." Says, "He broke his leg so he's over there at the hospital. He'll be over here probably Friday. You get a chance, come on over and I'll introduce you." So I went over there Friday, and Gene came up on the elevator and he had both crutches, and the damn leg was all in plaster of Paris and everything. And we talked and this and that and everything, and he sang a couple of songs.
And after he left Bill [Sheriff Tex] said, "What'd you think?" and I said, "Eh, sounds good!" So we got together and got to the place [for a show], 'cause we used to back up some of the guys on the show, the band did. And the first night there, Bill Davis went out there and told them who he was, and told them that they had this guy comin' out there who was in the Navy, and over here in the hospital and all this stuff, and he [Vincent] went out there and did his thing, and, man, he drove 'em crazy. They went crazy. Because they just weren't used to seeing stuff like that, especially for Gene, 'cause he would sing, and with his leg like it was, and he'd mess with the microphone and all this good stuff. So from then on, every week, man, it just got to the point that the place was triple jampacked, and if you didn't get there in plenty of time for the show you didn't get in.
[Sheriff Tex Davis' friendship with Ken Nelson at Capitol Records helped Vincent get a recording contract.] But see they didn't want the band, Ken Nelson; all he wanted was Gene, because they had the best musicians in the world. And Bill talked him into using the band. He said, "Try 'em." He said if it don't work, send 'em home. So we all got together and figured out what we was gonna do, and went on out there [to Nashville], and went to the studio and met Mr. Nelson and Owen Bradley, and they had all these damn musicians sittin' around. And I asked Cliff [Gallup, the Blue Caps' original guitar player], I said, "What the hell's goin' on here?" He said, "I don't know. I guess they're finishing up on a session or whatever." So they were sittin' on the side of the studio, and Gene done two or three verses of "Race With the Devil" and "Be-Bop-A-Lula" and everything, and Ken Nelson come out the thing there and said, "All right, y'all can go on home now." So, hell, I thought he was talking to us. So I started unpacking. And he said, "No, no, no, not y'all. They goin' home." So they left, see, and we went in there and did our session. And that was the beginning of it, bud.
You ever feel like you've been talking about Gene Vincent your whole life? Ever get tired of talking about him?
Well, I tell ya, you never get to the point where you don't talk about him, because there's always some kind of aspect going on where somebody will run into you, musicianwise, or whatever, especially if they have shows in town. Sometimes they'll have shows around here. Chris Isaak was here a couple years ago. Different ones come into town and we get a chance to run by there and talk to 'em and then that just relights the fire, you know? And then with this Internet now -- it used to be everything was by mail. But now, with the Internet, it don't take but 10 tenths of a second to get hold of somebody, and they're always e-mailing from all over. And the younger ones, the younger generation, as far as the music, they're the ones that are taking up on it, you know. Like y'all, playing music. It's rockabilly, but it's a different type of rockabilly. But still, they're the ones that want to know all about what's going on.
What we, me and my bandmates, always admired about Gene Vincent was that he seemed like he was ahead of his time in terms of being kind of wild.
At that time, you know, really, there wasn't too much of that going on.
Yeah, I see in movies and stuff, they just stand there and play.
Yeah, that was the thing back in the '50s, see, that was it. We used to play these shows in the beginning; we had George Jones and Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison and different ones and this and that. We played shows with Johnny Burnette. And at that time, when we were doing all this stuff for them, the big thing for them was just to go out there and do their thing. But hell, we'd go out there and act stupid and fall all over the damn place and jump in the audience and run up and down the aisles and all that. They'd just sit around and look and just think you lost your damn mind!
We played shows with Pat Boone and different ones and so forth, and it was all new, and to a certain extent, at that particular time, the only ones who were doing anything of that nature, I would say, would have been Bill Haley, because he had the boy with the bass -- you know, that would jump up on the bass.
You guys used to throw lit firecrackers at each other?
Oh, yeah, yeah, that's how that hole got in Gene's guitar, you know, out at Capitol. The guy that's the head man out there, Michael Frondelli, he's got a big picture of Gene in his office. So one of the guys from England went out there on a tour one weekend, and he called me and he said, "I just left Capitol from that tour that they have, and I see y'all got your picture in there" -- I don't know who it was next to, one of the big artists that they had. He said, "And I also noticed that the director's got a picture of y'all in his office." He said, "The picture's showing Gene with a guitar with a hole in it." And he said, "I asked the man about it and the man said they put the hole in it so they could put a microphone in it."
So I said, "No, that ain't what happened." I said, "You know what happened, I told you I blew the damn thing up with a firecracker one night." So I called him on the phone one day, Frondelli, and I told him who I was and everything, and I said, "I understand y'all got a couple pictures out there; you have one in your office, that picture of Gene with the guitar, and I understand y'all been telling people that they put that hole in there for a microphone." He said, "Well, that's what we had heard." And I said, "Well, you heard wrong, that hole ain't there for that!"
Do you remember meeting Paul Peek?
Yeah, the first time I met him, we were over at Gene's house. They come over and said they had a new guy they wanted to add to the band, and, I don't know, he just fit right in, man. He was just crazy like all the rest of us, so he just fit right in with everybody, and from then on it was just a go.
He was always kind of a life of the party kind of guy?
Oh yeah. He just fit right in 100 percent, man. Hell, he'd do anything you asked him to do, no problem. He was really easygoing, nice to get along with, real nice guy. It's a shame that this happened because, you know, he was coming back, and when you're coming back like that and, bam, it all ends, man, it's bad.
I didn't really realize when we were playing with you guys -- he would be singing, and he was a good singer -- but I've heard a couple things that he did when he was young and, man, what a singer!
Yeah. Paul could sing just about anything. He loved that rhythm and blues, and naturally, you know, he loved country. But he could sing just about any damn thing that come along the road there.
I heard this song "Pin the Tail on the Donkey"? It's a dumb song, but man, the singing on it is just so good.
Oh, yeah, that's a good one. He was talented. He really was. And like I said, he loved the business.
What was his music career like? I know he tried to make it as a solo singer and never really hit it big.
Yeah, he never could. You know how it is in this business. I've known people in the business who were, as far as talentwise, they were really what you call great, you know. And they never could get that edge going where they could get 'em a hit record or get out there in front of the public's eye. I don't know what it was. The chemistry just wasn't there. Paul did a lot of stuff and he had a lot of good records out. And I think one time, if I'm not mistaken, he was voted musician of the year in Atlanta. He had a lot of friends; everybody in the business liked him. That's just the way it is sometimes. I know you know people that can really sing and are really talented and you never hear nothin' about 'em, and then there's some that ain't worth a damn, and the next thing you know they say, "Yeah, they had 12 hits in a row!" But he had the charisma and people liked him. I don't know, he just couldn't get that one song off the ground.
Did he make his living at music?
Oh yeah. At one time there, at home, I think he was playin' four, five nights a week, you know.
Just around Atlanta?
Yeah, around Atlanta mostly and everything. They were playing all the clubs and so forth, and I guess then towards the end when he really got sick he had to curtail it to a certain extent.
Is there any one memory of Paul that you have? Your favorite memory?
Well, you know, the Blue Caps were known for some crazy damn things. I think the funniest thing, [in the old days] we were playing in Milwaukee [in the winter], and we had one night off before we played, and Paul had been drinking, and we were sitting in the hotel there, and he was just goofin' off, and he fell asleep on the little cot that we had in the room, see. And the cot was over by the window. So me and Bubba [Tommy Facenda] opened the window and then went out to get some sandwiches, see, just bein' funny, 'cause we did things like that. We used to squirt shaving cream in the bed -- then you got ready to go to sleep, you couldn't go to sleep 'cause it was full of shaving cream. Or if you woke up it'd be all over your face and everything.
So we got back, been gone about an hour, and I told Bubba, I says, "Damn, Bubba, we left that window open, man. It's snowin' and ain't no tellin' what'll happen." So we got back and Paul was sittin' over there on the cot, layin' there, and he had about 2 inches of snow on top of him. So I shook him. I said, "Paul! Paul! Wake up!" And he said, "Damn, it's cold in here, boys! Cut the heat on!" So we brushed the snow off of him. But I swear to God he had about 2 inches of snow on him, and after that every time we got together that's all we'd talk about.
Hell, the Blue Caps were known for craziness. We had good times. There's always things you could remember Paul by because he was in the middle of everything, and like I said, he was easygoing. Really gonna miss him, 'cause the boy was nice, and he was nice to get along with. I guess it just was his time to go, son.
He was a musician's musician. He loved what he did. He'd give you the shirt off his damn back, man. He loved musicians and he loved the music, and he just wanted to be part of it. He hung in there as long as he could. You can't stay around here forever.
About the writer: King Kaufman, is a senior writer for Salon. He performs using the stage name the King Teen.
Pictured above are Dickie and Gene in 1956. In the early years Gene Vincent & the Blue Caps drove around in a '56 station wagon with windows broken and a heater that didn't work. Two of their first live concert appearances were Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and at Folly Beach, just outside Charleston, SC. Later that year Gene and The Caps appeared on national television for the first time on the Perry Como Show.
More on Dickie. The following can be found on the liner notes of Max Weinberg's "Let There Be Drums" CD (Vol. !, The '50s):
"In Gene Vincent's 'Be-Bop-A-Lula,' an undeniable rockabilly classic, Vincent's Blue Cap drummer Dickie Harrell demonstrated that it wasn't necessarily the volume of the beat that made it work, but the manner in which it was delivered. In 'Be-Bop-A-Lula,' a Top 10 hit in 1956, Harrell used brushes instead of drumsticks and created a sexy, circular snare drum rhythm. He moved the song along with innuendo and cool dynamics. A very hip drum part, it's a perfect example of the way restraint in drumming can give the music momentum and power."
When Dickie Harrell went out to California in 1962 to record his infamous album "Drums & More Drums" (with an orchestra - the LP actually sold 50 copies, 51 if you add in Dickie's mom) he visited with Gene. The photo on the left shows Gene's den and a wall covered with his recordings. In the earlier Portsmouth days, Gene, Tommy and Dickie would ride around, going nowhere, just because Gene was so antsy. He'd say "Let's go for a ride." "Where?" "I don't know, anywhere." Twenty minutes of that and Gene would say, "That's it, let's go back." Ten minutes later Gene starts all over again with "Let's go for a ride." "Where?" ... Dickie informs us that Gene never actually played guitar during the recording sessions during the 1950's, even though he is shown on record jackets with a guitar in hand. Gene could play basic chords, but concentrated on singing and left the picking to someone else. On stage Gene would sometime use the guitar as a prop and/or to stike an opening chord before he broke into the famous "Weelllll."
"HI! So here I am August, 1996, at the Capitol Towers. Hollywood to sign the large Gene Vincent Blue Caps photo that's hanging in the hallway. But wait, where am I? ...HEY THAT'S ME. Ya see that little bass drum down there, that's me, Be-Bop! The other picture is Ray. He was there back in 1957 when we recorded. He still remembers us. Ken Nelson is still kickin', too. I called his house twice when we were out there, but he was gone."
THE KING of rock 'n' roll drummers gets crowned by fellow band member Tommy Facenda. - Then we see a "Be-Bop Impersonator" (who could that be?) - Then it's Shampoo Time - And finally, The Real Thing! One of the unique things about Dickie's drumming in the early days is the fact he often used brushes instead of sticks. When the song called for both, he'd simply flip the brushes around and use the other ends as sticks.
"Where did I go wrong trying to teach these guys some manners?" Dickie should talk. We heard the Catholic School he attended in Portsmouth had a careful eye his mischief. Word is that they even had an eraser with his name on, so he'd be comfortable doing the blackboards after school. One nun thinks Dickie spent more time in detention than in regular class. He evens claims he got nailed once for putting a tack on the girl's chair in front of him ... and he didn't even do it!
Dickie and Tommy met the Stray Cats in the mid 1980's. The photo of Brian and Dickie, on the right, was taken News Years Eve, 1996 in Atlantic City. When we asked Dickie what technical training he had in becoming such a fine drummer, he replied, "Hey, I just practiced and learned on pots and pans, coffee cans and garbage cans. I was in the school band, but pretended to read the sheet music, just playing what I felt. Bubba was in the band, too. He played trumpet."
When the Blue Caps hit Las Vegas in 1956 Dickie got a chance to meet some very special people. Among them were: Hedda Hopper (who just had to see and write about all this rock 'n' roll madness that just hit town); Debbie Reynolds, Eddie Fisher, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. Liberace and his brother George even stopped by backstage to give Gene and The Caps some words of wisdom.
Dickie recalls an early concert on Shamokin, Pennsylvania:"It was a little theater and I think the price was like 85 cents. We had just bought these brand new clothes. They were tan jackets and we had cream colored pants with black shirts and white ties, I'll never forget it. That show ... I don't know what happened, but the crowd went crazy and knocked the bandstand over. They tore everything up. The lights went out, the bandstand toppled over, all of us were underneath the stage. One or two jackets were saved, but the rest of them - they just got tore up. When I got up I went out the front and all that I had left was the imprint of the jacket in the front, all the sleeves were gone, the buttons were gone. Gene was sitting there going, 'I don't believe it.' And Bill Davis says, 'You know how much money it cost for them jackets?' It was so funny. From then on, everywhere, that was just the way it was."
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