Howard the Odd Duck

(I’ve been on hiatus for the past couple of weeks completing a book, starting a new job, and co-hosting a new television show. But it’s time to get back in the saddle, so to kick off things, here’s a post on one horrendously screwed-up dude.)


Were I living homeless under a bridge urban troll-like at the time, I still wouldn’t have felt my fortunes had fallen low enough to trade lives with rich guy Howard Hughes during the second half of his life.

While initially acclaimed for his brilliance, good looks, charisma, and adventurous spirit, Hughes suffered from the twin ailments of obsessive-compulsive disorder and having a billion dollars (back when that meant something). This kept him surrounded by yes-men who feared their money-teat might dry up if they ever suggested to the boss that he get treatment.

The wheels on the Hughes express first grew wobbly during this week in 1936 – 75 years ago – when he killed a pedestrian while driving drunk in Los Angeles. A witness claimed that Hughes was swerving and driving too fast and that the male victim was standing in a safe area. By the time of the official inquest, the witness’ story had changed to say that the man stepped in front of Hughes’ car. The charge of negligent homicide was dropped and Hughes ended up spending a total of one night in jail.

July was a particularly bad month for Hughes. In July 1946, nearly 10 years to the day after the fatal traffic accident, Hughes was piloting an experimental aircraft over Beverly Hills when he experienced mechanical failure and tried to crash land the plane at the Los Angeles Country Club. He didn’t quite make it to the golf course, instead clipping three mansions in a fiery crash while sustaining numerous near-fatal injuries.

The accident left him with an addiction to pain killers which only worsened his mental condition. He became more reclusive, buying Vegas hotels so that he wouldn’t have to leave his room. He eventually quit cutting his hair and fingernails, and began saving bottles of his own urine. Over the next 30 years, his eccentricity only deepened, and he became a veritable hermit, seen only by a cadre of Mormon attendants.  

By the time of his death in April 1976, Hughes’ physical and mental state had deteriorated so much that he had to be identified by his fingerprints. The 6’4” Hughes only weighed 90 pounds at the end, and the coroner ruled that his death was caused by kidney failure brought on by malnutrition.

In one of history’s great ironies, Howard Hughes, the richest man in the world, literally starved to death.

Here are some other Deadwrite’s Dailies anniversaries to ponder for this week:

Sunday, July 10 – Mel Blanc, the man who gave voice to dozens of classic Warner Bros. animated characters, died on this date in 1989. Blanc was once in a coma from an automobile accident and could only be reached by his doctors when they asked to speak to Bugs Bunny. Blanc answered them in the rabbit’s voice and eventually made a full recovery. He later credited Bugs with saving his life.

Monday, July 11 – Two of entertainment’s greatest – British actor Sir Laurence Olivier (1989) and composer George Gershwin (1937) – passed away on this date. The Gershwin story, helmed by Steven Spielberg, is rumored to be coming to the screen as early as next year.

Wednesday, July 13 – This time of year is historically bad for First Ladies. Both Dolley Madison and Lady Bird Johnson died on this date, and Betty Ford, the widowed wife of former President Gerald Ford, will be buried this week.

Thursday, July 14 – Quentin Roosevelt, the youngest son of former president Theodore Roosevelt, was killed on this date in 1918 during aerial combat in World War I. As hard as it is to now believe, there was a time in America when the children of politicians, even presidents, served in the military.

This was also the date in 1881 when notorious gunfighter William H. Bonney, aka Billy the Kid, was gunned down by his pal Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, New Mexico Territory. Everybody has heard of Billy the Kid, but I challenge any but the most ardent Old West fan to name any of the names of the 21 men he reportedly killed during his 21 years on this side of the ground.

Carnival of Souls

Kimi and I were motoring from Salt Lake City towards the Nevada line a year ago when just after catching our first glimpse of the Great Salt Lake I yelled, “Quick, get the camera!”

What prompted the sudden outburst was a Moorish-styled building on the lakefront. What I was experiencing was cinematic déjà vu, because I had only seen the building previously through the magic of film.

Herk Harvey, a man who made industrial films in Lawrence, Kansas, once saw the same building while on a vacation he took to Utah and returned there in 1962 to make the no-budget, nearly-great horror film, Carnival of Souls.

Carnival of Souls tells the story of Mary, a talented organist (“capable of stirring the soul”) who rides in a car that plunges into a river. The car isn’t found, but somehow Mary emerges from the water a few hours later unhurt with no memory of the accident.

She later moves to Utah to work as an organist for a church, but is pursued by a strange pasty-faced man from the moment she first glimpses the same Moorish building off on the horizon. While Carnival of Souls is no Citizen Kane, it gets great mileage out of its $30,000 budget.

The building in question was once a resort named Saltair Pavilion, which was built by wealthy Latter Day Saints as a resort and amusement park for vacationing Mormons.

Saltair was built in 1893 over the Great Salt Lake atop of two-thousand pylons and was for a time America’s most popular family destination west of New York.

The first Saltair Pavilion was destroyed by fire in 1925, which some Mormons believed to be divine retribution against the owners for committing the sin of selling coffee and tea.

The resort was rebuilt, but the lake receded, leaving the resort far from the shore. By the time Harvey arrived, he found the building abandoned and used the empty dance pavilion to shoot the climax of the film. It was here where Carnival’s star, Candace Hilligoss, is attacked by waltzing ghouls.

We were saddened to learn that the building we drove by that day was not the same one seen in the film. That’s because the Saltair Pavilion that Harvey used was destroyed by arson in the 1970s and was rebuilt in the early 80s in the same style about a mile from the original pavilion. Today, it’s used as a venue for concerts.

The pavilion has appeared in other places. There was a ho-hum remake of the film in 1998, and around the same time KISS made a largely-forgotten album called Carnival of Souls. There is also a bootleg Beach Boys album that features the pavilion on the cover.

Michael and Farrah in the Santa Clarita Valley

For many, it was the “day the 70s died.”
The sobering announcement on June 25, 2009 of Farrah Fawcett’s death from cancer, followed by the truly shocking news a few hours later that Michael Jackson had died from a drug overdose, saddened an entire generation who had grown up alongside the careers of these legendary performers.

It’s interesting to note that both Jackson and Fawcett had several ties to the Santa Clarita Valley.

Jackson came to Vasquez Rocks in 1991 to film part of the music video for the song Black Or White, a musical plea for racial equality. This video from his multi-platinum Dangerous album uses locations from around the world and contains one of the earliest examples of “morphing” in film.

In the Vasquez Rocks segment, Jackson dances with Native Americans atop a platform while riders on horseback encircle them. It was an appropriate location as literally hundreds of Westerns have been shot here going back to the earliest days of film.

The Black of White single was the biggest seller of 1991, and the video, which was released simultaneously around the world, was one of the most watched ever.

Incidentally, the video’s director, John Landis, was the director of the ill-fated 1983 Twilight Zone: The Movie segment that claimed the lives of actor Vic Morrow and two small children during filming behind the Magic Mountain theme park in nearby Valencia.

A few miles southwest of Vasquez Rocks at 15564 Sierra Highway is the Halfway House Cafe. It was here that Fawcett’s December 1995 Playboy spread was said to have been shot. This issue was the magazine’s biggest seller of the 90s.

Halfway House is frequently seen on film and television and is the site of Cindy Crawford’s famous 1991 Pepsi commercial where she drives up in a Lamborghini wearing blue jean cutoffs and a white tank top. (BTW, Halfway House is also seen in Landis’ Twilight Zone: The Movie.)

At the time of Fawcett’s death, her 24-year-old son Redmond O’Neal was incarcerated in a Santa Clarita area jail on drug charges. He was given a three-hour release to attend her funeral.

This past Saturday, Jackson’s jacket from the Thriller video went on auction and brought in $1.8 million. According to reports, the jacket’s sale will benefit another local Santa Clarita Valley institution – our friend Tippi Hedren’s Shambala Preserve – where two of Jackson’s tigers from Neverland Ranch are now housed.

I Predict He’ll Be a Big Star

(Here’s another offering from my favorite guest blogger, my wife and soulmate Kimi.)

During 635 episodes spanning 20 years, television viewers invited James Arness and the rest of the cast of the long-running Western Gunsmoke into their homes.

The 6’7” Arness was born James Aurness in May of 1923 (he would later drop the “u” at the recommendation of one of his first directors.) As a boy, he had no interest in performing, and dreamed instead of going to sea. He was drafted in 1943 and shipped out to Casablanca. He was later discharged because of a severe leg injury he received from German machine-gun fire.

While recuperating, his brother Peter Graves (of Mission Impossible and Airplane fame) convinced him to explore a career in radio. Arness proved fairly successful at the medium, and appeared headed for a career in broadcasting when he accompanied a friend to Hollywood in the hopes of finding film extra roles.

After a stint as a beach bum in San Onofre, he was cast in a play at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he met and married his first wife, Virginia Chapman. With her encouragement, Arness began finding roles, often cast as villainous character due to his size.

It was while playing in one of these roles that he was spotted by agent Charles Feldman, who also represented John Wayne. Feldman introduced Arness to Wayne, who immediately put him under personal contract.

It was during this time that the role of Marshal Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke was offered to Wayne. Duke turned down the role and recommended Arness for the part. (Some say Wayne was never actually offered the role, but in a 2006 interview with James Arness by Leon Worden of SCVTV in Santa Clarita, Arness himself implies that Wayne did in fact turn down the role before recommending him.) 

At first Arness feared the role would adversely affect his film career, but Wayne proved persuasive. He even filmed a teaser at the start of the first episode to help introduce America to the man who would become a generation’s role model and friend.

Good evening. My name’s Wayne. Some of you may have seen me before. I hope so. I’ve been kicking around Hollywood a long time. I’ve made a lot of pictures out here. All kinds. Some of them have been Westerns and that’s what I’m here to tell you about tonight. A Western. A new television show called "Gunsmoke." When I first heard about the show "Gunsmoke," I knew there was only one man to play in it. James Arness. He’s a young fellow, and maybe new to some of you. But I’ve worked with him and I predict he’ll be a big star. And now I’m proud to present "Gunsmoke."

Duke certainly knew what he was talking about.

The Big Man and The Boss

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(Many thanks to our pal Sean Leonard for being today’s guest blogger, and for sharing his family’s international brush with fame.)

My father has been in the insurance and investment business for over 50 years. During that time, he’s attended countless conventions around the world.

In their travels, he and my mom have visited fascinating places, among them Brazil, England, Germany, and Hawaii, and have never failed to come back with gifts for the kids and stories to go with them.

One such trip in the early eighties took them to Lucerne, Switzerland, and a chance meeting with rock ‘n’ roll royalty.

My mom is the loving mother of seven children, and was at the time the dean of students at our high school. You would think that in the day-to-day contact with adolescents she would have gleaned just a bit of knowledge on current popular trends and influences.

You might also have hoped that with the blaring music and non-stop television her children were enjoying, she would have picked up the names of one or two of the more important figures. To a certain extent she did, but let’s just say there were some gaps in her cultural literacy.

So, we weren’t surprised when she walked into a hotel gift shop in Lucerne and failed to recognize the large black gentleman standing next to her.

No one was minding the shop at the time, so in her personable way she struck up a conversation with the only other person around.

“I guess there’s no one here.”

“I see,” he said.

“Oh you speak English! Are you from the U.S.?”

“Yes, New Jersey.”

“Oh, my husband is from New Jersey! We’re here for the convention. Are you with a tour?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact,” he replied.

Hoping to get sightseeing tips on what to see in Lucerne, mom pressed on.

“What are they going to show you today?”

“Actually, I’m with a band and we’re touring Europe,” he said.

“Oh! That’s sounds wonderful. Are those your band mates?” she asked, pointing at a small group of people in the lobby.

“Yeah, that’s Bruce. Would you like to meet him?”

Even though she had no idea who “Bruce” was, she was always one to follow common courtesy.

“Absolutely!” she answered with enthusiasm.

The large gentleman formally introduced himself and led my mother over to meet the band.

“Bruce, I’d like you to meet my friend Judy. She and her husband are from Jersey.”

“Actually, I’m from California,” she corrected. “We both live in California now.”

“Great to meet you. Are you coming to the show tonight?” asked Bruce.

“No. I’m not quite sure what the plans are for tonight. The company always has some type of dinner or something.”

“Okay. Why don’t I leave some tickets for you?”

Mom agreed.

I’m not sure at what point my mom started to realize that this nice man and his friends were bigger than just some garden-variety garage band. Perhaps it was when a growing gang of people began swarming around them, taking pictures and soliciting autographs.

Whenever it was, it didn’t impress my parents enough to attend the concert that evening, but it did prompt them to request an autograph (which I’m sure mom got just in case any of her kids recognized them.)

She didn’t ask it of Bruce. Instead, she handed the pen to her new friend, who signed it, simply:

To Judy! Clarence “Big Man” Clemons.

(R.I.P. Big Man, 1942-2011)

Down the Road to Eternity, Part 3


After a stop in Bakersfield for lunch we turn left onto California 46 and head west. We immediately enter farm country and traffic trickles. Its easy to speed on this stretch, even without Dean’s legendary lead foot.

At Corcoran Road, we briefly leave the route to journey north to find another iconic site from the 1950s. It was here at the intersection of Garces Road that Cary Grant was chased by the murderous crop duster in the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock classic North By Northwest. It’s about a 25-mile detour from our trek to take in this site. That’s a long way to go to see an empty intersection made famous in the 1950s, but that, in a nutshell, is exactly what this day is all about.

It’s while returning to Highway 46 that Kim sees the farm that was seemingly lifted from Tatooine. We may not be in the middle of nowhere, but it feels like we could hit it with a rock from here.

Back on the 46, we head west stopping briefly at Blackwell’s Corner to snap photos next to a large billboard of Dean who stopped here briefly to stretch his legs before heading west. His final twenty minutes of life would be spent inside the Spyder.

Minutes later, we crest a ridge of mountains and look below into a large valley. At the base of the valley is the intersection. We’re almost there.

We try to slow down to approach the site at a more safe, and what we feel to be a more reverential velocity, but traffic and inertia speeds us through. We hardly have time to glance up at the green James Dean Memorial Interchange sign that undoubtedly informs many of the passersby of something we have known for years: James Dean died here.

We pass through the intersection and head west for another mile. Near the crest of a hill we see the sign for the non-existent town of Cholame (pronounced Sho-lam), and pull into the parking lot of the Jack Ranch Café. It is here that the faithful traditionally gather. Their totem is a stainless steel monument that bears Deans name, birth and death dates and times, and the infinity symbol. It surrounds a tree that has come to be known as the “tree of heaven.”

I expect to see dozens of Dean fans milling about, perhaps even a replica Spyder or two, but the only people we see are two men in T-shirts and cowboy hats sitting behind several tables of James Dean memorabilia. Their names are Matthew Grant and his father Glen, who live nearby. The collection was assembled by Glens mother who was the postmaster of Cholame for many years.

The collection is impressive with copies of the coroners report, newspaper clippings from the accident, and fan magazines sent from Japan by the Japanese businessman who paid for the memorial. I get excited when they show us a license plate that was found one morning at the memorial that appears to be signed by Elvis Presley. Elvis was a big Dean fan and I try to imagine what something like that must be worth. I calm down when I realize that the relic isn’t authentic when they mention that it was found in 1983 when The King was already long in his grave in Memphis.

I ask Matthew if we missed the crowds and he explains that there weren’t any this year. He estimates that only about a dozen showed up during the whole day. I’m surprised by this, especially since this is the year of the death of Heath Ledger, another talented young actor struck down on the verge of superstardom.

If you wanted crowds, you needed to be here in 2005 on the 50th anniversary, Glen tells us. I counted 325 people that day, he adds.

(I guess even Lourdes has the occasional down day.)


Down the Road to Eternity, Part 2

Our Death Ride began a few hours earlier and a hundred miles to the south in the parking lot of the Marie Callender’s restaurant just off the 5 freeway in Valencia. Kim and I were joined there by our friend Alan Pollack, having decided to complete the Hollywood portion of the trek at a later date.

It was on this site in 1955 in a restaurant called Tip’s that Dean may have had his last meal.

“Legend holds that Dean and Wutherich stopped here and Dean had a piece of pie and a glass of milk,” explains Alan, who as president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society is an authority on local history. “This story is based on an interview that was made by Tony Newhall in The Signal newspaper here in Newhall in the 1985. He interviewed the restaurant manager at the time who said that a waitress named Althea McGuinness served Dean that day,” Alan adds.

“Unfortunately,” Alan continues, “there’s a problem with this story. Newhall claimed that the Tip’s manager sounded sincere, but Dean’s mechanic Rolf Wutherich claimed in an interview in 1960 that they didn’t stop until three hours after leaving Hollywood, and that would have put them much further past Tip’s.”

This could be simply a case of faulty memory on either or both of the parties. The manager may have remembered a visit by Dean on a different day, and Wutherich, who was severely injured in the crash, may simply have forgotten about the stop.

But there is an additional problem with the story. In 1955 there were two Tip’s restaurants only two miles apart. The manager stated in 1985 that Dean had stopped at “Tip’s Coffee Shop” (which would be at the current Marie Callender’s site) and not at the main Tip’s at Castaic Junction, but other accounts disagree. If Dean did indeed have his last meal at Tip’s, there is no way to positively conclude in which Tip’s it took place.

We leave the Marie Callender’s at 11:00 AM and stop briefly at the intersection of the 5 and California 126, which was the site of the other Tips restaurant. Today, there is nothing but an empty lot.

Afterwards, we get on the 5 and head north. A half-hour later we exit in Gorman, and after gassing up at the Chevron station there (said to be the oldest in the chain) we head up old Route 99, which today parallels the 5. This would have been Dean’s path in 1955.

We stay on the old road until we pass Lebec where we re-enter the 5. Within a few minutes we exit the mountains to find the seemingly endless expanse of the San Joaquin Valley before us. It was here just off of California 99 that Dean signed his last autograph onto a speeding ticket issued by patrolman O.V. Hunter just a couple of hours prior to his death. Officer Hunter clocked Dean going 65 in a 55 mph zone.

Wutherich claimed later that Dean was embarrassed by the ticket because he had recently filmed a public service announcement with actor Gig Young on traffic safety. In this commercial, Dean eerily ends his message encouraging slower speeds by saying, “The life you save may be mine.”

(Something we’re sure took place at the Marie Callender’s site was the tragic “Newhall Incident” in 1970 where four CHP officers died in a shootout. – More on the “Death Ride” tomorrow.)


Down the Road to Eternity, Part 1

(I started working again at Warner Bros. Studios in Burbank today, a place that’s figured prominently in my life. It was here during an earlier gig where I met Kimi, the love of my life, and the lot was also the subject of my first book. It was also paramount in importance to the story of James Dean, who filmed parts of his three films on the lot before dying tragically in a car crash. A couple of years ago, Kimi and I, along with our pal Alan Pollack, traced his final day. Here is what we saw along the way.)

“Along came a Spyder and picked up a rider, and took him down the road to eternity.”

James Dean, The Eagles


“It looks like the planet where Luke Skywalker grew up,” jokes my lovely wife Kim, motioning towards a desolate San Joaquin Valley farm whose main crop appears to be sagebrush.

I know what she means. We’re only a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles, but it’s easy to imagine we’ve entered an extraterrestrial home of jawas, droids, and sand people.

We find ourselves on this lonely highway heading towards a destination that has become an annual pilgrimage for many.

On the morning of September 30, 1955, 24-year-old actor James Dean drove from his home in Sherman Oaks to a garage in Hollywood to get a tune-up for his newest toy, a Porsche 550 Spyder. Dean had purchased the Porsche a few days earlier to celebrate signing a new $1 million Hollywood contract and would be running it in a race that weekend in the Central California town of Salinas.

Dean had originally planned to tow the car to the racetrack, but changed his mind at the last minute. With his mechanic, 29-year-old Rolf Wutherich, riding shotgun, and a pair of friends following behind in Dean’s station wagon, he set out for Salinas. He never made it.

At approximately 5:30 PM, a young Cal Poly San Luis Obispo student with the unusual name of Donald Turnupseed was driving eastbound in a black-and-white 1950 Ford. At the Y intersection of California 41 and 46 (California 466 at the time) near Cholame, Turnupseed crossed into the oncoming traffic lane to head north. He apparently didn’t see the hip-high, silver Porsche with Dean at the wheel approaching from the opposite direction. They collided nearly head-on.

Turnupseed walked away with minor injuries, Wutherich was hospitalized for several months, but Dean died at the scene.

Dean was a fast-rising star in Hollywood at the time of his death, having appeared in numerous roles on television, and as the star of the feature film East of Eden, which had been released the previous spring.

During the intervening months, Dean found himself back in front of the camera in starring roles as the brooding Jim Stark in Rebel Without A Cause, and alongside Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor in the oil epic Giant. Both of these films would be released after his death and would prove to be hugely popular with both critics and the public.

Dean had been barred from racing – his second greatest love after acting – during the filming of Giant, but with the wrapping of the film just two weeks

earlier, he was off to Salinas. (Ironically, East of Eden, for which Dean was to receive his first of two posthumous Best Actor nominations, was set in Salinas.)

Dean’s tragic death, coupled with the rave reviews he received later with the release of Rebel, immediately insured his legacy, and made the 41/46 intersection a site of veneration.

The weekend closest to the anniversary of Dean’s death has become the annual time of pilgrimage for many of his most faithful fans. It has taken on the macabre name of the “Death Ride” for some who feel that an official pilgrimage only occurs when Dean’s entire route is followed.

(More on the Death Ride tomorrow.)

"Be-Bop-A-Newhall," Part 2

Rock and roll pioneer and “permanent” Newhall resident Gene Vincent was instrumental in bringing the nucleus of the Beatles together.

As the story goes, in July 1957, 15-year-old McCartney was talked into visiting a church festival to audition for the band The Quarrymen, which was led by 16-year-old John Lennon. McCartney reportedly played a 10-minute medley of songs by Gene, Eddie Cochran, and Little Richard. Lennon was so impressed with the younger McCartney that he asked him to join the band. Later, just before “Beatlemania” was to wash over the world, the Beatles met and befriended their idol in Hamburg where Gene helped them craft their sound.

Gene still had lots of fans stateside as well, including Jim Morrison and Ray Manzarek of the Doors.

Gene was on tour in England in April 1960 when a taxi he was riding in hit a cement post. The crash seriously injured Gene and killed his cab-mate Eddie Cochran, who had made a name for himself with Summertime Blues.

Gene spent most of the next decade flitting between London and Hollywood, while recording and touring sporadically. Years of heavy drinking, bad relationships, and poor management compromised his finances and wrecked his health. He was with his parents in Saugus in 1971 when he was rushed to what was later called the Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia, where a bleeding ulcer took him away from a world that had largely forgotten him.

But Gene could never be completely forgotten. Be-Bop-A-Lula, which was released 55 years ago this week, still garners airplay – either in its original version, or as covered by such performers as Gary Glitter, Carl Perkins, the Everly Brothers, Stray Cats, Queen, and not surprisingly, both Lennon and McCartney.

Gene has won some posthumous acclaim as well. Rolling Stone magazine once called Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps “the first rock ‘n’ roll band in the world,” and Be-Bop-A-Lula was listed as one of the “500 Songs That Shaped Rock and Roll” by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland where Gene was inducted in 1998. More recently, Guitar Edge magazine voted Gene onto its list of the “100 Greatest Guitar Players of All Time,” (although, in all fairness it should have been Cliff Gallup being honored, as he was the true master guitarist of the Blue Caps).

Gene was laid to rest at Newhall’s Eternal Valley Cemetery. French-born fan and Newhall resident Chris Bouyer hopes to see the city where Gene is buried to pay tribute to their permanent resident with an annual music festival.

“I would love to see the city of Newhall host a yearly rockabilly festival in February around Gene’s birthday,” says Bouyer. “There is a huge rockabilly underground, and I know that a festival like that could draw thousands of fans from all around the world. I imagine the festival as something that would start small and then grow big,” says Bouyer. “All it will take will be work, dedication, and passion. But that’s the story of everything worthwhile. That’s the story of rock and roll. And that’s the story of Gene.”

“Be-Bop-a-Lula … She-e-e’s my baby doll, my baby doll, my baby doll.”


"Be-Bop-A-Newhall," Part 1

(Since today is the 55th anniversary of the release of the epic rock and roll classic Be-Bop-a-Lula by local legend Gene Vincent, I’ve decided to reprint a two-parter on this underappreciated rockabilly pioneer.)

If you’re a fan of 1950s rock and roll, or if you just happen to be over 40, try taking this test.

Sing the following opening lyric without singing any of the rest of the song. Ready? Here goes.


Be honest. You couldn’t stop yourself, could you? Try as you might, some dormant synapse in your brain fired off the second line “… She’s My Baby …” straight to your vocal chords.

Don’t feel bad. Since June 16, 1956 – 55-years ago this week – when Be-Bop-A-Lula first hit the airwaves, so many millions of people have sung along to the tune that it has entered the world’s musical collective unconscious.

While the song may be familiar to most, the story of rock and roll legend and permanent Santa Clarita Valley resident Gene Vincent, the tune’s singer and co-author, who would have turned 76 in February, has largely been forgotten.

If asked to select likenesses for a Mount Rushmore of 1950s rock and roll legends, most Americans would showcase the images of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Buddy Holly. But another face would likely be added by Europeans where Gene Vincent’s popularity was on par with Presley’s near-godlike following.

Gene Vincent, whose real name was Vincent Eugene Craddock, was born in Norfolk, Virginia in 1935 and began playing guitar at the age of 12. He left school early to join the Navy where he was stationed in Korea. On returning to Norfolk in 1955 he was involved in a very serious motorcycle accident that shattered his left leg, leaving him with a permanent limp and chronic pain for the rest of his life. Legend has it that he wrote Be-Bop-A-Lula in the hospital while recovering from the injury.

During the frantic months after the songs’ release, Gene and his band the Blue Caps – which featured legendary guitarist Cliff Gallup – recorded an album, played numerous concerts, and appeared in the first rock and roll feature film The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield. The pace quickly took its toll on Gene and the band and before long several members of the Blue Caps exited for good.

Gene had a few follow-up hits in America after that, but nothing to approach Be-Bop-A-Lula in popularity. With his career stalling in the States, he toured Japan and Australia with Eddie Cochran and Little Richard. Afterwards he went to Europe where he was greeted as a hero by his legions of fans.

Among those fans were some lads from Liverpool.

Paul McCartney wrote in “The Beatles Anthology” that Be-Bop-A-Lula was the first record he ever bought, and in fact, the song was reportedly instrumental in bringing the nucleus of the Beatles together in the first place.

(More on this tomorrow.)