Tag Archives: newhall

"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-Bop-a-Lula…”

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.)

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Eternal Sounds

It’s one thing to achieve success in music, but quite another to be inducted into the Hall of Fame of a genre (at least it was until they put Madonna in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but that’s another story).

Today we’ll pay a visit to the three Hall of Fame musicians who are housed at Eternal Valley Cemetery in Newhall.

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After entering the gates, we climb the hill, passing by the final resting place of giant Tor Johnson from Plan Nine From Outer Space along the way.

Near the top, at the upper end of the Garden of Prayer rests musical legend Cliffie Stone. Stone, born Clifford Snyder, was a country singer, musician, disk jockey, record producer, author, and music publisher.

As the host of the Hometown Jamboree radio program from 1946-1960, he helped launch the careers of dozens of country musicians. The multi-tasking Stone was signed by Capitol Records in Hollywood as both an artist and as head of their Country & Western division. At the end of his life, he kept busy directing Gene Autry’s vast publishing empire.

Stone was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at the corner of Sunset and Vine, and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1989.

On the far south side of the cemetery in the Garden of Meditation rests singer Roy Brown.

Roy James Brown was born in New Orleans in 1925 and began his career as a gospel singer. He later switched to the blues, and is now considered to be a pioneer voice in rock and roll history.

 

Brown recorded his most famous song, Good Rocking Tonight, in 1947. The song was later covered by Elvis Presley, Paul McCartney, and a host of other performers. A dazzling showman, Brown helped pave the way for later performers like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis.

His fortunes declined during the 1960s to the point that he was forced to sell encyclopedias to make ends meet. He was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 1981, which was the same year that he died.

Down the hill in plot 91 of the Garden of Repose rests rocker Gene Vincent, Eternal Valley’s most famous resident.

Eugene Vincent Craddock was born in Virginia in 1935. He got his first guitar at the age of 12 and dropped out of school to join the navy a few years later.

While in the navy, he was involved in a serious motorcycle accident and while recuperating, wrote the classic rock and roll song Be-Bop-A-Lula.

This song, which was later covered by everyone from Queen to John Lennon, quickly went gold and led to Vincent and his band, The Blue Caps, earning a spot in the landmark rock and roll film The Girl Can’t Help It, starring Jayne Mansfield.

Vincent continued to perform until his death, but never equaled the success of Be-Bop. He died from the effects of alcoholism in 1971, and was inducted posthumously into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

Along a line of shrubs in the Zane Grey Gardens is the grave of Tex Williams. While not a Hall of Famer (yet), Williams had a long and successful career as a country singer/songwriter. During the 1940s and ’50s he also starred in a series of low-budget western musicals for Universal, known as “oaters.”

Williams first struck musical gold in 1945 as the lead singer of the Spade Cooley Orchestra when their single Shame On You became a smash hit and stayed on the country charts for 31 weeks. Eternal Valley neighbor Cliffie Stone later offered Williams his own recording contract and Tex left Cooley to form “Tex Williams and His Western Caravan.”

In 1947, their single Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette) topped both the country and the pop charts, becoming Capitol Records’ first million-selling record.

Not surprisingly, the singer died of lung cancer in his Newhall home in 1985.

 


Charlot

I remember seeing the film Chaplin for the first time in 1992. I, like most Charlie Chaplin fans worldwide, had been eagerly awaiting opening night since learning about the Robert Downey, Jr. production several months earlier.

I took a friend to the film who knew nothing about Charlie Chaplin more than his iconic image. At the beginning of the movie, Robert Downey, Jr. as Chaplin, enters his dressing room in the Little Tramp’s costume and greasepaint. I remember hearing my friend’s audible gasp when Downey looked into the mirror, pulled off his fake moustache, and wiped the stage makeup from his face, revealing a 25-year-old underneath. Until that moment, my friend had no idea that Chaplin’s aged look was created for the screen. From that moment, a fan was born.

As I pointed out recently, this week marks the 97th anniversary of the “birth” of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, known internationally as “Charlot,” which he hastily created for the one-reeler Kid Auto Races at Venice.

I say “hastily created,” but in reality, while the actual costuming of the character was assembled in a rush, the characterization of the homeless little man trying to make his way through life, while keeping his dignity intact, had been percolating in Chaplin’s mind since his days as a street waif in Victorian London.

The Little Tramp would live on until 1936, when Chaplin retired the iconic character at the conclusion of Modern Times.

To kick off the 2011 Santa Clarita Valley ChaplinFest in Newhall this Friday evening, we will be screening Chaplin, which was partly filmed in nearby Fillmore, California.

On hand for the screening will be props used in the film, as well as a visit from David Totheroh, who appeared as his grandfather Rollie’s assistant in the film. (Rollie Totheroh was Chaplin’s cameraman for forty years.)

Incidentally, David’s father Jack, who still lives in the Santa Paula area, recently set a world record for having the longest film career ever, having appeared in a Broncho Billy Anderson film when he was six-months old in 1914, and again a couple of years ago in a movie made in Niles, California.

The screening of Chaplin is intended as a primer for those people who, like my friend back in 1992, have little knowledge of Charlie Chaplin, the man. With any luck, we will be creating some new Chaplin fans that night.

We will recognize them by their gasps when the greasepaint comes off.


The Blue-Eyed Assassin

Frank Sinatra is remembered for being a lady-killer in his films, but what is often overlooked is that he once played a would-be presidential assassin.

The date was October 1954, and the city of Newhall, California was still small enough to pose as the setting for the sleepy fictional town of “Suddenly” in the film of the same name.

In the film, Sinatra and a group of hired killers pose as FBI agents who take a group of people hostage in a house overlooking a train station, where they intend to shoot the president when he de-trains.

Suddenly came on the heels of Sinatra’s Oscar-winning performance in From Here To Eternity, and Sinatra delivers a solid performance as a psychotic heavy, which was a tough sell for a 120-pounder.

The film used many locations sprinkled around downtown Newhall which still exist, including the Benson house on 8th Street, and the Saugus Train Station, which is no longer at the site it occupied in the film, but today can be found in Heritage Junction, inside the William S. Hart Park.

Suddenly was thought to be an inspiration for 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate, another presidential assassination film, which also starred Sinatra, who this time tries to prevent an assassination attempt.

Rumors circulated that Lee Harvey Oswald watched Suddenly shortly before assassinating Sinatra’s friend John F. Kennedy. This was not the case, but it’s possible that Oswald saw the film on its initial release in theaters nine years earlier.

The film was pulled from distribution after the Kennedy assassination and was largely forgotten. It again became a subject of controversy in the mid-1980s when a colorized version was released which turned Sinatra’s famous blue eyes brown.


The Forgotten Cowboy

Tom Mix 1880 - 1940

Once the biggest film star in the world, Tom Mix may be the most forgotten megastar in Hollywood history.

70 years ago today, the former nickelodeon cowboy hero died when the car he was driving plunged into a washed-out gulley south of Florence, Arizona, and his sturdy aluminum suitcase struck him on the head, crushing his skull.

Mix had an exciting biography, which seemed to get even more colorful with each telling. He claimed to be a child of the West, with one-quarter Cherokee ancestry, and to have been one of Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” in the Spanish-American War. He also reported that he had once been a Texas Ranger and U.S. Marshal before becoming a film star.

In truth, Mix was born in 1880 in Pennsylvania, and though he did enlist in the army in 1898, he remained stateside and never saw combat. He did serve as a lawman, but never in Texas, and instead of pinning on a marshal’s badge, he found employment as a local constable in Oklahoma and Kansas.

But to Mix’s credit, and unlike most Western film stars, he was a cowboy, earning his spurs for a time on the largest ranch in America, where he became an expert rider and shooter.

Fame came quickly to Mix after his first film in 1910. By the 20s, he was making $7,500 per week in films, and had overseen the construction several Western film sets called “Mixvilles” around Southern California, including one in downtown Newhall.

Part of the reason Mix’s fame dimmed over the years was because so few of his films exist. It is estimated that only 10 % of the 330 Westerns he made during his silent career still survive. Most of the rest were lost to the combustible nitrate film-stock they were printed on.

Mix’s film career ended with the coming of the talkie revolution, after which he moved into the circus business. His fame continued in radio where he was portrayed for two decades on the Ralston-Purina sponsored Tom Mix Ralston Straight Shooters program, although he never actually appeared on the series.

It is estimated that Mix made over $6 million during his film career (which translates to roughly $400 million today!), but he spent most of it on high-living and costly divorces (he was married five times).

He wasn’t quite penniless at the time of his crash, but it may have been better for him if he had been, because the suitcase that killed him was filled with money, traveler’s checks, and jewels.

Check out Mix (in the white hat) looking over the shoulder of the wax figure of Paul McCartney on the cover of the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album.