2 Shades of Grey

Songs from the soundtrack of your life

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Bobby Vee bounces off into the sunset

Jerry Lee lewis famously commented that one good thing the Beatles and the Stones and the British pop invasion did was get rid of the “Bobbies“.

He was referring to the group of good-looking but not necessarily over-talented male vocalists who followed in Elvis’s footsteps when he went into the army. Usually clean-cut and white they often covered songs by black artists and had hits with them. Pat Boone was a good example.

scan0237Another was the late Bobby Vee, who has just died aged 73.

Bobby Vee’s clim to fame is slightly different.  He famously stood in for Buddy Holly on the night that he was killed. As a fifteen year old schoolboy and a big Buddy Holly fan, he had a ticket to see the show when a call went out on the radio for local talent to entertain the crowd.

He volunteered with his backing group of school friends and his older brother Bill on lead guitar. He was put on stage without an audition so desperate were the promoters to put on a show in the face of the tragedy.

As he was being introduced the MC asked him the name of his group and the story goes that he looked at the silhouettes in the spotlight and blurted out “The Shadows“. Despite his nerves he went down well and a recording contract followed shortly afterwards with his first record called Suzy Baby.

He had four top ten hits in both the US and the UK – Take good care of my baby, Rubber Ball, Run to him, and The Night has a Thousand Eyes.

scan0241scan0240I saw Bobby Vee in concert in Blackburn, Lancashire in February 1962.

The ticket cost me 7 shillings and sixpence (37.5 p) which doesn’t sound a lot but was quite a bit from my £5 a week wage.

This was the Bobby Vee Show which also featured Clarence Frogman Henry , the Springfields, Tony Orland, and the Checkmates.

The programme included a list of the songs  that Bobby might sing selected from a list! Seems bizarre now.scan0242

I also have a programme from November 1962 when he toured with the Crickets – Jerry Allison, Jerry Naylor, and Sonny Curtis – the tour promoting their album of the same name. I must have seen them in Manchester.scan0236

scan0238As an aside the Crickets deserve special mention in both the Buddy Holly story and Bobby Vee’s early career.

Jerry Allison’s wife Peggy Sue inspired the eponymous Holly song and Allison and Curtis wrote and recorded More than I can Say which was a hit for them, Bobby Vee and Leo Sayer. And a song we have performed many times.

scan0239In that show they shared the bill.

The Crickets closing the first half and Vee and the Crickets the second half.

After the British invasion his career stalled at the mere age of 20. He tried to emulate the British sound but failed, appeared in a couple of films, grew a beard to look more adult – but to no avail.

However he continued performing on the nostalgia circuit on the strength of those popular hits – songs which were crafted in the Brill Building in New York with songwriters like Gene Pitney (Rubber Ball), and Carole King & Gerry Goffin (Take good care of …) – for the rest of his career.

He even had a top 5 entry in the UK, where he had a strong following, 40 years after his first hit single, with a compilation CD.

The Times ran a good obit of him which including some little known – to me at least – facts; such as that Bob Dylan briefly played piano with his band under the name Elston Gunn and was the one who suggested that he shorten his name from Velline to Vee. This was before Mr Zimmerman upped sticks and went to Greenwich village to became Bob Dylan.

Dylan was, perhaps surprisingly, a big fan and wrote that Vee’s singing was “as musical as a silver bell” and that “they had a lot in common”. On one occasion when Vee attended a Dylan concert in 2013, Dylan said “I’ve played all over the world with everybody from Mick Jagger to Madonna but the most meaningful person I’ve ever been on the stage with was a man who used to sing a song called Suzy Baby” – which he then performed. Praise indeed from a Nobel prize winner!

Vee returned the compliment by recording a Dylan song on his farewell album The Adobe Sessions in 2014 after he had been diagnosed with Alzheimers and could no longer perform his hits.

RIP Robert Thomas Velline


Duane Eddy – twangy guitar hero

My earliest musical influences, if you discount the Deep River Boys on the radio on Sunday evenings, were Buddy Holly, and Duane Eddy. Guitarists Chet Atkins, the Ventures and the Shadows came later.

One of my neighbourhood friends Peter Fenton (later our roadie and electrician in the Avalons) had a record player and we would meet in his house after school to listen to the latest records by Buddy Holly and Duane Eddy. Every wannabe guitar hero learned to play Oh Boy and Shazam. (A local guitar teacher who worked “on the bins” saw me messing with my guitar at my front gate one day and showed me how to play Shazam).

Buddy played a sunburst Fender Stratocaster and Chet Atkins and Duane Eddy played Gretsch guitars (although Duane Eddy used Guild for a while before going back to Gretsch). These guitars were so far beyond my reach – and most other aspiring guitarists – that they had an iconic status. For one thing you couldn’t buy Fenders in the UK because of a government ban on American imports.

Buddy Holly bought his first Fender Stratocaster in 1955, the year after they came out, for $305. Cliff Richard bought Hank Marvin a Stratocaster from America for 140 guineas in May 1959 and it was the first one in the UK. In 1965 a Gretsch cost over 300 guineas (equivalent to about £2,500 at today’s prices).

sc000182c1 sc00091650I was too young to see Buddy Holly live (although I did see the Crickets on tour when they came to Burnley with Bobby Vee in 1962) but imagine my delight to be playing with my group The Expression on the same bill as Duane Eddy on his UK tour when he played the Princess Ballroom in Workington (18 August 1966).  

The Devils Disciples also supported Duane Eddy on that tour at Morecambe Pier. So both of us have separately supported him.

sc000182c1 - Version 2The other pleasant surprise was that we had met his band, a group of British musicians led by saxophonist Red Price, when they backed the Walker Brothers at the Astoria Ballroom in Rawtenstall when The Avalons were the support group. These musicians were so friendly and supportive even though musically they were streets ahead of us.

And Duane Eddy was a gentleman. He didn’t say a lot but he was happy to sign photographs.

de-roadHe’s still going strong having forged a working relationship, cut a new CD Road Trip“, and toured, with Richard Hawley, another Gretsch player.

gretsch-duane-eddie-630-80Some facts about Duane Eddy

  • First top ten hit was Rebel Rouser in 1958 (Movin’ and a-groovin’ was his first record the previous year but only reached 74))
  • Apart from his rock hits he also played film themes such as Because They’re Young and Peter Gunn
  • First rock guitarist to have his own signature guitars the DE400 and DE500 made by Guild
  • Gretsch brought out the first Duane Eddy signature  6120DE in 1997 but reissued it as the G6120 in 2011 (see picture on right). It was  based on the original Chet Atkins 6120 he used for his early hits, with some modifications.
  • Has sold over 100 million records making him most popular rock guitarist
  • Admitted  into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1994

On those guitars

I’d had a pink 1964 Fender Stratocaster when I played in The Expression and the Uptown Go-Go Band but I could never keep it in tune and (foolishly) got rid of it, and my Vox AC30 TB amplifier, when I left the band.

Years later I saved up and went down to London to buy a Buddy Holly-type Squier Stratocaster in sunburst with the original 3-way pick-up switch (which I upgraded to a 5-way). It was assembled in Japan but from genuine US parts. And it served me well (I used it a lot when I played with a 60s cover bands Oh Boy and Shades of Rock as shown in archive photos). I had it cleaned up and checked over recently and it’s in good condition for a 25 year old guitar.

The Gretsch had to wait a bit longer. At over £$3,000 dollars there’s no way I could afford the Duane Eddy signature guitar but a couple of years ago my ex-Avalon colleague David Parkinson and I decided we’d both buy an Electromatic vintage re-issue. He wanted an orange one in memory of Eddie Cochran and I got a black one. We get together occasionally for a Gretsch-fest!