There are various versions of the story behind Gene Vincent’s hit song ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’. Vincent grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, where he learned to play the blues with various Black American musicians in the area, although Vincent hadn’t made his mind up at this point to become a serious musician in his own right.
His early influences included country, R&B and gospel and, after he dropped out of high school, while his heart remained in music, he decided instead on a life in the US Navy. Vincent was deployed to Korea via the USS Chuckawan, although he never saw any fighting but instead returned back home.
Even still, he decided to sign up for another deployment and with money he had received for a re-enlistment bonus, Vincent bought a motorcycle. Following a severe accident, he ended up in the hospital. This is where the details of the story diverge into different versions – but legend has it, while he was staying at the Portsmouth Naval Hospital recovering, he would play the guitar all day, unable to move, and some say it was here that he wrote the iconic rockabilly song, ‘Be-bop-A-Lula’.
“Actually the song was written by a guy from Portsmouth named Donald Graves,” Dickie Harrell, the drummer of Vincent’s band, The Blue Caps, once said. According to Harrell, Vincent and his manager at the time, Bill ‘Sherriff Tex’ Davis, bought the song from Graves for 25 dollars. “It happened a lot in those days. Guys would take the sure money,” according to Songfacts.
While Elvis Presley beat Vincent to the proverbial rock ‘n’ roll punch, Vincent took the song and decided to never look back. He formed the blue caps, began wearing blue jeans and leather jackets and became one of the first rockers. He had returned to his hometown of Norfolk, Virginia and quickly became a favourite amid the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll scene.
Vincent recorded a demo of the song and sent it to Nashville, where he was subsequently picked up by Capitol Records who were in desperate need of their own ‘rockabilly Elvis’ to match RCA, the label to which Elvis was signed.
Capitol released ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ as the B-side to Vincent’s first single while the A-side proved to be too subversive for its time. This song was called ‘Woman Love’ which got banned from multiple stations across the country, including BBC in the UK. In retaliation, Capitol Records flipped the two sides, which proved to be effective. For some unknown reason, as soon as the two singles were flipped, the song became less inappropriate as a B-side.
While Vincent never became the massive success that Elvis was, he developed a very big cult following and represented the archetype of the ‘rebel heartthrob’. The injury that Vincent sustained from his motorcycle accident left him with perpetual pain in his leg and, tragically, he soon developed a dependency on drugs and alcohol.
While his career soon fell off into obscurity, ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’ went to become an ever-lasting foundation of rockabilly music. Upon hearing it for the first time, Buddy Holly wanted to sing like him and both Lennon and McCartney of The Beatles have referenced the song as one of their absolute favourites.