October 9th is the day to pay tribute to a dearly departed musician. It’s John Lennon’s birthday but he gets plenty of press. Today’s the day to talk about a Rock-and-Roll legend that for some reason decided to chuck it all after an incendiary year of genius guitar playing to become a maintenance man back in Virginia. That is Gene Vincent’s secret weapon Cliff Gallup, who died 19 years ago today.
How good was Cliff Gallup? Ask Jeff Beck. In an exhibition of hero worship only matched by Gus Van Sant’s shot by shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, Beck released Crazy Legs in 1993, a tribute to Gallup. The British virtuoso recreated the rockabilly master’s handiwork down to the very last note.
Eddie Cochran, James Burton, and Scotty Moore all have their slavish acolytes, but Gallup’s demented lightning speed licks make all three of them sound like amateurs. While it’s true that the true birth of Rockabilly came out of Sam Phillip’s Sun Records, it was Gallup that spurred the genre to the height of its potential with his Gretsch Duo-Jet, a Fender amplifier and echo effects the man created himself with parts from old tape recorders. Think the Reverend Horton Heat sounds audacious? He’s just playing like Cliff Gallup.
Gallup recorded 35 sides with Gene Vincent over about a year in the mid-'50s and then decided that he missed his wife and gave it all up hanging up his guitar for a steady job and an occasional weekend gig with a local band.
Guitarist Deke Dickerson claims that no less than, “Brian Setzer actually went to his house, knocked on his door, and pleaded with Cliff to talk with him.
"‘Cliff grabbed his rifle and said, 'Git offa muh property!’”
Gallup was so unimpressed with his own accomplishments that he refused to give out autographs and requested that his obituary not mention anything about his tenure as lead guitarist with Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps. Don’t try to figure it out; it’s a mystery. You'd probably have a better chance of explaining a Jackson Pollack painting to your grandmother than unraveling this.
What isn’t mysterious is the slick playing that Gallup left behind in his one year in the spotlight. The famous solo on "Be Bop A Lula" is fine, but check out the insane finger picking madness of the master on his true highlights “Race with the Devil,” “Cruisin’,” and “Catman.” You’ll find a genius back woods virtuoso ignoring the traditional blues scales in favor of augmented blazing madness that is performed literally as fast as anything Eddie Van Halen ever laid down without the benefit of distortion, something that makes any true guitar aficionado groan with disbelief and unbelievable envy.
Envy enough, in fact, to make wandering down to Virginia to rile up an old man and his rifle, not only logical but imperative!
Here’s an odd caveat for you that you’ll probably never hear from any respected critic in the world. Sacrilegious? Sure, but to get a true first taste of Gallup, I’d actually recommend Beck’s album over the original Vincent recordings for the uninitiated.
Although vocalist Mike Sanchez can’t hold a candle to equally audacious Vincent, let’s just say that 1950’s recording technology wasn’t ready for Cliff Gallup. Beck’s album does just what Beck intended it to do – shine a microscope on true guitar genius that popped out of nowhere, cut every player alive to his knees and disappeared as mysteriously as it arrived.
Consider these words from Jeff Beck: "If people are disappointed with the album 'cause I didn't do my own thing then they're missing the point. I wanted to show people what Cliff was doing and I wanted to be Cliff when we were doing it. The solos are so beautifully formed with a beginning, middle and end that they're like small miracles."
Then go buy the original Vincent sides!