Vincent Unearthed

Dragon Street Records' David Dennard is responsible for the release of debut albums from the likes of Tripping Daisy and Hagfish. But the Dallas indie-label mogul isn't so interested in finding the hottest, newest thing anymore. Indeed, he has spent the past few years digging up music long thought forgotten -- music recorded by Gene Vincent right here in Texas during the late 1950s, when the rockabilly idol briefly lived here to be near his manager, Ed McLemore.

Last month, Dennard released The Lost Dallas Sessions, 1957'58, a 19-song collection featuring tracks Vincent recorded at Sellars Studios, the Big "D" Jamboree at Dallas's Sportatorium and a north Dallas home. It's a remarkable release, not just odds and sods and other scraps swept from the studio floor and packaged for profit on disc, but a bona fide treasure. It contains classic rockabilly and then some, offering proof that Vincent wasn't merely a hazy myth but a wonderful musician with a gut-shot voice and a bluesman's fingers.

"All of this has been a labor of love," says Dennard, "maybe one of the greatest things I've ever done in my life."

Dennard's discovery of these lost Vincent tracks began by accident. During the course of assembling 1996's two-disc Ronnie Dawson anthology for Dallas's Crystal Clear Sound (where Dennard worked until a few months ago), he had contacted a woman named Jeanne Bullington, the daughter of Ed McLemore, looking for photos of the young Dawson performing on the Sportatorium stage. It turned out Bullington was sitting on the mother lode: Stored in her closet were dozens of tapes featuring artists who worked with McLemore and his Big "D" Music publishing company, including Johnny Carroll and myriad country artists who played the Jamboree. Over time, Dennard worked out a deal to license the material from Bullington. When she died last summer of cancer, her son Michael took over.

The tracks Bullington possessed were recorded in 1958 at Sellars Studio near downtown Dallas, which hasn't existed in decades. They feature mostly second-generation members of Vincent's backup band, the Blue Caps, or no Blue Caps at all. Most of the original members -- including guitarists Cliff Gallup and Willie Williams and bassist Jack Neal -- had long grown tired of touring and had become frustrated with the lack of chart success following "Be Bop A Lula," the hit released in 1956. They quit, taking session work or leaving the business for good.

As a result, Vincent was left without a band and, shortly afterward, without a manager. Capitol Records producer Ken Nelson, the man who recorded all of Vincent's tracks for the label, suggested he contact McLemore in Dallas. McLemore ended up not only bringing Vincent to town in 1957, but also providing the band with new uniforms and a place to live. They demoed such tracks as "Hey Mama" (which later became "Say Mama"), "The Night Is So Lonely," "Lonesome Boy" and "Lady Bug," which appear on The Lost Dallas Sessions and were later recorded again in Capitol's Hollywood studios. "Hey Mama" also features Ronnie Dawson on guitar.

In May of 1957, before Vincent moved to Dallas, the Blue Caps were touring through town and ended up at the north Dallas home of the mother of former oil man Tom Fleeger, who had gotten himself involved in the music business. Fleeger was representing a Dallas songwriter named Bernice Bidwell, who had written a song called "Lotta Lovin'," and he somehow convinced Vincent to stop over at his mother's house on Sherry Lane and demo the song. He also got Vincent to try out another song Bidwell had written, "In My Dreams," plus Mary Tarver's "Nervous," which later became a hit for Gene Summers.

During the course of tracking down Vincent information, Dennard stumbled across Fleeger's tapes and got his permission to put them on the album with the Sellars demos. That gave Dennard material for 11 tracks, but not enough for a full-length disc. Only after many more months of detective work would Dennard discover that the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville was sitting on acetate transcriptions of old Big "D" Jamboree broadcasts -- featuring, among others, Carl Perkins, Ronnie Dawson and Gene Vincent -- which had been recorded by the Army and sent to troops overseas. Yet Dennard could never negotiate a deal with the Hall of Fame to license and release the tapes, and he left Nashville frustrated.

"I got really fed up with them," Dennard says. "So I finally said, I'm going to go to Washington, D.C., because I heard in talking to the Library of Congress that they had an entire set, and all you have to do is book some time and go in, and they'd play them for you."

In the library's basement, Dennard discovered just what he was looking for: at least 15 minutes of Vincent and the Blue Caps live at the Sportatorium, performing "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "Dance to the Bop," "Lotta Lovin' " and the immortal "Blue Jean Bop." After hours of hard listening and digging, Dennard finally had enough to put on his Vincent CD. He was able to convince Michael Bullington to let him release the music and within weeks received the digital audiotapes featuring the Vincent performances from the Library of Congress. Total cost for his efforts: $600.

Interestingly, the date of the Big "D" Jamboree performance, according to the information Dennard has, was October 24, 1958, the same time Vincent biographers have him in Hollywood cutting his final Capitol sessions. Indeed, there are still questions about who's playing on some of the tracks. But Dennard's lucky enough to have the music, much less the names of the musicians who play on the long-lost tracks. Vincent, of course, isn't around to confirm the information: He died of ulcer trouble in L.A. on October 12, 1971.

Dennard hopes at some point to release an entire set of discs featuring all the Big "D" Jamboree material, including many of the artists, famous and obscure, who graced the Sportatorium stage. But for now, he's content to present one final piece of the puzzle that was Vincent's life and music, releasing the disc in the States on Dragon Street and abroad on Roller Coaster.

"I should do a book, I've got so much stuff on the Big 'D' Jamboree," he says. "I've got movies, I've got pictures, I've got shows. It's wild. It'll blow your mind."

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky