Written by Brad Laidman
Published October 09, 2007
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 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
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!
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