As you all know, Challenge was Gene Autry's label. It was put on the map in 1958 thanks to the million-selling hit by The Champs, 'Tequila'. Other fifties acts of note included Huelyn Duvall, Dave Burgess, Jerry Wallace, Dean Beard, Kip Tyler, Big Al Downing and Wynn Stewart - in addition to Autry himself and his old buddy, Foy Willing. The US Sundazed label released two CDs' worth of rockin' Challenge material on their Hollowbody imprint in 1990 and 1993, 'Wild Men Ride Wild Guitars' (HC 12001) and 'Wail, Man, Wail !' (HC 12003) respectively, which will be reviewed later elsewhere on my site. In the sixties, the label signed Jan & Dean and there were releases by Baker Knight, Jimmy Seals, Wayne Newton, Don Deal, Keith Colley and groups like The Knickerbockers, an excellent outfit whose 'Lies' was very successful in late '65. The signing of Gene Vincent seems a bit odd in retrospect but it happened with the help of Dave Burgess, by then vice-president of the label, whose band had backed Gene on a 1961 single which coupled Burgess's own composition, 'Lucky Star', with 'Baby Don't Believe Him' (Capitol 4665). Anyway, the Challenge deal did produce a bunch of marvelous recordings and it's crazy to think that half of them weren't issued in the USA until ... 1994, when Sundazed collected 'em all (plus a handful of alternate takes in stereo) on a not-to-be-missed CD : 'Ain't That Too much' - The Complete Challenge Sessions - Hollowbody HC 12 004.
Track listing for the CD is as follows : Bird Doggin' [mono] - Born To Be A Rolling Stone [mono] - Poor Man's Prison [mono] - I'm A Lonesome Fugitive [mono] - Love Is A Bird [mono] - Hi-Lili Hi-Lo [mono] - I've Got My Eyes On You [mono] - Ain't That Too Much [mono] - Hurtin' For You Baby [mono] - Words And Music [mono] - Am I That Easy To Forget [mono] - Born To Be A Rolling Stone [alt - stereo] - Poor Man's Prison [alt - stereo] -
Love Is A Bird [alt - stereo] - Hi-Lili Hi-Lo [alt - stereo] - Hurtin' For You Baby [alt - stereo] -
Ain't That Too Much [alt - stereo] - Lonely Street [unissued early version - mono]
Challenge Records were affiliated with 4-Star Music Co., a then thriving publishing company, so most
of the songs selected for Gene to record
came from the pen of in-house writers or artists. Keith Colley contributed
the stunning 'Bird Doggin' (with wild guitar backing from Al Casey & Glen
Campbell) and 'Poor Man's Prison'. Apart from playing on the sessions, Jimmy
Seals wrote the oh-so-lovely 'Love Is A Bird', a song which stayed in the
can States-wise and probably became a demo for The Knickerbockers who cut
it two months later. Dave Burgess was responsible for the nicely rocking
'I've Got My Eyes On You' (first cut by Ricky Nelson for Imperial on June
13, 1962) and for 'Words And Music', the latter in tandem with Jerry Fuller who himself
penned the raucous 'Ain't That Too Much' with super talented Baker Knight.
The remaining tracks were covers of Merle Haggard's 'I'm A Lonesome Fugitive'
and two Carl Belew 4-Star-era classics ('Am I That Easy To Forget' and
'Lonely Street', presented here as an earlier, undubbed mono version), plus
a couple of compositions by old friend and guitar player, Jerry Merritt. Joe
D. Johnson was listed as producer (Gene was credited as assistant
producer on Challenge 59365) ; Dave Gates was the arranger. The sound engineer who worked on
'Bird Doggin' as well as all tracks laid down at Hollywood's Sunset Sound
Recorders, was Bruce Botnick - yes, the same man who recorded & mixed the brilliant early Doors albums. And speaking of that group, Jim Morrison was a huge fan of Gene and used to hang around with him as much as he could.
Gene Vincent had always been able to handle any kind of material, that's a fact beyond dispute.
At Challenge, he proved that he really could move on with the times without losing his identity. Of course, 'Bird Doggin' is an undisputed highlight ; the menacing bass/guitar intro, the wailing harmonica (Jimmy Seals ?), the scintillating guitar solo (Al Casey's job) and Gene's perfect phrasing are pure dynamite. We get two false starts (takes 1 & 2), then the overdubbed master on the CD. 'Ain't That Too Much' isn't far behind. Besides the original mono take, we're also treated to an alternate take in stereo. Session sheets reveal that the track was initially entitled 'Is That Too Much'. Interestingly, I discovered that it had first been recorded by one Johnny Grayson on that same Challenge label (# 59306) ; the flip side, 'Me & The Devil', was co-writen by Don Deal. Although Grayson's is a good version, it can't compare with Gene's. 'Born To Be A Rolling Stone' has that attractive mid-'60s Californinan flavour, with ringing guitars, brass and vibes. This is the song in which Gene added a verse about his British manager, the redoubtable Don Arden. As noted in the CD booklet, the other Jerry Merritt contribution, 'Hurtin' For You Baby', would have perfectly suited Neil Diamond. 'Love Is A Bird' has been one my faves for many moons now ; I think it's far superior to the Knickerbockers' version (which had a guitar solo). Gene's mono cut has a chorus, the stereo alternate doesn't ; please, listen to the sound of the guitars, almost like chapel bells (quite impressive on the stereo take). Likewise, the way Gene sings the two Carl Belew songs is out of this world. Same with Haggard's then recent smash . In fact, although he didn't quite follow the Country route like many of his peers did, Gene had a true feeling for Country music. It's safe to say that most rockers who turned big time to Country later on did an incredible job: just think of Conway Twitty, Bob Luman or Jerry Lee Lewis, whose voice inflexions and piano playing were much richer when he sang Country material ; they all could outsing many other Country artists (now you know why Eddie Dean or Buck Owens were great fans of Jerry Lee). Gene was in the same league. Plus, he was one of the greatest ballad singers of all time : witness 'Over The Rainbow', 'Peg O'My Heart', 'Unchained Melody', 'You Belong To Me', 'Lavender Blue' or 'Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo', a slow, melancholy waltz which was one of his favorite cuts from the Challenge sessions. Billy 'Kicks' Miller's liner notes are accurate but why the hell does he have to lament about the fact that this is not 'Gene Vincent Rocks & The Blue Caps Roll' ? Does he also complain about the 'Elvis Is Back' album for not having been cut at Sun with Sam Phillips ? Let's get serious. These sessions represented a very positive evolution of Gene's music and, had his personal life and behavior been better controlled, could perhaps have led to a real new career for him.
Regrettably, only three singles were released in the USA and they bombed miserably,
resulting in the non renewal of Vincent's contract with Challenge. By the way,
has anybody seen regular copies of Gene's
Challenge singles ? Did they really ever hit the shops ? These are questions
which, fortunately, do not concern the good old Continent. Gene was and remains
a hero over here. All twelve cuts were issued on a British LP (London HAH 8333, mono only), while ten of them graced a French LP (London
Excellence 194.000, again in mono) in June 1967. The two missing tracks ('Am I That Easy To Forget' & 'Words And Music') would be put out in 1968 as a single (London 69.006). Both the UK and French album sleeves showed Gene kneeling beside his Star on the
Hollywood Walk Of Fame, albeit in a slightly different pose. For my part, I find the simpler French presentation, with the full-size pic of Gene, more appealing than the pseudo-psychedelic British equivalent but the latter's back cover sports another large black & white pic of the Boss. Prior to the album, there was also a French EP (London RE 10.182) which was comprised of the first two US singles. The London album was later reissued in Europe under various
forms. One of the most interesting, from a collector's point of view, is a 12-track white vinyl edition from Germany, put out
in 1987 by Impact Records, an imprint of Line Records (IMLP 4-00454J). However, the superb front cover photo is not contemporary with the music and it's Jerry Fuller who is credited as producer on both the back sleeve and the labels.
Also of interest for completists, is a single released by longtime fan, Gerard Lautrey, on his GV label (#287, pictured at left), containing rehearsal tapes of both 'Bird Doggin' and 'Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo' with the Rock'n'Roll Gang during Gene's French tour of Autumn '67 (poor sound quality and, frankly, those later French bands were dreadful more often than not). A detailed and well-written account of that tour can be read in issue #24 (October 1997) of the French mag, 'Club Des Années 60', from the pen of Thierry Liensenfeld. Last, there was even a good French version of 'Bird Doggin' by Noel Deschamps ('Pour Le Pied') which serves as proof of Gene's lasting popularity and influence in Europe.
This ad for Gene's brand new release appeared in French mag, Disco Revue, in October 1966. It rightly stated that those who
thought that Gene was finished are wrong, that the band here sounds more like The Yardbirds, which makes for a fantastic disc !
There's always a continuation to every story. Gene's last Challenge recording session took place on March 7, 1967 (see below for details) but Steve Mandich had advised us in his well-researched book, 'Sweet Gene Vincent', that he had cut a song called 'A Piece At A Time' on July 24th of that year. It might have been a final demo session for Challenge because no tape was found, only an acetate which recently landed in the hands of a German collector who kindly offered to make its contents available to all of us, Gene's fans. It was ultimately released in 2020 on vinyl and CD by Rollercoaster Records as part of a tribute package to the real King of Rock'n'Roll. I bought the 10" album (ROLL 2030) which collects ten of the choicer cuts found on the 56-track disc. I will not surprise you if I join the ranks of all those who have already voiced their enthusiasm for the record by saying that it's a stunner. Firstly, there's that beautiful front cover photo of Gene on stage in France in 1963. Then, of course, the principal feature is that song, 'A Piece At A Time', co-written by Don Deal and his brother. It's a nice country-pop song which could have passed unnoticed if sung by many others but Gene's rendition takes it to a whole different level, both vocally and in its meaning - so much so that it could have been specifically written for him with Margaret Russell (his third wife) in mind. At least, he more than seems to sing it with that attitude. Gene has three more fine tracks in there (notably 'Mister Loneliness' with backing by The Echoes - in 1961 and in stereo), plus a spoken message to his fans from France. But the show does not stop here ! Probably masterminded by longtime fan, Steve Aynsley, this projects include a number of songs made in Gene's style. Some of them were readily available elsewhere (Johnny Carroll 's 'Black Leather Rebel' and Jean Vincent's 'Gene's On The Jukebox') but Jack Neal's Jumpin' Jacks, with a certain Harvey Hinsley on lead guitar who plays note for note like Cliff Gallup, were unknown to me and are the closest thing to The Blue Caps I've ever heard. The instrumental, 'Cliff's Gallup', is one of the absolute highlights. The French band, The Capitols, has a real good offering in 'Three Days Without You'. And that leaves us with two Steve Aynsley efforts. 'Pretty Pearly', done in 1956 style with the redoubtable Darrell Higham on lead, is really excellent but the other, titled 'Gégène' (that's how we used to call Gene in this country) is nothing short of a masterpiece. It's certainly the most beautiful tribute ever recorded in Gene's honor. Not only is it sung from the heart (and in pure Gene fashion) but it is marvelously crafted with bits of 'I'm Going Home', 'Lucille', 'Mister Loneliness', 'Wild Cat', 'Say Mama' and 'Sweet Gene Vincent' smartly linked together, climaxing in an almost allegorical ending which left me breathless. Steve, you've created the ultimate musical homage to Gene. The sound of those Rollercoaster 10" LPs is very good but not quite outstanding to my ears, the discs being probably mastered from digital masters. That said, there's much more to be found on the CD, but for many collectors who already own a good portion of its contents, the vinyl will be amply sufficient - and played again and again. 'Chapeau, Les Gars !' Rockin' Paul Vidal * March 2021
The Challenge Sessionography & Discography
[many thanks to Derek Henderson & Marc Alésina]
Sound Recorders, Hollywood
Recorders Inc., Hollywood (Studio 2)
Challenge 59337, 59347
and 59365 are the original US singles.
© Paul Vidal * Privas, France * September 1999 - Spring 2008 - November 2019