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Gene's voice in the '60s had gained in strength and maturity, so much so that the recordings he made for Challenge in 1966/1967 are to be counted amongst his best ever. The Challenge deal came along at the right time since Gene had been dropped by UK's Columbia label (following the release of four uneven singles and a superb album).

As you all know, Challenge (Gene Autry's label) 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 and Wynn Stewart - in addition to Autry himself and his old buddy, Foy Willing. 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 did produce a bunch of marvelous recordings. 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 [stereo] - Poor Man's Prison [stereo] - Love Is A Bird [stereo] - Hi-Lili Hi-Lo [stereo] - Hurtin' For You Baby [stereo] - Ain't That Too Much [stereo] - Lonely Street [mono]

Photos courtesy of Sundazed & Mario Gurrieri.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' (in tandem with Jerry Fuller who also 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 Four Star-era classics ('Am I That Easy To Forget' & '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 being credited on one single as assistant producer !) ; 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 (see photo below), was Bruce Botnick.

Gene had always been able to handle any kind of material.
At Challenge, he proved that he really could move on with the times without losing The Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood.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' ; in fact, I discovered that it had first been recorded by one Johnny Grayson on that same Challenge label (# 59306). 'Born To Be A Rolling Stone' has that attractive mid-'60s Californinan flavour, with ringing guitars, brass and vibes. '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). 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 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 so much richer when he sang Country material ; they all could outsing any other Country artist (now you know why Eddie Dean or Buck Owens were great fans of Jerry Lee's). 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 sessions. That's one thing that completely escapes poor Billy 'Kicks' Miller whose wicked liner notes are the only misfire of an otherwise remarkable collection.

Photo courtesy of Jacky Delafosse & Gerard Lautrey.
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) ; eleven of them graced a French EP (London RE 10.182) and a French LP (London Excellence 194000) whose sleeve showed Gene kneeling beside his Star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame. This album was later reissued in Europe under various forms ; one of the most interesting, from a collector's point of view, is a white vinyl edition from Germany, put out in 1987 by Impact Records, an imprint of Line Records (IMLP 4-00454J). Also of interest, albeit slight, is a single released by longtime fan, Gerard Lautrey, on his GV label (#287), 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 French bands were dreadful !). A marvelous 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 French version of 'Bird Doggin' by Noel Deschamps which serves as proof of Gene's popularity in Europe.

© Paul Vidal * Privas, France * September 1999-Spring 2008

The Challenge sessionography
[many thanks to Derek Henderson & Marc Alésina]

Sunset Sound Recorders, Hollywood
June 30, 1966
1340 Ain't That Too Much (take 3) Challenge 59337
                                                                     CD HC 12004
                                                                    CD SC PRO 01

             "           (alternate stereo take) CD HC 12004
    ?    Lonely Street                     not originally issued

Sunset Sound Recorders, Hollywood
July 1, 1966
   ?    Love Is A Bird (take 10)        London HAH 8333
                                                                     CD HC 12004
"     (stereo take 6)       CD HC 12004
1339 Bird Doggin' (take 3)               Challenge 59337
                                                                     CD HC 12004
"    (takes 1 & 2 - mono only)    CD HC 12004

Probably Sunset Sound Recorders, Hollywood
October 15, 1966
1341 Lonely Street                             Challenge 59347
              "             (mono alternate take) CD HC 12004
1342 I've Got My Eyes On You         Challenge 59347
                                                                      CD HC 12004

Location unknown

Probably late 1966
1418 Words And Music (take 3)     London HAH 8333
CD HC 12004
1419 Am I That Easy To Forget      London HAH 8333
                                                                      CD HC 12004
Both tracks were cut in mono.
Western Recorders Inc., Hollywood (Studio 2)
February 1, 1967
? Hurtin' For You Baby             (take 4) CD HC 12004
? Poor Man's Prison                  (take 2)   "     "        "
? Born To Be A Rolling Stone   (take 3)   "     "        "

All three tracks were cut in stereo.

Western Recorders Inc., Hollywood (Studio 7)
March 7, 1967
1405 Born To Be A Rolling Stone      Challenge 59365
                                                                       CD HC 12004
1406 Hurtin' For You Baby (take 7) Challenge 59365
                                                                       CD HC 12004
1407 Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo (take 5)              London HAH 8333
                                                                       CD HC 12004
"            "       (stereo tks 1 & 2)     CD HC 12004
Poor Man's Prison (take 3)    London HAH 8333
1409 I'm A Lonesome Fugitive (tk 2)          HAH 8333
                                                                       CD HC 12004

Challenge 59337, 59347 and 59365 are the original
US singles.
London HAH 8333 refers to the original UK album.
Sundazed CD HC 12004 is the above reviewed CD.
Sundazed CD SC PRO 01 is a sampler disc.
All of these tracks now also appear on the two Gene Vincent Bear Family box sets.