A Life in Rock ‘n’ Roll: Vince Eager
Vince Eager lifts the lid on tales of touring with the legendary Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent, including the perils of letting an American Rock ‘n’ Roller take over the driving wheel in rural Somerset…
It was always a dream of mine to own either an S-Type Jaguar or a Jaguar XK120, but when the insurance brokers discovered I was a 19-year-old rock’n’roll singer who’d just passed his driving test, I don’t think that there were enough zeros on their typewriters to come up with the quote. They basically wanted a king’s ransom, so I began to search elsewhere. Eventually, a photographer friend of mine who specialised in taking photographs for the motor industry suggested a Triumph Herald Coupe.
The Herald’s design was revolutionary yet, in spite of its sporty appearance, it only had a 948cc engine and proved to be a perfect first-timer’s car. The futuristic design included a one-piece bonnet and front wings, a 25-foot turning circle like a London taxi, and innovative suspension. However, it did have a design fault: water was found to leak into the driver and passenger’s footwells and cause puddles.
It was mid-January 1960 and my trusty road manager and pal Noel and I were driving from yet another memorable Scottish tour, only this time due to the problems with water leaks in my brand new Triumph Herald we were driving a Standard Vanguard saloon loaned to us by the Standard Triumph Motor Company while they tried to fix the Herald’s leak. Most of our previous tours had been in my two-seater Herald which, as sporty looking as it was and as much fun as it was to drive, was not built to accommodate more than two people comfortably, hence its unsuitability for pulling the girls or giving friends and colleagues a lift.
Much of the next couple of months was going to be spent on the Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent tour so if anyone did want a lift, or the girls were over-friendly, they wouldn’t be disappointed. We never imagined, however, how big a role it would play in the upcoming tour.
As we headed south for our opening show with Eddie and Gene at the Ipswich Gaumont on Sunday 24 January 1960, I was aware that it would be unlike any other tour I’d undertaken thus far. I’d worked with guys who were not only my peers but also my pals. Marty, Billy, Cliff, Adam and Joe had all become a part of my everyday life, and I knew that they were as excited about it as I was.
Playing with the Big Guns
On approaching the theatre, the massive poster on the side of the building set my heart racing. As if seeing the headlining names of EDDIE COCHRAN and GENE VINCENT wasn’t enough, as support it read VINCE EAGER. It was only four years earlier that I’d been drooling over their appearances in The Girl Can’t Help It at my local Granada cinema in Grantham. Was my imagination running riot or was it really happening?
We arrived just as the soundcheck was about to finish. The Wildcats (backing Eddie by arrangement with Marty Wilde) were doing their final check and I followed them with my soundcheck, which only took a couple of minutes. By the time we’d finished, Eddie and Gene had gone to their dressing rooms so I wouldn’t get to meet them before the show, though I had met Gene briefly a few weeks earlier at the Marty Wilde gig at Tooting Granada.
As Eddie was on before me, I decided to watch him before I went on. Make-up on, overcoat buttoned up to hide my stage clothes, I crept out of a theatre exit and headed for the rear stalls. Following Eddie’s introduction by compere Billy Raymond, the curtains opened and the audience went hysterical. Eddie stood centre stage with his back to the audience in the spotlight wearing an orange shirt with black leather trousers. He played the intro to the Ray Charles classic What’d I Say and as he sang: “Tell your momma, tell your pa…”, he spun around to screams of hysteria from boys and girls alike. It was sheer magic. The guy looked brilliant, he played guitar like I never heard anyone play before, and his voice was awesome.
As if his amazing vocals and guitar playing weren’t enough, he also had the audience in the palm of his hand with his personality and humour. “It’s great to be here in Hipswich”, he said smiling after his first number. The audience loved him and from there on he could do no wrong.
What had I done? I had to follow him. It was my own stupid fault for having a big ego and mouth to match when insisting that Larry let me close the first half. After 15 minutes, I returned backstage to watch the remainder of his act from the wings. As he took his bow, he had a grin that filled his face. He later said that it was one of the best receptions he’d ever received – and I had to follow it. Moss Empire Theatre’s booker Cissie Williams once told me that it was always better to follow a good act than a bad one. “Let’s hope she was right,” I thought as the compere Billy Raymond introduced me.
My reception was much better than I had expected. It’s Only Make Believe was always my biggest number, often rescuing me from indifferent audiences, and once again it didn’t let me down. It’s a song that I put every ounce of emotion into while doing my ‘Johnnie Ray’ thing and milking the lyrics for all they were worth. In an effort to hold my own alongside the American big guns, I really turned it on, tears and all. I couldn’t believe the reception it received and from there on it seemed I was home and dry. I came offstage on a high, feeling that I’d done a good job of holding my own with Eddie.
Sitting in my dressing room during the interval and feeling pretty chuffed with myself, there was a knock on the door. “Come in!” I shouted. As the door slowly opened, there stood a very handsome heavily made-up guy in a dressing gown. It was Eddie.
“Hi Vince, I’m Eddie Cochran. It’s a pleasure to meet you, man,” he said as he made his way into my dressing room. “Likewise,” I replied, rambling on nervously and telling him how much I had enjoyed his act. “Your version of It’s Only Make Believe is the best I have ever seen or heard. You’re one hell of a performer, man,” said Eddie.
I think it turned out to be the biggest mutual admiration society of all time; I just couldn’t believe Eddie had been generous enough to come to my dressing room, let alone be so enthusiastic with his praise. He stayed with me until the second half, and then we went to watch Gene.
The Trouble with Gene
When I met Gene during his ‘Welcome to Britain’ appearance on the Marty Wilde Show at Tooting Granada a month earlier, he’d told me that his leg was proving to be a problem and he was hoping to get some treatment in the UK. Unfortunately it was the injured leg that would take up much of Eddie’s time as he tried to help his friend. As Eddie and I watched Gene from the wings, it was obvious that all was not right, but whether it was a physical or mental issue wasn’t clear.
After the opening night, my manager and the tour’s promoter Larry could see that I’d struck up a friendship with the pair and told me to be at his office the following lunchtime as they were due to have medicals for an insurance policy he was taking out for the tour, and I was to accompany them. We met at Larry’s office the following lunchtime and hopped into a taxi and headed to a surgery in the St Paul’s district of London. When we arrived, I discovered that Larry had also arranged for me to have a medical. It appeared that Eddie and Gene were to be insured for £10,000 each and yours truly for £2,000.
During his medical examination Gene was questioned about his psychological background, and his medical lasted much longer than Eddie’s or mine. Apparently, the damage to his leg had left him with mental issues that culminated in his being admitted into an American sanatorium. Eddie and Gene’s manager Norm Riley had agreed to stand as guarantor for Vincent’s visit to the UK. We discovered later that due to Gene’s problems, his premium would cost twice that of Eddie’s.
The first date to be really affected by Gene’s health issues was the Gaumont Worcester. Larry was already getting negative vibes regarding Gene and his attitude and was considering swopping their bill positions. Just after the start of our show in Worcester, Eddie told me that Gene was in terrible pain and wasn’t sure if he could finish the performance.
After the show we returned to our hotel where a bottle of bourbon was opened, and Eddie and Gene set about seeing off the contents at a rate of knots. Gene was definitely trying to drown his sorrows and kill the pain; Eddie was easing the stress as he felt responsible for Gene’s well-being. Sitting in his hotel room armchair, Gene appeared to grimace at his every move and we felt that perhaps removing the irons from the injured leg may give Gene some respite.
Unstrapping the irons showed the full extent of Gene’s heavily scarred leg: it was seemingly devoid of any muscle, just skin wrapped around the bone. The emptying of the bottle of bourbon heralded Gene’s passing out so Eddie and I laid him on his bed, covered him up, and left the room.
Gene’s health problems and subsequent drinking prompted Larry to reverse their positions in the show by making Eddie the headliner. It wasn’t just the quality of Gene’s performances; it was the inconsistency that was the problem. At times, Gene would pull off amazing shows, yet on other occasions his demons would surface and he would be curt and unfriendly or even walk off stage.
It was rumoured that Gene had smuggled a gun into the country from France by concealing it on the iron supporting his bad leg. He would often sit on his own on the tour bus menacingly fondling the gun as if preparing to take someone out, and it was invariably left to Joe Brown to sit with Gene in an effort to persuade him to put the gun away. Gene was a huge admirer of Joe’s guitar playing, and was also amused by his humorous Cockney attitude and approach to life. There’s also the possibility that Gene had seen Joe lose his temper. All the firearms in the world wouldn’t have stopped him from having a go!
A Rocker at the Wheel
There were occasions when Eddie would arrange for Gene to travel on the bus and he would travel in my car, the Standard Vanguard. Eddie was much more relaxed when not in Gene’s company, acting as if he’d had a burden lifted from him. We’d all grown to love Gene, but we never knew which Gene would turn up.
No booze and no Gene made for a happy and relaxed Eddie. One such an occasion was when we were travelling to the West Country to appear at the Gaumont Taunton on February 14 1960. My roadie Noel’s sister lived in Frome, so we decided it would be a great idea to drop in and treat Eddie to some West Country hospitality. After signing a few autographs, taking a few photographs, and downing a glass of cider, we left Frome and headed for Taunton.
It wasn’t long before Eddie voiced his ambition to drive on the left-hand side of the road. He said he’d wanted to when he toured Australia, but didn’t get the opportunity. Not to be thwarted a second time, he insisted that Noel let him take the wheel. Now!
Gingerly, Noel pulled into a layby, and with fear and trepidation manoeuvred Eddie behind the driving wheel and commenced to explain the instruments and levers. Eddie acted as if it was an everyday experience. ‘Yeah, man! No problem!’ he chuckled.
Not having driven a manual-shift car for some time, and never a car with column-change gears on the left of the steering wheel, was Eddie’s first problem. Sitting next to him I pressed his clutch pedal with my long right leg while engaging first gear. This was like a red rag to a bull! With his right foot hard down on the accelerator, Eddie took off like a greyhound out of a trap. Before we knew it, we were heading at speed for a signpost on the right-hand side of the road. “For Christ’s sake Eddie, that’s a bloody sign post, not the road!”
I screamed. Thankfully, Eddie hit the brake and we all lived to tell the tale.Sadly it was the first and last time Eddie would drive, not only in the UK, but anywhere. Only a few miles away from Frome, eight weeks later, Eddie would meet his maker when an idiot taxi driver who should have known how to drive but didn’t, took him from us.