By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Area rockabilly hero Gene Summers and Sisyphus (star of Greek mythology) could probably kill a few hours together comparing notes. The latter, you may recall, was an ancient king of Corinth damned to an eternity of rolling a heavy stone up a hill, only to have it roll back down at the last minute. The former was--and is--one of our area's earliest rockers. Summers started his career with a string of local rockabilly hits in the late '50s that are just part of the treasure trove on The Ultimate School of Rock & Roll, a just-released career retrospective. Ever since "School of Rock & Roll"--his first hit--he's managed to provide for a wife and three sons through music. Ironically, that success--which many artists can only dream of--kept him from returning to the music he truly loved for more than 30 years.
Summers, something of a pragmatist, knew that if you wanted the kind of (steady) cash flow a family required, you had to play to--or with--popular taste. Once people stopped wanting to hear rockabilly, it didn't matter that he was a master of the form. His hits for the local label Jan contained some essential examples ("Straight Skirts," "Nervous," "School of Rock & Roll") of what was then a brand-new kind of music: a cross between R&B and country that some people called cat music, others rockabilly. A couple of years after the fad ignited, it was spent, and nobody cared what term you used.
Summers became a working musician, going on the road with acts like the Drifters and Chuck Berry and snagging the long-term gigs that gave a bit of stability. "I was married with three kids," Summers explains in his tree-shaded Garland home, a picture of suburban placidity that the Cleavers would envy. "You can't depend on music from gig to gig; it took a steady job."
It also takes a certain flexibility. "I didn't play any one niche," Summers says. "In the clubs, you learn to play whatever's hot, what people are asking for; [out of the clubs] I just tried to have a hit record. I tried and I tried and I tried." When his efforts paid off in 1963, it was with "Big Blue Diamonds," a country-pop number that sounded like Ray Price without all the strings--and not like "Straight Skirts" or the other rockabilly songs that he loved. With "Big Blue Diamonds" came what Summers calls "a whole new ballgame. From then on, we just tried to build upon the success of 'Big Blue Diamonds.'"
The song became something of a metronome for Summers, ticking off the years. "Every so often it was, 'Hey, we got to rerelease "Blue Diamonds,"' and then a couple, then five, then 10 years would go by, and it'd be like, 'Man, it's been 10 years since we put "Blue Diamonds" out,'" Summers recalls. "That meant that it'd been even longer since 'Straight Skirts' and 'School of Rock & Roll.' It was way back there, man, back to when I was a kid."
Summers was born and raised in Duncanville, listening to R&B on the radio and tracking down the "cool" places where you could get copies of racy hits like "Work with Me, Annie" and "24 Hours a Day." He sang in a vocal foursome during school, and around the time that 1955 changed into 1956, he and some of the backing musicians from the Red Star Quartet formed the Rebels. "We were fooling around, sure, but we also wanted to do something," Summers says.
Their timing was fortuitous: 1956 was the year that started out with Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins' tandem run up the pop, R&B, and country charts with "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Blue Suede Shoes," respectively.
"You really didn't know what to do," Summers says of the period immediately before Elvis. "You liked R&B, but you weren't black, and you couldn't sing it like they could sing it. You liked country--you just didn't know if you could do country. All of sudden, there's this thing that comes right in between the two, and that thing was Elvis. There wasn't a niche for him, so he found a place where he could make one."
The Rebels' popularity grew. "We'd play anywhere--hamburger joints, hops, anywhere we could set up. I believe we even played Neiman's once." The hops were particularly surreal. "We did hop after hop after hop," Summers says. "What we called a hop was mostly lip-syncing while the song played on a portable record player and the kids danced; there wasn't hardly any live music. Some local DJ would set things up in some gym or auditorium, and the teenagers would just fill the place up, and it wasn't just local acts. Back then, if you had a record to promote, you did the hops. I did them with Duane Eddy and Link Wray--he had "Rumble" out then, but he still did the hops." Bobby Darin, with whom Summers often shared a hop stage, bought him his first piece of pizza.
Although Summers had appeared on the popular radio show Big D Jamboree as a child when he entered a contest, the Rebels weren't regulars on the show like Ronnie Dawson. In the last half of '57, "Shindig" came to Duncanville--to broadcast a live show each Saturday night from the school gym that would compete with the Big D Jamboree--and Summers got a slot on it.