A dream deferred

Gene Summers hasn't had to work a day job since 1958, but it took him more than 30 years to get back to the music he loved

"I sang 'I'm Throwing Rice,' by Eddy Arnold, at the beginning of each show," Summers says, rolling his eyes just a bit. "Every week, the same song, man--it was boring. I got pretty sick of it." By 1958, the Rebels were on Jan Records, a tiny label started by Texas oilman Tom Fleeger and named after his mother. In February, Jan released "School of Rock & Roll" b/w "Straight Skirts," and the race was on.

In between band gigs, Jan booked Summers solo. "I'd take a bus or train to a certain point, where the promo people would take me to the next event," he says. "Nervous"--released in June of '58--was also a hit, and Jan began trying to break the Rebels nationally, taking out ads in Billboard, but Summers was growing impatient with the tiny label. "I got real disillusioned with Jan," Summers admits. "At the time, I thought that if you put out a record, you made some money. I saw them spending all this money on the album, and I wondered why I wasn't getting any."

The band split from Jan in mid-1959, just as another single--"Twixteen"--was being loaded. In retrospect, Summers concedes that it wasn't that good a move. "I should've stuck with them," he admits. "I hadn't seen the error of my ways then, or that they were providing all this room and board for me."

"Twixteen"--an upbeat lament concerning the age-old conflict between age and availability that was miles ahead of most of its contemporaries--stiffed, partly because of a disgruntled Summers. "I didn't want to mess with it," he says. "I didn't want to promote it or anything, so it kind of just laid there and died."

Summers and longtime Rebels guitarist and songwriter James McClung got day jobs. "That lasted about three months," Summers reports with a laugh. The pair went back into circulation, this time playing clubs. By 1960 they were established in Dallas as the house band at Guthrey's, a popular nightspot down on Industrial Boulevard, catty-corner from the fabled Longhorn Saloon. On weekend nights, a thousand people showed up.

They were at Guthrey's about three years. During that time, Summers couldn't help but wonder sometimes what the hell had happened. "I felt like an overnight has-been," he says. "The music was gone and forgotten, a thing of the past. When I was on stage, I hardly ever mentioned the fact that I had records out. If you weren't a fan of the old stuff, you'd never know. Still, if you want to survive, you do what's happening, and we did.

"But we never stopped thinking 'hit record,' and we eventually started recording again. Of course, it wasn't rockabilly anymore, and that's where 'Big Blue Diamonds' came from," he adds, explaining the origins of the song he calls "the biggest thing in my life."

"Big Blue Diamonds" was released in October 1963, and Summers added solo appearances on the basis of the single's performance, but he was always looking back over his shoulder to when the spark was new. "You get so tired of pop stuff, of covers, you just get sick of it," Summers says. "Naturally, you want to go back to the stuff that's yours, the stuff you can point to and say, 'I did that, that's mine.'" The time still wasn't right, however. "Alabama Shake" was released in 1964, supposedly to follow up on the success of "Big Blue Diamonds." It went nowhere fast stateside, but did well in Europe.

Besides, music was turning in a direction far from rockabilly, a fact that Summers acknowledged in 1966 with "World of Illusion," an almost psychedelic pop tune that shows how much attention he paid to trends in taste. Summers himself seems a bit uncomfortable discussing that period in general, describing it generally as "the drug stuff--the pretty colors and flower children." He never toured behind any of his later releases, concentrating instead on "just trying to cut a hit record and get somebody interested in me."

He admits that the '60s were "a time where I really lost interest, so I started pulling my '50s stuff back out--not my rockabilly stuff, but the classics, like by Little Richard and Chuck Berry. I just got to the point where I said, 'the hell with this,' and started doing the stuff I wanted to do, and I found out that there was still a market for it, and that my crowds were as good as any in town. After that, I didn't change. I did about three-quarters '50s, with just enough other stuff to keep current--barely--and that's what I was noted for at the dance clubs."

In the mid-'70s, the rockabilly revival began, first in Europe. People like Ray Campi and Fort Worth's Mac Curtis discovered there an adoring audience rabid for the real thing. "I come to find out that people over in France, in England, thought that songs like 'Straight Skirts' were just about the best thing. I started getting more and more letters from fans overseas," Summers says, still sounding grateful and a bit bemused.

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