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

In 1980 he went himself, a trip he's made regularly ever since. "It was wild," he says of his reception. "All of a sudden, it is 1958; people have ducktails, and they're out there dressed like I used to--some of them were probably wearing the clothes I used to wear."

Summers enjoyed the way European fans treated their heroes. "You never get old to them," he says. "You could have a long gray beard, and you'd still be Gene Summers; sometimes it's nice to be reminded."

The body, however, is not so easily deceived. In 1991 Summers suffered two massive heart attacks that left him on the list for a heart transplant. A picture taken at a 1992 rockabilly summit held here that brought together Summers, Groovy Joe Poovey, Mac Curtis, and Summers' longtime friend Johnny Carroll, shows a gaunt, POW-looking Summers. "That was it," Summers says flatly. "It was coming. I was in such bad shape--I mean, my feet--I don't even want to talk about it." He pauses. He prefers not to speak of the donor who saved his life right now, fearing that any mention might inadvertently hurt surviving family members, but he is very aware that somebody else died, and as a result, he lived.

Coming out of post-op, he was already feeling so much better that he started singing along with James Brown's "I Feel Good." "The voice that came out of my mouth was one I hadn't heard in three years," he remembers. "It was strong and clear, 10 times better than the one I took in there." As he sang, the nurses around him joined in.

The revival of rockabilly and his reception in Europe convinced Summers that the time was finally right for returning to his roots, the music he could point to as his. After the operation, he and old friend Phil York--who had worked with Summers before going on to a career as a producer--started work on a retrospective compilation. The project had one big problem: Tom Fleeger--the owner of Jan--wouldn't give Summers the unreleased and alternate takes that Jan owned. "I don't think it was out of any bad feeling," Summers says. "They were his, and he hadn't decided what he wanted to do with them."

Then one day, he visited York at his house; York pointed to a cardboard box in a corner: the old masters. Fleeger had finally relented, and the way was cleared for The Ultimate School of Rock & Roll, released last month. The cornerstones are there, of course--"Nervous," "Straight Skirts," "Big Blue Diamonds," "School of Rock & Roll"--but also the lesser-known efforts like "World of Confusion." That Summers spent a lot of time casting about for another flavor that could take him like rockabilly did is obvious. Although all the cuts sound essentially like him, it's him with a number of twists: crooner ("The Great Pretender"), Elvis ("Goodbye Priscilla," recorded right before Elvis died and shelved for that reason), even Johnny Horton ("Who Stole the Marker [From the Grave of Bonnie Parker]?").

"This album is the first chance since the 45s were released--outside of paying a collector $40 or $50 for one--that the public's had another chance to pick up on them," Summers says. "Back in those days, all you did was release singles; you put out an album if your singles sales looked like they could support the LP." He shopped the album to a number of labels and decided to go with Dallas' Crystal Clear.

Through his three sons--all of whom get their hair cut at Rob's Chop Shop--Summers fell in with Hillbilly Cafe, the Fort Worth-based rockabilly band that now backs him, as they did earlier this month at a release party at the Lava Lounge. After a brief scare--his voice sounded weak and muddled, remedied by a mike change--Summers got his feet under him, beginning to move about a little more each song. Soon he was chasing people down and dragging them onto the dance floor, enticing them with his own wild energy. Soon it was almost like the old days, with Summers a bouncing, hip-shaking preacher presiding over a hyperkinetic congregation.

Having played in this area for more than three decades, Summers isn't seeking a place in the local scene. "Just enough to get the CD rolling and let people know that I'm still alive," he says, noting that he'd rather pursue the ever-more popular rockabilly "weekenders" that are springing up everywhere.

"If you live long enough, you'll be rediscovered," Summers says with a laugh. "Fifties rock 'n' roll has made me a living for 32 years now, so I guess you could say that it's still pretty strong--strong as Grandma's lye soap.

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