A dream deferred
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.
"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.
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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