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Friday, October 06, 2006

Episode 16 – "Gene Vincent said, 'Bubba, let's go on tour'"


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This is the Dreamtime podcast - occasional commentary on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour weekly show.

Episode 16 – "Gene Vincent said, 'Bubba, let's go on tour'"

[High School U.S.A. excerpt]

Written by a Norfolk Virginia record store owner named Frank Guida, Tommy Facenda's "High School U.S.A." was on the Billboard Charts for 13 weeks in 1959, peaking at number 28. Tommy's page at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame web site says Guida originally wanted a black doo-wop group to do the number, but then had visions of Facenda becoming the next Frankie Avalon with the song.

The original version of "High School U.S.A."– on Guida's own Legrand Records label - names various Virginia-area high schools. Guida convinced Atlantic to pick the song up, and someone – maybe someone at Atlantic, maybe Guida – realized the idea could be extended for schools across America. So, Tommy went back and re-recorded versions using school names in different cities. How many versions? No one seems to know, maybe 25. Maybe 28. Maybe 30. Maybe as many as 40… or 50.

Tommy Facenda says, "The magic number they seem to come up with is 28. There were more. They might not all have been released, but I cut a copy for every state in the U.S.A. Maybe 28 were released, but I know what I cut. It was just about the most awful thing to go through…"

Indeed, because Tommy didn't simply re-record the lyric listing school names, each master was recorded from beginning to end. Or maybe not. The page at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame – which contains articles from different writers - contradicts itself several times. One section says 40 versions. Another says 28. One section says that Tommy completely re-recorded each version. Another says Tommy sang the relevant verse over and again to add the name changes… which sounds a heckuva lot more likely.

In either case, it must have been an effort. The Cincinnati version of High School U.S.A." required Tommy to sing out nearly 30 high school names. With even 28 versions, he probably catalogued somewhere between 500 to 700 schools during the recording sessions.

And imagine the problems of touring. As Tommy says, "Everyone else in the tour package could just sing their same hits all the time. I had to study the upcoming town's high school name list using a pen light on the bus. If I forgot the names, I'd just sing the original Virginia version."

Born in 1939, Tommy Facenda joined Gene Vincent's "Blue Caps" band in 1957 as a background singer and dancer, and was immediately nicknamed "Bubba." Usually on Vincent's right in band publicity shots, you can spot Tommy in full `50s coolness with upturned collar, slicked-backed hair, and JD sideburns. During concerts, Tommy would show off his patented "Facenda Freeze" when, during a Johnny Meeks guitar solo and with Vincent rolling in full frenzy on the floor, Facenda would begin shaking from head to foot as if totally overcome by the Dark Demons of rock-and-roll.

It was a show-stopper.

Tommy's run with Vincent was short. By `mid-58 he had left the Blue Caps to pursue a solo career.. not having much luck until "High School U.S.A." became a hit for him. That put Tommy in demand and he ended up on tour bills with Jackie Wilson, Connie Francis, Annette Funicello, Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, and Fabian, among others, singing out the names of local high schools one city at a time.

But that hit would also be the peak of his music career, and after a stint in the Army, Tommy Facenda headed back to Portsmouth, Virginia, where he had been born and raised. He took a job with the local Fire Department, stayed with that until his retirement, and then worked as a part-time hospital security guard.

He may be doing that in Portsmouth still, making the rounds of the calm hospital corridors, and maybe on the quiet nights suddenly stopping and slowly stretching out his arms, lifting on his toes… shaking from head to foot as if possessed by the Demons of Rock n Roll.

I kind of hope so.

This has been Fred Bals – Chadwick School, Palos Verdes, California, 19 and 71, with the Dreamtime podcast - occasional commentary on Bob Dylan's Theme Time Radio Hour weekly show.

Dreamtime is not associated with XM Radio or Bob Dylan, and had nothing to do with that cherry bomb in the girl's bathroom. Until next time, dream on.


Anonymous said...

Tommy Facenda was and is the hottest thing Rockabilly or Rock and Roll ever produced.

Anonymous said...

Italian God.

Anonymous said...

Yea, I agree with that. He's a cutie.