No other Gene Vincent song title sums up his career so succinctly as "The Road Is Rocky." Vincent never had an easy time of things. He came crashing out of the gate with "Be-Bop-A-Lula," one of the epochal singles of early rock & roll, and for a brief moment it seemed that superstardom was within his grasp. Certainly, in the Blue Caps -- powered by guitarist Cliff Gallup -- he had a band that propelled him into the front ranks of rockers in 1956, and for a while they cut rockabilly with no peer, such as the frenzied "Race with the Devil." But this golden age was not only fleeting, it didn't produce much gold, at least far as the charts were concerned: as good as "Race with the Devil," "Bluejean Bop," and "B-i-Bickey, Bi, Bo-Bo-Go" were, they didn't turn into hits, and soon Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps started to fracture, starting with the crucial departure of Gallup. It was a big blow, but Vincent continued to barrel ahead, often recklessly. He toured Britain, where his stardom was already hardening into a tragic legend, and ran through label after label, all looking for a hit that was never found, drinking all the while.
The problems -- professional and personal -- piled up and he died at the young age of 36 in 1971, just at the peak of a rock & roll revival that he was as of yet unable to exploit. It was a rocky, tragic road and it's told in its entirety on Bear Family's mammoth box set The Road Is Rocky. This set cuts out alternate takes in favor of all the master recordings from 1956 to 1971 (the alternate takes are available on a separate set), an approach that leads to a better appreciation of Vincent's musical achievements, which certainly did not cease when Gallup left the fold. Surely, those earliest recordings remain wondrous -- it's no so much that Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps were consciously creating a new sound, but they were hell-bent on creating an ungodly racket that happened to help redefine popular music -- and hearing it of a piece confirms the consistency of these sessions, which still wind up sounding rebellious even when Vincent dips into slightly hammy old-fashioned slow dances "Wedding Bells (Are Breaking Up That Old Gang of Mine)" and "Up a Lazy River."
This rock-hard steadiness contrasts mightily with Vincent's '60s recordings, which were all over the map in sound and style. Inconsistent isn't the same thing as bad, though, and The Road Is Rocky provides plenty of compelling moments where Vincent is doing anything to keep the ride going. He weathered the early-'60s downturn in rock & roll by cutting country and crooning pop songs, including a few dewy-eyed songs about puppy love, plus the wannabe novelty "Spaceship to Mars." He headed over to England during the height of the British Invasion, where he laid down a bunch of old-time rock & roll; he bounced back to Hollywood in 1966 and 1967, where he recorded a bunch of terrific material flirting with all the contemporary trends, from folk-rock to psychedelia. He closed out the decade recording several sessions with Kim Fowley, cutting ornate versions of rock & roll and country oldies, including hits own hits. Finally, Vincent entered the '70s with some sun-kissed California country-pop that was among his best, fully realized recordings, suggesting that he was beginning to find his way out of a creative rough patch. Of course, his rough, rocky personal life put a halt to that and he died not long after these final sessions, but this Bear Family set, while certainly the province of serious listeners only, stands as a testament to Gene Vincent's considerable talents and provides a convincing argument that he created much to cherish outside those justly celebrated early hits with the Blue Caps.