24 January 1960
The Ipswich Gaumont was just one of the huge number of cinemas, dance halls and restaurants owned by the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation. But on Sunday, January 24, 1960, it staked its claim to a place in pop history when it became the launching pad for Britain’s first-ever, multi-star rock package tour.
Previously, rockers had appeared as part of variety shows. When Buddy Holly played the Ipswich Gaumont in March 1958, for example, he and The Crickets lined up alongside now-obscure acts like The Tanner Sisters, Gary Miller and up-and- coming comedian Des O’Connor. But in 1960 everything changed.
Earlier that January, Gene Vincent’s 12-day tour of Britain was a sensation and promoter Larry Parnes booked further shows right away. “Gene Vincent Tour Package Bill Extended To 20 Weeks!” screamed Melody Maker.
Parnes knew his bill-topper could be unreliable, but he also knew that Eddie Cochran, who had bonded with Vincent during the filming of The Girl Can’t Help It, was available for just £250 a week plus expenses. With the two Americans co-headlining, there was no way the tour could fail – a box-office bonanza ensued.
Parnes instigated a rotating list of artists as support acts for the tour, but Vince Eager, a rocker from Grantham who’d started life as Roy Taylor, was the only Brit featured on the posters. He and Eddie hit it off immediately. “Vince is an exciting artist,” Cochran enthused, while Eager excitedly described his new-found friend as “a cross between Elvis and James Dean”.
“It’s great to be here in Hipswich!”
But it was an orange shirt-clad Cochran who really got the Ipswich show underway, when, backed by Marty Wilde’s Wildcats, he sparked the main action, yelling, “It’s great to be here in Hipswich,” and flicked his hips to screaming applause.
It wasn’t only the fans that Cochran stunned – every British musician who saw him was astonished by his accomplished guitar work as he stormed through Twenty Flight Rock, C’mon Everybody and an array of other ear-burners, leading to the climax that was Summertime Blues.
Vince Eager was apprehensive about the addition of Cochran to the bill, having been already pencilled in as the first half closer on Vincent’s upcoming dates. That now seemed unlikely. Additionally, Eager opened his act with C’mon Everybody. Parnes delivered a compromise: “You can still close the first half,” he informed Eager. “But C’mon Everybody is definitely Eddie’s.”
Thankfully for the British rocker, the crowd warmed to his act anyway and cheered his regular closing anthem – a dramatic rendition of Conway Twitty’s hit, It’s Only Make Believe. During the interval there was a knock on Eager’s dressing room door. “It was Eddie Cochran,” he recalled. “He told me that my version of It’s Only Make Believe was the best he’s heard.” The friend- ship was immediately cemented.
The Pure Spirit Of Danger-Oozing Rock’n’Roll...
Eager recalls that Gene Vincent didn’t always win the crowd as easily as Cochran, attributing his sometimes erratic performances to his injured leg. But to many Vincent was the pure spirit of danger-oozing rock’n’roll. Still, Cochran was the major success at Ipswich, one review declaring Vincent’s performance variable. “All his songs opened with ‘Wel-l-l-l!’ and it was then touch and go as to whether the band would pick up on what was next.”
Georgie Fame, then 16-years-old and a member of the Beat Boys, who backed Vincent, was another whose main admiration was for Cochran. “I remember Eddie playing guitar and we were astounded,” he said. The tour compere was Don Arden, who would later become Gene Vincent’s manager.
But, at the time of Ipswich concert, both Vincent and Cochran were managed by Norm Riley, who felt buoyed by the way the package was working. “Although everybody was telling me that I was wrong,” he said,
“I felt that US hit paraders could tour for a very long time here.”
In this instance, Riley’s prediction of tour longevity was not to be. The dates ended abruptly a few weeks later when a car rented by the American headliners crashed. Gene Vincent and singer-songwriter Sharon Sheeley received minor injuries while Eddie Cochran died later in a nearby hospital, leaving Vince Eager, who was to fly to States with them, waiting at Heathrow and rueing April 17, 1960, as “one of the worst days of my life”.