Johnny Meeks, Former Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps Guitarist, Dead at 78
Guitarist Johnny Meeks, a former member of Gene Vincent & His Blue Caps, died Thursday, July 30, in Arkansas. He was 78.
Meeks, a longtime member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the Blue Caps in 2012.
Although Meeks never got the praise and respect often reserved for his Blue Caps lead-guitar predecessor, Cliff Gallup, he was an accomplished guitarist who played on several pivotal Gene Vincent tracks, including "Lotta Lovin'" and "Say Mama," which Meeks wrote.
The Blue Caps—whose prior hits included "Be-Bop-A-Lula," "Blue Jean Bop" and "Race with the Devil"—found themselves without a lead guitarist in late 1956, when Gallup quit the lineup for the second and final time. In early 1957, the band's rhythm guitarist, Paul Peek, recommended Meeks, his former Circle E Ranch Boys bandmate. After a quick audition, Meeks joined the Blue Caps, making the transition from country picker to rocker.
Meeks began recording with the band in June 1957 and stayed with them for more than 18 months, through 1958's Record Date album. He was the guitarist who was with Vincent the longest, even appearing in the 1958 film Hot Rod Gang with the band.
According to Britt Hagarty's The Day the World Turned Blue: A Biography of Gene Vincent, when Meeks first joined the Blue Caps, Vincent played his records for the new guitarist. Meeks said, "I don't know if I can play that way." Vincent replied, "I don't want you to." Ergo, Meeks was given a free hand to develop his own Blue Caps style.
Meeks' playing was clean and more "traditional" than Gallup's; his sound was also more stripped down and devoid of Gallup's legendary delay. While Gallup favored a Gretsch Duo Jet, Meeks played a maple-neck Fender Strat during his Blue Caps days. Both videos below feature a lion's share of Meeks' six-string work.
When the Blue Caps broke up in late 1958, Meeks joined the Tune Toppers, followed by the Champs. He went on to perform with Merle Haggard, Elvis Presley and former Monkee Michael Nesmith, even appearing on Nesmith's Tantamount to Treason album (1972).
Meeks was born April 16, 1937, in Gaffney, South Carolina. A memorial service will take place August 7 at Emerson Memorial Chapel in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
For more about Meeks and his contributions to rock and country music (not to mention his early three-neck guitar), visit his page at rockabillyhall.com.
Top video: Gene Vincent & His Bluecaps perform "High Blood Pressue" and "Rip It Up" in 1958. Bottom video: Meeks performs "Dance to the Bop" in 1991.
Damian Fanelli is the online managing editor at Guitar World and Guitar Aficionado. His New York-based band, the Blue Meanies, has toured the world and elsewhere. Fanelli, a former member of Brooklyn jump-blues/swing/rockabilly band the Gas House Gorillas and New York City instrumental surf-rock band Mister Neutron, also composes and records film soundtracks. He writes GuitarWorld.com's The Next Bend column, which is dedicated to B-bender guitars and guitarists. His latest liner notes can be found in Sony/Legacy's Stevie Ray Vaughan: The Complete Epic Recordings Collection. Follow him on Facebook, Twitter and/or Instagram.