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Classic Tracks: The Fireballs “Sugar Shack”

In August 1958, George Tomsco was facing a dilemma that many high school graduates face: what should he do with the rest of his life? Tomsco was the guitar player in the Raton, N.M. rock 'n' roll band The Fireballs. The band got its name at a high school talent show after performing a flawless rendition of Jerry Lee Lewis’ "Great Balls of Fire." The recent success of his band in his hometown gave him the idea that he could make a career in the music business, but he had no idea how someone from a small town New Mexico could make that dream a reality.

In August 1958, George Tomsco was facing a dilemma that many high school graduates face: what should he do with the rest of his life? Tomsco was the guitar player in the Raton, N.M. rock ‘n’ roll band The Fireballs. The band got its name at a high school talent show after performing a flawless rendition of Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire.” The recent success of his band in his hometown gave him the idea that he could make a career in the music business, but he had no idea how someone from a small town New Mexico could make that dream a reality. So, like many young men his age, he went off to college in hopes of training for a career. One night, while Tomsco was in his dorm room listening to an acetate of The Fireballs that his high school band teacher had recorded, a fellow student walked by his room and asked who the band was. When the student found out it was George and The Fireballs, he said they were good and should go to Clovis, N.M. to record with Buddy Holly’s producer, Norman Petty.

“When I heard that, I said, ‘What!’” Tomsco remembers more than 50 years later. “All of a sudden here was everything I wanted to know. I had no idea there was a recording studio in Clovis, New Mexico. I had no idea Buddy Holly recorded there.” That weekend, when Tomsco got home to Raton, he called the Clovis operator and was put through to Petty. Tomsco asked about making a recording at the studio, and Petty suggested that his band send him an audition tape. “We didn’t have a tape recorder, so I fibbed to him. I said, ‘Well, we’re going to be playing down there in a couple of weeks and we would rather just come in and audition live for you.’”

After some persuasion, Petty and Tomsco made an appointment for two Sundays later at 2 p.m.. “So I went back to school and I quit. I told the professors that I was going into the music business.”

Fortunately for Tomsco and his bandmates, the audition went well. They arrived promptly at 2 p.m. and were met by Petty’s assistant, Norma Jean Berry, who led them to the studio where they set up and began to rehearse. After an hour or so passed, there was still no sign of Petty. The band tracked down Norma Jean and asked when they might expect him to arrive. When Norma Jean pointed to the studio control room, and said, “That’s Mr. Petty right there,” the boys were shocked. What the band didn’t know is that Petty had been in the control room listening in on the band. “He pulled up a chair and sat down, and said, ‘So, have you guys got any of your own material?’ We said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got two songs that we’ve written,’” Tomsco explains. Petty asked the band to play those two songs again and when the band was finished, Petty asked if the band had a publisher, and if not would they mind if he was to publish their songs. “Here’s the guy that has Buddy Holly and The Crickets and he’s asking would we care if he published our material. I said absolutely not, whatever that means, yes.”

From there, Petty suggested that the band head back to Raton and make an appointment to record the songs. The Fireballs were ready to go and asked if they could record right on the spot. Petty explained that it wasn’t possible for them to record that night and that he was already booked for recording sessions on Monday and Tuesday. Resolved to not blow their big break, The Fireballs convinced Petty to record the songs on Wednesday. “I was thinking, man if this guy likes us, I don’t want to leave town.”

After some lengthy discussion and a few phone calls to cancel other commitments, The Fireballs decided to stay in Clovis. They spent the next two days driving by the studio in hopes of meeting whoever was recording with Petty. “We’d drive up and down the street and we would see the cars from Texas, and think, ‘Man I wonder what’s going on in there.’”

On the day of The Fireballs’ first recording session with Petty, the band returned to the studio after a quick break. When Tomsco walked into the studio, he was shocked to find that someone was playing his brand-new guitar. “When we came back, we pulled up and there was a pink Cadillac out front with Texas license plates. I walked in, looked through the window and somebody was standing with his foot on top of my amp playing my guitar. And I went to Norman, and asked, ‘Who’s that guy playing my guitar?’ He looked through the window, and said, ‘Oh, that’s Buddy Holly.’” Petty pressed the studio Talkback button and asked Holly to come and meet The Fireballs. Tomsco’s anger at someone playing his guitar quickly disappeared as Holly walked into the control room. “Norman said, ‘Introduce yourselves, guys,’ so we all said our names and shook hands with him. We were spell bound, and Buddy said, ‘What are you gonna do? Cut a record?’ That was the one and only time that we met Buddy and shook hands with him.” Little did The Fireballs know that in five short months, Holly’s life would be cut short and in the years to follow, The Fireballs would become Holly’s afterlife band, overdubbing instrumentation on nearly 50 recordings that Holly had left unfinished.

On Wednesday, September 3, 1958, The Fireballs recorded their first single, “Fireball” and “I Don’ Know.” This single was released in January 1959 by KAPP records and the instrumental song “Fireball” was picked by Billboard magazine as the song to feature. From then on, The Fireballs would be known as an instrumental group. Later, in 1959, Petty negotiated a contract with aggressive British label Top Rank and, in the next year and a half The Fireballs would garner three Top 40 hits with ‘Torquay,” “Bulldog” and “Quite a Party.” While the band was not strictly an instrumental band, they had a fine singer in Chuck Tharp, radio stations had categorized them this way and with each subsequent single the DJs gravitated to the instrumental songs as opposed to the vocal songs.

The Fireballs also found themselves in the enviable position as the house band for Petty, who had just gone through a blockbuster few years. With the massive success of Buddy Holly and The Crickets, as well as a string of other hits by such arristrs as Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, Roy Orbison and Petty’s own Trio, he found himself with hundreds of artists clamoring to record at his studio. After Holly’s death and Petty’s subsequent falling out with The Crickets, Petty needed a band that could play behind these artists.

“We started recording a whole bunch of stuff and started being the studio band,” Tomsco says. “That was just at the time when he was needing some musicians. Buddy Holly had brought the notoriety to the studio and so a lot of people were wanting to record and [Petty] didn’t have a band. So he started using us as his house band for the studio. We recorded a whole bunch of different artists; a lot of them didn’t have success but nevertheless everyone was trying.”

By the end of 1960, the line-up of The Fireballs had changed with lead singer Chuck Tharp leaving the group. “Chuck started feeling like he wasn’t needed in the group because none of our success was vocal; it was just on the instrumental side. So he felt like, ‘What am I doing here?’” After Tharp left the group, the band realized that they couldn’t continue without a singer. The group made most of its money playing the songs of the day on the road and they knew that to continue, and with an upcoming tour booked, they needed a replacement. “We needed a singer,” Tomsco says. :Jimmy Gilmer had been recording in Clovis with his band. He had recorded a song called ‘Look Alive’ and we heard it and thought it was a great cut. When the subject came up of what are we going to do for a lead singer, Norman said that the only person that might work was Jimmy Gilmer.”

Electric guitars ran through Fender amps miked with Electro-Voice 630s.

Gilmer rehearsed with the band on a Sunday afternoon; things went well and the band asked him to join the group. “Jimmy came over one Sunday and we sat in the studio and we went over some songs that he knew and he went over some songs that we knew, just to see if we had a chemistry and we could tell that it would work,” Tomsco remembers. “So we asked him if he wanted to join The Fireballs.” Gilmer told the group he needed some time to think it over, and returned home to Amarillo, Texas, that Sunday night. On Tuesday, he showed up in Clovis with his clothes in a bag, ready to work. The band quickly rehearsed and hit the road.

In 1963, a change of direction, name and record label was in the cards for The Fireballs. The band became Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs. This name change was Petty’s idea, who had a history of promoting one act under two names. His first success with this marketing ploy came with the Rhythm Orchids, who had two lead singers, Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen. They recorded 2 million-selling songs in 1956: “Party Doll” and “I’m Sticking With You.” When the songs were released, Roulette Records simply split them up and put them out under the two singers’ names as if they were two separate acts. Petty later had huge success when Holly would release singles under his own name while The Crickets did the same. Both groups were exactly the same musicians. Petty knew that a simple name change could easily alter the direction and fortunes of a group. With Gilmer now the front man, The Fireballs image would change from a 1950s instrumental rock ‘n’ roll band to a pop vocal group. This simple change coupled with a great song would make them the biggest-selling band in America with their hit “Sugar Shack.”

“Sugar Shack” was written by Lubbock, Texas, songwriter Keith McCormack in 1962. He was a member of another Petty group called The String-a-Longs, who had an international hit with the Petty-penned “Wheels” in 1961. While living with his Aunt Fay in Lubbock in 1962, McCormack began every day by trying to write a song. “Keith woke up one morning and started with this little Sugar Shack thing, and his Aunt Fay said, ‘Keith, I really do like that song,’” explains Tomsco. McCormack owed his Aunt Fay $40 and in return for her forgiveness of that debt, she was offered half of the songwriting credit on “Sugar Shack.”

“I heard years later that she would call Keith up, and say, ‘Thank you so much for putting my name on that song; we just paid off our new car or we just put new carpet in the house.’ It was all these wonderful things that would happen every year from part of the writers royalties for Sugar Shack.”
McCormack brought the song to Petty who in turn gave the song to Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs. The Fireballs were in search of a new sound and “Sugar Shack” was definitely a departure from their instrumental hits, so much so that at first DOT Records chief Randy Wood refused to release the record. “We almost lost our contract because Randy didn’t like that song; he didn’t want to release it because he said it was too different for the time. He said it was just too far out there.” But Petty had faith in the song and made a deal with DOT Records that if the song failed to be a hit, Petty would relinquish creative control to the label for the next record.

DOT Records reluctantly agreed and the song was released in a promotional capacity only. “Randy Wood said that we’re going to release it but we’re not going to press any for-sale copies because it’s not gonna hit. He said they would release the record but it would be a radio station–only release.” Because of this limited release, the song struggled to get attention at first. After radio stations in Denver and Dallas began to play the record, its slow rise to the top began. “When the radio stations started playing it, people liked it but you couldn’t buy the records because Randy Wood wasn’t pressing any. It took six months before they started pressing records.” In that six-month period, demand for the record continued to grow and once it did hit record store shelves, the song shot up the charts where it stayed at the Number One position for five weeks. By the end of 1963, the single had sold 1.5 million copies and was declared the biggest-selling record of 1963 by Billboard magazine.

By the time The Fireballs recorded “Sugar Shack,” the band had spent four years in the studio with Petty and had hit on a groove. They had their early chart success, as well as being the house band for many of Petty’s projects. They had also begun the task of overdubbing and polishing Holly demos for posthumous release. To say the band was a well-oiled machine would be an understatement. Recording in the tiny studio on West 7th Street in Clovis had changed little for the band. They set up in much the same way they always did: all together in the main studio. Drums and bass were set up in make-shift isolation booths surrounded by “drum walls” and guitar amplifiers also isolated by small baffles. The vocals were often cut live with the band in the same room, but on occasion either the vocalist or drummer would set up in the front waiting room, which doubled as an isolation booth.
An Electro-Voice 630 had become the microphone of choice for the electric guitar, while the Electro-Voice 630A was used for acoustic and rhythm guitars. For drums, an Altec M11 “Coke bottle” microphone was placed over the top of the kit, and an RCA 77B was most likely used for bass. The vocals were recorded with a Telefunkin U47. By this time, Petty had moved away from his 5-channel broadcast mixer, which was replaced with a custom Altec console comprising three Altec 1567A mixers that had been modified with sends to Petty’s famed echo chamber. Other equipment included Altec 436C and Fairchild compressors, as well as a Pultec equalizer. Monitoring was done via Petty’s trusty Altec 604 speakers.

The session for “Sugar Shack” was recorded on an Ampex 4-ttrack recorder. Tomsco remembers the track layout as being drums, acoustic bass and guitar in stereo on tracks 1 and 2, with track 3 being reserved for Tomsco’s overdub of his recently purchased Danelectro baritone electric guitar; the fourth track was used for Gilmer’s vocal. The instrument that provided the signature sound and melody was a Hammond Solovox keyboard. How this was recorded is still a mystery to Tomsco. “Maybe [Norman] even mixed the whole thing and when it was being mixed and transferred to stereo, he might have put that in there at the same time; that’s probably what happened.”

The journey of a hit song has many twists and turns, and the recording of “Sugar Shack” is no exception. The mystery of how the Solovox was recorded is one thing, but when the band first heard the sound, they thought that Petty had ruined the recording. “We thought we were finished with it because we had this good, raspy bass guitar on it and it was a real good bottom-end song. We went off on the weekend and played a few gigs and came back, and Norman said, ‘I wanna play something for you.’ Whenever Norman said, ‘I wanna play something for you,’ he’d been messing with something.” While the band was away, Petty had added the signature organ sound; when he played it for the band they were furious. “We all thought, ‘Oh no, he ruined our record; it just sounds terrible. It sounds like a little merri-go-round thing.’ I could just see little horses going up and down. That doesn’t fit the picture at all because we had all this bottom end and this growly approach to the song. And he was just tickled pink with it and thought we were going to love it.”

While the band didn’t approve of the Solovox melody, there was little they could do to change it. Petty had already moved on and the record was soon to be released. As the record climbed the charts, the band’s feelings toward the Solovox organ began to change. “When the record finally came out, we kind of just had to stomach it. Then we got to the point where, well okay we accept that it’s on there and then we were hearing it on the radio and we thought, ‘I guess it’s not too bad,’ but then when it hit Number One, we were like, ‘That a boy Norm, what a great idea.’ And now I just don’t know what ‘Sugar Shack’ would be like without that little signature thing; it would be so incomplete.”

As you would expect, having a Number One hit was exciting for The Fireballs and the success of the song opened many doors with offers of tours and television appearances around the country. One of Tomsco’s favorite memories of the time is a trip from Clovis to New York where the band would change the radio dial from station to station in search of “Sugar Shack.” After jotting down every time they heard the song, they realized that the average time between plays was 15 minutes, a fact that thrilled the band to no end. “It was a very comforting feeling to know that we had a Number One but really the difference was how people perceived us. When we walked into a ballroom or when we played a show and they knew that we were the ones that did ‘Sugar Shack,’ their impression of us was a lot higher; but we didn’t change, there wasn’t anything different with us.”

While the band may not have felt the change, a very young, aspiring musician and Clovis native Johnny Mulhair took notice. “Everybody in town was in awe of them; those guys were big stars.” The Fireballs impact on the local music scene was so big that if you were an aspiring musician in the Clovis area, you most likely learned by playing a Fireballs song. “I started playing in 1965; they were so popular with all the kids in Clovis, if you played guitar you played Fireballs instrumentals. ‘Torquay’ was the first song that I ever learned on the guitar.” A few years later, Mulhair found himself leading his own band and recording with Petty at his studio. One night, his band was playing a local dance and Mulhair and his band got a bit of a surprise. “We were playing for a dance and George and Stan [Lark, The Fireballs’ bassist] came in to see us. I saw those guys over there and I was just mortified, I couldn’t even play. I completely crumbled and went to pieces. I couldn’t believe that they actually came in to see what we were doing.” Having all of this musical talent at his doorstep was an inspiration for Mulhair and something that most musicians in a small town wouldn’t have access to.

“Norman sure inspired me; here’s a guy that made hit records and was very successful, and I got to thinking that’s what I want to do.” Mulhair took that inspiration and turned it in to a lifelong career as a guitar player, studio owner and Platinum record producer.

When The Fireballs tried to follow up the success of “Sugar Shack” with the similar-sounding “Daisy Petal Pickin’” in 1964, the song stalled at Number 15. By this time, the British Invasion had hit America and groups like The Fireballs had a hard time competing with The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. “That year was a big change with The Beatles. I mean they sent us home talking to ourselves,” Tomsco says. “So we were trying to fit in with the thing.” While the British Invasion may have slowed The Fireballs progress, it didn’t completely stop them. In the years following “Sugar Shack,” the band stayed active performing live and recording as Petty’s house band. Between the years 1962 and 1968, The Fireballs recorded overdubs on more than 30 Holly songs and recorded hundreds of sessions for themselves and for other artists. In 1968, they returned to their original name The Fireballs and signed with Atco Records. While Gilmer was still the front man, the idea of simplifying their name and recording with a new energy and sound was all it took to bring the band back into the Top 20 with a pair of songs: “Bottle of Wine,” a song written by folk singer Tom Paxton, and the Fireball original “Come on React.”

The Fireballs still play several live performances every year. Their music has also seen resurgence in popularity, thanks to releases by UK reissue label Ace Records, but “Sugar Shack” remains the crown jewel in The Fireballs catalog. While that song may not have stood the test of time as well as other top-selling songs of the era, it is hard to downplay the impact the song had on the record-buying public at the time. To put the song’s success in perspective, the Number 2 record on the Billboard charts in 1963 was “Surfin’ USA” by the Beach Boys.