Thursday, February 3, 2011

Blast From The Past: The Fireballs

It's rare for a band from a small town to rise to national prominence, but The Fireballs from Raton, N.M. bucked those odds and reached a level of success, that no New Mexico musicians have yet been able to surpass. The original Fireballs consisted of: George Tomsco; lead guitar, Stan Lark; bass Eric Budd; drums, Chuck Tharp; lead vocal, Dan Trammell; rhythm guitar.  In 1958 the band made the journey to Clovis,N.M. to audition for Norman Petty at his renown studio.  Petty, always a tough nut to crack, asked if they had any original music they could play. George Tomsco recalled Norm's reaction after they played him two of their own songs:  "So, we played 'em for him and he liked those. He thought those were OK. He didn't rave about 'em, but, he said yeah, that's probably recordable material."  Once in the studio The Fireballs quickly fired off two songs "Fireball" (an instrumental) and "I Don't Know" (with vocals by Chuck Tharp) During that first recording session, the band had an encounter with Buddy Holly, George Tomsco described the scene: "Through the double pane glass window, I could see this guy playing my brand new guitar with his foot up on my brand new amplifier. I was a little bit ticked off about that, also he's playing it better than I could! (laughs) So, I stormed into the control room to Norman Petty and said 'Who's the guy playin' my guitar?' He kind of looked at me and said 'Oh, that's Buddy Holly.' I had an immediate attitude adjustment."  Released on Kapp Records the  single barely cracked the regional charts, but it did earn the band its first radio play and more importantly their first record sales and a return session at Petty's studio. 
 For The Fireballs and Norm Petty it was the start of a long relationship, one that would see them climb to the top of the pop charts.  The Fireballs stormed the charts with a trio of hit singles "Torquay" (which would become a surf band standard) "Bulldog" (their best known hit at the time) and "Vaquero." All were released on Top Rank Records, a British label trying to break into  the U.S. market.  In 1961 they had a hit with "Quite a Party" released on Warwick Records, but lacking a strong follow up single The Fireball express ran out of steam. However, the band would stay busy, by now they were Norm's "go to" studio band, working with a wide variety of artists. Norm Petty also used The Fireballs to overdub songs from the Buddy Holly "Apartment Tapes." These were home recordings that Holly taped at his New York City apartment just days before leaving for the fateful Winter Dance Party tour.  That same year (1962) Keith McCormack brought Norm a song he had composed, Petty immediately realized that the tune had Top Forty potential.
 He went into the studio with The Fireballs and a vocalist from Amarillo, Jimmy Gilmer. "Sugar Shack" didn't stand out from any of the others they recorded during that session, George Tomsco remarked: "We cut "Sugar Shack" with several other songs and had no idea that it was gonna turn out so strong, once we recorded it." Norm Petty fine tuned "Sugar Shack" and when released on Dot Records, it exploded onto the charts, "Sugar Shack"  would reach #1 (a first for a band from New Mexico)  it stayed in the top spot for five weeks, selling over 1.5 million copies. By the end of the year the song was honored as the best selling single of 1963. However, as big as "Sugar Shack" was, Petty and The Fireballs once again failed to follow with another hit.  The band then returned to its regular routine of touring and session work.  The Fireballs were in the midst of a four year dry spell, when suddenly out of nowhere they made it back to the charts. "Bottle of Wine" written by Tom Paxton, would peak at #10, while selling over a million copies. The Fireballs got top billing on this one,  so once more they were hot.  The band kept working and touring but  "Bottle of Wine" would be their last hit.  The band would eventually break away from Norm Petty, but a legal agreement kept them from calling themselves  The Fireballs for a period of five years.  During that period the band was called Colorado and included Tomsco, Stan Lark and Keith McCormack (lead vocalist for the String-A-Longs, and author of Sugar Shack) Over the years, George Tomsco has kept the band's legacy alive, while You Tube videos and online sales have introduced the band to a new generation of fans. The Fireballs are honored in their hometown of Raton, the same way that Buddy Holly is honored in Lubbock, deservedly so, for they did their hometown proud!