Classic Tracks: The Fireballs "Sugar Shack"

Jun 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Ron Skinner

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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.

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"Sugar Shack" MP3

“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.’”






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