Classic Tracks: The Fireballs "Sugar Shack"

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


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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.”

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