Classic Tracks: The Fireballs "Sugar Shack"

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


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

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.

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