Classic Tracks: The Fireballs "Sugar Shack"

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


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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.

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