With or without vocalist Jimmy Gilmer, the Fireballs were among the foot soldiers of the rock'n'roll revolution. They had two claims to fame. First was a couple of minor hits, the "tough" instrumental "Torquay" plus some similar follow-ups, and a vocal number with Gilmer at the helm, "Sugar Shack". But they'll mainly be remembered for being the band that Norman Petty, Buddy Holly's manager and producer, used to beef up those last tracks ever recorded by Buddy. Controversial but the controversy centres on the late Norman Petty rather than the band - they did as skilful a job as they could and they had undoubtedly absorbed some of Holly's influence.
The group originated in Raton, New Mexico. Apparently they were christened the FIREBALLS after their performance of Jerry Lee's "Great Balls of Fire" at the Raton High School PTA talent contest in January 1958 which earned them a standing ovation Either they then got in touch with Norman Petty who owned the closest recording studio in Clovis, or vice versa. Hence the recording contract and so on.
This set represents their first and second album. Ace have, as always, performed with efficiency and panache to bring it to us. The sleeve notes are copies of the flip of each of the original album covers - and that's the source of my title.
The albums are very different. The first one consists of strictly alternating instrumentals with "Torquay" proudly leading off, and vocals, but with Chuck Tharp, their first vocalist, rather than the later Gilmer. Taking the vocal tracks first. None are worth writing home about. The up-tempo ones are Hollyish but lacking the great man's sparkle - best is a rockabilly "Long, Long, Ponytail". There are also some rather lugubrious and not atypical late 50's ballads with organ accompaniment presumably from Vi Petty, Morman's wife - she was the one who performed a similar role on some of Buddy's records. In summary, these are not bad but wouldn't be what you would buy the album for.
The instrumentals are all good. Mostly modelled on "Torquay" i.e. up-tempo twelve bar blues with staccato lead guitar from George Tomsco. The very early ones still have some roughness about them before too much polish takes over. It's worth noting that Tomsco either on his own or with Tharp wrote most of the numbers on this, the first album.
First listen to the Vaquero set which purports to be instrumental versions of Mexican numbers - although the sleeve notes officially state that they are paying "musical tribute to the famous Mexican Vaquero (or cowboy)" - is disappointing. If you were expecting loads of music like "La Bamba" you'll be in for a shock. Apart from the lead off track "Vaquero", which is an excellent original penned by Tomsco, and the cover of "Tequila", these are mainly covers of rather hackneyed numbers like "In a little Spanish Town" which were probably in the set list of every second rate dance band immediately after the Second World War. This is the world of Norman Petty as opposed to the world of Buddy Holly. He would appear to have imposed the style on the boys though evidence suggests that they've gone along willingly. They perform creditably but don't add any great value. Contrary to their reputation at a tex-mex band, one doesn't get the impression that they've ever heard very much real Mexican folk music. Don't get me wrong; it's not all bad. I enjoy their versions of "La Raspa" and "La Golondrina". I must say that a set which includes "A Gay Ranchero" must have something going for it!
If I've been a little harsh in statements above, apologies to any remaining Fireballs. They were no more or less tex-mex than Holly himself. The label was largely given to his music due to the recording location of Clovis in New Mexico plus vaguely Mexican soundings in certain numbers like "Listen to me" .
I have to agree with the other reviewer that vaquero is a weaker release. The worst release from this band. But the first one is excellent instrumental music mainly from the early 1960's. These guys were as good as the ventures in many regards. I loved the other review though as he really went into it. I don't agree the vocal versions on the first one were not that good. They are simply from a different early era of rock. The second though is a strange one. It has aome good tracks and a cover of tequila that's good but the other ones are just hit or miss. The sound is outstanding as the music comes from the master tapes.