Gary James' Interview With George Tomsco Of
The Fireballs

Jimmy Gilmer and The Fireballs had a huge hit back in 1963 with a little song called "Sugar Shack". It went all the way to number one and became the largest selling song of the year. Then, in the late 60s, The Fireballs did it again with a song called "Bottle Of Wine" which made it into the Top Ten.

Fireballs guitarist George Tomsco talked about what it was like to be in a band in the 1960s.

Q - I've read that The Fireballs recorded at Norman Petty's studio in New Mexico. What year would that have been?

A - OK. Our first session was either the last day of September or the first day or two of October of '58.

Q - Does that mean you would have crossed paths with Buddy Holly?

A - Yes, we did. One time.

Q - You met Buddy Holly?

A - Yes we did and shook hands with him.

Q - What kind of guy was Buddy Holly?

A - Very nice. Actually, it was during the time that I think Norman and him were having some differences. It was just prior to him going to New York. Holly was a quiet guy. Really what happened was, we went down on a Sunday to Audition for Norman and he liked our little group, and said 'do you have some original material?' We said 'what's original material?' He said 'some songs that you wrote.' (laughs) We said 'yeah, we got a couple of 'em.' So, we played 'em for him and he liked those. He thought those were OK. He didn't rave about 'em, but, he said yeah, that's probably recordable material. So, we said let's record! And this was on a Sunday. He said 'I can't today.' He had been to church. He said 'Monday and Tuesday I gotta record Holly and The Crickets'. So he said, 'Why don't you boys go on back home and I'll call you in a day or two and we'll try to line up a session for the future.' I didn't want to leave town once I knew he liked us. We said 'when's your first available time?' He said 'Wednesday.' I said, 'can we stay 'till Wednesday?' He said, 'well, if you want to, I guess you could.' Some of the guys had jobs 8 to 5 here in Raton (New Mexico). Here I was trying to convince them we needed to stay there until Wednesday., I finally convinced them that we should do this. A couple of the guys called home and said 'we're not gonna be into work Monday and Tuesday. We're gonna record Wednesday.' (laughs) When Wednesday rolled around, we did stay. We went to the studio to set up in the late afternoon and came back. We left to get hamburgers because Norman said 'your first recording session is gonna take a little time.' You didn't do any track recording in those days. It was all monaural and you had to mix everything. Once the song was over, the engineer had to have the mix right. The performers had to perform it right. It was a one-take deal. If somebody messed up, the band did it all over again. And, you just kept doing that...take after take until you got one good take that everybody did right or as close to right as possible...the feeling was there and the engineer got the mix right. So, we left and had burgers before we came back to get really started. When we came back, there was a big Cadillac in front of the studio with Texas license plates. We didn't know who it was and walked in. Through the double pane glass window, there I could see this guy playing my brand new guitar with his foot up on my brand new amplifier. I was a little bit ticked off about that. I thought 'who's this guy playing my guitar? I didn't give nobody permission and besides that, he's playing it better than I could! (laughs) So, I stormed into the control room to Norman Petty and said 'Who's the guy playin' my guitar?' He kind of looked at me and then looked over through the window of the control room and said 'Oh, that's Buddy Holly.' Buddy Holly! Wow! I had an immediate attitude adjustment.

Q - No, do you still have that guitar and amp today?

A - No.

Q - George...

A - That was a Fender Tremalux amp on the first session and a Fender Stratocaster guitar. I had traded those back in the next year for the new model of Fender Twin and a Jazzmaster.

Q - Did you trade them in before or after Buddy died?

A - After Holly died. No, let me actually before. Yeah, as a matter of fact, I'm pretty sure I did. It was in the Fall.

Q - Is it true that The Fireballs already had two hit records. "Torquay" and "Bulldog" when you met Jimmy Gilmer?

A - Yeah.

Q - Were they regional hits or national hits?

A - They were national hits 'cause they were in the Billboard top 100.

Q - How high up the charts?

A - I'm gonna say "Torquay" was 39 and "Bulldog" was 29. That's kind of a guess, from stuff I've read or what I can remember. A lot of those things as an artist, you don't remember the exact stuff. You know what I mean? Record collectors know more about us than I know about us.

Q - You're right. They know the color of the record label, the serial number...

A - Yeah. I don't know any of that stuff. I know the label. I can remember that "Bulldog" and "Torquay" were both on Top Rank. Our very first release was on Kapp.

Q - So now we come to "Sugar Shack". Who wrote that song?

A - Keith McCormick wrote that song.

Q - And who was he?

A - He was a member of The String A Longs from Plainview, Texas. You remember the song "Wheels"? It was covered by Chet Billy Vaughn. It was another instrumental group from Plainview, Texas. He was a writer.

Q - And how did Keith get that song to you?

A - The String A Longs came over to Norman to record from Plainview. He was over there just like some of the other artists Everybody was kind of sharing information, sharing songs and listening to everybody else's stuff. And so, they brought these songs over to demo them at Norman's studio so they could be played for the artists coming in looking for material. "Sugar Shack" was one of the songs. I think probably Jimmy and Norman picked it up and thought 'that's be a good little song to do.' We just worked up that arrangement of it. Without the solo Vox, that sweet little potato thing in it. We had recorded just the gutsy tracks. Then we came back. We were gone for a few weeks doing a little playing tour. We came back and let Norman know we were in town and he said 'let's go to the studio. I want you to hear something.' He was always trying to put the Leslie organ or piano in our stuff. When we heard "Sugar Shack" come on and that funny little merry-go-round come on, I really thought he messed up. But, after it became number one, well, I had changed my mind by then and thought that was a pretty neat little line.

Q - I guess that would do it.

A - Yeah, right (laughs)

Q - The String A Longs never thought of "Sugar Shack" as a vehicle for their group?

A - Not necessarily. Keith and his brother Terrell would write song together. Keith wrote "Sugar Shack" by himself, but, he actually gave half of it to his aunt. So, her name is on there too. (Faye Voss)

Q - How many records did "Sugar Shack" sell? Any idea?

A - Yeah. I think the final accounting at the time, it was over with during that period, was about 1,490,000. Right at a million and a half for that time. It was number one I think for five solid weeks in a row.

Q - Did you guys ever put out an album?

A - Yeah. When the single was still big, we recorded some other items and put out a "Sugar Shack" album. I think there was an album version of "Sugar Shack" that was different from the single version, but, I could wrong about that too. When you're working and doing recordings, a lot of times your days and nights run together. You're doing recording for yourself and you're a studio band for other artists coming in. The whole thing kind of gets blurry and you don't exactly remember what's know? (laughs) You jump from one project to another. You're helping some people do demo stuff and then somebody comes in and cuts a master. Then, you start working on your stuff. Then, you start playing your stuff for other people. We cut "Sugar Shack" with several other songs and had no idea that it was gonna turn out so strong, once we recorded it.

Q - "Sugar Shack" was the biggest record in 1963. Who was your competition?

A - Paul and Paula and their song "Hey Paula".

Q - You were probably the last American band to enjoy such success before The British Invasion.

A - Probably so. During the next release, "Daisy Petal Pickin", I think The Beatles happened. We probably would've sold more records if we had ours released a little bit sooner than we did.

Q - Would the same be true for "Ain't Gonna Tell Anybody"?

A - The British Invasion was really making headway then.

Q - And so, it wasn't the production or promotion of the records that was the problem, it was the British Invasion?

A - Yeah. That happened to every American artist that had releases at the time. But, you never know how high a song would've gone anyhow, had there not been any interruption. We don't know that we would have had another number one or Top Ten or Top Twenty. We do know The Beatles were stealing or record sales. (laughs) What The Beatles did is, they stole our sales but then they enhanced the whole music scene to be a whole lot bigger business than it was. So, they really did everybody a favour in the long-run too.

Q - But, what a hard act they were to follow.

A - Oh, well you couldn't...I mean you just couldn't follow them. (laughs) You'd be really stupid to try and follow The Beatles. They were number one. There's a million miles between number one and number two.

Q - According to The Rolling Stone Encyclopaedia Of Rock, after the success of "Sugar Shack", tours in the US an overseas followed. Who did you tour with and were you a headliner or support act?

A - We did tours in the US, but we didn't go overseas. Jimmy might've gone over with Norman and I don't know for sure. Jimmy might've gone over with Norman for a little promo thing. But, the band didn't go. We did'nt go to Europe. The Fireballs have not been over there yet.

Q - What happened to Jimmy Gilmer anyway? Did success go to his head?

A - Oh, no. Gilmer stayed with us for ten years, from '60 to '70. But, what happened to curtail our run was of course The British Invasion. The Beatles mainly. Then, we didn't have much. We had some chart action. But, finally in '68 we had "Bottle Of Wine" and that was by The Fireballs. But see, Gilmer is singing on that. He's our lead singer. See, what Norman did is; we started out as The Fireballs. Then with "Sugar Shack" it was Jimmy Gilmer And The Fireballs. Well, if you think back, "That'll Be The Day" was out by what name? The Crickets. Ok. Then what did you see? Buddy Holly and The Crickets. So, it was a Norman Petty marketing angle that he was trying to do the same with Jimmy Gilmer that he did with Buddy Holly. But, he was successful with Holly, just simply because of the timing, the way the map laid down there. But, by the time of Jimmy Gilmer And The Fireballs, there were some Jimmy Gilmer records. Then it went back to The Fireballs by "Bottle Of Wine". He was trying to market Jimmy Gilmer as a solo artist out of The Fireballs group. Just to sell some more records, like he was successful with Holly and The Crickets.

Q - Who wrote "Bottle Of Wine"?

A - That was written by Tom Paxton, the folksinger. I remember two ways the song kind of happened. It seems to me like a simultaneous thing. Jimmy and Stan Lark were up in New York, down in the Village. Tom Paxton was performing down there and they heard him do "Bottle Of Wine". Jimmy liked it and Stan liked it. They came back from New York talking about it. But, about that same time, Carolyn Hester had already said something to me about (it) in the studio. She said, "You know, there's a song The Fireballs ought to think about doing...Bottle Of Wine". Tom Paxton was a folksinger which was part of her deal. She was into folk music. She was talking about it in the studio and they (Jimmy and Norman) came back from New York talking about it. It was just one of those things we decided (on) I guess, to do. So, we just came up with our own version of it, it was totally different than the way Tom Paxton wrote it. He wrote it kind of like an English pub song. And of course we...

Q - Roughed it up a bit?

A - Right. Exactly. We gave it a little bit rougher treatment. (laughs)

Q - You can almost picture everybody singing that song at a bar after a few drinks.

A - You know what's funny? The song is really an anti-drinking song. 'Bottle of wine. Fruit of the vine. when are you gonna let me get sober? Leave me alone. Let me go home. Let me go home and start over.' In other words, I want to get away from this. Very few people really saw that in it. They saw the drinking part.

Q - How well did the record do?

A - I think it went up to number 9 in '68.

Q - How many copies did is sell, do you know?

A - Not quite a million. Nine hundred thousand. Something like that. It wasn't near as big as "Sugar Shack", but it certainly was a nice seller for us.

Q - Where do The Fireballs perform today?

A - Just anywhere. We do casinos. We do one-nighters. We do any kind of shows where our music is bookable. We're not restricted to any kind of thing. We do Fairs...just about any kind of configuration that we can book.

Q - How about new there any?

A - Yeah. We've got a lot of re-issues. Ace Records out of London has re-issued a whole bunch of stuff on us.

© Gary James. All rights reserved.

* The Fireballs had six Top 40 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1959 and 1968.
"Torquay" (#39), "Bulldog" (#24), "Quite A Party" (#27), "Sugar Shack" (#1), "Daisy Petal Pickin" (#15), "Bottle Of Wine" (#9)