“He was a fantastic little guy. Gene could have been one of the biggest things on television. He could’ve had his own show nationally and been one of the biggest artists on TV. But you couldn’t depend on Gene. He’s be liable to be out at the horses races, you know, instead of being at the station, where he should be…but you couldn’t keep from loving the little guy.” (Speedy West)
Because he didn’t seem to take himself too seriously as an artist, he excelled at good-timey romps, as Boogie Woogie Fever, Texas Boogie, and was not totally convincing on tearjerkers. He was a major star on the West Coast for several years, with high-profile radio and television status on Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree. The musicians who backed him were the top ones of the West Coast: Speedy West, Jimmy Bryant, Billy Liebert, Cliffie Stone. He enjoyed only minor hits, like his cover of Hank Locklin’s “Pin Ball Millionaire”, but he sold consistently enough for Capitol to keep him around for four years in a very competitive and changing scene – surprisingly, given his undoubted feel for hillbilly boogies, it was the emergence of rock’n’roll that really knocked him out.
Gene O’Quin was born in Dallas on September 9, 1932 and took to music at an early age. Uninterested in formal musical education, he learned guitar from his elder brother Rex. When the latter returned from service, Gene’s interest in music grew. He tagged along with guitar-picker Rex and also met other aspiring young musicians like ‘Boots’ Borquin. The O’Quin house was a popular stop for these youngsters, who were often eating Dad’s stuff and Mom’s desserts. The O’Quin brothers, Borquin and others began picking wherever and whenever they got the chance, and Gene’s talents and personality were obviously several steps above the others. Although the clubs and joints were dominated by dance bands, the focal point for Dallas more decidedly hillbilly scene in the postwar years became Ed McLemore’s wrestling arena, the Sportatorium. Later in 1948, the show became the Big D Jamboree, when it was broadcasted over KRLD. Gene became one of the Jamboree’s earliest and biggest stars. After a meeting backstage with Boots Borquin, he also became a member of Boots and his Buddies. Sometime, probably mid-1948, they recorded for Jesse Erikson, owner of the Talent label. Erikson cut a cross-section of local acts with little discretion, ranging from highly skilled performers to far less interesting ones. Boots and his Buddies fell somewhere in between and the A side of Talent 708 was Gene singing the recent Eddy Arnod hit Next Sunday Is My Birthday. It was an engaging if not spectacular debut, with Gene’s assured vocal backed by Borquin’s lead guitar. Apparently, among unissued tracks cut at that session was Johnny Tyler’s Oakie Boogie.
In the summer of 1949, O’Quin recorded again for Erikson, this time backed by Al Turner’s Big D Jamboree Barn Dance Gang. He waxed recent weeper Pennies For Papa and the more apt Hank Williams’ Blues Come Around. Though not bad, the version sounded disengaged. Sometime in the late forties he lied about his age, was enlisted in the Army for several months before his discharge after discovery. When he returned to the Sportatorium, he’d beaten all other acts, even Red Foley or Hank Williams.
How he got in touch with Capitol records in California is unclear: maybe with a recommandation from Tennessee Ernie Ford, or Capitol’s Dallas branch manager. Anyway, still only 17, O’Quin hitchhiked to Los Angeles in the spring of 1950. His family was indeed unaware, but felt reassured when they learnt Gene had won a talent contest and made up to Cliffie Stone’s Hometown Jamboree in Compton (Gene had found a trucker fan to drive him). Soon occasional appearances became regular, and he signed to Capitol, recording in first session in July, 1950. Country A&R chief Lee Gillette brought up the cream of Capitol’s session players: Speedy West on steel, Jimmy Bryant on lead-guitar, Eddie Kirk on rhythm, Harold Hensley on fiddle, Billy Liebert on piano (almost inaudible) and Cliffie Stone on bass. Two original songs were combined with two covers: O’Quin chose the uptempo Pinball Millionaire, a regional chart entry for Hank Locklin, originally penned by Slim Willet. It would be his most successful Capitol disc. And while he would enjoy no major hits, his later records apparently sold steadily, so Capitol kept him four years in contract. On this first session, O’Quin’s vocals are pleasant, but not particularly incisive or deep. One of the two originals cut was The Hard Way, with a nice Bryant lead and West playing pretty straight throughout.
It probably became quickly apparent to Cliffie Stone that O’Quin had other priorities than career and responsibilities: women, gambling, having a good time, making loads of money and spending it as fast as possible. He married not long after he got to California – this lasted only a few weeks; then a second marriage in 1953, a year or so. He was to marry four more women until his death in 1978. Speedy West recalls Gene as a lovable smooth talker, always borrowing money from others.
Next recording session (November 1950) with a nearly identical lineup as the first one – except Merle Travis replaced Jimmy Bryant – saw a good Devil On My Shoulder cut, with Travis and B. Liebert shining in brief solo spots. The better O’Quin original was the fast I Get The Blues. On the three 1951 sessions one can hold Hank Williams styled Triflin’ Woman. Gene chose then to abandon using a lead guitar player; the only lead instruments were Hensley and West, whose subtle honky-tonk work is quite different from the flashier playing he is usually associated with. O’Quin astutely made sure that he was session leader – not the norm among major labels singers then – so he could get a leader’s double scale on the sessions. He even put a capo on the neck of his guitar, saying it was like playing two instruments. “And, said Speedy West, he got his damn money!” On March 1951, drummer Muddy Berry came aboard and placed impetus to Boogie Woogie Fever. Liebert soloed excellently on this and on the novelty No Parking Here.
From final 1951 session, we find West and Hensley in particular good form in Texas Boogie, originally a silly song, but the band drove it home convincingly. Billy Strange replaced Eddie Kirk. Just as fine is the fast I’m Gonna Take My Baby Dancing.
1952. After five sessions in the first eleven months at Capitol, there would only be six more in his remaining three years with the label. Lesser and lesser were O’Quin’s compositions. Jazz drummer Roy Harte replaced Muddy Berry, giving a more rocking sound, e.g. on Mobilin’ Baby Of Mine (inked by newcomer Rod Morris). Cliffie Stone left too, and there were other replacements, but not to the advantage of the songs: no hits, good tunes, without any getting the better. Hank Williams’ death influenced Gene and Ken Nelson in the sound chosen, and O’Quin was pretty close to the Drifting Cowboys’ sound (without really copying it) in Tired, or the ballad I’ll Stop Loving You. The final two Capitol sessions (December 1953 and August 1954) saw songs remained in the can, a sign that, despite his continued stardom, Gene’s sales had failed to live up to his early promises. Came to light a fine rendition of Eddie Noack’s Too Hot To Handle, another uptempo novelty I Specialize In Love, the excellent mid-tempo It’s No Wonder, or the superlative You Name It (She’s Got It); then Capitol dropped Gene.
When he returned to recording a year later, it was unfortunately for the soon-to-be defunct Intro label. This was the country-arm of Eddie and Leo Mesner’s Aladdin records, which from 1950 had yielded consistently fine music. However, the scene was changing, country sales were plummeting. Although Gene’s tougher recordings prove that he certainly could have rocked, he obviously didn’t. He cut an inane novelty, Joe Joe Joe, as well – a Mesner’s suggestion – as Convicted, originally a R&B song. He continued touring, appeared on the Big D Jamboree or Hometown Jamboree, but his carreer was fading. He recorded sporadically during the sixties (Vandan, Unicorn). He even toured Scandinavia in the mid-1970s, and was planning a Texas comeback at the time of his death in 1978 in a car wreck, before Europe (and U.S.) rediscovered him in the ‘80s as a pioneering hero of Hillbilly boogie.
Biography based on the Kevin Coffey notes to Bear Family CD “Boogie Woogie Fever” (16194) from 1999.
Many label shots, as well as several rare sounds, from Tony Biggs’ collection.