Although the Fireballs scored eleven US hits over a ten year period, there remains a distinctly unfair tendency to overlook them when it comes to discussing American bands who enjoyed long term success throughout the 60s. They are victims of their own versatility, for they moved from one genre to another with such ease and re-invented themselves in such a convincing way that it seemed as if they were several different bands. So will the real Fireballs please stand up? Were they that pioneering instrumental group who established the three guitars and drums line-up as the classic formation for rock with Torquay in 1959, the purveyors of sweet-toothed mid-60s pop-rock vocals as exemplified by the enchanting Sugar Shack, or the long-haired folkies who brought us the rousing sing-a-long-folk of Bottle Of Wine towards the end of the 60s? Actually, they were all three!
Unlike most other bands who hit on one good idea and then worked it into the ground, the Fireballs knew when to call time and start on something new. And that's exactly what they did - several times over. They began in 1958 when Stan Lark was playing stand-up bass and George Tomsco was furnishing the band with a non-stop supply of great guitar-led instrumentals. Tomsco had a distinctive sound and style that slipped into Norman Petty's Tex-Mex production like tequila down a parched throat - and it was just as intoxicating to guitar-loving instrumental fans who queued up to buy the records in droves.
When the instrumental hits finally dried up, the Fireballs simply pushed rhythm guitarist Jimmy Gilmer to centre stage and said - sing! In 1963 Sugar Shack stormed all the way up to the number one spot and they spent the next four years turning out a succession of high-class pop-rock vocal singles which, apart from the immediate follow-ups to Sugar Shack, were criminally ignored. They had one of the greatest ever frat-rock 45s in What I Am, but watched helplessly as Tommy James & The Shondells stole it from under their noses, re-titled it as Say I Am, and then took it into the US Top 30 in 1966. George and Barbara Tomsco should also have scored with Come On Home, a completely unexpected but totally beguiling stab at the girl/boy duo market.
Such talent could not be overlooked forever though, and by 1968 they were established in the charts for another run of four hits. The breakthrough came with a Tom Paxton song - the folky Bottle Of Wine. Its infectious, rousing sing-a-long quality made it perfect for any bunch of drunken revellers to slur along to but, as George Tomsco now points out, if you listen carefully to the lyrics it is actually an anti-drinking song. Anyway, it made number nine in the US charts, and I'll certainly drink to that...
CLOVIS CLASSICS is the definitive Fireballs collection, the first to take an overview of the band's entire career. A bumper 30-tracker, it pulls in their very best tracks from 1959 through to 1969 as well as including all eleven of their hits and proves conclusively that the Fireballs are one of the great American bands.
by Dave Burke, Pipeline Magazine