Ace Records’ long relationship with the Fireballs is common knowledge. Over the past fifteen years, we have had the good fortune to feature the bulk of their work across a dozen or more releases in the catalogue. The Fireballs are universally regarded for their ground-breaking and influential instrumentals Bulldog and Torquay, but their biggest chart item in their heyday was the enduring bubblegum of Jimmy Gilmer’s Sugar Shack, the biggest selling American single of 1963. Rock historians frequently nominate it as a paradigm of the kind of pop that the Beatles and their ilk booted off the US charts.
While they were temporarily broadsided by the Brits, the truth is, as players and singers, the Fireballs quickly proved themselves as adept at Beatle-style rock as any American band in that era. Granted, our two prior compilations of Fireballs vocal material (CDCHD 468 and 828), based on a chronological survey of their released material, don’t really reflect that aspect of the group; producer Norman Petty often chose to issue the overtly commercial or pop material that was more to his taste. Recent, exhaustive, investigations into the Petty vaults have uncovered a slew of fine, previously unknown material, the cream of which is gathered on FIREBEAT!, along with similar items from their mid-60s release schedule.
This new compilation focuses on the tougher side of the Fireballs, as they came to terms with the impact of the British Invasion, and made some fine beat group-styled recordings of their own. We feature here rockin’ covers of items by the Knickerbockers, Paul Revere & The Raiders, Beach Boys and others, as well as punchy, guitar-fuelled workouts on Kansas City and Summertime Blues, and strong British-flavoured original material such as Never You Mind and Come To Me. Fireballs vocalist Jimmy Gilmer is to the fore, indulging his love of folk rock on superb versions of Codine and Thunder N’ Lightnin’, not to mention an alternate version of the group’s swansong hit Bottle Of Wine. There’s also What Do You Do, the rare single Jimmy cut in London in 1965. Original Fireballs frontman Chuck Tharp also weighs in with Tough Times, a great 1964 session where he is backed by his former bandmates. Please note that the sound quality on “Firebeat!” is second-to-none. Most tracks make their debut on CD, and those cuts that have been out before are heard in powerful remixes from the original session tapes – all showcasing the masterful production skills of Norman Petty.
As well as having spent so much time methodically going through the Petty masters over the past few years, it has also been my great pleasure to spend quality time in the company of Messrs Tomsco, Gilmer and Lark, who all contributed generously to a lengthy liner note that reveals many hitherto unknown aspects of the Fireballs’ career and relationship with Norman Petty during the mid-to-late 1960s. It was also fun watching the guys’ initial reaction to the colour footage of themselves performing Bottle Of Wine on a 1968 Texas TV pop show, another discovery from the vault that is included as an added bonus. Video clips of the band in their heyday are few and far between. We’ve worked hard to make this latest installment to the Fireballs catalogue as exciting and essential as all our previous efforts. It’s the least this great American band deserves.
By Alec Palao