PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — Portsmouth’s Dickie Harrell, whose early rock ‘n’ roll music with fellow Tidewater natives Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps helped influence everyone from the Beatles to Led Zeppelin, died this week at the age of 82.
“We’ve lost a real humble treasure that most people never, unless you were in the local Norfolk music scene, or if you were just a music fan, you probably wouldn’t know Dickie Harrell was from Portsmouth, lived in Portsmouth his whole life,” said VEER Magazine‘s Jeff Maisey, a former music critic at the Virginian-Pilot.
He shared a 2022 interview with Harrell on Wednesday as a tribute, which includes Johnny Cash not only saying “How’d you all get on this tour? You all aren’t country” to the Blue Caps, but “that boy needs help” in reference to Harrell.
Maisey says the two developed a close friendship over the years, and he’d get random calls any time of the day, sometimes late at night from Harrell.
“He was probably one of the most humble people I’ve ever met in my life, and he loved music, he always wanted to talk about it.”
Humble despite a who’s who of friends and admirers from Bob Dylan to Jeff Beck to Robert Plant, all of whom were influenced by the Blue Caps’ rockabilly sound from the 1950s.
Harrell brought a wild and unique style to his performances, including standing up while drumming. On the group’s biggest hit, 1956’s “Be-Bop-A-Lula,” (which reached No. 7 on the U.S. Billboard pop music chart), it’s him behind the iconic (and spontaneous) howl during the track’s 37-second mark.
Perhaps the most remarkable part is just how young he was at the time. He quit school and joined the band at 15, and would only tour with them for a little over a year.
But the impact was unforgettable.
“[Music legends like Dylan and Plant] remembered him well. When they’d come to Virginia Beach or Portsmouth and perform live they’d give him a shout out. They would always welcome him in style backstage. He was revered by the greatest musicians in rock ‘n’ roll, but he was very humble and would downplay that sort of thing,” Maisey said.
“When the Stray Cats would perform in town they would actually go to Dickie’s house in Portsmouth and hang out with Dickie. Dickie would say ‘they didn’t call or anything, I just get a knock at the door and it’s the Stray Cats’ … he remained friends with those folks for a very long time and was such a genuine person and I think that really struck a chord with those musicians.”
Speaking of which, Robert Plant just gave a shout out to the Blue Caps at a recent show in Portsmouth.
But Harrell wasn’t just a fan of the brightest stars.
“He really loved a local band called Lucky 757, and the first time he heard them he called me right away and said ‘have you heard them?’ … he said those guys are cooking, they are the real deal,” Maisey said.
The Portsmouth band follows in the footsteps of rockabilly, and Harrell loved them so much that they were invited to perform a tribute at the VEER Music Awards this year.
“We met him through a friend of ours and he came out to see us at a show, and we really connected right then,” said Cory Spivey, the band’s lead singer and guitarist. “We became really close friends and he would call us all the time … and say ‘man, what are you cats doing?'”
“We would meet at the Food Lion parking with his Volkswagen Bug and he would tell us all kinds of stories … I had told him about meeting Little Richard myself when I was younger and he told me about the Australian tour [with the Blue Caps], and then Dickie all these years later tells me all the same stories, they’re absolutely true and they’re pretty exciting,” said Dan Spivey, Lucky 757’s rhythm guitarist.
A decade earlier, VEER presented a lifetime achievement award to Harrell and fellow bandmate and Portsmouth native Tommy Facenda, who died just last year.
“I know this is nothing compared to his Rock & Rock Hall of Fame award, but he would post on Facebook the two awards side by side. To him, it meant an equal basis. He saw them both as important to him,” Maisey said.
“He would engage with people, he had no pretense,” added Debra Cunningham Persons with Hardcore Norfolk, a group dedicated to promoting and preserving the area’s punk and hardcore music scene. “He was the kindest and gentlest of men and was so willing to share his memories and anything he could to support local musicians … he was a local treasure.”
That local underground/counterculture scene really goes back to the Blue Caps and other music pioneers like Gary U.S. Bonds (who’s still kicking it at age 83). Both are featured in the “Hardcore Norfolk” documentary.
“[Harrell] was always a superstar to anybody that was part of that scene and was aware he had a local connection. We were just super proud of it,” Persons said.
Thinking back on all those calls over the years, Maisey said Wednesday how’d he always get a call from Harrell whenever a titan in the music industry would pass away.
“Whenever anyone would die like a Jeff Beck, I’d get a phone call from Dickie and would say ‘Mr. Maisey, Dickie Harrell here, we lost another great one today.”
Well the same can certainly be said about Dickie Harrell, a local treasure who left a mark well beyond Hampton Roads.