Up Close With Chuck Tharp
The Original Fireball’s Vocalist
Interviewer’s note: As any fan of The Fireballs knows, this group is the first rock-and-roll band that had originally made its mark instrumentally with such hits as “Torquay,” “Panic Button,” and “Bull Dog” in the late ‘50s and then jump into the vocal market with even greater success. In fact, “Sugar Shack” was designated by Billboard as the leading number one U.S. hit for all of 1963! But the truth is, vocals sung by Chuck Tharp and not guitar instrumentals performed by George Tomsco were what these two original members of The Fireballs had in mind during the band’s outset. Says Tharp, “It was mostly rock ‘n’ roll vocals and Jerry Lee Lewis was a big influence on our music.”
Chuck Tharp has been battling lung cancer for a few years now and his detailed events of his early relationship with The Fireballs were, understandably, difficult to recall; but his wit and pleasant demeanor made the phone interview a joy. I do wish him well.
Many thanks to my compadre, Charles “Chas” Pike, for paving the way to this interview:
[Lance Monthly] Where and when were you born, Chuck?
Chuck Tharp I was born in Ysleta, Texas, in 1941.
[Lance Monthly]How many brothers and sisters do you have?
Chuck Tharp I have four brothers and one sister. I was the youngest. Only one brother, Marty, is still living and travels the world as a preacher.
[Lance Monthly]Did you go to high school in Ysleta?
Chuck Tharp No, I went to high school in Raton, New Mexico.
[Lance Monthly]When did you move to Raton?
Chuck Tharp 1957. That was the year I became a Fireball as a vocalist.
[Lance Monthly]Were there other musicians in your family?
Chuck Tharp Well, my mother and father played guitar. I guess you could say we were all a guitar-pickin’ bunch. There really wasn’t anything else to do but to play country music. My oldest brother, Sandy, was the rowdy one in the family who spent his life as a rodeo cowboy. He was the only one in the family who didn’t sing or play an instrument. He died from a brain tumor that was caused by a guy in a pool hall who snuck up behind him and smacked him in the head with a pool stick. Next to the oldest was Jimmy, who was an excellent steel-guitar picker. He was a great country-guitar picker and even played for Bob Wills. He died of a heart attack. The third oldest was my sister, Dotty, who had a really great singing voice. We all thought of her as our second mom. She passed away from a rare form of cancer. The fourth oldest was my brother Gene and he played good rhythm guitar. He did a stint in Vietnam and was a Green Beret. Against his better judgment, he took off in a snowstorm in Colorado Springs in his private plane and shortly after takeoff, flew it into the ground at about 280 miles per hour. My brother, Marty, who is the fifth oldest, is a bass and guitar player and, as I said earlier, travels the world as a preacher.
[Lance Monthly]What was your life like while you were living with your parents?
Chuck Tharp My brothers and I worked on [various] cattle ranches near the Hobbs, New Mexico, area while our Mom took care of us.
[Lance Monthly]You say your mom took care of you. Where was your dad during that time?
Chuck Tharp Well, my Dad died when I was about seven-years-old. He gave me my first lessons on guitar.
[Lance Monthly] So you met George Tomsco at Raton High in 1957?
Chuck Tharp I had been in the Navy for a little over a year and when I returned to Raton in 1957, George and I started The Fireballs. Then we added Danny Trammell on rhythm guitar, Stan Lark on stand-up bass, and Eric Budd on drums. All I did was sing. Later on, Danny got asthma in Minnesota while we were doing one-nighters, which gave me about ten days to learn his rhythm parts. Today, Danny owns a bunch of tire stores in Tyler, Texas, and is doing very well.
[Lance Monthly] That would mean that you were in the Navy when you were about sixteen. I guess age wasn’t a problem, right?
Chuck Tharp No, it wasn’t a problem for me. I went back in after I left The Fireballs a few years later for another three years. I was a Second Class Petty Officer.
[Lance Monthly]Was it The Fireballs’ intention to begin specifically as a guitar rock instrumental band?
Chuck Tharp No, it was mostly rock ‘n’ roll vocals and Jerry Lee Lewis was a big influence on our music. In fact, he was the reason for our name. When we first played at Raton High, we did some “Killer” tunes, including “Great Balls of Fire.” Stan’s cousin thought that we did it so well that Fireballs became our name.
[Lance Monthly] Who’s the one who made contact with Norman Petty?
Chuck Tharp It was George. He was the moving force for the band.
[Lance Monthly] When you first arrived at Petty’s studio, were vocals or instrumentals on your mind?
Chuck Tharp When we started out at Normans [1957 thru 1959] we recorded both vocals and instrumentals. George was so good on the guitar that we all wanted him to just do it, if you know what I mean. That’s when we recorded most of our hit instrumentals. We used instrumentals as the b-side to our vocals on a couple of 45s: “Cry Baby” b/w “Torquay” [Kapp Records] and “I Don’t Know” b/w “Fireball” [Top Rank Records], which was our first release. The instrumentals took off, but the vocals didn’t do so well.
[Lance Monthly] So in the beginning, when The Fireballs performed live, it was a mixture of vocals and instrumentals, right?
Chuck Tharp Actually, it was more vocals than instrumentals even though it was back in the time when instrumentals were hot.
[Lance Monthly] Did you enjoy your stint on the Dick Clark show?
Chuck Tharp It was a lot of fun and Dick Clark was easy to get along with. The kids danced to everything we did, which was mostly instrumentals. I do recall doing “Long, Long Pony Tail,” “Bull Dog,” “Cry Baby,” and “Torquay” though.
[Lance Monthly] Did you ever meet Buddy Holly?
Chuck Tharp Oh yes. He was absolutely one of the greatest guys you’ll ever run across in life. Everything [good] that you would think Buddy Holly would be, he was. He was a very nice, straight-as-an-arrow type of guy. The other guys in his band, J.I. and Joe B., were all terrific people, too. Buddy and I were pals and we hung out together.
[Lance Monthly] What was it like working with Norman Petty?
Chuck Tharp He was a cool dude. He and his wife, Vi, were the neatest people you would ever run across. Norman knew everything about music. He knew how to use the controls in the studio very effectively. The guy was just the best sound-studio man that I’ve ever run across, and I’ve run across some good ones.
[Lance Monthly] Did you ever meet Buddy Knox?
Chuck Tharp Oh yes! He was a great guy and all he wanted to do was just play music. He was a super nice guy like Buddy. He moved to Canada and opened a club called The Cave and did real good with it.
[Lance Monthly] How did Jimmy Gilmer fit into the picture?
Chuck Tharp Jimmy moved into the picture in the early ‘60s after I began spending more time with the military. Petty and the rest of the band members weren’t too happy about that. Norman then brought Jimmy Gilmer in the studio and had the Fireballs back him on “Sugar Shack” [Dot Records] and he did a hell of job on it. [Interviewer’s note: According to George Tomsco, Chuck left the Fireballs because the band’s instrumental hits made the group’s vocals insignificant.]
[Lance Monthly] Tomsco told me that when Vi added that little organ riff to “Sugar Shack,” that it ruined the song.
Chuck Tharp Yep. We all thought that that was the worst thing that we had ever heard!
[Lance Monthly] When I first heard it, I thought the riff was the hook of all hooks, and that it was going to be one of the primary additions that would make the song go.
Chuck Tharp We didn’t think so.
[Lance Monthly] But then that’s why it’s so important to work with a great commercial mind like that of Norman’s. He was a master of hooks, where as most musicians might not have a clue. In the case of “Sugar Shack,” which was written by my good friend Keith McCormack of The String-A-Longs, it was the number one song for all of 1963!
Chuck Tharp And when “Bottle of Wine” came out, we thought that that one was going to bomb, too!
[Lance Monthly] Was Gilmer from Raton?
Chuck Tharp No, he was from Amarillo, Texas. Jimmy was a cool dude, but please don’t take me wrong, because I love Jimmy to death. But he could be the “superfide” pain in the ass. His attitude was kind of ornery. He would get involved a little too much in the business while we were trying to bring him in, and yet, he would fight it. And so it got to be a real pain in the butt. After “Bottle of Wine” in about 1967, he just moved on. But he’s doing real well now with country artist Brad Paisley and I’m really tickled to death with his success.
[Lance Monthly] So when you left the Fireballs for a full enlistment in the Army, did you perform in a group?
Chuck Tharp I had a band on a ship that I was on. Then I ended up in California and was in a band called Open Road. [Interviewer’s note: According to George Tomsco, Chuck worked for Dot Records in shipping during much of his stay in California and was not pleased when he spent the majority of his time mailing out thousands of copies of “Sugar Shack” instead of touring with the group as a member of the Fireballs, basking in the glory of this enormous hit. “Sugar Shack” was Billboard’s number one hit for all of 1963, breaking the record for longest time at the number one slot (five weeks).]
[Lance Monthly] Was Open Road a country band?
Chuck Tharp No, it was rock ‘n’ roll.
[Lance Monthly] So somewhere along the way you got married, right?
Chuck Tharp Yep. A couple of times. I got divorced from my second wife about fifteen years ago. I’ve got four daughters spread out all over the country and about thirteen grandchildren.
[Lance Monthly] So you’re living in Clovis right now. How long have you been living there?
Left to Right: Stan Lark, bass; Eric Budd, drums; George Tomsco, lead guitar; Chuck Tharp, rhythm guitar and vocals (circa 1959)
Chuck Tharp I moved here in about 1968.
[Lance Monthly] Oh, so you’ve been living in Clovis for quite some time. What is it about Clovis that you like?
Chuck Tharp Not much. But it’s been a place I’ve always liked hanging out in.
[Lance Monthly] So you’ve been smoking cigarettes all your life like me?
Chuck Tharp Pretty much all my life.
[Lance Monthly] I guess that was the thing to do for the teens in the ‘50s, right?
Chuck Tharp Yep.
[Lance Monthly] So would you say that that has had a lot to do with the affliction that you have right now?
Chuck Tharp Oh yeah!
[Lance Monthly] When did you find out that you had lung cancer?
Chuck Tharp That was about a year and a half ago. The doctor diagnosed it during a regular check up.
[Lance Monthly] Did he tell you to quit smoking?
Chuck Tharp Oh yeah!
[Lance Monthly] What was your reply?
Chuck Tharp Good luck! Heck! I’ve been smoking for fifty-seven damn years! What was I suppose to do? It’s just one of them stupid things!
[Lance Monthly] Do you think it would make any difference if you quit?
Chuck Tharp I don’t think so.
[Lance Monthly] I smoke about a half pack a day. What do you smoke?
Chuck Tharp Try about three. First thing I do when I wake up in the morning is grab a cigarette and it’s one right after another the rest of the day. Marlboro is my brand.
[Lance Monthly] So are you living alone and still jamming on the guitar?
Chuck Tharp Oh yeah! I play a lot!
[Lance Monthly] What kind of axe do you have?
Chuck Tharp I’ve got a Yamaha. It’s an acoustic. That’s my main axe. I spend a lot of time playing and writing songs. In fact, I’m working on about four or five songs right now.
[Lance Monthly] Do you have a publisher?
Chuck Tharp Oh yeah! I’m working with a firm in L.A. and one in Nashville, and they help me move my songs along. I wrote a song for a friend of mine in Nashville named Kamall and he recorded it in England with the London Philharmonic, which thrilled me to no end. He has this great, great voice. Also, the closest to a hit I wrote was “Sweet Country Woman,” sung by Johnny Duncan that was release in about 1976. It was a number two hit on the country charts.
[Lance Monthly] What do you think about rock ‘n’ roll today if you can call it rock ‘n’ roll?
Chuck Tharp Rock ‘n’ roll today is a little strange, so I do more country now than rock ‘n’ roll. About every Wednesday night, I go down to a club called Kelly’s and sit in with the band.
[Lance Monthly] And I’m sure they all introduce you as an original member of The Fireballs?
Chuck Tharp Oh yeah!
[Lance Monthly] Hey, it’s been a pleasure visiting with you, Chuck. You know if it weren’t for The Fireballs, I probably wouldn’t be pickin’ today. In fact, “Bull Dog” was the first song I learned on the guitar. I recon I’ll have to drop by your place and do some pickin’ with you.
Chuck Tharp Oh yeah! You come on out now. Would love to do it.
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