Up Close with George Tomsco
Legendary Lead Guitarist for the Fireballs
"It's easier when you're climbing a hill to look back and see your footprints and know how you got to where you are rather than know exactly at the bottom where each step is going to be before you even start."
"After the fest was over and we went back to Nokie's place in Elmira, Nokie [Edwards] and I set down and wrote an instro together."
[Interviewer’s Note: Although The Ventures and Dick Dale may have taken instrumental guitar rock to a new level in the early ‘60s, George Tomsco and The Fireballs are considered by many to be the earliest principal contibutors to what this interviewer likes to coin as "The Great, Guitar-Rock, Instrumental Band Explosion of the Early ‘60s." My desire to play the electric guitar was also sparked by The Fireballs in 1959 when a Kappa Sig frat brother of mine at the University of New Mexico turned me on to the band’s debut instrumental album release. And just like all of the other novice guitarists of the time, I was stunned by the Fireballs’ tightly measured and uniquely melodious, vibrant guitar-rock delivery piloted by George Tomsco. Until the Ventures made a strong presence in 1960, I really didn’t want to listen to anything else. So, within a couple of years of devouring that album, I formed The Knights and Tomsco’s "Bulldog" and "Panic Button" were and have always been at the top of the band’s playlist. . . . Tomsco, who is 62, single, and has no children, continues to live in Raton, New Mexico (where he was born), and he’s still very active with The Fireballs. In fact, the group has a new release entitled, "7th Street Legends" which can be purchased by going to: www.fireballs-original.com- (See review in Paterson’s "Jump, Jive and Harmonize" column in this issue.) Many thanks to George for taking time out of his busy schedule to do this interview.]
[Lance Monthly] What was it like growing up with your birth family? Were there a lot of musicians in your family?
George Tomsco My sister and I were blessed to have very good parents, and we experienced a great childhood. Our family was probably classified as lower middle class. My music was inherited through my mother’s side of the family. She did not have any training but when I got old enough to understand, it was apparent to me she had a natural "ear" for music. [She] could play (two fingers) simple melodies with harmonies on the piano.
[Lance Monthly] When you were a kid before rock made its presence, what kind of music did you dig and who were your favorite artists?
George Tomsco I listened to (pure) "western" music. Notice it was not called "country & western" or "country" music yet. Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams (Sr), Webb Pierce, Eddie Arnold, Faron Young, Lefty Frizzell, Chet Atkins, etc., and I listened to the pop music of the early 50's era: Harmonicats, Ames Bros., Les Paul & Mary Ford, and, of course, all the big bands of the time.
[Lance Monthly] How old were you when you first picked up the guitar and what kind was it?
George Tomsco [I was] nine years old [and] it was a Montgomery Wards brand (Harmony? Airline?)
[Lance Monthly] You're right that it wasn't referred to as country and western music. I got a good dose of western music from a friend who moved to Albuquerque in the '50s from Raton. His name is Jim Morgan and he and his father made their living working for the railroad. Jim's about a year older than you and me. If I recall, I'm sure he told me that he saw you and The Fireballs perform at a Raton High assembly before your initial release. Possibly you might have known him? And is it true that The Fireballs’ breakout popularity stemmed from this high school performance?
George Tomsco Seems to me [that] I remember the name (vaguely) but can't place him [and] yes . . . we decided to "go for it" whatever and wherever "it" was.
[Lance Monthly] Here are a few names of individuals who helped set the stage for early '60s rock in Albuquerque. Do any jog your memory? John Wagner (John Wagner Studios), Bennie Martinez (Hurricane Records), Tommy Bee (Tommy Bee Productions), Lanny Mintz, Don Lincoln, and Carl Bell (KQEO Radio jocks), Johnny "Appleseed" Salisbury (Johnny's Record Party), and Lindy Blaskey (Lavette Records and Booking Agency).
George Tomsco Yeah, John came from Clovis and also recorded at Norman Petty's studio with a band called the Counts if I remember right; (Bennie Martinez) Yep, Al Hurricane and the bunch recorded at Petty’s studio also; (Tommy Bee ) Hmmm . . . faint recall; I think we did an interview with Don Lincoln and Carl Bell; (Johnny Salisbury, and Lindy Blaskey) Yeah, we might have even done a gig through Blaskey.
[Lance Monthly] If western was your thing before rock made its debut, was your first group in this genre?
George Tomsco Before the Fireballs [became] a group, each one of us played western music with various bands at different times around the Raton area . . . mainly with the Night Riders and the Rabbit Ear Troubadours. When the Fireballs first started doing gigs, at least half of our material was western music [with] some of it now [being referred to as] rockabilly.
[Lance Monthly] I consider The Fireballs the first mainstream band that inspired the explosion of instrumental guitar rock groups during the early '60s. My band, The Knights, certainly was one of them. What was the official year in which the group was born, who was or were the primary motivator(s), and why instrumentals?
George Tomsco [In] Jan 1958. Actually I was the one that "pushed" to get all the guys together for a rock ‘n’ roll band. Chuck Tharp (vocalist) and myself were the first two to start working together. At first I was a "tune man" (melody writer) so instrumentals came easy for me. Chuck was a "lyric man," so together we wrote vocals. We started out by alternately recording instros and vocals, but the DJ's picked the instros instead of the vocals . . . why? Beats me.
[Lance Monthly] Certainly the jocks picked your instros because they were a fresh change to the puppy-love rock tunes that had run out of ideas. Aside from that, you wrote and produced a number of excellent instrumental melodies performed in a manner that had instant appeal. Two of my favorites, which The Knights covered in the early '60s (and still do) in our live performances, are "Panic Button" and "Bulldog." How did you come up with these melodies? Was it a situation where you were jamming with the boys at a particular rehearsal and it just happened, or did the melodies come to you in your head and you just sat down and picked them out on your guitar? In addition, the titles of the tracks themselves are about as good as they can be. How did you come up with those?
George Tomsco Thinking back, seems to me, "Panic Button" arrived simply by trial and error using a chord pattern for a melody form lead line; then I added an augmented chord on the front end because I liked the way that Chuck Berry's song "School Days" started (not to mistake the augmented chord inspiring the melody . . . not so).
About "Bulldog": I always liked the piano line played by Ray Charles in his recording of "What'd I Say." I sort of reversed that piano line and re-wrote it using a 7th melody that would sound good as a guitar lead. I worked on that in the car from Raton to Clovis on Thanksgiving Day 1959. We were on our way back to the studio and needed some new material to record the day after Thanksgiving.
Believe me, at the time I wrote these I was not able to just say, "I'm gonna write a guitar song and it will go like this . . . da, da, da, da" . . . no, not at all. It was a matter of just having the desire to start somewhere with one or two notes, then search and discover what the next two or three notes should be. [I would] then start from the first and see how those notes fit together and where I [would] go from here and kept repeating that process until I had a feeling that it was completed or finished. It's easier when you're climbing a hill to look back and see your footprints and know how you got to where you are rather than know exactly at the bottom where each step is going to be before you even start.
Norman Petty named "Panic Button"-- exactly what caused him to choose that title I have no idea!
The title, "Bulldog" came from a disc jockey of KICA radio in Clovis, NM. Upon listening to the playback after [we] recording it, he told Norman, "It sounds real bold . . . sort of like a bulldog coming at you." Consequently Norman named it "Bulldog." The disc jockey's radio name was "Ken Pepper"(real name being Homer Tankersley).
[Lance Monthly] You say that you decided to go for it and Norman Petty came into the picture. What was your impression of him in your first meeting? Were you convinced that he was right for you and The Fireballs or did you and the boys have to think long and hard about it?
George Tomsco First impression was drastically different than what I had in my mind from talking to him on the phone. I guess I thought he was supposed to be a short squatty man with the typical cigar hanging out of his mouth saying, "I'll make you a star, son." Instead he was a very nice clean cut and neat looking young man! What a pleasant surprise! [In addition] we didn't have to think about 'nothin'! . . . not even for a minute. If he was the guy behind Buddy Knox's "Party Doll," and Buddy Holly & the Crickets, that was plenty good for us!
[Lance Monthly] I know you knew the great Buddy Holly, and a lot has been written about him. Many have stated that he had a rocky business relationship with Norman and eventually broke ties with him. What's your take on this?
George Tomsco I know Norman dealt with Holly & the Crickets differently than with us. I think he was trying to keep them from blowing all their money and maybe was too strict on them business wise.
Finding that it caused a lot of conflict, I think by the time we had "Sugar Shack," he probably reconsidered his position and just paid us our royalty checks and let us do what we wanted even though he did give us some precautionary guidelines to consider.
[Lance Monthly] Do you think that he was justified?
George Tomsco As far as Holly & the Cricket goes, I have no idea, because I don't know what their actual business relationship was . . . it was none of our business! [Now] as far as our business relationship was concerned--yes, because I know he was only trying to help us.
[Lance Monthly] Did The Fireballs and The Crickets on occasion borrow each others' musicians for recordings and live performances and did you personally play on any of Holly's tracks?
George Tomsco After Holly's death, the Crickets and Fireballs did some performances together in the West Texas/Oklahoma/New Mexico area. The Fireballs as a whole group never did record with the Crickets as a whole group; [however], Jerry Allison might have used one or two of us on a few sessions along the way. It was about 1964/65 when Norman used the Fireballs as a group to enhance the music tracks of the Holly "Apartment Tapes." My first question to Norman was "Why not use the Crickets for the project?" Norman's response was that they were not available, so we weren't going to say "no" to Norman.
[Lance Monthly] I have to think that The Ventures jumped on your bandwagon since they followed shortly after you. What were your feelings about them when they came on the scene with "Walk Don't Run?" Are you a fan of The Ventures and did The Fireballs ever tour with them?
George Tomsco I was really impressed with their delivery and professionalism of their record. Yes, I'm a fan of the Ventures & Nokie Edwards. As you can see, I'm headed that way to perform on his show. [Reviewer’s note: George left for Oregon on Thursday, 11/14/02 to perform at Nokie Edward’s Northwest Music Fest] [And] no, we never have had the opportunity to be on the same tour together.
[Lance Monthly] Few (if any) successful instrumental bands such as The Fireballs ever crossed over with a vocal hit. How did Jimmy Gilmer fit into the picture and was it Petty's concept for the collaboration?
George Tomsco Yes, it was Norman that suggested we audition Gilmer, which we did on a Sunday afternoon. Of course, we saw that he certainly was a good singer, so he came back to Clovis two days later, on Tuesday, and we started rehearsing immediately for the Canadian tour we had booked.
[Lance Monthly] How long did you stay with Norman Petty and did you eventually sign with another producer?
George Tomsco We were signed with Norman for eleven years, and we worked with a producer named Glen Pace of UNI records for a short period of time, but don't think we actually signed for a period of time, [with the exception being a] project recording under the name of COLORADO.
[Lance Monthly] Has the Fender guitar always been your favorite electric guitar?
George Tomsco Yes . . . I started out using a strat with our first recordings of "Fireball" & "I Don't Know," but then went to the Jazzmaster as soon as they became available on the market, from "Torquay" onward. I didn't get along with the middle pick-up in the strat. It kept interferring with the way I played. It seemed to me to be in the way. The Jazzmaster had only two pick-ups, which suited me fine.
[Lance Monthly] Some of your original members have moved on. What are they doing today and why did they leave?
George Tomsco The first to leave was Dan Trammell, our rhythm guitar player [in the] fall of 1959. He had a real bad case of asthma, but I'm sure the main reason was [that] his father was a preacher and didn't like Dan playing with a rock 'n’ roll band, and wanted him to quit. As of today, Dan is and has been the owner of a very successful tire shop in Tyler, Texas. [The] Texas Tire Company I think is the name.
Chuck Tharp was next to opt out [in the] fall of 1960. He was our "stand up" lead vocalist. (At the time we started the band he didn't play guitar. Then when Danny left, he left his guitar and amp, and I helped Chuck learn chords and to play rythm.) I think the reason was because we were getting airplay on our instrumentals and not on the vocals, and I think he felt like he was "incidental" of [the] importance to the band. We weren't being very busy at the time and most of us were really low on cash, so I think he just got discouraged. Today he is retired and living in Clovis, New Mexico, and we've played a few jobs together.
The last two have been in Lubbock, Texas . . . one for the Fireballs induction into theWest Texas Walk Of Fame, 2001, and [one] for the Legends of West Texas Rock & Roll concert [on] Aug. 31, 2002.
Next to opt out was Eric Budd [who was our] drummer [in] 1962. He got drafted into the Army, and we recruited Doug Roberts to fill the slot. Doug did a real good job for us, and by the time Eric got out we really wanted to keep Doug. We had already cut and had a number one hit with Doug drumming on "Sugar Shack," and many other follow-up chart records. When we first started the Fireballs, Eric was working with Elco Metal Products: a metal door and frame manufacturer.
He left that job to join The Fireballs, but then after [completing] his army service, he went back to work with them [Elco]. Today [he] is one of the key people in the front office, and I think ready to retire.
Then in 1974, Stan Lark, our bass player, decided to move back to New Mexico and start a music store, which never materialized. Instead he bought a nightclub, but eventually wound up going to Las Vegas, Nevada with his country band, Willow Springs and was very successful in the casino circuit. As fate would have it, both Stan and I have wound up where we started . . . in our own hometown, Raton, New Mexico and are still doing performances together with two other non-original members.
[Lance Monthly] How was the Nokie Edward fest? [Interviewer’s note: reference is again made to the Nokie Edwards Northwest Music Winterfest in Oregon that took place on the weekend of 11/18/02.]
George Tomsco The attendance could have been better, even though I thought it was very well co-promoted by Blue Wade Productions and Kemco Productions. Perhaps this being the first "winter fest" (emphasis on "winter"), I'll bet the next one will cook! Nokie was awesome (naturally) and there was a great bunch of talented guitar players there . . . and then there was me! After the fest was over and we went back to Nokie's place in Elmira, Nokie and I set down and wrote an instro together. That’s the first time that's ever happened, and I think it's really a fine one! I wrote the verse(s) and Nokie wrote the chorus/bridge . . . so cool! I discussed what I thought the title of it should be with Nokie, but we actually didn't decide or agree, so guess I'll have to keep it to myself until we do. I'm hoping we can record it together sometime. It would raise George Tomsco up a level !
[Lance Monthly] To have caught you and Nokie performing at his fest in Oregon would certainly have been a "right on" experience for me. Both of you are standout legends who made a major instrumental contribution to the world of music that put a new, intelligent, and refreshing sparkle into rock'n'roll. I'm hoping I see the day when those, who call the shots at the Rock'n'roll Hall of Fame, recognize this incredible feat.
George Tomsco Yeah . . . it's always better if musicians (Nokie and me) have "representation" going to bat for them on this kind of thing . . . maybe like Dick Stewart?!!! It's very awkward for a player to do this without sounding like we are "tooting our own horn." Also Norman Petty and his studio should be listed because of his success with Buddy Holly & the Crickets, the String-a-longs, Buddy Knox, Jimmy Bowen, the Fireballs, etc.
[Lance Monthly] George, I’ve invited some of your fans that were greatly influenced by your music contributions to offer some of their own questions. Although you’ve touched on some of these in this interview, I do think these questions are very good ones and are quite worthy of some detail:
[ George Feist] Aka The Duke of Discs, Fresno, California: How did it come to pass that The Fireballs were "led" by Jimmy Gilmer?
George Tomsco Norman was the one who made the Crickets into Buddy Holly & the Crickets. It was a marketing move to have records out by each name and sell more product. Anyhow, unbeknownst to us (or I should say to me), Norman arranged for "Sugar Shack" to be released as Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs. I don't ever remember Norman discussing the subject with us/me before initiating the action of using that labeling. A lot of the Dj's just said "Jimmy Gilmer" and left off the Fireballs.
[George Feist] Was he a player or did the studios just have you guys back him on his "Sugar Shack" LP?
George Tomsco When Chuck Tharp quit, Jimmy took over the position and was the Fireballs’ lead singer and rhythm guitar player. The "Sugar Shack" album was a Fireballs "group" release.
[George Feist] Did you have a falling out when his head got big with the number one song of the year, "Sugar Shack," or did he and the group just go their separate ways?
George Tomsco Oh heavens no, we were all one unit, and even though Gilmer did the lead singing on Sugar Shack, and he was singled out by name in the artist title, "Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs," we worked together from 1960 through 1970 . . . 10 years. In a sense Norman did accomplish the two identities out of one, but it just didn't happen as big for us as it did for Holly & the Crickets.
[George Feist]How did you and the band feel about overdubbing Buddy Holly's New York Apartment recordings?
George Tomsco At the time, we were glad to be doing the project, but didn't see that it would become so controversial or any different than recording for an artist that might have come to the studio for a session, without a ready made band to back him/her.
[George Feist] Did Norman Petty do it for the money or did he really want to carry Buddy's memory for the fans?
George Tomsco Of the two choices, I would say, without a doubt, for the preservation of the Holly legacy and for the fans. Norman was proud of his success with Holly & the Crickets. It took both of them together for that success. Norman had money . . . he wasn't "in need."
[George Feist] I have the box record set and I really like the feel of Buddy by himself but you and the Fireballs did a fine job on the overdubs.
George Tomsco I understand both sides of that statement, and I can agree with both too! Some people prefer the undubbed, and some think the Fireballs’ dub-ins was an improvement. I must say that if I would have been "in charge" I would have played differently on my guitar than what Norman wanted . . . but nevertheless, I wasn't, so it turned out the way it did.
[George Feist] Thanks!
[ Jeff Green] The Pickniks, Cleavland, Ohio: I'd like to know if the white Fender Jazzmaster you're using is the same guitar you were playing back in the '60s.
George Tomsco Nope, unfortunately this one's a newer model.
[Jeff Green] I read that you were playing a Stratocaster on The Fireballs' hit, "Torquay" and that you soon after aquired a Fender Jazzmaster with gold anodised pickguard from a music shop up in Trinidad, Colorado that you played on "Bulldog."
George Tomsco The facts are: I bought my first strat from Hinkle's Music Store in Trinidad, Co. and recorded our first two song session with it . . . "Fireball"(instro) & "I Don't Know"(vocal). I then traded that Strat in for my first Jazzmaster (with gold anodised pick guard), [after] which we went to Clovis for our second recording session and recorded"Torquay" . . . then "Bulldog," etc. etc.
[Jeff Green] I also read this Jazzmaster was stolen and that you purchased another Jazzmaster that was identical.
George Tomsco Yes, it was stolen out of our trailer in New York City, so I went and bought two new Jazzmasters at Manny's Music Store in NY. I played one, and Jimmy Gilmer played my spare.
[Jeff Green] The guitar you play now is white but has a tortoise shell pickguard. What happened to the second Jazzmaster? Is this the guitar that I see Jimmy Gilmer playing?
George Tomsco Yes, that was my spare Jazzmaster.
[Jeff Green] Was your current Jazzmaster used on for instance, "Sugar Shack," "Rik-A-Tik," and "Quite a Party?"
George Tomsco Nope, the songs you name were recorded with the earlier Jazzmaster. My current Jazzmaster is a 1990 (I think). The two earlier Jazzmasters I either traded or sold (big mistake!). For awhile, I tried using a Gibson 335, and a telecaster, [and] I still have the "Tele."
[TooFastJim] The Nebulas, Harford, CT: I'd like to know what bands, artists, and guitar players you (and the rest of the band) listened to for inspiration.
George Tomsco We mainly listened to "western" music (it wasn't called "country" in those days): Hank Williams (Sr.); Jimmie Rogers ("The Singing Brakeman"); Webb Pierce; Hank Thompson; Lefty Frizzell; Faron Young; Eddy Arnold; Chet Atkins; Pop music of the day; Les Paul (& Mary Ford); Guitar Boogie Smith; all the big bands; The Harmonicats, etc.
[TooFastJim] In addition, what is your opinion of the legacy that The Fireballs have had on surf/instro throughout the years?
George Tomsco Great! The first time we were ever referred to as being a surf band was on one of our appearances when Dick Clark labeled us as being [one] and we didn't understand what he meant!
[TooFastJim] Many of today's bands still cite The Fireballs as an influence and often cover your songs.
George Tomsco Wonderful! I hope the continual, upcoming, young generation(s) never forget the Fireballs, and always cover our recordings! Thank you and God bless you young surfers!
[Lance Monthly] Sixties style instrumental guitar rock is now referred to as "surf rock," and although this genre is experiencing a steady fan-base growth of young adults, do you think that it might go mainstream again?
George Tomsco Hmmm . . . I doubt that it will ever go mainstream again, but that would be an absolute blessing if it would! Realistically, it may see some steady growth in size, which is also a plus.
[Lance Monthly] When I think of surf rock instros, and not '60s instrumental rock, Dick Dale comes to mind as the founding father. Have you met and toured with Dale and what is your take on his double picking style?
George Tomsco Unfortunately, I have not met Dick Dale yet, but I certainly hold in the highest esteem the confidence in his delivery of playing and as a guitarist !
[Lance Monthly] Thank you George for taking time out of your busy schedule for this interview. You're a good man. Any final thoughts?
George Tomsco Yeah . . . can't thank you enough for being interested in the Fireballs/George Tomsco after all these years. Your interest is what gives us early players our perpetuation and lifeblood in time passing. Thank you [and] blessings to you all!