Although he never achieved the renown among rockabilly fans of his predecessor, Cliff Gallup, Johnny Meeks was with Gene Vincent's Blue Caps far longer, and contributed an original song that ended up almost as much a key part of Vincent's repertoire, "Say Mama," as anything that Gallup played on. Meeks was also a member of the Champs, the quasi-instrumental outfit famous for "Tequila," and later played with Merle Haggard, Michael Nesmith, and other rock and country stars of the 1960s and 1970s. Johnny Meeks was born in Laurens, SC, and took up the guitar at an early age. He first sang professionally on WLBG in Laurens, and joined Country Earl & the Circle E Ranch Gang, based in Greenville, SC, during the mid-'50s. They were an up-and-coming regional act, broadcasting live every week on WESC radio, and also had a live weekly television show on Channel 13 in Asheville, NC.
Meeks might have remained in country music but for the troubles of a West Coast-based rock & roll outfit. Gene Vincent's band, the Blue Caps, suddenly found itself without a lead guitarist late in 1956, when Cliff Gallup exited the lineup for the second time. The Blue Caps went through a period of inactivity, owing to a dispute with Vincent's management, but in early 1957 they needed a new lead guitarist. It was the band's rhythm guitarist, Paul Peek, who had played pedal steel guitar in the Circle E Ranch Gang before joining the Blue Caps in late 1956, who told Vincent of Meeks' playing. Peek convinced Vincent to drive to one of the band's gigs and audition Meeks. At that time, the guitarist was playing country music, and his experience of rock & roll had primarily taken the form of listening to Elvis Presley's pre-RCA singles and seeing "the Hillbilly Cat" (as Elvis had been known at the time) performing in South Carolina. He liked rock & roll, however, and took the opportunity offered by Vincent, quitting the Circle E Ranch Boys and joining the Blue Caps.
Johnny Meeks played a very different style of guitar from Cliff Gallup. A country player who prided himself on his precision as much as the excitement he generated, he played in a much cleaner manner, more of a traditional virtuoso, especially in the studio, than a spontaneous improvisor in Gallup's manner -- not that Meeks couldn't get into the spirit of a good live show, and the Blue Caps' stage performances were still frantic, bracing events. This appeared to be what Vincent wanted in his records; the band also abandoned the upright bass for the electric bass at around this time, and all of these changes gave the Blue Caps a somewhat tamer sound.
Meeks began recording with the Blue Caps in June of 1957, after months of playing with them on the road. He remained with the band for more than 18 months through the Record Date album cut late in 1958, playing some good rock & roll along the way. Near the end of that time, he provided Vincent with an original song that was one of the singer's last great Capitol sides, "Say Mama." Johnny Meeks may not have played on Vincent's most famous or groundbreaking sides -- that honor went to Cliff Gallup -- but he was the guitar player who was with him the longest and most visibly, for several complete tours of the United States and Canada as well as Australia, and for the group's appearance in the film Hot Rod Gang.
After the Blue Caps disbanded in late 1958, Meeks organized a group called the Tune Toppers and played nightclubs in the Los Angeles area, including the Palomino for a couple of months. He then joined the Champs, touring with them for six months. He also did a two-week tour playing lead guitar for vocalist Jimmy Clanton, and shot a band scene in the movie All the Fine Young Cannibals, a film based loosely on the life of trumpet legend Chet Baker, starring Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood. Meeks was drafted soon after that movie performance, and was stationed at Fort Bliss, TX.
In the decades following his glory days with the Blue Caps and the Champs, Johnny Meeks returned to country music and became a successful working musician, playing with Leroy Van Dyke, Lynn Anderson, Bob Luman, David Houston, and, most notably, Merle Haggard, with whom he worked for years. He made a couple of brief forays into rock music -- he can be seen playing behind Elvis Presley on a couple of songs ("Little Egypt," "Big Love, Big Heartache") in the 1964 movie Roustabout, and eight years after that, Meeks spent six months playing with Michael Nesmith's band, and appeared on his Tantamount to Treason album in 1972. His later country music engagements included gigs with Barbara Mandrell and the Osborne Brothers. Meeks has remained active into the 21st century, one of the last rockabilly stars of the 1950s to continue working in music. Based in his hometown of Laurens, SC, he's an elder statesman of rock & roll, and still collects accolades from admiring guitar players for work he did on record a half century earlier. ~ Bruce Eder