They were acclaimed as pioneers of the surf sound alongside Dick Dale, Link Wray and The Ventures, but The Fireballs (from Raton, New Mexico) – who enjoyed a US chart-topper with Sugar Shack in 1963 – had no idea what the term actually meant.
Nevertheless, their signature melodic instrumentals Torquay and Bulldog, anchored by George Tomsco’s guitar – replete with “bubbly spring chamber or echo sound” – remain seminal recordings of the genre that have secured the group their place in the annals of rock ‘n’ roll.
In 1957, Tomsco and his 17-year-old friends Chuck Tharp, Stan Lark, and Danny Trammell hooked up with the slightly older (at 19) Eric Budd, and The Fireballs were formed in all but name.
A year later the group auditioned for Buddy Holly‘s then manager and producer, Norman Petty, and received a publishing deal on the spot. They began recording shortly thereafter.
The Fireballs experienced their first flush of success in 1959 when Torquay and Bulldog – both dominated by Tomsco’s fretwork – reached #39 and #24 respectively on the Billboard listings.
Tharp quit the group in 1960, aggrieved that DJs weren’t playing the vocal sides of their singles. Petty suggested they replace him with Jimmy Gilmer, a singer and pianist from Amarillo, Texas, who brought enhanced charisma, polish and professionalism to the group.
Now billed as Jimmy Gilmer & The Fireballs, they hit paydirt in 1963 with their version of Sugar Shack, written by Keith McCormack of The String A Longs.
The song stayed at #1 for five weeks, and although they had further hits with Daisy Petal Pickin’ the same year, and Bottle Of Wine in 1967, it would be their apotheosis – largely thanks to the British Invasion.
Gilmer left The Fireballs in 1969 to pursue a career on the corporate side of the industry.
The Fireballs continued performing with original members George Tomsco, Stan Lark and Chuck Tharp until Tharp died of cancer in 2006. Jimmy Gilmer returned as lead vocalist and the band carried on into the new millennium.