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"I've never really told my story to anyone like this before," Gean notes from the basement of the oldies branch of Wax Trax Records, his unofficial headquarters. "Maybe it's something I've been wanting to do for a long time."
Gean's autobiographical sketch begins in Port Arthur, Texas, where he was born in October 1942. The family was musical: His mother was an accomplished pianist and singer, and although his dad couldn't carry a tune in a bucket ("He always said that he sang in the key of R," Gean says), he worked for a time as a jukebox salesman and Victrola repairman. "One of my first memories as a little kid is of sitting down in front of the family record player and listening to those old 78s," he rhapsodizes. "I just loved music." His mother, in particular, encouraged this interest. In November 1945, when Ralph was only three, she took him into a studio to cut his first recordings--a cappella renditions of "Jesus Loves Me," "Have Thine Own Way, Lord" and two other traditionals. "I still have the record," Gean reveals, "and to me, there's a parallel between it and Elvis. In October of that year, just a month before I made my record, he made his first public appearance during a talent contest in Tupelo, Mississippi. So he made his live debut before me, but I made my studio debut before him." He pauses before adding, "Of course, he's sold millions."
Both Presley and Gean were raised on a Southern blend of hillbilly airs and rhythm-and-blues stompers. By 1956, Gean was so in love with the hybrid of these genres--rock and roll--that he obtained his first guitar and, after figuring out the ax's rudiments, began making up novelty songs with which he entertained his schoolmates. No provocation is required to spur Gean to belt out one such rhyme, sung to the tune of "Home on the Range:" "Oh, give me a home where the teachers don't roam/And the schoolbooks are all packed away/Where seldom is heard the principal's word/And the schoolroom is closed for the day."
During the years he attended Thomas Jefferson Sr. High (Janis Joplin's alma mater), Gean regularly played for passersby at a neighborhood shopping mall and made occasional appearances on a hometown radio station; he was billed as "Port Arthur's own version of Pat Boone" because of his skill at rendering such lachrymose favorites as "Love Letters in the Sand." These activities didn't help his scholastic record, and he eventually dropped out of school at age seventeen to join the Air Force. Within weeks, he says, he realized that the military wasn't for him ("I like to be more diversified in what clothes I wear," he explains) and used a loophole in the rules to win his release. Shortly thereafter, his family--which was in desperate financial straits as a result of a heart attack that left the Gean patriarch almost entirely debilitated--moved to public housing in Houston, and Ralph moved with them.
Upon settling in Houston, Gean landed a job as an office clerk, and once he'd earned enough cash to spiff up his wardrobe, he made the rounds of local music companies in the hopes of scoring a recording contract. He eventually made a single, "Here I Am," under the auspices of Ray Doggett Productions; among his sidemen were B.J. Thomas (of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" fame) and Thomas's then-band, the Triumphs. Unfortunately, the result of these labors never saw the light of day, at least to Gean's knowledge. "I have a copy of the A-side, but they never called me in to do the B-side," he says. "I don't remember if they ever gave me a reason why not."
His luck improved in 1962, when Charlie Booth, owner of Lori Records, asked Gean to record "Weeping Willow Tree," a song written by Gean's mother, and one of his own tracks, "Experimental Love." The main backing band on the session was Freddie Koenig and the Jades, supplemented by a female vocal trio known as the Lively Sisters and future country star Mickey Gilley on piano. The record hit stores in the early Sixties and enjoyed modest success throughout the region. Embol-dened by this response, a new company, Gallant Records, financed another recording: "One Night in San Antonio," also written by Gean's mother, backed with "Hey, Dr. Casey," a Gean-penned novelty tribute to the TV series Ben Casey. Gean has reworked this last piece repeatedly over the years. For a while, it was "Hey, Dr. Marcus Welby," and later "Disco Doctor." Today it's "Hey, Dr. Kevorkian," a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.
Too bad "Hey, Dr. Casey" didn't please more radio programmers. "I understand it got a little airplay," Gean says, "but by the time it finally came out, we were in the middle of Beatlemania. All I ever heard was Beatles, Beatles, Beatles." Although Gean expresses a fondness for the Fab Four, he blames the British Invasion that followed in the band's wake with washing away his career. Suddenly, old-style rock and roll wasn't hip anymore, and neither was Gean. He put up $200 of his own dough to record two more songs--his own "Electricity," and "I'm Counting on You," from Presley's first album--but he couldn't convince any entrepreneurs to press or distribute them. As a result, Gean says, "'One Night in San Antonio' was my last release. So far, anyway."