Spectropop remembers

Ersel Hickey (1934 - 2004)

Apart from the early pictures of Elvis Presley, the defining image of rock'n'roll is an oft-printed photograph of Ersel Hickey in action: a handsome twenty-something with a pompadour, holding his guitar and shaking his right leg. He was a prolific singer and songwriter, but his only real chart success was with "Bluebirds Over The Mountain" for the Beach Boys in 1968. Again with the exception of Elvis Presley, Ersel Hickey had the most distinctive name in rock'n'roll.

He had been born Ersel O'Hickey, the son of an Irish father and Canadian mother, in Brighton, New York, in 1934. He was named after the family doctor, Dr Ersel. Following his father's death four years later, his mother had a breakdown and their eight children lived in foster homes. When Hickey was 15, he travelled in a carnival with his sister, Chicky Evans, a stripper. In Columbus, Ohio, in 1952, he won a talent contest to sing like Johnnie Ray, but, around the same time, his sister was killed in a car accident. He came out of the business and worked for his brother, who was a locksmith.

In 1954 he became infatuated with Elvis Presley's first records. He developed his own rockabilly style and, with his brother's financial backing, recorded a single for Fine Records in Rochester, New York, 'Then I'll Be Happy'/'Baby You're No Good'. He performed locally and, when the Everly Brothers visited Rochester in 1957, Phil Everly advised him to write his own material. That night Hickey wrote 'Bluebirds Over The Mountain', taking the image of the bluebirds from 'Over The Rainbow'. His brother lent him $20 and he went to stay with his aunt in Buffalo. There, he went to Gene Laverne's Studio of the Stars, as Laverne had photographed his sister. For his own photo session, Hickey carried his gold guitar and wore an orange jacket with rust-coloured trousers, but the images were all black-and-white. Laverne, an exotic dancer and female impersonator, suggested the movements for the pictures. He recommended Mike Corda for a manager and Corda arranged a demo session at National Studios, New York where 'Bluebirds Over The Mountain' and 'Hangin' Around' were recorded.

A Buffalo DJ, George 'Hound Dog' Lorenz generated interest in Hickey when he played the acetate on air. Epic Records liked what they heard and, rather than re-record it, released it as it was. Hickey performed his 80-second song on the national television show American Bandstand, hosted by Dick Clark. 'Bluebirds Over The Mountain' went to number 75 on the US Top 100, although Hickey claimed later that it sold two million copies. Hickey's subsequent records, 'Goin' Down That Road' and 'You Never Can Tell', failed to sell but 'You Threw A Dart (And Hit Me In The Heart)' earned a UK release. In December 1959, Hickey covered Adam Faith's UK No 1 'What Do You Want?' for the US market. The following year he wrote 'A Little Bird Told Me' for LaVern Baker. 'The Millionaire', which he recorded for Apollo in 1962, was covered by Jackie Wilson. Hickey was married for a time and settled in New York, hawking his songs around the Brill Building. In 1964 he wrote a US Top Ten hit for the Serendipity Singers, 'Don't Let The Rain Come Down'. 'Bluebirds Over The Mountain' had been recorded by Ritchie Valens in 1958 and Bruce Johnston produced a version for the Beach Boys in 1968 featuring Mike Love's lead vocal and some Hendrix-styled guitar from Ed Carter. It was included on their 1969 album '20/20' and was also a UK and US hit single.

With the revival of interest in rockabilly, Hickey's own records were reissued, culminating in the Bear Family collection 'Bluebirds Over The Mountain' in 1985. Another collection, 'The Rockin' Bluebird', appeared in 2001.

Spencer Leigh - The Independent

Ersel O'Hickey (Ersel Hickey), singer/songwriter: born June 27, 1934 - died July 9, 2004