Tommy Facenda – “High School USA”


Introduction to Tommy Facenda

Tommy Facenda was also known during his heyday as “Bubba” especially when he joined Gene Vincent’s band Blue Caps band in 1957. Facenda left Blue Caps to start a solo career as a singer and guitarist. When his first single “Little Baby” (b/w “You Are My Everything”) sank without a trace, his next single “High School U.S.A.” required Facenda to sing 28 regional versions of song – it’s because each version represents the regional high school names from various states. The song became a Top 40 hit in 1959. Facenda couldn’t follow his hit, joining the ranks of one-hit wonders. In later years he served in the army before becoming a fireman. Facenda also did some acting for the stage and reunited with the Blue Caps for national and international touring.

Early life and career; and being member of the Blue Caps

Tommy Facenda was born in Porstmouth, Virginia on November 10, 1939; he is of Italian descent.

Facenda’s showbiz career started in 1956, when opportunity knocked for him — literally.

His friend Gene Vincent came knocking at his bedroom door. Vincent invited him to go on tour as a band. This would lead to the formation of their own group the Blue Caps in 1957. The name of the band was quite ambiguous — it’s either the “blue cap” referring to the enlisted sailors in the US Navy, or the blue cap that Facenda himself wore.

Anyway, Facenda and another member Paul Peek became the Blue Caps’ “the clapper boys” due to their distinctive hand-clapping that had become the band’s trademark. Soon after the moment Facenda joined the Blue Caps, he was given the nickname “Bubba,” which has had stuck with him ever since.

Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps went on to have hits of their own, but one song stood out — “Be-Bop-A-Lula.” The song (released in 1956) became a classic example of early rock and roll and rockabilly.

Pursuing a solo career

But in 1958 Facenda left the Blue Caps in an attempt to establish a solo career. Things were going not so smooth for Facenda. He signed up with Nasco Records where he released his first single “Little Baby b/w “You Are My Everything” both of which were written by Facenda himself. The single sank without a trace. Facenda himself admitted of the flop record, that it wasn’t the best couple of songs ever but at least he achieved what he had been wishing for — to get see his name on a record.

Besides, he shouldn’t be at all much disappointed — after all, Facenda’s first record was an achivement in itself considering the fact that he was still in his teens. The failure of his first single even encouraged him to try his luck somewhere else.

Tommy Facenda’s only hit with “High School USA”

The young boy headed to New York City all by himself, and it was there where he met Frank Guida, a record store owner-turned-record label owner. Guida, who was the head of a new label Legrand Records, asked him to record a novelty rock and roll number called “High School USA.” The original version of this song listed the names of high schools in Virginia.

For the national distribution of the single “High School USA,” Atlantic Records was chosen to do the job. Because of this, Facenda had to record twenty-eight versions of this song, and each of the version listing regional high schools from different states. There was also a national version of “High School USA” as well. Now that’s one clever and ingenious marketing gimmick!

The ploy somehow worked — “High School USA” became a national hit. It peaked at #28 on the Billboard pop chart, and #30 on the R&B singles chart in 1959. All versions, with the exception of the national version, were charted as one single entry.

Absence in showbusiness and reunion with the Blue Caps

“High School USA,” however, would be Facenda’s only major hit. Soon after a follow-up single “Bubba Ditty” was released in 1960, Facenda was drafted into the army. Since after his service he had never come back to performing again until 1982, when he reunited with the Blue Caps bandmates, except for Gene Vincent (who died in 1971). The band toured the US as well as some European countries such as the UK, France, Spain and Germany.

Facenda, who worked for many years as a firefighter, also dabbled in stage acting.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted only Gene Vincent in 1998. But in 2012 the Hall of Fame’s special committee finally included the Blue Caps, along with Vincent, for such honors to correct its previous mistake.

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