High School U.S.A.

One of the more elaborate music industry experiments came about in the fall of 1959, shortly after Frank Guida started Legrand Records in Norfolk, Virginia. For "High School U.S.A.," a gimmicky song he had written with Joseph Royster intended to attract teenagers in the area, he needed a guinea pig, a young guy with an image along the lines of Frankie Avalon, Fabian and the other teen idols hot at the time...the bottom line, of course, being to make lots of money. Tommy Facenda became his willing vessel, but he wasn't some random kid picked off the street. He came with a rock and roll pedigree.

Facenda, born and raised in Portsmouth, just a few miles from Norfolk across the Elizabeth River, was 16 in 1956 when his childhood friend Dickie Harrell landed the enviable job of playing drums for Norfolk's own rock sensation Gene Vincent. As members of Gene's band The Blue Caps came and went, an opening for a backing vocalist materialized; in early '57 Tommy was hired at Dickie's recommendation. He and Paul Peek became known as "Clapper Boys" as they frequently flanked Vincent on either side while performing onstage, singing, finger-snapping and hand-clapping. Tommy's baby face was the cause of some friendly ribbing from the other members, who nicknamed him "Bubba" (as in the band's "little brother"), a name that has remained with him permanently. His year as a cap-wearing rock star, spent mostly on the road, was hectic but lots of fun. He appeared with Gene and the group in the film Hot Rod Gang and contributed backing vocals in the studio on landmark Vincent tracks including "Lotta Lovin'" and "Dance to the Bop."

In early 1958 Tommy decided to quit the Blue Caps, maybe not the best idea, but he figured the time was ripe for taking a shot at solo stardom. He made one record in Nashville for Ernie Young's Nasco Records, a typically sentiment-soaked ballad, "You Are My Everything" ('You're an angel from heaven...'), backed with a better-than-average rockabilly track, "Little Baby." Neither of the sides, which he'd written himself, caught the fancy of radio programmers or record buyers and another year went by before the next opportunity came along just across the river from home. The original version of "High School U.S.A." on Legrand, with shout-outs to schools in Virginia, did well enough locally that Guida set up a deal with Atlantic Records in New York for national distribution.

What came next was unprecedented: a faster, more polished (and less rocking) version was recorded with three sections in the song where literally dozens of different takes could be edited in, each tailor-made for specific regions of the U.S.: '...lookin' around, what did I see? Every school kid there could ever be! They came from...' (here a high school, there a high school, everywhere a high school). Facenda made upwards of 50 versions (a daunting challenge, coming up with the names of as many schools as possible from each area and cramming them lyrically into about 30 seconds). Of these, 28 finished takes were released under a numbering system unique to Atlantic's catalog, starting with Virginia (#51) and followed by New York City, North and South Carolina, Washington, D.C. combined with Baltimore, Philadelphia, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Minneapolis-St. Paul, the entire state of Florida, Newark, Boston, Cleveland, Buffalo, Hartford, Nashville, Indianapolis, Chicago, New Orleans, St. Louis-Kansas City, Georgia and Alabama, Cincinnati, Memphis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, all the cities in Texas lumped together, Seattle-Portland, and Denver, then finally wrapping up with Oklahoma (#78). In addition, a generic edit eliminated the references to schools, instead naming the abovementioned and more than a dozen other cities; this national version was played on American Bandstand but wasn't made available for sale until Legrand released it on a single in the 1980s.

Tommy Facenda

The song was a mild success, at least in the parts of the country that had a corresponding version (tough luck Milwaukee, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, San Diego and brand new states Alaska and Hawaii!). The single hit the national chart in mid-October 1959, spent a few weeks in the top 40 in November, and continued selling into early 1960. For Tommy, performing "High School U.S.A." in concert was not unlike cramming for a final exam that had to be taken anew each day. On the tour bus he usually sacrificed his much-needed sleep, instead memorizing the names of the high schools he would be singing about during the next performance. There were other hitches; distribution became a bit of a nightmare when it came to making sure intended regions received the correct pressings. To date, no other record company has attempted a release anywhere near as complicated.

Tommy Facenda had only one other single on Atlantic, a tongue-in-cheek autobiographical tune called "Bubba Ditty," which took a certain degree of artistic license (he claimed '...I'm from the windy city,' a nickname for Portsmouth I'd never heard before) and included a reference to his hit ('I received my degree from High School U.S.A. and I'll be comin' to your town just-a any ol' day...'). Tommy then joined the Army and since 1962 he's worked for the fire department in his home town. Starting in 1982, he and other original members of The Blue Caps, including Paul Peek and Portsmouth pal Dickie Harrell, have occasionally toured with Graham Fenton, a Gene Vincent soundalike, in tribute to the rock legend, who died in 1971.

- Michael Jack Kirby


High School U.S.A. (North and South Carolina) High School U.S.A. (St. Louis-Kansas City) High School U.S.A. (Seattle-Portland)