Gus Backus occupies a rarefied place in the history of rock & roll. Having said that, it probably comes as a surprise to almost any reader that Backus occupies any place whatsoever in rock & roll. His chart presence in America was minimal, and not one in 100 Americans would even know who he was. In Germany during the late '50s and early '60s, however — a period when even second-rate English rock & roll bands could earn a decent living — Backus was virtually the flesh-and-blood embodiment of American rock & roll. Along with skiffle star Johnny Duncan, Backus is one of those odd American music stars who found their stardom far from home. Home for Donald "Gus" Backus was the village of Southampton on Long Island, in New York, where he was born on September 12, 1937. He had a fairly typical childhood growing up during and after World War II. Like millions of other young Americans of the period, he discovered rhythm & blues and rock & roll during his teens as it got onto the radio. He started writing and playing his own music, under the influence of Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry. The idea of a career in rock & roll was in his mind, but he had an obligation to fulfill first, to the United States government. Backus was drafted into the United States Air Force in 1956, and was stationed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. While stationed there, he briefly passed through the lineup of the Del-Vikings before he was transferred to Germany. He never lost his interest in rock & roll, and in 1958, while home on leave, he cut a single, "My Chick Is Fine" b/w "You Can't Go It Alone," both songs that he wrote or co-wrote, for the Carlton Records label. "My Chick Is Fine" is one of the great lost classics of rockabilly, a driving, raunchy, hard-rocking tribute to an idealized object of teenage lust that should have been a signature of the era — it would be worth knowing who played in the band backing Backus, just to figure out if they ever got to do any more sides like it for anyone else. "You Can't Go It Alone" is a ballad in a distinctly romantic, doo wop style that might've passed muster on one of Dion's solo albums, with a gorgeous chorus and a haunting melody. The single failed to chart, and Backus returned to Weisbaden to finish out his tour of duty.
He was still in uniform when he founded a singing group called the Vidells, who found some limited popularity among military audiences, but weren't permitted to perform off of their base. Backus left the group behind but remained in Germany, where he married and settled down. He was offered chance to record from Polydor Records and made his debut for the label during the early summer of 1959 with German-language versions of Lloyd Price's "Have You Ever Had the Blues" and the Elvis Presley hit "A Fool Such as I." Neither of these sides was a success, In July 1960, he suddenly struck a chord with German audiences with a short string of huge German-language hits — the single "Brauner Bar und Weisse Taube" was Backus' breakthrough hit, and he followed it up with two more singles, "Da Sprach der Alte Hauptling" and "Der Mann im Mond." Unfortunately, what passed for rock & roll in Germany in those days wasn't too different in character or quality from the brand of teen pop that Americans endured in the late '50s. Backus' voice was fine, and he might've been a slightly heavier competitor to Ricky Nelson, but his records, apart from the presence of an electric rhythm guitar or bass here and there, were mostly lightly orchestrated pop that happened to be sung by a younger man. "Queen of the Stars," the English-language version of "Der Mann im Mond" (i.e. "The Man in the Moon"), is a pleasantly catchy singalong number that might've been a great Spotniks vocal track, while "Listen" could've been a good post-1961-vintage Everly Brothers-style harmony number. In 1961, Backus released his first English-language single in Germany, "Priscilla," which had been a hit for Eddie Cooley five years before. It failed to chart as highly as his previous singles. Backus remained a huge recording star in Germany and was sufficiently well-known as a presence in central Europe.
By 1962, almost as a reflection of the peculiarly international nature of Backus' life and work, he began pursuing international audiences, with records such as "Happy End in Switzerland" and "Vaya con Dios." He cut records in New York and in Nashville and was making solid rock & roll-style music, doing songs by John D. Loudermilk ("Short on Love"), Boudleaux Bryant ("Big Willie Broke Jail Tonight"), and Mort Shuman ("Turn Around"), which were released in Germany. He remained a pop music phenomenon in Germany for most of the '60s. Backus did embrace the changes taking place in rock music in England and America, cutting sides that were pretty credible British Invasion-era rock & roll, some pop psychedelia, and even some folk-rock-inspired work, along with a few songs ("Touch on Your Heart") that might've given Gary Lewis & the Playboys a run for their money. Backus ceased recording in English after 1967, but remained a European star and a vocalist of popularity in Germany, akin to the level enjoyed by Cliff Richard in England. He left behind enough singles to fill three CDs without overlap, in idioms ranging from hardcore rockabilly and mainstream rock & roll to hillbilly-style pop/rock, to brassy big-band-type pop/rock and early Euro-pop. Backus continued to perform in Germany until he retired in 2014. He died at his home in Gemering, not far from Munich, on February 21, 2019; he was 81 years old. ~ Bruce Eder