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From the Stars and Struipes archives

Airman rings cash register

By THURSTON MACAULEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 12, 1958

SLIGHT, BUSHY-BROWED and as ski-nosed as Bob Hope, he's no more heartthrob to look at than Frank Sinatra or Johnny Ray but, though only 20, he has that "big time" indefinable vocal magic which has sent cash registers clicking for millions of disc sales.

He writes his own tunes — ballads, rhythm and blues, rock 'n' roll — crooning them into a tape-recorder because he doesn't read music. They've made Stateside hit parades, and German juke boxes, All this he has done in the service, while off duty.

He's the Air Force's answer to the Army's Elvis — A/3C Gus Backus.

Backus works as a medical service specialist in the EKG — electro-cardiograph — room at the 7100th USAF Hospital in Wiesbaden, Germany.

He has been singing since he was 13, but was given his first recognition at Pittsburgh, Pa., when serving with the 54th Fighter GP.

Barry Kaye, disc jockey at WJAS in the Pennsylvania city, recorded numbers for his show sung by Backus and his all-airmen Del Vikings quintet. Kaye also helped the quintet get a chance to make three records for Dot of Hollywood.

The first disc, Backus' composition "Come Go With Me," is still his No. 1 seller although the airman is now under exclusive contract to Mercury.

Before coming to Germany in August 1957, Backus and his group cut 24 records for Mercury, played 10 one-night stands on the West Coast and appeared in a musical movie for Universal-International, "The Big Beat," which recently had its premiere in the U.S.

Three days after arriving in Germany, Backus formed a new quintet and started playing service and teen clubs in the Wiesbaden-Frankfurt area. His present group, now known as the Vi Dells, includes A/2C James Bell, A/2C Thomas Eskew, A/3C Ben Blue and A/3C Richard Stanton. A/2C Jay O'Sullivan, also at the 7100th Hospital, is manager.

Backus returned recently from a 20-day leave in the States. While home the singer made four new solo recordings for Mercury. One, "If You Can't Go It Alone," is expected to be another big winner. He also did a number, "My Story of Love," especially for teen-agers.

"I owe them that much," Backus said. "Teen-agers have been my best fans and best customers both back home and here in Germany. Teen-agers over here are just like those at home, with the same taste in music, 'is I've found out singing at German teen clubs. Besides when the teen-agers started buying my records, I was one myself."

Incidentally, Backus said that he had seen no sign of the recession affecting record sales and show business in general.

Backus frequently proves the therapeutic value of music in his work at the Wiesbaden hospital.

"Little children sometimes get nervous at the sight of the apparatus in the EKG room so whenever I can, I sing to them to help them relax and get over their worries," he said. "Nine times out of ten it works too."

But youngsters aren't the only ones who hear the airman sing at the hospital. Backus, who would rather sing that eat, often gives up his lunch hour to sing to GI patients in the Red Cross room, accompanying himself on the piano. As always, he has an appreciative audience.

Backus said he gets an idea for a song by beating out a few bars on a piano.

"If it's any good, it'll shape up in five or ten minutes," he added. "Then 3 write the words and sing them into a tape-recorder. I send the tape back to my arranger at Mercury, Carl Stevens, who's one-of the best in the business. He writes the notes down from my taped song."

Backus is due to rotate in August 1959. When he leaves the service, he will make singing and composing a full-time thing for the first time. His plans include studying acting, either at the Actors Studio in New York or the Pasadena Playhouse, and then more movies with Universal to whom he is also under contract.

A final word from the Air Force's answer to Elvis

"I like his singing," remarked Gus Backus.
 

Gus Backus plays a tune on the piano during lunchtime at the Air Force hospital in Wiesbaden.
LLOYD BORGUSS/STARS AND STRIPES

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