Los Angeles Rock, Part One (1955-1975)
Rumbling forth from one of the world’s most unstable environs, a groundswell of original musical creativity spread out in Richter proportions during the turbulent decade of the 1960s. For Los Angeles, a city that thrived, consumed, and produced dreams from the flicker of a screen, the introduction of a new brand of music, that of rock ‘n’ roll, was eagerly welcomed and embraced by a populace open to artistic capitalism. The epicenter for this new revolution was to be located along a 1.7-mile stretch of real estate known as The Sunset Strip. By the time the mid-60s rolled in, the face of what was considered glamorous and regal in Hollywood would alter radically. The old guard would reign no more. From that point forward, the entertainment capital of the world would eternally have a youthful identification.
The boulevard known as Sunset was the connecting thoroughfare between the soundstages of Hollywood and the celebrities’ mansions in Beverly Hills. By 1932, the “Strip” began to take shape. Superstars like Errol Flynn, W.C. Fields, and later Gable and Pickford needed an area to blow off some steam after a hard day’s work before the cameras. High-class clubs took root and welcomed their patronage. It wasn’t unusual to see renowned celebrities like Jimmy Stewart and Bob Hope trolling from club to club with an ever-increasing entourage accumulating in their trail. Some top stars of the day would get into fistfights, while others would slip secretly away to a romantic suite nearby. Whenever Humphrey Bogart pulled up to Ciro’s with his chauffeur and ambled over to his reserved corner booth, everyone knew he was there to do some serious drinking.
“I enjoyed it in the ‘40s and ‘50s,” Chuck Landis mentioned once to the LA Times, “It was a coat-and-tie sort of thing, very formal.” Landis managed the Trocadero, a famous celebrity watering hole, from 1943 to 1949. In the early 1950s, Landis teamed with partner Gene Norman and opened a jazz nightspot called The Crescendo on the Strip. “It was very exciting,” Norman told the LA Times, “Half the world’s movie stars and political figures came to the Crescendo.” While West Coast mobsters like Bugsy Siegel and Mickey Cohen made sure they were constantly included in on the action, especially at the Melody Room (the future site of The Viper Room where River Phoenix died outside), the vibe on the Strip was of carefree, high society, sophistication. Slowly, however, the seeds of rock began to sift into the foundation of the scene. By 1964, when a place called the Whisky-A-Go-Go would open its doors, venues like The Crescendo would virtually, overnight, be a thing of the past.
Inside the nondescript garage of a postal worker in downtown L.A.’s East 30th Street, a fledgling producer named Dootsie Williams set up a makeshift recording studio. Bassist Curtis Williams had written a song that peaked Williams’ interest. Together with fellow singers, Cleveland Duncan, Dexter Tisby, and Bruce Tate, the group recorded the tune over the course of eight or nine takes. It was early 1955, and the Penguins, as they jokingly referred to themselves, were about to score a top ten hit with the infectious doo-wop ditty, “Earth Angel.” While the quartet never achieved grand heights thereafter, they inadvertently kick-started a trend of independent-minded musicians stepping forth with their own brand of craftsmanship that snowballed into the Los Angeles music phenomenon.
The RCA Building at 6363 Sunset Boulevard was home to the king of rock in the ‘50s, Elvis Presley. While in town recording his self-titled album and filming his movie “Love Me Tender,” the King stayed in a luxurious suite at the Knickerbocker hotel located at 1714 Ivar Street in Hollywood. A few years later, distant cousin Jerry Lee Lewis would reign supreme at the fabled hotel during his fireball heyday. Elvis lived the high life whenever he was in LA. On one occasion, he bought a fleet of Cadillacs on a whim for friends at a Beverly Hills dealership. When the Sunset Strip kicked into full gear in the mid-60s, it was not uncommon to spot Elvis driving up and down the stretch of road handing out $100 bills to admiring fans as he went.
A Bronx transplant by the name of Phil Spector was also hanging out in Hollywood in the mid-‘50s over at the Gold Star Studios on Vine Street. He spent hours observing how the process of song engineering was conducted. This student from nearby Fairfax High would write down songs that came to mind in hopes of forming his own group some day. By early 1958, with the aid of two other fellow classmates, Spector cut some demos at Gold Star under the group name The Teddy Bears. One of the tracks was named after a phrase he had read on his father’s tombstone. “To Know Him Is To Love Him” contained an early version of studio production known as “wall of sound” that Spector was able to accomplish by tying the original tape playback machine with a second one. When it was released by independent label Dore Records in late 1958, “To Know Him Is To Love Him” went to number one on the Billboard chart the first week of December. When it came time for the group to churn out another hit, Spector over-analyzed the direction his music should take, and subsequently, the Teddy Bears stalled after this one-hit wonder. Spector, however, would go on to be associated as the mastermind behind the “Wall of Sound” process and became one of L.A.’s most commanding personalities.
Another Fairfax High School alumn was working at Dore Records at the time of Spector’s smash release. Herb Alpert had been a session musician, particularly on film scores throughout most of the 1950s. His trumpet calls could be heard clearly in the soundtrack to the Charlton Heston epic “The Ten Commandments.” Together with friend Lou Adler, they toiled at Dore shaping the direction of several of the label’s acts, especially that of an up-and-coming pop singer, Sam Cooke. Cooke had garnered a number one hit in December 1957 with the song, “You Send Me.” Together with Alpert and Adler, Cooke wrote the 1958 smash “Only Sixteen” which was later covered by Dr. Hook. A few months later in March 1959, the producing duo met two clean-cut kids who had formed a musical act shortly after becoming acquainted with one another on their high school football team. Jan Berry and Dean Torrence had already released a number eight-charting single, “Jennie Lee,” which was named after a local stripper and had been recorded in the garage of Jan’s parents’ Bel Air home. Adler and Alpert stepped in and proceeded to manage them.
In October 1959, Jan and Dean released “Baby Talk” which crept into the country’s top ten chart. The song would have a profound influence on the sound of another Southern California group’s debut single. According to Mike Love of the Beach Boys, his outfit fashioned their song, “Surfin’,” after the Jan and Dean ditty.
Mike Love was the cousin of the Wilson brothers, Brian, Carl, and Dennis. Together with their high school buddy, Al Jardine, the Hawthorne, California residents played local gigs around their Orange County neighborhoods. Even though the Wilson’s dad, Murry, was a songwriter and accomplished musician, older brother Brian convinced the group to record and submit their first single, “Surfin’,” without the help of their father. An independent label, Candix, released the track, naming them the Beach Boys. The song became a favorite throughout their community around Christmas 1961, and soon Murry had the group signed with Capitol Records.
Meanwhile, Herb Alpert didn’t care for the direction Jan and Dean’s music was headed and stayed on in New York, where he and Adler had been producing songs for the small label Madison Records. When Madison folded, Alpert relocated back to LA and encouraged a promotions executive he’d met from the Bronx to head west as well. Jerry Moss teamed with Alpert, and the famous duo formed A&M Records. Since Moss’ dad owned Irving Music Publishing, A&M was funded initially as a division of that corporation. Alpert set up a recording studio in his garage and the A&M team started signing a roster of new artists. By the mid-60s, Alpert and Moss would move their operation to the old Charlie Chaplin studio lot at 1416 North La Brea Avenue. Herb would score five number one albums on the Billboard chart with his Tijuana Brass group. A&M Records was subsequently the home of such diverse acts as Leon Russell, Rita Coolidge, Procol Harum, James Brown, The Carpenters, Joe Cocker, Styx, Supertramp, Sheryl Crow, Sting, and Soundgarden over the next three decades.
Adler continued to manage Jan and Dean, and during a performance with the Beach Boys at a teen dance in the summer of 1962, he proposed the two groups work together in some fashion. Brian Wilson had started writing a new tune called “Surf City,” but was unable to finish it. Berry tackled the assignment, and with the Beach Boys as their back-up, Jan and Dean hooked a number one Billboard single with the song in July 1963. While The Beach Boys’ singles “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Be True To Your School,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” had previously cracked the top ten, it wasn’t until a year later, during the 4th of July weekend in 1964, that the harmonizing superstars chalked up a number one single of their own with “I Get Around.”
During this period of the early 1960s, folk music and beatniks had firmly curried the favor of the teen generation, and coffeehouses around Los Angeles percolated with an abundance of soft music and java. The primary locations to find big name folk acts were at The Unicorn on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and San Vicente, The Ash Grove at 8162 Melrose Avenue, and The Troubadour at 9081 Santa Monica Boulevard. After closing hours at the Troubadour, a group of a dozen guys or more would play a combination of folk and rock, honing one of the earliest incarnations of this particular hybrid during the wee hours of the morning. First known as the Men, they came to be called The Association and would hit the top of the Billboard chart with “Cherish” and “Windy.”
Young Phil Spector was still very much in the picture in the early ‘60s as well. Having headed to New York to form the Philles record label with partner Lester Sills, he was cultivating his ‘wall of sound’ techniques with many of the local artists and musicians the five boroughs had to offer. In 1962, he had joined Liberty Records to be head of their east coast A&R activities. Having already met a Brooklyn quintet of girl singers known as The Crystals and fashioned songs like “There’s No Other” and “Uptown,” Spector was eager to get his hands on his friend, Gene Pitney’s, latest song, “He’s A Rebel.” Fleeing back west to Gold Star studios in Hollywood, he enlisted the talents of a group called the Blossoms, with lead singer Darlene Love, and released the Pitney tune under The Crystals’ moniker. The song shot to number one on the Billboard chart in November 1962.
Spector’s true layered ‘wall of sound’ approach finally became very apparent on a Crystal’s follow-up single, “Da Doo Ron Ron.” By 1963, Spector’s attention turned to another New York girl group, The Ronettes. After signing them in August, he spent a full month assembling the sound that would support the hit songs, “Be My Baby” and “Baby I Love You.” Lead singer Veronica (Ronnie) Bennett soon became enamored with the reclusive producer and the two wed in 1965. By age 21, the magic technical touch of Phil Spector had made him a multi-millionaire.
On January 16, 1964, a seemingly ordinary art deco bank building, built in 1928 at 8901 Sunset Boulevard and owned by the Louise M. Klous Trust, was leased to several investors. Attorney Theodore F. Flier, former press agent Shelly Davis, and ex-Chicago vice cops Elmer Valentine and Phil Tanzini were interested in turning the property into a discotheque. Valentine already owned the popular PJs restaurant in town. Having seen how well discos had worked over in Paris, they were eager to capitalize on the idea in America. Kids were admitted onto the premises to dance the Watusi, the Frug, and the Jerk as records were being spun by mini-skirted gals in glass-enclosed cages situated over the dance floor. The Whisky-A-Go-Go became a huge success. Valentine soon brought in an old ex-bail bondsman chum from Chicago named Mario Maglieri to help him manage the club and keep the employees from stealing profits from the registers.
Meanwhile, another club owner, Bill Gazzarri was in the process of moving his establishment from nearby La Cienega Boulevard to a more permanent location just up the street from the Whisky at 9039 Sunset Boulevard. His club had featured such soft-pop acts like The McCoys, Jackie DeShannon, and The Standells. When a jazz group didn’t show for a particular gig, singer Johnny Rivers was invited to perform at Gazzarri’s La Cienega location for a few nights. The New York native, born John Ramistella, had loved the blues ever since his family lived for a spell in Louisiana. After being a songwriter and producer in the Big Apple in his early ‘20s, Rivers had fashioned a boogie-style sass to his covers of rock hits. A few nights following his appearance at Gazzarri’s, Elmer Valentine decided to stop playing the records for one night and booked Rivers to play at the Whisky. He was an instant phenomenon. The town’s top actors and actresses came out to see him. The DJs in the cages danced along to his songs, prompting the birth of the term “go-go girls.” Producer Lou Adler, who was working at Imperial Records at the time, a label that also had Fats Domino and Ricky Nelson on its roster, signed Rivers and began recording his tunes live at the Whisky. The Adler-penned “Poor Side of Town” nailed Rivers a number one single in 1966.
As for the Whisky-A-Go-Go, it turned its attention to the burgeoning field of live acts crawling out of the woodwork. 14 months after it opened, attorney Flier said to the LA Times, “We started this place with $20,000 and since have poured in $150,000. We now have a $5 million thing going…We ask neither a cover charge or a minimum…We give our dancing cage girls $150 a week for about four hours work a night.” After the Whisky started featuring rock ‘n’ roll acts, the Strip awakened once again.
Executives in Los Angeles’ vast television production community were beginning to feel they could capitalize on this huge rock ‘n’ roll craze. The ABC network already had a program beaming from the inside of The Hollywood Palace located at 1735 Vine Street and named it after the venue. Established acts skewing to older demographics like Trini Lopez and Vicki Carr were a fixture on the show, but in 1964, they began booking more performers in tune with a younger audience. The Beatles performed on the program, as did acts like The Supremes and The Turtles. The show lasted until 1970 before being yanked from the ABC schedule. The network also cranked up another rock show from the Palace on September 16,1964 calling it “Shindig!” Hosted by LA disc jockey Jimmy O’Neill, the program was hipper than “The Hollywood Palace,” featuring acts as diverse as Fats Domino, Bobby Sherman, The Kinks, and The Rolling Stones. By the start of 1966, however, it was removed from the ABC prime-time lineup to make room for the kitschy “Batman” show.
While NBC jumped into the fray, broadcasting its “Hullabaloo” rock show soon after “Shindig!” launched, a program that featured different hosts each week, ABC had one more musical trick up its sleeve. A perennially-youthful former radio show host named Dick Clark had joined a Philadelphia music program in July 1956. Within a month, ABC snatched up its national broadcasting rights, and the show, “American Bandstand,” became a long-running treasure trove of up-and-coming acts. James Brown, Buddy Holly, and countless other superstars made their national debut performing on Clark’s show. By the early ‘60s, Dick Clark had become a renowned television producer in his own right and also packaged “Caravan of Rock” tours, featuring many groups such as the Ronettes, to go on multi-city concert gigs. In the spring of 1964, he moved “American Bandstand” permanently to the Los Angeles area, and the show was a staple on television for the next 25 years.
Before the close of 1964, tragedy struck the music industry when singer Sam Cooke was shot to death at the Hacienda Motel at 9137 South Figueroa Street. Having spent the night of December 11th with a 22-year old aspiring singer named Elisa Boyer at the trendy club PJs (formerly located at the corner of Santa Monica Boulevard and Crescent Heights), the pair went to the $3 a night motel near downtown Los Angeles. After an argument, Boyer ran out of Cooke’s room with half of his clothes and barricaded herself in the motel manager’s office. Cooke broke the door down, and the manager, thinking he was there to rob the register, fatally shot him three times with a .22 caliber revolver. The authorities had no alternative but to rule the woeful incident as justifiable homicide.
When 1965 clicked over, the face of Southern California pop still was very much alive. Two friends from The Beach Boys’ neck of the woods, deep in Orange County, had been given their name, The Righteous Brothers, by African-Amercian Marines who saw them perform at a Santa Ana club. Signed to an independent label, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield were soon being pursued by Phil Spector, who loved their soulful vocals. The renowned producer bought out their record contract, and tapped his two favorite writers, Barry Mann and his wife Cynthia Weil, to crank out a hit tune for boys. Holed up at the famous Chateau Marmont hotel at 8221 Sunset Boulevard, the writing team created the infectious sound of “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feelin’.” The Righteous Brothers, with Spector’s lush backings, carried the tune to number one in February 1965.
The biggest jumpstart in the evolution of Southern California rock, in this case folk-rock, occurred in mid-1965, when the Los Angeles music scene burst wide open to the sounds of a superstar group. Jim McGuinn (later calling himself Roger) was a Chicago native who had played the New York coffeehouse folk circuit for a number of years before relocating to LA. One night he was spotted at the Troubadour by Gene Clark, a Missouri-born musician, who had been a part of the very successful folk group The New Christy Minstrels. After having caught the bug of Beatlemania sweeping America in 1964, the two artists were eager to capture that gentle rock sound. Listening to the duo harmonizing in a stairwell one night, folk musician David Crosby soon joined the band, followed by bassist Chris Hillman and drummer Mike Clarke. Their manager shopped a demo of their songs around town. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis was suitably impressed enough to suggest that representatives at Columbia Records have a listen. The label already had Bob Dylan and had just signed up Paul Revere and the Raiders. Inking a deal with the quintet, The Byrds recorded their first album using studio musicians like Leon Russell and Glen Campbell as their instrumentalists. But the Byrds’ unmistakable harmonies was the element that carried their first hit tune, the Bob Dylan-penned, “Mr. Tambourine Man” to number one in June 1965.
The group had already broken through the established Sunset Strip scene a few weeks before. By the mid-‘60s, established acts at the once-thriving club Ciro’s, like Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Eartha Kitt, weren’t pulling in the crowds they once did. Crooners of their ilk were now spending much of their time reaping the rewards of sellout appearances in Vegas showrooms. The older generation started to stay away from the Strip, while teens were seen around the area at all hours of the night. Kim Fowley, a musician and former producer for the punk group The Runaways told the LA Weekly, “Probably in terms of explosion, it all started when the Byrds came up to Ciro’s in ’65. Their previous gig had been where the Groundlings (an improvisational comedy group) are on Melrose (Avenue). There was a ballet school upstairs where the Byrds played their first gig, and that was gigantic. And then whoever ran Ciro’s, which was losing money, decided, ‘Why don’t we bring the Byrds up here?’ And they played there as the house band. That really was the gig, because Dylan showed up, who was gigantic at the time with “Like A Rolling Stone,” and he played onstage with the Byrds. After that the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” turned into a number-one record around the world.”
Jac Holzman was in his mid-thirties during this period and was an avowed enthusiast in the field of electronics. Combining his love of folk music production with the circuitry and soundwave side of his interests, he aptly titled a fledgling record label he began with the name Elektra. At the other end of Sunset Boulevard, in East Hollywood, another folk phenomenon, this one started by a former roadie of The Byrds, became the house band at a club called Bido Lito. Their name was Love, and while they didn’t reap a top ten hit, they did become notable in being the first act signed to the new, youth-oriented Elektra Records label.
Producer Lou Adler was also making headway around this time, when he became the owner of the new Dunhill Records label. Barry McGuire, an ex-member of The New Christy Minstrels who’d just had a number one solo hit with “Eve of Destruction,” introduced Adler to a musical act that had met amongst the New York Greenwich Village scene. Its founder, John Phillips, had been a folk singer with The Journeymen when he spotted sixteen year-old Holly Michelle Gilliam, nine years his junior, at a Village hangout called The Hungry i. He promptly divorced his wife and soon John and Michelle Phillips were crooning together in local coffeehouses. Denny Doherty and Ellen Naomi Cohen were in a group called the Mugwumps. The foursome soon joined, having performed some gigs in the Virgin Islands, and subsequently drove cross country in a limousine to California. They lived in a friend’s one bedroom apartment near the Sunset Strip, begging for money and food. Cohen, who later became Cass Elliott, overheard a biker on a talk show refer to his companion as his ‘mama.’ She and Michelle became The Mamas, John and Denny conjoined as The Papas. Adler soon signed them to his label.
In December 1965, Dunhill released the group’s “California Dreamin’” single. Within months it rose to number four on the U.S. chart. The moody, yet harmonically-enriched, tune would serve as a kind of clarion call to wayward souls seeking to strike out to the west coast and join the burgeoning rock music scene. John Phillips was constantly reminded of this fact over the years. “If I could tell you how many people have come up to me and said, ‘Oh, you’re responsible for me being in California,’ you know,” he related to interviewer L.A. Johnson. “I mean, thousands and thousands and thousands, literally, probably three or four today, so far.” The Mamas and the Papas followed it up with the number-one charting, “Monday, Monday” and a top position slot for their debut album, “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears.”
Just before the Byrds were taking flight, Love was starting to spread, and The Mamas and The Papas were raising their voices, two graduates from UCLA with degrees in cinematography were walking the beach in Venice trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Together with drummer John Densmore and guitarist Robbie Krieger, keyboard maestro Ray Manzarek and vocalist Jim Morrison soon formed a band, naming themselves after Aldous Huxley’s “The Doors of Perception.” One of the first appearances of the Doors was improvising the score for one of Ray’s experimental films being screened at UCLA. They were turned away from performing at Love’s hangout, Bido Lito. In early January 1966, a small club, London Fog, run by a fellow named Jesse James, offered them a gig. The dingy nightspot was located on Sunset Boulevard, right next door to The Whisky. No one showed up for their first performance. The next night it wasn’t much better. “There were seven people total in the club,” Ray Manzarek recalled to the LA Times. “But Jesse the bartender kept telling us to play. ‘No one will come in if you don’t,’ he’d say. We used to play four sets a night which is when we began experimenting with the song structure. That was where we cut our performing teeth.”
The Doors desperately wanted to get in next door at the Whisky. But Elmer Valentine’s policy at the time was, if you didn’t have a record contract, you didn’t play his club. By the time May rolled in, Jesse James was ready to let them go. On the last night of their stay at London Fog, someone from the Whisky showed up to see them. “Fortunately, an extremely sexy, pixie-voiced blond named Ronnie Harran, who booked The Whisky, saw us,” John Densmore told author Johnny Rogan. “She had an ear for talent…(and) The Whisky was finally a gig we could be proud of.” Although Elmer was skeptical, Ronnie begged him to bring aboard the unsigned Doors for a week. The group was given the gig, and they opened for Van Morrison and Them. On the last night of the billing both Morrisons got up on stage to sing together.
Ronnie started to represent the band. Every time Elmer or Phil Tanzini threatened to kick the Doors out, she’d have her girlfriends call the club to express their hopes that The Doors were staying on. Tanzini would shout at the boys, “Too loud! Too loud! I’m gonna throw you out in front of everybody. Turn down, turn down!,” according to authors Jerry Hopkins and Danny Sugerman. While Morrison slithered about the stage at night, fueling sexual frenzy amongst the female audience, by day The Doors were busy shopping their demos around LA. Practically every record label rejected their material. According to Ray Manzarek, in his autobiography, when they took their demo to Lou Adler at Dunhill, he put the 12” acetate on his turntable and just placed the needle down on each track for 10 seconds. “He took the demo off the turntable and handed it back to me with an obsequious smile,” Ray related, “and said, ‘Nothing here I can use.’ We were shocked. We stood up…and Jim, with a wry and knowing smile on his lips, cuttingly and coolly shot back at him. ‘That’s okay, man. We don’t want to be used, anyway.’ And we were gone out the door. I wanted to hug Morrison. What a great comeback line.”
Adler was having a bit of trouble with his star act, The Mamas and The Papas. Tempers had reached a boiling point for some time amongst the quartet’s intertwined members. Michelle Phillips had had an affair with fellow Papa Denny Doherty, and hubby John finally decided it was she who needed to leave the group and not Denny. For two months, Michelle was replaced by Adler’s girlfriend, Jill Gibson, who also had been Jan Berry’s (of Jan & Dean) gal pal for many years. By the end of August, Michelle was back and soon the group’s second album, “The Mamas and The Papas,” was released and climbed to number 4 on the Billboard chart.
Across town at the RCA Building on Sunset in Hollywood, four musicians had been brought together to record vocal tracks for a new venture that had never been tried before in American entertainment. The Monkees were fabricated to be a rock group that existed solely for the purpose of a television show. Two actors, Davy Jones and Micky Dolenz, were stitched together with two accomplished folk artists, Mike Nesmith and Peter Tork, to create what would become a huge phenomenon during autumn 1966. When the group would eventually release their debut album shortly after the premiere of their show, “The Monkees” and its follow-up LP, “More of the Monkees,” would command Billboard’s top position for a half year, back-to-back.
The Sunset Strip was now a vibrant, cultural hotspot, teeming with youths who trolled the short span of asphalt night and day. Cruising in cars with the convertible down became the favorite pastime of the young rock ‘n’ rollers. It was in one of these traffic jams that a group allegedly came together. Neil Young and Bruce Palmer had both been in a band called the Mynah Birds in Toronto, Canada when they decided to head to Southern California in Young’s black 1953 Pontiac hearse. While stuck in gridlock along Sunset Boulevard, their unusual car was spotted by Richie Furay and Stephen Stills. These two musicians had, until recently, been fixtures in New York’s Village folk scene. Furay knew Neil Young from those days and was able to get his attention in the traffic jam, and soon everyone was pulling off into a supermarket parking lot. Within the span of that meeting, the four musicians decided to start a band, bringing aboard drummer Dewey Martin a short while later. Naming themselves after a steamroller they found resurfacing nearby Fountain Avenue, the Buffalo Springfield began introducing their work at amateur night at The Troubadour. They made their official live debut at the Orange County Fairgrounds opening for The Byrds. Byrds’ bassist Chris Hillman had a lot of pull with Elmer Valentine at the Whisky, so by May 4, 1966, the Buffalo Springfield were opening there for their mentors, and stayed on for six weeks.
Hillman told author Johnny Rogan, “What happened to the Buffalo Springfield at the Whisky was similar to what happened to us at Ciro’s…everybody wanted to be there. It became the place to be…a great gig.” Atlantic Records boss, Ahmet Ertegun dropped by the Whisky one night to hear them play. “I loved the Buffalo Springfield immediately,” he told author Michael Heatley. “There was something about how Steve and Neil worked off each other. And all the members became very dear to my heart.” He advanced them $22,000 and signed them to his subsidiary label Atco. The Buffalo Springfield began work on their debut album at Gold Star Studios in July.
Meanwhile, The Doors had become chums with Love leader Arthur Lee, who arranged for Jac Holzman to hear them perform their material. Elektra Records signed the Doors in the summer of 1966. While they booked studio time, an old LA legend, Brian Wilson, was hogging up no less than four recording venues, including Gold Star and the RCA studios, during those months. In the previous years, The Beach Boys had gone on to score another number one single with “Help Me Rhonda” and numerous other top ten singles, including “California Girls.” In 1966, they were laboring over their masterpiece album, “Pet Sounds.” Brian spent six months tinkering with overdubs and mixing to create the Phil Spector-like ‘wall of sound’ approach to their next single, “Good Vibrations.” When it was released in the late fall, it garnered the group their third number one hit on the chart. Brian became more dependent on drugs, withdrawing to his home studio. The group would later pull out of their appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival and be replaced on the bill by Otis Redding.
As more teens infiltrated the Sunset Strip, County Supervisor Ernest E. Debs and Sheriff Pete Pitchess were pressured by neighboring homeowners and lawmakers to crack down on what the community felt were underage hooligans. The Los Angeles Times reported that business owners along the Strip had lost $3 million in sales because of the ‘hippie’ disruption. Real estate values were estimated down at least 30 percent. Debs told reporters, “We’re going to be tough. We’re not going to surrender that area or any other area to beatniks or wild-eyed kids.” The city began to pressure club owners by threatening to pull their permits. Bill Gazzarri was outspoken in his crusade to keep his own establishment as well as the others open. An average of 150 to 200 arrests were made each week of underage teens breaking curfew laws. The younger generation saw this as a turning point in their fight to be themselves and have a community to hang out in. A confrontation was inevitable.
A small club with a purple façade named Pandora’s Box sat on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Crescent Heights. The Beach Boys used to play early gigs there around 1963, and subsequently, some of the towns biggest acts had jammed in its intimate environs over the ensuing years. Debs pulled a zoning ordinance on the establishment and committed to a concrete island and access lane to be plowed in its place. On November 12, 1966 approximately 1,000 teens showed up to protest the demolition of Pandora’s. Pamela Des Barres, who was a rock groupie during the period, described the scene that night in her book, “I’m With The Band.” “Pandora’s Box, the ultimate rock club of the moment, was being torn down to make way for a wider road and three-way turn signal and WE, the patrons of the purple palace, were not going to stand for it. In fact, we sat down on Sunset Boulevard and wouldn’t budge. I found something to believe in, and was so proud of being on a mission to enlighten the world. I felt like I belonged, united with a thousand other kids, protesting what THEY were doing to US…I watched as Gorgeous Hollywood Boys overturned a bus, and I cheered on the offenders from my warm spot on the Sunset Boulevard blacktop. I gazed at Sonny and Cher, arms wrapped around each other…The LAPD arrived in full force, clubs swinging and sirens blaring, but at least we had our moment in the moonlight.”
Pandora’s Box was reduced to rubble. But the seeds of victory had been planted. “If you had to put your finger on an event that was a barometer of the tide turning, it would probably be the Sunset Strip riots,” Bob Gibson, owner of the Cheetah nightclub on the Santa Monica pier told the L.A. Times. The kids had shown the authorities that they were there to stay. A small film called “Riot on Sunset Strip,” starring Aldo Ray and Mimsy Farmer, was released early the next year to dramatize the events. The Buffalo Springfield had a hit with their song “For What It’s Worth,” which was written about the riot. The Whisky, Gazzarris, the Hullabaloo, The Troubadour, and a new rock club, The Starwood, at the site of the old PJs club, flourished with top line acts for the rest of the decade. Kim Fowley related to the LA Weekly, “The ‘60s had a million kids coming to the Strip and sleeping in sleeping bags on side streets and abandoned apartments and parking lots and tops of buildings. There was a lot of action there. You could start your day at 2 in the afternoon, because you were up all night partying, and you could just select girls to live with in your crash pad.”
Davy Jones of The Monkees had a stand-in named Rodney Bingenheimer. Rodney was a true denizen of the music scene at the time, spending his nighttime hours hanging with rockers at the Sunset Denny’s Restaurant. Actor Sal Mineo dubbed him “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip.” Bingenheimer commented to the L.A. Times, “The Sunset Strip was like Las Vegas. People would actually walk from La Cienega to Gazzarri’s at 2 and 3 in the morning. It was a 24-hour party, but it was all very innocent. It wasn’t until later that the scene turned ugly and people started taking a lot of drugs. It was still a mod thing then.”
The old Crescendo jazz club turned into a groovy place called The Trip. Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground made a notable appearance there around this time. London Fog soon became an upscale bar named Sneaky Pete’s. Ever since the Las Vegas Sahara Hotel had erected a gigantic billboard in 1953 along the Sunset Strip, complete with a real pool and cute models, the boulevard showcased huge advertisements to industry folks heading home to Beverly Hills. Nowadays, many actors and musicians have it written into their contracts that they will receive a massive billboard featuring their latest project on the side of The Strip. The first musical act to start this precedent was The Doors, whose debut album at the turn of 1967 was featured on a large sign near the Whisky. “The Doors” LP fanned the flames in the local rock scene with its stunning number one-charting single “Light My Fire.”
Morrison and company were pushing their welcome at the Whisky. Groupie Pamela Des Barres related one memory of their many performances there. “…A very wasted Jim Morrison climbed up on stage to jam with the 1910 Fruitgum Company. The band tried to ignore him, but he wouldn’t leave the stage. He took off his shirt, started unzipping his fly, and then tried to shove the microphone down his pants. It was one of the few times Mario (Maglieri) had to turn off the lights and sound system, to get Jim off the stage.” Maglieri later gave his thoughts about Jim Morrison to the L.A. Times: “(He was) just a mixed up kid, but a good kid. I kicked his a** off-stage (when) he screwed around. He would never show up on time. But he was a good kid. He meant well. I tried to straighten him out. I saved his a** so many times.” The Doors were finally dismissed from the Whisky altogether after Morrison unleashed a screaming howl one night describing a certain act he wished to perform on his mother at the climax of their epic song, “The End.” Nevertheless, the band was welcome with open arms at other venues around town.
One of those establishments, a former posh nightclub called the Moulin Rouge sat on the corner of Sunset and Vine Street in Hollywood. The venue had a huge revolving stage, perfect to accommodate several acts. Gary Bookasta bought the club in 1965, turning it into the Hullabaloo, and began booking top talent for his after-hours shows, which began at 2:00am. He told the L.A. Weekly, “It’s funny because nowadays you hear about the Whisky launching the Doors, and it just isn’t true! Elmer Valentine threw the Doors out of the Whisky! The Doors really got their notoriety because they started bringing huge crowds into the Hullabaloo. We had the Doors, the Jefferson Airplane, the Turtles, the Seeds, Buffalo Springfield all in one show. Richard Pryor got his start on one of those afterhours shows. Just about everybody played it, with the exception maybe of Elvis and the Beatles.”
Nearby at the Hollywood Palladium (6215 Sunset Boulevard), big name stars like The Who, The Rolling Stones, and The Grateful Dead performed in the town’s largest hall at the time. Having opened in the 1940s and featuring many Sinatra performances thereafter, the Palladium was notable for not having any seats. This convenience allowed the kids to dance throughout each show and the theater’s owner, Lawrence Welk, to easily move in his sets on tape days to record his weekly network show.
R&B acts also had a home in Los Angeles both in Maverick Flats at 4225 Crenshaw Boulevard and The Red Velvet at 6507 Sunset Boulevard. Ike and Tina Turner, The Supremes, the Four Tops, and The Temptations would regularly stop in venues such as these. Later, ‘70s giants like The Commodores, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Parliament/Funkadelic would grace their stages. Maverick Flats was considered the Apollo Theatre of the West Coast. The Red Velvet would become a heavy metal hangout in the ‘80s called Club Lingerie.
At the start of 1967, the Jefferson Airplane were in town to record their second album, “Surrealistic Pillow,” featuring new singer Grace Slick. She reminisced about a night she spotted the burgeoning star and drug king Jim Morrison in her autobiography. “We all stayed at the Tropicana, a cheap motel on Santa Monica Boulevard, where we had semi-kitchenette setups and complimentary smog. On one of our first nights in L.A., we were coming back to our rooms, when we heard what we thought was a dog howling. On the balcony, crawling on all fours, was a totally nude Jim Morrison, barking at the moon. Oblivious to the contrast between his ‘natural’ state and the urban slum look of midtown L.A., he kept up the dog act, even after (lead guitarist) Paul Kantner stepped over him to get to his room. When I asked Paul what he said to Morrison, Paul answered, ‘What do you say to a guy who’s becoming a dog? Nothing.”
While drug usage was quite rampant among musicians, everyone gave each other space to gently trip out. This spirit of goodwill even extended to the club owners. Tough Chicago bondsman, Mario Maglieri, at the Whisky was actually a pussycat at heart. Len Fagan, a booker for the club Coconut Teazer in the 1980s, related his experiences during the late 1960s scene to Music Connection magazine. “The first time I was in the Whisky, I was hanging out right here; it was raining. It was either Moby Grape or Janis Joplin – somebody like that was playing inside – and I didn’t have the money, and I was huddled here listening. And Mario was over there, and he yelled at me, ‘What’s the matter, don’t you have any money?’ I go no. He goes, ‘Get inside.’ That was Mario for ya. Great guy. People say Bill Gazzarri was the godfather of rock, but I think Mario was the godfather. He watched us all grow up here. I remember nights I’d come here, he’d grab me and say, ‘You look like s***. What are you on? You haven’t eaten in a week!’ Drag me over to the bar and say, ‘Give him a hamburger – and you sit down and eat it!’ The best. Nobody does that – who does that anymore?”
Even the reclusive genius himself, Phil Spector, was not immune to a little brotherly generosity. Harvey Kubernik, a record producer, was a teen at the time of the late ‘60s, hitchhiking his way up and down the Strip. He related to the L.A. Times, “Phil Spector used to pick us up in his limousine. Sometimes he’d have his driver take us to a club, then pick us up afterwards and drive us home. The chauffeur would have to keep circling the house so my mother wouldn’t get suspicious.”
The hills above Hollywood were littered with musical superstars. The Beatles always rented lavish mansions when they played in town. George Harrison stayed in a place on a street called Blue Jay Way, located just off The Strip above the Chateau Marmont Hotel. One night his publicist, Derek Taylor, got lost in an L.A. fog trying to find his way to the Harrison household. George used this scenario for his song “Blue Jay Way” on the “Magical Mystery Tour” album.
Perhaps no other area was concentrated in hip, young musical residents than the Laurel Canyon section of the hills. All five Byrds had homes in the Canyon. Jim Morrison and his girlfriend Pamela maintained an abode on Rothdell Trail, just up from the Laurel Canyon Country Store, which he later immortalized in his song “Love Street.” A young musician named Jackson Browne, who hailed from Orange County, had headed to New York for a spell to hang with the Velvet Underground before settling back in Laurel Canyon during this period. He related his experience to Rolling Stone magazine. “These beautiful chicks from Peter Tork’s (of the Monkees) house, they kept coming over with these big bowls of fruit and dope and s***. They’d f*** us in the pool. We’d wake up and see this beautiful 16-year old flower child who only knew how to say ‘fave rave,’ with a bowl of fruit, got you incredibly high and then take you downstairs and go swimming.”
Free love was everywhere in the Hollywood Hills. Grace Slick described one of her visits to David Crosby’s Laurel Canyon pad in her autobiography. “David had two or three golden nymphs with trays of food and Michuocan moving quietly around the house, while he played his latest songs on a guitar that was almost as beautiful as the women who lived there. He loved them. They loved him. For David, at that time, two women together were what love was all about. I was later to sing a song by David called “Triad,” which his own band rejected because of its reference to living as a threesome.”
Famed rock photographer, Henry Diltz, told Q magazine, “In those days, lots of musicians were either living or hanging out in Laurel Canyon. Joni Mitchell, Mark Volman of the Turtles, The Monkees, Peter Fonda, Neil Young – these people would drop by each other’s houses and sing new songs or trade licks.” When Mitchell moved to the Laurel Canyon area, David Crosby was instrumental in getting her signed with Reprise Records, who subsequently released her self-titled debut album in 1968. Monkee man Michael Nesmith was so impressed by a female singer he saw in a band called the Stone Poneys that he gave the group a song called “A Different Drum” to cover. It would be Linda Ronstadt and the band’s only top twenty tune. And a strange man who lived in a log cabin home halfway up Laurel Canyon, at the corner of Lookout Mountain Road, was known to give some offbeat artists a break in the music biz.
Frank Zappa had been playing venues like the Troubadour and Whisky-A-Go-Go with his band the Mothers for a number of years. A pioneer in self-production and creating his own record labels, Zappa’s music flew in the face of the established hippie, feel-good rock of the day. His satirical lyrics and scatological phrasing made for little-to-zero radio airplay. His offbeat brand of artistry, however, attracted a number of kooky hangers-on that frequently dropped in unannounced at his very conspicuous home. One such group of individuals, a clan of female groupies, including Pamela Des Barres, were coined as the GTOs (most commonly defined as Girls Together Outrageously). Zappa at first turned them into a dance act and then honed their limited talents as a singing girl group. Just around the periphery of his awareness, another ingenue talent named Vincent Furnier would soon cross paths with the estimable Frank Zappa.
Meanwhile, 1968 was a time of transition for bands throughout the city. The Mamas and the Papas were coming apart. First the group told Michelle Phillips that she was fired again, then with the official separation of Michelle and John, the four members decided enough was enough. Cass Elliot went on to make her solo debut at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in October of that year, and the group briefly reunited for the album “People Like Us” in the early ‘70s. But any chance of a permanent resurrection of their bond was put to an end on July 29, 1974, when Elliot died of a heart attack while choking on food at Harry Nilsson’s apartment in London. Gene Clark and David Crosby had split from the Byrds. Chris Hillman and Roger McGuinn forged on, hiring Gram Parsons and Kevin Kelley. By the end of the year, Hillman, Parsons and Kelley would splinter off to form the Flying Burrito Brothers. After having left the Buffalo Springfield a few times in ’67, Neil Young called it quits and signed with Reprise Records, connecting with a new manager in town named Elliot Roberts, who would come to shape the ‘70s music scene ahead. Bassist Bruce Palmer was replaced by the Springfield’s recording engineer, Jimmy Messina. But soon, in May 1968, the Buffalo collapsed. Richie Furay and Messina would go on to form the group Poco. And Stephen Stills would connect with an old chum.
“Stephen and I had dug each other from afar when I was in the Byrds, and he was putting together Buffalo Springfield,” David Crosby told Q magazine. “He and I had a lot of music in common.” Crosby and Stills felt they also had a lot in common with another musician from an English band who soon arrived virtually on their doorstep. “Mama Cass from the Mamas and the Papas brought The Hollies to Los Angeles in February 1968,” Graham Nash related to Q, “because she wanted her band’s producer, Lou Adler, to sign us to Epic. We had Valentine’s Day off, so we offered to do a free show at the Whisky-A-Go-Go. Everybody turned out for us – The Mamas and The Papas, The Beach Boys, The Doors, everybody was there.” Stills, Crosby and their friend Neil Young were also in attendance…and in agreement. “We all came to the conclusion,” Crosby elaborated to Q, “that indeed, in the midst of that pile of s***, there was the best damn harmony singer around. So we took him home. We got him high, and we talked to him.” Nash dropped the Hollies without looking back and joined Crosby and Stills, and sometimes Young. As Neil had done just before them, Crosby, Stills and Nash signed with manager Elliot Roberts and his partner, an ambitious player recently arrived from New York, named David Geffen.
A native of Brooklyn, Geffen got his first job in the entertainment industry working in the mailroom of the William Morris talent agency. He lied to his employers about his having graduated from UCLA and even intercepted a letter from the university in the mailroom proving his deception. With these inherent manager skills firmly in place, Geffen worked his way up to music agent. At the Monterey Pop Festival, he caught an appearance by innovative singer-songwriter Laura Nyro and immediately became her manager, grabbing her a contract with Columbia Records. Then came Crosby, Stills and Nash, who in turn told him about Joni Mitchell, and about Jackson Browne, the fledgling musician who had opened at the Troubadour for Linda Ronstadt. Soon, Geffen oversaw a plethora of stars. By the turn of the decade, Geffen yearned to start his own record label, a place where he could nurture talent and shield them from the harsh realities of business. From that notion, together with Elliot Roberts, they created Asylum Records.
The Strip was still in full swing during the year, and many artists from out of town would make a point of heading to L.A. for a little rest, relaxation, and raucous revelry. Jimi Hendrix was recording his monumental “Electric Ladyland” LP in New York when he decided to stop abruptly and go play in California. He spent much of the summer palling around with his friend and fellow musician, drummer Buddy Miles, at Miles’ white Tudor mansion in the Hollywood Hills. Together they would visit a club on the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Curson Street named the Experience, in honor of Hendrix. A huge façade featuring Jimi’s face graced the front of the building, and patrons would walk through Hendrix’s ‘mouth’ to enter the premises. Zipping back up to Buddy’s house one night, Jimi blew his pristine silver Stingray through a neighbor’s fence. The next day he bought another car and proceeded to wreck it as well. Waiting for him at the mansion would be a line of females eager to connect with Hendrix and his ‘experience.’ The lines grew bigger when rumors spread around the Sunset clubs that Jimi was handing out thousands of dollars to his willing female fans.
While the Doors were still at the top of their game during 1968, Jim Morrison was coming apart. He rarely stayed at the house with Pamela. Some nights he could be found hanging out the windows of his temporary residence at the Chateau Marmont Hotel and the Continental Hyatt House, located at 8401 Sunset Boulevard. For convenience, he would crash at the sleazy Alta Cienega Motel, just off the Strip, for $10 a night, whenever he was too drunk or high to make it back up into the Hills. It was here one night that he and another superstar of rock at the time, Janis Joplin, decided to see how each other were in the sack. Joplin later revealed to her friend Henry Carr, “I don’t like Jim Morrison. He was okay in bed, but when we got up the next morning, he asked for a shot of sloe gin.” This was a drink the hard-boozing gal considered was for wimps. Apparently Morrison didn’t have a great deal of respect for Joplin either. According to authors Danny Sugerman and Jerry Hopkins, he and Janis got amiably drunk together at a party thrown at actor John Davidson’s house. “But then Jim turned mean and grabbed Janis by the hair, pulling her head into his crotch and holding it there. Finally, she broke free, fleeing to the bathroom in tears. Jim was wrestled into a car. Janis came running after him. She reached inside the car and began hitting Jim on the head with a bottle of Southern Comfort. Jim was laughing as they pulled away.”
During the summer of 1968, a group from the Midwest pulled up stakes and fell in with Joplin on their first tour up and down the West Coast. Chicago had made a name for themselves throughout the 1960s, playing hundreds of gigs in their native city. An old college friend of the band’s, James Guercio, became a producer for Columbia Records and persuaded the outfit to come out to California. “We weren’t promised any security or anything like this,” Jim Pankow, the group’s trombonist told Poppin magazine in 1969. “Jim Guercio merely hoped we’d get out there and become a musical community, and sure enough we did. We got out there, and we played the Whisky for free, and we started catching on, and slowly but surely we built up a reputation in L.A. It started there, from last June (’68) on, we started up the ladder slowly but surely.”
Another Midwest talent, a savvy, successful industry icon, was also relocating his dynasty to L.A. after having shaped an entertainment empire in Detroit. Motown’s president, Berry Gordy, bought a home from comedian Tommy Smothers in the Hollywood Hills in the autumn of 1968. His regal star, Diana Ross, moved into a rental home just down the street from him. Gordy would set up offices in a Motown building on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of Hollywood. Within months, his new proteges, five little boys would come to bunk at his mansion and at Diana’s on their first journey to the West Coast. The Jackson 5, who would go on to score number one hits like “I Want You Back,” “ABC,” and “The Love You Save,” had their formal coming-out party in a private discotheque in Beverly Hills called The Daisy Club. Diana Ross acted as the person who ‘discovered’ them, and their high-pitched harmonies and smooth moves bowled over everyone in the room. Five days later, the Jackson 5 were opening for Ross at the huge Great Western Forum, located at 3900 Manchester Boulevard in Inglewood to stadium-size crowds. The boys’ parents found a home on Hayvenhurst Avenue, just off of Ventura Boulevard in the San Fernando Valley and a new L.A. legacy was born.
1969 saw the arrival of a phenomenal new band from England whose ‘heavy metal’ sound would mold an invasion of long-haired jammers well into the late 1980s. For Led Zeppelin’s lead singer Robert Plant, Los Angeles epitomized everything he dreamed the land of freedom would embrace. “It was the first place I ever landed in America,” he related to Rolling Stone magazine. “The first time I ever saw a cop with a gun. The first time I ever saw a twenty-foot long car. There were a lot of fun-loving people to crash into. People were genuinely welcoming us to the country, and we started out on a path of positive enjoyment. Throwing eggs from floor to floor and really silly water battles and all the good fun that a nineteen-year old boy should have. It was just the first steps of learning how to be crazy.” Over the next five years, the Zeppelin’s visits to Los Angeles would write the book on crazy.
When Led Zeppelin first played the Whisky on January 2, 1969, that Vincent Furnier guy whom Frank Zappa came across would open for them during their week-long stay. Having grown up in a well-to-do suburb of Phoenix, Arizona, Furnier was a letterman athlete who started a band with some of his fellow teammates. At first they went by the name the Earwigs, then the Spiders. The quintet moved to Los Angeles in 1968 and began playing clubs under the moniker The Nazz. Learning that a certain group back east headed by one Todd Rundgren also went by that name, Furnier supposedly got inspiration from a Ouija board one night, with the game spelling out the identity he would soon transform into – Alice Cooper. The laidback community was going to be in for a shock. “We were playing in the wake of the Doors and all those kind of trippy bands,” Cooper noted to Classic Rock magazine, “and the very first time I called myself Alice Cooper, with the make-up smeared everywhere, I was wearing a pink clown outfit with furry afro hair. I must’ve looked like the scariest thing on two legs!”
In fact, fright set in during Cooper’s second gig, which was a birthday bash held for comedian Lenny Bruce at Bob Gibson’s Cheetah club. Four hundred of Bruce’s friends and associates scrambled out of the club, scurrying away from the sounds and freaky presentation Alice gave on stage. Cooper told Classic Rock magazine, “Frank (Zappa) saw that and said, ‘Any band who can clear a room that quickly, I gotta have on my label!’ Everyone was doing this horrible peace and love s*** at the time, and then, we came onstage bastardizing a Who song, looking like some space-age Frankensteins!” After an early morning audition at Zappa’s home, the eccentric producer-musician signed this quirky new band to his Bizarre/Straight label, and shortly thereafter, they released their debut album, “Pretties For You.” “We were the band that drove the stake through the heart of the Love Generation, and proud of it,” Alice chirped to Circus magazine. “I’m proud of all the persecution we took for it too. Not just from the authority end of it, but even from the hippies. And it was so hard to get the hippies to hate anyone.”
Even though the Love Generation still tried its best to spread good cheer, Cooper’s assumptions did portend an evil lurking just around the corner in their community. While Graham Nash was contentedly chirping about blissful Laurel Canyon domesticity with his love Joni Mitchell in the song “Our House,” a brutal invasion of another domicile would rock the Hollywood community on August 9, 1969. After a light meal at Lucy’s El Adobe, at 5536 Melrose Avenue (across from the Paramount Studios lot), Sharon Tate, the pregnant wife of director Roman Polanski, and her friends hairdresser Jay Sebring, coffee heiress Abigail Folger, and Polanski chum Voytek Frykowski went back to Sharon’s home in Stone Canyon at 10050 Cielo Drive. Sometime in the early morning hours of the 9th, Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ members swept down on the quiet surroundings and butchered the four of them along with Steven Parent, a friend of the property’s caretaker. It was later revealed that Charles “Tex” Watkins was one of the killers. He had once been a doorman at the Whisky for six months.
Panic set in. Who would have done such a horrible act? “We were all running around with guns in our purses,” Michelle Phillips told author Dominick Dunne. “We all suspected each other. It was the most bizarre period of my life. I didn’t trust anyone. It could have been anyone, as far as I was concerned…The police were questioning everyone. Everyone was flushing drugs down the toilet. For some reason, they suspected my husband, John Phillips. ‘Would your husband have any reason to have any animosity toward anyone in that house?’ they asked me. I told them I had had a night in London with Roman. I felt bad about that, because of Sharon.” The murders didn’t crimp business along the Strip, but as the year progressed, fewer kids were willing to pick up hitchhikers. The spirit of goodwill was replaced by wariness.
Near the end of the decade, The Doors were completing their fifth album, “Morrison Hotel.” For the LP’s cover shot, they hired rock photographer Henry Diltz to capture an image. Ray Manzarek told Diltz the inspiration for the LP’s title had come from an actual hotel by that name in the seedy area of downtown Los Angeles. The group went with Diltz to take photographs around the establishment. “Right after we walked out of the Morrison Hotel, Jim said, ‘Let’s go get something to drink, let’s go get a beer,” Diltz recalled to Harris Online. “We were in this little funky Volkswagen van which the drummer owned…So we drove down to skid row to look around for a place to get a beer. We don’t remember who, but someone looked out the window and said, ‘Look at that around the corner, the Hard Rock Café.’ So we all said, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go there.’ So we parked the van, went in for about half an hour having a beer or two, talking to all the old wino guys that were in there because it was in skid row.” Diltz took some shots of the place before they left for possible use on the record cover. “I guess though, sometime the next year after the album came out with that picture on the back, they got a call from England and this guy says, ‘Hello. Would you mind if we use that name on the back of your album? We’re starting a café over here in London and we would like to use that name.’ And they said, ‘No, go ahead,’ and that was the beginning of it. Now every time I go into a Hard Rock Café, whatever city I’m in, I always feel like I should get a free hamburger.”
The 1970s blew in without much fanfare. Producer Kim Fowley later observed to the L.A. Weekly, “I remember Gene Clark (of the Byrds) once telling me that he compared the ‘60s to the roaring ‘20s. He said after the ‘20s, you had the ‘30s, and he said the ‘70s will probably be lame. And he was right.” Indeed, after a year or two more, the Sunset Strip would calm down, and the kids would simply go down for a show and then head home. No longer would there be an all-day-all-night sense of community for the young generation to hang out and enjoy around this stretch of road. And while musical acts didn’t break as steadily as they did during the peak period of 1960s Los Angeles, the city was still seen as the Mecca of Music for artists seeking a chance. A guy named Kemal Amen Kasem, better known as Casey Kasem, took an idea he’d formed while working at an Oakland radio station for a show packed with trivia about rockers and packaged it as “American Top 40.” The program began its broadcast out of Los Angeles on July 4, 1970. Music still mattered.
One artist who would make his American debut in Los Angeles would definitely have an impact on the industry. The Troubadour club on Santa Monica Boulevard had established itself as a premiere outlet for musicians initially showcasing their work to the town’s vast record industry. Songwriter Carole King used the venue to debut her solo work after splitting with her longtime writing partner and husband Gerry Goffin. In July 1969, soft rock legend James Taylor, who had been recording for Apple Records out of England, chose the Troubadour as his launching pad for notoriety in the United States. But the hype that preceded a diminutive pianist from the U.K. on August 25, 1970 seemed to transcend all expectation that had come before with any other artist. When Elton John touched down at LAX airport, a red double-decker bus with a giant banner reading, “Elton John Has Arrived!,” ferried him into the heart of West Hollywood. His self-titled debut album on MCA Records subsidiary label, Uni, had been released in Britain to very poor record sales. A year before, his first album, for Dick James’ label, entitled “Empty Sky,” had rendered even worse returns. But the buzz was bright for the former Reggie Dwight that August night.
Neil Diamond introduced him. “I know the album, and I love this album, and I have no idea what these people are about to do. I want to take my seat and enjoy this with you.” Elton, along with bassist Dee Murray and drummer Nigel Olsson, barreled into a 9-song set that brought down the house. Every reporter in the room raved about this musical genius the next day in newspapers around the country. Kathy Orloff of the Chicago Sun Times wrote, “He was a major star before the end of his first set.” Elton acknowledged the surreal moment of that night, and subsequent performances at the Troubadour that week, to Rolling Stone magazine. “It really was just that first night…like ‘The Eddie Duchin Story’ or ‘dis boy is a genius.’ One of those old films, ‘Look, the boy is conducting the orchestra, he’s fourteen years old, and he’s blind, and he’s got one leg, and everybody’s going ‘hooray!’…People were flocking to us. I couldn’t believe it. Second night I played, Leon Russell was in the front row, but I didn’t see him until the last number. Thank God, I didn’t, because at that time, I slept and drank Leon Russell. I mean, I still really like him, but at that time I regarded him as some kind of a god. And I saw him and I just stopped. He said, ‘Keep on,’ and he shouted something, and I said, oh f***, and he said, ‘Come up to the house tomorrow…’ It was like a schoolboy’s fantasy coming true. Really strange. Quincy Jones, he must have brought his whole family – he has 900 children – Quincy Jones and I kept shaking hands coming through the door. The whole week at the Troubadour should have been called The Million Handshakes.”
While Elton triumphed, the music world stepped back a few months later to grieve. On September 18, 1970, Jimi Hendrix died of a barbiturate overdose in London. Less than a few weeks later, on October 3rd, Janis Joplin was gone. Mario Maglieri over at the Whisky recalled a final memory of her to the L.A. Times. “(She was a) raunchy broad. But she was a good kid. She meant well. Three days before she died, we sat in a booth and she asked for Southern Comfort. She had this raspy voice, and she was stoned and drunk. The girl brought over a glass of Southern Comfort and Janis said, ‘I wanted a (expletive) bottle of Southern Comfort.”
She had managed to kick heroin for about five months, but during the month of September, while recording her album, “Pearl,” she slipped back into the habit. After a session at Sunset Sound the night of the 3rd, Janis climbed into a friend’s car and drove over to Barney’s Beanery, a no-frills bar and restaurant located at 8447 Santa Monica Boulevard. After a few drinks, her pals dropped her off at the Landmark Hotel, at 7047 Franklin Avenue, where she was staying. Her junkie friend, Peggy Caserta, had gotten her some heroin, and Janis shot up. She then walked down to the hotel lobby, chatted with night clerk George Sandoz for about 15 minutes, bought a pack of cigarettes and headed back to Room 105. Laying down the cigarettes and starting to undress, Joplin dropped dead to the floor of an massive overdose, cutting her lower lip on a piece of furniture on her way down.
What was once considered just a recreational diversion had become a full-blown addiction in the community. Musicians were ever-increasingly looking to harder drugs to anesthetize their rocketing trajectory to fame and fortune. Road manager for the Flying Burrito Brothers, Phil Kaufman, illustrated the half-baked proclivities of his own employers during this period in his autobiography. The Brothers were playing a typical gig at the Whisky one night. “Chris Hillman asked me to get him some talcum powder for his guitar. Chris Etheridge was playing bass…I had spilled some talcum powder on Chris’ amp. While I was out mixing the sound in the audience, they were playing and singing when all of a sudden the bass stopped. Chris Etheridge had seen the talcum powder on the amp, and he was snorting it. That gives you an indication of what was going on in rock ‘n’ roll in those days. He stopped playing, put his nose on the amp, and snorted all the baby powder.
Another band affected by drug abuse tried to make a ‘comeback’ of sorts in November 1970 at the Whisky. The Beach Boys had performed pretty much without Brian Wilson for a number of years and finally, they decided to play four shows one week at the hallowed hall. Phil Everly, Herb Alpert, Neil Young, and even Paul McCartney, all showed up that week to hear the soothing sounds of the heralded surfer dudes. Brian, still paranoid from the drugs and complaining about his inner ear problems, spent much of the time backstage, afraid to come out.
The direction of Southern California rock would soon get a defining jolt in the form of a new band taking shape in the early ‘70s. “If only for perfectly capturing the feel of L.A.,” Neil Young noted to Rolling Stone magazine, “the Eagles are the one band that’s carried on the spirit of the Buffalo Springfield.” Guitarist Glenn Frey had moved from the Michigan area to Los Angeles in 1968. “The first day I got to L.A.,” he told Rolling Stone, “I saw David Crosby sitting on the steps of the Country Store in Laurel Canyon, wearing the same hat and green leather bat cape he had on for ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ To me, that was an omen.” He also met singer-songwriter J. D. Souther that first day. The two went on to play together as Longbranch Pennywhistle. In the late ‘60s, they moved into the Echo Park home of Jackson Browne. Recording an album for indie label Amos Records, Souther and Frey soon became disenchanted with their constricting contract with the company. “…So we’d go down to the Troubadour bar and get drunk,” he continued with Rolling Stone. “The Troubadour, man, was and always will be full of tragic f***ing characters. Has-beens and hopefuls. Sure, it’s brought a lot of music to people, but it’s also infested with spiritual parasites who will rob you of your precious artistic energy. I was always worried about going down there because I thought people would think I had nothing better to do. Which was true.”
Frey got in touch with David Geffen. “Geffen told me point blank that I shouldn’t make a record by myself and that maybe I should join a band. Then Linda Ronstadt hired me. It was two days before rehearsal was supposed to start and they still hadn’t found a drummer. And here was Henley, just standing right up in the Troubadour.” Drummer Don Henley had blown into L.A. in May 1970, having been a member of bands in Texas. “So I struck up a conversation with him,” Frey continued. “I wanted to put together a band, but I was going on the road with Linda. Henley said that he was f***ed up too…We were both at impasses. So he joined Linda’s group too. The first night of our tour, we decided to start a band.”
The Eagles took shape with the addition of guitarist Bernie Leadon and bassist Randy Meisner. Geffen signed them to his Asylum Records, and they recorded their first two albums, “The Eagles,” and “Desperado” in London with famed Rolling Stones and Who producer, Glyn Johns. The group became synonymous with the term “southern California country rock.” By their third album, “On The Border,” they’d had enough of the distant English environs, and recorded over half of the material in the States. When they got around to taking the reins completely themselves, laying down the single “Best of My Love,” and their fourth album, “One of These Nights,” in California, both achievements rose to the number one positions on their respective Billboard charts.
By 1972, the Los Angeles music scene had established itself as a place where signed musicians would have their every whim catered to each time they dropped into town to meet with their record company. Cheetah club owner and publicity agent impresario, Bob Gibson, had the idea to open a nightspot especially for his rock ‘n’ roll clients. Together with investors like Elmer Valentine and Mario Maglieri from the Whisky, and record chief Lou Adler, the Rainbow Bar and Grill opened at 9001 Sunset Boulevard on April 1, 1972. The location previously housed the Villa Nova Restaurant, a popular hangout in the ‘40s and ‘50s for Hollywood stars. Marilyn Monroe had met Joe DiMaggio there on a blind date. “We were tired of getting f***ed over by other places,” Gibson confided to interviewer Colman Andrews, “and decided to f*** ourselves over instead.” The club was conveniently located directly across from an office building at 9000 Sunset Boulevard that housed most of the record business’ top PR firms. “It opened for a party for Elton; he wanted to be first,” Gibson related to the Daily News. “Then the next week we had a party for Rod (Stewart), then the Stones, and suddenly we were on the map. Around the world, The Rainbow became the place to be.”
Maglieri and Valentine managed the nightspot, but also were sinking their investments into another profitable club, right next door. Venue owner Chuck Landis, who used to run the old Crescendo jazz club, had opened a high class exotic dance establishment named Largo at 9009 Sunset Boulevard in the mid-‘60s. Bringing in a slew of other investors, such as David Geffen, Elliot Roberts, Lou Adler, and northern California rock promoter Bill Graham, the bunch opened The Roxy at the old Largo location. This 450 seat-capacity club would showcase new and vital rock acts to the industry crowds throughout the ‘70s and well into the ‘90s. Many an established group such as the Rolling Stones would play impromptu intimate gigs there for delighted fans. Both The Rainbow and The Roxy had private clubs above the ground floor (Over The Rainbow and On The Rox, respectively) that would shelter the superstars from the common folk.
Around this time, rock enthusiast Rodney Bingenheimer leapt into the club fray by opening Rodney’s English Disco at 7563 Sunset. Bingenheimer had been working at a record label for the past few years, and at times, was responsible for shuttling stars around town. He had the distinct honor of driving a young David Bowie up and down the Strip when the skinny legend first arrived in L.A. Bowie had Bingenheimer cruise by Hollywood High School, at Sunset and Highland Boulevard, to try to pick up teenagers. “The girls didn’t like David. Maybe it was because he was wearing a dress,” Rodney later quipped. The English Disco survived until 1974, then Bingenheimer closed the venue and became host of a popular radio rock show. His friend Gary Bookasta, the old Hullabaloo owner, had closed that club in 1969 and had purchased a country & western FM radio station. He had changed the format and molded it into the world-famous KROQ. Bingenheimer still has his gig there.
As far as bands that made the most impact in town whenever they visited in the 1970s, legendary honors had to go to Led Zeppelin. During this period the group would rent out several floors of the Continental Hyatt House, which had been re-dubbed ‘The Riot House,’ and throw some of the wildest parties. Many television sets and pieces of furniture found their way to the ground floor, via an ejection off an 11th floor balcony. More often than not, the man responsible for their wellbeing while away from home, road manager Richard Cole, was the mad instigator of all the antics. During the band’s 1973 tour stop in L.A., he smuggled his Honda motorcycle up the Hyatt’s freight elevator and proceeded to ride the noisy bike up and down the halls. Guitarist Jimmy Page had death threats against him and armed security guards were posted outside his suite 24-hours a day. It seems a number of unstable characters didn’t like the fact that he had picked up a 14-year old groupie on the previous tour and was now shacked up with her at the hotel.
While in town to play the Great Western Forum each time, the Zeppelin made The Rainbow club their unofficial headquarters to relax and blow off steam. Dozens of girls would line up around their cordoned-off section to try to capture their attentions and become their latest conquest for the evening. The teenage females would also sleep on the floor outside their suites, yearning to be beckoned into their inner sanctums. These times have been documented as pure insanity, but the group’s publicist on the tour, Danny Goldberg, told “Hammer of the Gods” author, Stephen Davis, that it all wasn’t just fun and games. “My take on this period was that it was really boring. They were tired. One of the stories that doesn’t get told was how many times there weren’t wild parties, and how lonely and exhausted they would get, and how they would be so worried about what they looked like in a picture and would their wives be mad at them.”
In October 1973, another rock luminary came to town and reeked a little havoc of his own. John Lennon had been a resident of New York for over two years when he and his wife Yoko decided a split might do them both some good. Yoko sent John out to California with their secretary May Pang and allowed him to indulge in a little ‘letting loose.’ John soon got into the spirit of things and became a regular fixture at the Rainbow. On many occasions he’d show up in his psychedelic Rolls Royce and park himself in a private area with his drinking pals Harry Nilsson and Keith Moon. Llana Lloyd, one of the “glitter” girls, sort of a cross between a dancer and a hostess, at the establishment, told the L.A. Times what would happen when the female fans would line up around Lennon’s table. “They’d open their blouses for him, and he would pinch them, and then tell them to go away.” Nilsson and Moon were a part of Rod Stewart’s Hollywood Vampire soccer team, an unofficial crew at the Rainbow that also included drummers Ringo Starr and Micky Dolenz, as well as Alice Cooper. John Lennon confided to Cooper at the time that he was a great fan of Alice’s song “Elated,” from the album “Billion Dollar Babies.” “He said that he’d listened to the song nearly a hundred times,” Cooper told Classic Rock magazine, “but then at the end of the conversation, he said, ‘Of course, you know that Paul would have done it better!”
Lennon decided to record an album of old rock ‘n’ roll standards to keep from being bored during his days in L.A. He tapped Phil Spector to produce the record. By this time, Spector had all but dropped out of sight. His divorce from his wife Ronnie was being finalized, and out of spite or eccentricity, she allegedly received her first alimony payment from him, a sum of $1,300, in nickels. Spector had spiraled into drug abuse and took to wearing a gun on his hip around his Hollywood mansion. Meanwhile, Lennon wasn’t doing much better. On March 12, 1974, with Harry Nilsson along for a drinking binge, John was tossed out of the Troubadour after he insulted the Smothers Brothers onstage and shoved a waitress. The news and photos made it into papers worldwide. One night after a late-night recording session, Lennon returned to Lou Adler’s residence, where he was staying during the L.A. period, and while drunk on Vodka, managed to wreck furniture, smash vases, and trash several gold records hanging on the walls, including one for Carole King’s “Tapestry.” Phil Spector and his bodyguards showed up to tie Lennon’s wrists and ankles to the bed, calming him down.
Perhaps the party was over for a while. The Los Angeles music scene had weathered a very bright, productive, thrilling growth spurt in the last decade and by the mid-‘70s, it seemed there needed to be a cooling-off period. “It’s not L.A. now,” Zeppelin singer Robert Plant told Rolling Stone in 1975. “L.A. infested with jaded twelve-year olds is not the L.A. that I really dug.” For their 1975 tour, Plant stayed with a girlfriend at a rented Malibu beach home, far away from the rest of the band over at the infamous ‘Riot House.’ A week before she tried to assassinate President Gerald Ford, former Manson Family member, Squeaky Fromme showed up at the Hyatt, pestering staff incessantly, insisting she just had to get in touch with Jimmy Page. The times felt uncertain, and the rock community began to withdraw to the shelter of their own homes. The Sunset Strip was no longer overflowing with wall-to-wall teens and sounds of blistering guitars. An overt indicator of the decline was signaled by the stalwart venue of rock, the Whisky-A-Go-Go. In 1975, Elmer Valentine went back to spinning records in his discotheque.
But the Strip would resuscitate the music scene once again in the decade to come.
(Be sure to read part two of this two-part series)
© 2000 Ned Truslow