At age 12, I was a certified musical failure. I’d been forced to take piano lessons at a young age from a nice lady in our neighborhood, and I hated it. I was all too happy to abandon the instrument at the first opportunity. And then in junior high I had an unsuccessful stint as a mediocre trumpet player in the school band. I turned the trumpet in at the end of the school year, and figured playing music just wasn’t my thing.
That might have been the end of it, but when I was 14, the Beatles burst onto the scene, and I was totally mesmerized by their music. I simply had to be a part of it, so I bought an $18 guitar and along with my friend Pete, started to learn how to play chords and pick melodies.
And after I got moderately good at it, I returned to the piano, this time not because I had to play it, but because I wanted to play it, and pretty soon I learned to play by ear. I spent countless hours figuring out how to play the notes and chords on an instrument that had no allure for me back when I was just playing notes on a page. I wanted to feel the music, and I couldn’t do that while I was constrained by written music.
From the guitar and piano, I branched out to other instruments: 5-string and tenor banjos, mandolin, electric bass, harmonica, etc. And from high school on I played in groups, starting with “the upper register,” a Tijuana Brass knock-off group that had trumpets, a trombone, two guitars (Pete and me) and drums. When I joined the group, they were looking for a bass guitar player, but since I only had a regular electric guitar, I just boosted the bass setting on my amp and played on the top two strings most of the time.
At the end of our senior year we made a self-produced low budget album, and some of the guys in the group took it up to Casey Kasem, then a disc jockey at KRLA in Pasadena, and tried to get him to sign the liner notes saying that we were the best Tijuana Brass knockoff band around. They reported back that Casey spun the disc, listened to a couple of cuts and then told them, “Guys, it’s a gas, and it’s a bag, but it’s not a groove.”
To hear recordings, click on the photos above the song titles (until you get to the larger images,- then click directly on images).
the upper register
“Marching Through Madrid”
(Pete Desimone, me, Brad Aspell (replaced by Ty Newcomb by the time we made the album), Dick Farber, Steve Sandland & Glenn Gravlee)
J.C. MUNNS & HIS BOYS
Through my college years I played tenor banjo in “J. C. Munns & His Boys.” Jay was a friend from high school who played then (and still plays now) better and more authentic vintage ragtime piano than anyone I’ve ever heard. In high school, Jay promised me tip money and free pizza at the Village Inn Pizza Parlor if I learned to play banjo, and also enticed Dave Ellsworth to come down and play the woodblocks, spoons and other percussion instruments. Eventually Dave transitioned to the stand-up bass and I transitioned to a tenor banjo, a more authentic “period” instrument for old-time music. Together, Dave and I complemented Jay’s dazzling piano style, and we played through most of my college years.
We had some great times and made a couple of albums. We all tried our hand at writing rags, and one that Dave wrote, “Alabaster Rag,” Jay and I immediately loved, and it ended up on our first album. It’s a classical rag in the tradition of Scott Joplin.
On our second album, Jay and Dave came up with a special effect on “I’ll Be in My Dixie Home Again Tomorrow.” At the beginning, it sounds like you’re listening to a record played on an old Victrola, but if you keep listening . . .
“I’ll Be in My Dixie Home Again Tomorrow”
Dave “D.L.” Ellsworth & Jay Munns
Midway through recording our second album, we invited Harold Hensley to come and lay down a few tracks with us. The guy was amazing on fiddle, and also played several woodwind instruments. He was a terrific improvisor, and I really love Harold’s riffs and the fun we were all having on “Nobody’s Sweetheart Now.”
“Nobody’s Sweetheart Now”
The Saga of “Huntington Beach”
And who could forget that no-hit wonder, “Huntington Beach,” probably the only ragtime surfing song ever recorded. Back in the 70s, a record producer from Huntington Beach approached us at a gig and said he wanted to hire us to record a song he’d written, so he paired us up with a drummer and a vocalist he knew, dubbed us “Pacific,” and put us in a studio to record the song. He gave us the choice of taking a percentage of the profits, or a flat 60 bucks per guy for the session. We took the $60, and never looked back. We knew we’d made the right decision when, the day we got our first copy of the record, I put it on the record player in my folks’ backyard, and after playing it a couple of times, a neighbor yelled over the fence, “Change the record!” Still, the lagging sales didn’t deter the producer from trying to set up a concert for Pacific to play on the pier at Huntington Beach. We had to point out to him that there was just one problem — there was no group Pacific. (Oh, and yes, when I recorded it off the 45, it skipped at the end – somehow seemed fittin.’)
PLAYING WITH JOE
My brother Joe and I have played together off and on through the years, including a song he wrote about the Civil War, called “1864.” On this version, we’re accompanied by Fred Voros on acoustic guitar.
Here’s a song we recorded in 1978, on fairly primitive equipment, so there’s a bit of a hiss:
ROCKIN’ CHAIR (Cover of a song by The Band)
THE L.A. RIVER RANGERS
When I was at UCLA, I played in “The L.A. River Rangers,” which was meant to be a bit of a joke, which you’ll understand if you’ve ever seen the L.A. River, which is more like a concrete wash.
(Me, Anne Lynn, John Krason & Skip Montanero on ground)
THE BASSWOOD BAND
After moving to Utah, I played in various groups throughout the years, including “The Basswood Band,” again with Joe.
RONALDO, CC & JIFF
I also played mandolin in a trio with my cousin Ron on violin and Jeff Thorpe on guitar.
PLAYING WITH SANDI
In the mid-80s, I collaborated with Sandi Hemmert, on songs like this one — “Prisoner in Disguise,” a J.D. Souther song featured on Linda Ronstadt album of the same name. Again, the recording equipment was pretty primitive, but I’ve always liked the song. (Sandi is featured in the picture in the black and white striped shirt.)
My brother Joe joined us and sang lead on this song – “Botswanna” by John Stewart. The recording starts partway into the first verse. I feel fortunate to have this much of it, because a few years ago when I was tossing out old cassette tapes, I inadvertently threw it away. A day or two later, just before the truck came to empty the dumpster, I somehow decided to take another quick look at the list of songs on each tape, and found this one.
For a few years, we had a family band called “ABERDEEN,”which I played in with my daughters.
From 2007 to 2013, I played bass guitar and mandolin in the rock band “JABOOM” (which stands for “Just a Bunch of Old Men”) with my brother Joe. It was a fun group and we had some great times, including performing at the same stadium where Paul McCartney had performed two weeks before. (Yes, we were just playing for the Rio Tinto Mining Company’s employees’ party, but it was still a hoot playing at the stadium.) In JABOOM, I got to live out my childhood fantasy of performing music by the Beatles and other iconic groups that I grew up with.
JABOOM at Rio Tinto Stadium 2010
“Evil Ways” (photo from 2010 lineup)
“She’s Not There”
“Sultans of Swing” with guest artist Phillip Linford
When I moved out of Utah, I said goodbye to JABOOM and figured I’d never do anything as fun musically again, but when I moved to the coast it was my good fortune to hook up with Dave, a first-rate musician who had played in several bands in the midwest. Way back when, right out of high school, he had been a member of a popular group that was kind of like “The Beach Boys” of Kansas City, and they had made some popular records.
After Dave and I met at the open mic we decided to team up, and now perform in restaurants and pubs around town, playing mostly classic popular music from the 50’s through the 80s — nostalgic songs we grew up with, and that we call the soundtrack of our lives.