RECALLING GARY USHER
I met Gary Usher at a "sock hop" event. He and Richie Burns and a couple of others had gotten a local hit with a group Gary put together called "The 4 Speeds" . The hit was "RPM", and they were doing personal appearances, as was my group, The Castells, at these local dance events, usually sponsored by local radio stations. Actually, you didn't really perform at these events, but "lip-synched" to your record. This one was sponsored by local station KRLA I believe, and Gary and I hit it off in casual conversation.
Gary told me that he was doing a lot of independent production of surf/hot rod music, and would I be interested in making a little extra money by participating in some of these recordings. I was under contract at the time, and was reticent to get too involved. I didn't want to sing lead, because I didn't want to get sued, but felt that I could sing background parts and make a little extra money. I think my first session was on some "Superstocks" stuff, maybe "Surf Route 101". I didn't do much on these recordings, in fact, I know I participated, but can't remember what I did. Early on I also did some Dick Dale stuff, but again my memory is hazy.
Then we did the only recording by "The Timers". This was a cover of a Beach Boy song "No-Go Showboat", and Gary told me that Brian Wilson himself was going to be there. I had met Brian before, in fact, he had produced my group "The Castells", on the song "I Do", but had not really gotten to know him much. This was the recording that changed my status on Gary's stuff, as it was the first time I sang lead. Gary told me that I was to sing the main part, and that Brian would double with me, actually singing simultaneously with me, shading me by standing right behind me, with my voice dominant, and Brian's backing me up. Brian was already a musical hero, so this was quite a thrill for me. Now I was committed, singing lead with Brian, and from that time on, I became the lead vocalist on most of Gary's recordings.
It was really fun. Besides the hot rod/surf tunes, we did a "monster" album, changing the lyrics from some of the regular surf tunes to "monster" lyrics, like "The Little Old Lady from Transylvania" and "Blood and Butter". We did a slot car album, and other "specialty" albums. Later, Gary got into trying to place some of his tunes with non-"surf" artists, and I got into doing a lot of "demos" for him , often imitating singers of the day from Elvis to Gene Pitney to Roy Orbison. It was fun to be a studio "chameleon", actually doing impressions of these artists for the different songs.
Gary eventually got into doing more serious work, and the "Sagittarius" album was a big departure. He asked me to do a lot of leads on the album, but I encouraged him to sing some of it himself as I always felt that although his voice was not technically great it was very expressive. I wound up doing 2 leads and he did a number of the leads himself. Later he did a project in which I was not involved called "Sanctuary", by a group he called Celestium. This is my favorite of all his work, and he gave me an autographed copy of the LP 2 weeks before he died.
He was a very unique individual. One of my fond memories of him was driving to Sun Valley, Idaho, to be guests at the filming of the film "Ski Party" for which we did a bunch of the music. We talked at great length about many personal things including his relationship with Brian Wilson and the writing of the song "In My Room". Gary was a very candid individual who was willing to share his weaknesses as well as his strengths if he trusted you. We got to know each other on a new level as we traveled to the shoot and then enjoyed a few days "partying" at the expense of the movie studio.
He was actually a very fair guy to work for, even though he was very strong in his leadership. He was willing to share the spotlight and make the best record. All in all, it was a good ride for all of us.
December 15, 1998
I played bass on Gary Usher's recordings...He was pleasant to work for but we really had little ideas of how his songs went, we just recorded some good grooves according to the bare-bones charts he had. We had no idea of what he would put on top of our rhythm-section charts. We were recording for everyone then, but I do remember him well, he was one of the better people to work for, and since we didn't hear the songs (per se), it's hard to comment on what we thought about the music. One thing, I know it GROOVED very strong and he seemed to [know] just exactly what he wanted.
In 1967 I met a lad named Curt Boettcher (as he spelled his name then) at Randy Meissner's house in Hollywood. The Poor was a group that Curt had been thinking about working with. Curt heard me play some acoustic guitar and hired me to do some work for him on some projects at Columbia Records. These were projects he was doing with Gary Usher: Chad and Jeremy, Sagittarius, Spiral Staircase . . . I really don't remember them all. Gary happened to like my acoustic work and used me on a lot of recordings and got paid very well. I got to know Gary really well and wrote songs with him as well as played on many of his productions. He was a very deep person at that time and during this time I became a member of the group, The Millennium. Gary, as well as all of us, really became involved in a spiritual motivated music, with some depths of the mystic, as we created The Millennium concept and the Gary and Curt Together Records concept.
One funny story occurred when I came out from Chicago. I had never played acoustic guitar and certainly did not finger pick. Lee Mallory and other folk guys did the finger picking. Although I I flat pick very well, it was not finger picking. Well one day Gary called me and said, "Joey come on down, I need your guitar work. And by the way, can you finger pick?" I said "well, a bit, let me hear the track." So I said, yes I can do this. Now keep in mind. This was the 60s . . . candles and incense in the studios with dim lights. So I said to Gary, "Gary, turn the lights off in here. It's too bright!" It was so he couldn't see that I was flat picking. I must say I did a good job. He loved it and used it . . . let alone hire me for many, many more picking sessions. He was a great, deep, and very sensitive guy . . . private and caring in his family and household. I spent a bit of time at his house and stayed there when he was away and wrote there. I believe he made an incredible contribution to music and to my career as well as my friends'.
Gary Usher was a difficult person to get to know, but once you did, you were the better for it. He was the elder brother I never had, and the close friend I never had. His knowledge of the music business, his creative energy and his understanding could not be matched. I only hope by biography will do him justice.