Remembering Gary Usher


Over the years, many people had the opportunity to work with Gary Usher. I would like to classify him as one of the unsung heroes of the California sound. Here's what some of Gary's friends and co-workers had to say about his creative work.
Dick Campbell  writes:

DICK CAMPBELL MEETS GARY USHER:

You're already familiar with how Gary Usher met Brian Wilson, wrote "In My Room" and "409" with him, and was influential in helping the Beach Boys get off the ground in the early '60s.  So I'll just pick up the story where I came in...

In 1965 I played in a band in Massachusetts, Dick Campbell and the Scarlets, as a guitarist, lead singer and writer.  We cut a demo album in Boston.  A friend of mine had once met Gary Usher at WORC radio when he visited Worcester.  Through him I sent a copy of the demo tape to Gary in California and he liked it.  He called me to say he thought he could use some of the songs I'd written with other artists and that I should come to L.A. to write and work with him.  That summer I started out by car for California, but stopped in Chicago to see what reaction I might get to the album from the labels there.  Vee Jay wasn't interested, and Chess was into black artists, but Mercury liked some of the tunes and wanted to publish them.

To make a long story short, Mercury particularly liked a couple of my folk rock type tunes, and moreover, since Columbia had Dylan and they didn't, couldn't I write ten more and they'd cut an album of me singing them?  Now, in hind sight, I probably should have continued on out to the coast and gone to work for Usher then and there since most of his happening stuff occurred in the '60s.  But instead, I signed a deal with Mercury Records and recorded "Dick Campbell Sings Where It's At" which was pretty much a blatant rip off of Bob Dylan.  To be sure, I was backed up by some very good musicians, in fact, artists who have gone on to much bigger things since this project.

There was Mike Bloomfield on lead guitar, just fresh from recording with Dylan on the "Highway 61 Revisited" LP.  Marty Grebb of the Buckinghams also played guitar and Paul Butterfield was on harmonica.  Mark Naftalin played organ and Sam Lay was on drums.  A kid from a local group called the Exceptions played bass and he later had a brilliant career as the lead singer for Chicago -- Peter Cetera.  To shorten this story even further, by the time I got done spinning my wheels in the Midwest  (including a tour with the Guess Who, an appearance at The Bitter End, and marriage plus three children) it was 1969 before I got out to L.A. and went to work for Gary Usher.

He hired me to run his Before and After music publishing division of the newly formed Together Records.  This was a subsidiary of MGM records, but after a bit Mike Curb gave us the heave ho, and Gary took his staff over to RCA in Hollywood for an A & R gig.  I landed the job of West Coast Professional Manager of RCA's Sunbury/Dunbar Music.  My job was to work the catalogue for covers including Harry Nilsson's tunes.  Our biggest hit during this time was Perry Como's "It's Impossible."  Gary and I were now writing a lot together -- mostly my music and his lyrics.  One of the runners I'd hired to work the RCA catalogue knew the Cowsills and got a song that Gary and I had written called "Good Ole Rock & Roll Song" to them which they really liked.

Gary and I were invited over to the Cowsill's house in Brentwood to finalize the deal.  By this time, 1970, Gary was evolving from his hot rod/surf music, commercial faze, into more serious and ethereal music.  He was unimpressed with the Cowsill kids and almost blew the cut on "Good Ole Rock & Roll Song," but I kept their interest up.  They recorded it on their "On My Side" LP for their new label, London Records.  The Cowsills viewed it as one of their best songs on the album and sang it on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.  Unfortunately, the group's success of the 1960s was by now over and the album failed to make a strong impression.

After a while RCA fired Gary and his A & R staff, but not me until later in 1971.  My little joke with Gary always was: "You guys were all on the 4th floor (of the RCA building) and it took 'em six months to find me on the 7th."  Gary and I were still writing songs together, so he made a deal with Larry Gordon for our publishing.  Larry, who was managing Paul Williams at the time and who had gotten Paul's "We've Only Just Begun" to the Carpenters, decided to open a music publishing company with his father-in-law, comedian Danny Thomas.  In addition, I was hired by Larry as General Professional Manager of the company, Rip/Keca Music.

We signed a young writer whose tunes hadn't been doing well at Jim Nabors'  music company, and got Cissy Houston (Whitney's mother) to record one called  "Midnight Plane To Houston."  It was later also cut by Gladys Knight & the Pips who changed the name to "Midnight Train To Georgia."  We had several hits with that writer -- Jim Weatherly.  Meanwhile, Gary and I were working on a concept LP called "Beyond A Shadow of Doubt."  Although the entire album was demoed, we never ended up cutting it.  Gary and I wrote probably fifty or more songs together, and although we both had many of our individual songs recorded by other artists, the only one we'd written jointly ever to be released was "Good Ole Rock & Roll Song" by the Cowsills.

During the latter '70s we drifted out of the record business.  Gary headed up to the San Juan Islands near Seattle to open a restaurant, which failed, and I  started my own film production company which continued through the late '80s.  In 1989, Gary, who was now back in California, told me he had lung cancer and not much longer to live.  We spent a lot of time together during his last year.  As my friend and mentor, Gary's influence on me had been greater than almost anyone else I can think of, and when he died in 1990 at age 51, I was inconsolable.  I am reminded of a dedication in "Wouldn't It Be Nice," Brian Wilson's biography, to "the late Gary Usher, to whom I said goodbye but have not forgotten."  I haven't forgotten either.

April 2001
Chuck Girard writes:

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


Carol Kaye writes:

 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.


Joey Stec writes:

 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'. 


Stephen McParland Usher's biographer writes:

 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.


This page was last updated on 20 September 2002.
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