UNDER-APPRECIATED ROCK BAND OF THE MONTH FOR JULY 2011: THE RIP CHORDS
Back in junior high, I was really enamored with Jan & Dean (not so much with the Beach Boys, but I liked them also), and the various other one-hit wonder surf rock bands of that time period. I loved the hot rod songs and the surfing songs and all the cool lingo about woodies, shooting the curl, shutting someone down, etc. Jan & Dean were the hosts as I recall of one of the first big rock concert films, The T.A.M.I. Show (it stands for Teen Age Music International). I was starting to tire of the duo though, particularly when they resorted to covering British Invasion songs and started releasing tripe like Jan & Dean Meet Batman. I didn’t know about the harder edged surf rock that was out there – e.g., Dick Dale – and it might have held my interest better if I had. But in retrospect, the surf music that I knew then was nothing but fun, and I have a lot of fond memories of it all.
THE RIP CHORDS had one of the biggest hits of the surf era in the early 1960’s with “Hey Little Cobra” – maybe THE biggest outside of those by Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys – when it reached #4 on the charts in early 1964 (back in the early days of Beatlemania). They don’t get a lot of respect though; since many people think that L.A. wunderkinds Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher – who later recorded as Bruce & Terry – bullied their way into the band, this led a lot of people to conclude that they were only a studio fiction.
In actuality, the Rip Chords – not related to a doo wop band from the 1950’s called the Rip-Chords (with a hyphen) – were founded by Ernie Bringas and Phil Stewart, who began singing together in 1957. After auditioning with Terry Melcher (Doris Day’s son), the band was signed to Columbia Records in 1962 – that’s just one year after the Beach Boys were founded, for those who think that the surf craze started with them. (For that matter, Jan & Dean didn’t form until 1958, so surf didn’t completely start with them either). According to Bringas, despite personnel changes over the years, only he and Stewart are signed with Columbia, and they collect all of the royalties.
Their first single, “Here I Stand” was moderately successful, reaching the Top 20 in some regional markets including Los Angeles and peaking at #51 nationally. Glen Campbell handled the lead guitar on the track. Most people know of Campbell’s string of fine hits in the mid-1960’s – “By the Time I Get to Phoenix”, “Wichita Lineman”, “Gentle on My Mind”, “Galveston”, and many more – but might not realize that he was one of the best session guitarists around for many years previously and had the most successful individual career among the loose aggregation of session players known as the Wrecking Crew. Campbell recently embarked on a farewell tour after acknowledging that he is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
On the band’s next single, “Gone”, Bruce Johnston (who later became a member of the Beach Boys) was brought in as a secondary vocalist, though Ernie Bringas still sang lead. Terry Melcher’s role was strictly as producer on both of these records. This single was not widely promoted but performed well where they received airplay; for instance, in the week of August 1, 1963, “Gone” made it to #2 in San Antonio, TX.
Meanwhile, Ernie Bringas had graduated from college and was about to go into United Theological Seminary for training as a minister. (Bringas did become a “Rev.” and served as a minister in the United Methodist Church for almost 20 years; presently, he is a college professor teaching religious studies). He would be able to go back to the recording studio in Hollywood, but his ability to tour would be limited, so two additional members were brought in to tour with the band: Rich Rotkin and Arnie Marcus. They were never involved in any of their recordings, but – together with Phil Stewart – they were the public face of the Rip Chords, since Ernie Bringas was unavailable, and Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher were much too involved in record production to tour with a band. These Rip Chords had an appearance on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and joined his Caravan of Stars; they were even in a Hollywood movie, A Swingin’ Summer.
There was one other little problem that readers who remember the era could well envision: The conservative Christian denomination that was affiliated with the Seminary was averse to his continuing to record and perform with the Rip Chords, and one Bishop flatly told Ernie Bringas to leave the band. However, and somewhat surprisingly, that pronouncement was over-ruled; and Bringas was able to rejoin the band after only three months’ separation. Again, this is not well known; most sources, including Allmusic state that Bringas left the band for keeps.
The potential of “Hey Little Cobra” was recognized immediately (the song was co-written by Terry Melcher with Carol Connors; her many other songwriting credits include “Gonna Fly Now”, the theme from Rocky); and both Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher were brought in as the vocalists on this song. Melcher was the lead vocalist on the track, and this was basically his debut as a singer. The Rip Chords released their first album in the same time period, Hey Little Cobra and Other Hot Rod Hits. As suggested by the title, and like other albums of that period, the album included their hit song “Hey Little Cobra” as well as several songs that had already been hits for other artists: “409”, “Little Deuce Coupe”, and “Drag City”. However, several of the band’s earlier songs are also there, including “Here I Stand” and “Gone”.
Most sources believe that Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher basically took over vocal duties for almost all of their recordings thereafter. Allmusic claims that Phil Stewart (who has a distinctive bass/baritone voice) was the vocalist on only two songs on Three Window Coupe, the band’s second album – “Bonneville Bonnie” and “Old Car Made in ’52” – and that Ernie Bringas didn’t perform at all on the album. However, Bringas insists that all four vocalists collaborated as to who would handle the singing, and that the hit song “Hey Little Cobra” is about the only song where neither he nor Stewart sang at all. For instance, both he and Bruce Johnston were singing the falsetto part on the Top 30 follow-up to their big hit, “Three Window Coupe” (co-written by Jan Berry of Jan & Dean). (The full list of vocalists and their parts on various songs is provided on Ernie Bringas’s website, www.ripchords.info).
After one more charting single, “One-Piece Topless Bathing Suit” (which appears on neither album), Terry Melcher ceased working with the band and in the process turned down what would have been their next single, a Brian Wilson composition called “Help Me, Rhonda”. It was recorded instead by the Beach Boys and became their second Number One song. (Musicians in the surf era were quite generous and often shared songwriters and producers with their strongest competitors).
Like many (I am beginning to think most!) 1960’s bands, the Rip Chords reformed in the mid-1990’s, led by the two men who were brought in for the touring band, Rich Rotkin and Arnie Marcus, with a rotating line-up of five other men.
I purchased the band’s first album a long time ago, but I came across their second album just recently, and I have really been enjoying it. Unlike the first album, Three Window Coupe doesn’t recycle a lot of the same old surf songs; instead, the songs are all unfamiliar to me – except the title song, which I definitely remember – and that makes it a lot more special. That “California Sound” a la Jan & Dean and the Beach Boys is there in force, and it was fun to refamiliarize myself with all those good times.
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Items: The Rip Chords
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Flashback: The Under-Appreciated Rock Band of the Month for July 2011 – THE RIP CHORDS
Much to my surprise, I finally found a rock band that did not have a listing in Wikipedia with a genuine hit song; their single “Hey Little Cobra” was one of the biggest hit songs in surf music, making it to #4 in early 1964, even though the surf scene was already in significant decline following the recent arrival of the British Invasion. I had recently picked up the second album by the Rip Chords, Three Window Coupe, and it is every bit as good as their common first album, Hey Little Cobra and Other Hot Rod Hits. I was able to debunk the idea that the Rip Chords weren’t a real band but just a studio fiction that revolved around Bruce & Terry, i.e., Bruce Johnston, who later joined the Beach Boys (and is still in the band) and top producer Terry Melcher (Doris Day’s son).
As it turned out, the Rip Chords got in just under the wire: An article on the Rip Chords was started in Wikipedia on August 18, 2011. It has developed into an extensive examination of the band and can be read at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rip_Chords_(band) .
And here is one more surprise about the Rip Chords: This post about the Klubs is the 44th in this series about Under-Appreciated Rock Bands and Artists, and as far as I know, the only one that has since had a full-blown Wikipedia article written about them is the Rip Chords.
YouTube has numerous Rip Chords songs on hand; their big hit “Hey Little Cobra” can be heard at www.youtube.com/watch?v=oc6FmZCT0Zc accompanied by numerous photographs of vintage hot rods. Plenty of playbacks of their follow-up Top 30 hit “Three Window Coupe” are available on YouTube, but here is a nice live performance of this song by the band in 2012, together with a well-known surf instrumental as the introduction whose name escapes me (“Pipeline”?): www.youtube.com/watch?v=XNRTGOOGhz8 . “Here I Stand”, their first single that features Glen Campbell on guitar is available at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=rMQx_Ycl7pw .
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Picture Galley: The Under-Appreciated Rock Band of the Month for July 2011 – THE RIP CHORDS
Here are their two albums; this one includes their smash hit, “Hey Little Cobra”:
This one has their follow-up single, “Three Window Coupe”:
This is a photo of the original band at a recording session:
These are the two guys who joined the touring band:
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Here is a rundown of the 2010-2011 Under-Appreciated Rock Bands/Artists of the Month for the past year:
December 2010 – THE POPPEES, 1970’s Beatlesque power pop band (compilation album)
January 2011 – HACIENDA, active 2010’s Chicano rock band (two albums)
February 2011 – THE WANDERERS, 1980’s apocalyptic punk rock band (one album)
March 2011 – INDEX, legendary 1960’s psychedelic rock band (two albums)
April 2011 – BOHEMIAN VENDETTA, 1960’s garage rock band (one album plus compilation album)
May 2011 – THE LONESOME DRIFTER, 1960’s rockabilly singer (compilation album)
June 2011 – THE UNKNOWNS, 1970’s first-wave punk rock band (two albums plus compilation album)
July 2011 – THE RIP CHORDS, 1960’s surf rock band (two albums)
August 2011 – ANDY COLQUHOUN, active 1980’s-2010’s psychedelic rock guitarist (two albums)
September 2011 – ULTRA, 1970’s old-fashioned hard rock band (compilation albums)
October 2011 – JIM SULLIVAN, 1960’s country-rock singer-songwriter (two albums)
November 2011 – THE UGLY, 1970’s first-wave Canadian punk rock band (compilation album)
(Year 2 Review)