n June 27, 1959, one year and eleven days after Alan Jardine and Brian Wilson graduated from Hawthorne High School, future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston turned seventeen years old and also graduated from high school (a year early as Bruce had skipped ahead a year in the fourth grade!).
Bruce, originally named Benjamin Baldwin, was born June 27, 1942, in Peoria, Illinois. His unwed mother from Madison, Georgia, gave birth to Bruce in the Florence Crittenton Home for unwed mothers and, three months later, he was adopted by William and Irene Johnston from Chicago. Bruce’s “new” father was senior Vice-President of the Chicago based Walgreens Drug Store chain. The Johnstons had two older daughters, Bette Jean and Joy Rene.
In September 1946, the Owl Rexall Drug Company began building their new national headquarters in Los Angeles (located at Beverly and La Cienega Boulevards and it included a Rexall drug super store which Life magazine called “the world’s biggest drugstore”). In 1946 William Johnston accepted the position of president of the Owl Rexall Drug Company. He moved his family to Santa Monica, California, where he supervised the building of Rexall’s Los Angles national corporate headquarters. As a young boy, Bruce attended private schools and studied classical piano.
In September 1956 Bruce enrolled at University High School in West Los Angeles where, coincidentally, he was in school with Jan & Dean. Ironically, had he attended Susan Miller Dorsey High, which served Baldwin Hills, he may have met a sophomore there named Michael Love.
In 1957, Bruce helped form the Sleepwalkers, a musical combo that included fellow Uni High students Sam (“Sandy”) Nelson, Dave Shostac, and Phil Spector. Another student, Kim Fowley, managed them and arranged some local gigs. “We’d travel one hundred miles for thirty dollars between us, which mostly went on gas,” recalled Johnston. “We’d have a ball, but we never cut a record as a group. It was just a fun thing.”
Another musical group at Uni High, a year or two ahead of them, was the Barons which included Jan Berry, Arnie Ginsburg, and Dean Torrence. There was a lot of cross-pollinating in those days and Bruce played with many of the musicians blossoming onto the LA music scene. The Sleepwalkers evolved into Kip Tyler and the Flips which Fowley told writer Steve Propes were “a bad version of Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps.” Steve Douglas, who became an ace studio sax man, played with the Flips. In addition to being a skilled keyboard player, Johnston showed talent as an arranger and songwriter. “In the 1950s, people wanted to be in bands or be movie stars, wanted people to like them, appeal to girls or guys, silly stuff,” Johnston recalled.
On February 1, 1958, Johnston, Nelson, and Shostac, visited record impresario John Dolphin at his office at 1252 South Berendo Street in Hollywood to pitch him a demo of a song written by Fowley. Although they were only sophomores in high school, they were about to get a college education in the music business. “We made a demo at Western,” Johnston explained. “We were asked by a guy there to bring the demo to his office. When we got to his office, it was locked.” Dolphin owned Dolphin’s of Hollywood record store in predominantly black South Central LA. Errol Garner, one of Bruce’s piano idols, had recorded for Dolphin’s record labels.
As they waited outside, they struck up a conversation with Percy Ivy, a twenty-six-year-old singer, there to either reclaim four of his demos or the $250 per song Dolphin allegedly promised him. “There was another guy waiting outside,” Johnston continued. “So, I went to a pay phone and called the guy inside his office to come and open the door. He did and the other guy went in with us.” Once inside the small office, Dolphin and Ivy argued while Bruce and his friends looked on. The argument became heated and Ivy, who later claimed Dolphin pulled a switchblade knife on him, fired five or six shots at close range with a 32-caliber Italian automatic handgun. Dolphin fell dead on top of a small space heater. Shostac was grazed in the leg by a ricocheting bullet and Nelson, still carrying a soft drink, ran to get help. When Nelson returned to the office with the police, Johnston was reportedly negotiating a record deal with Ivy for when he got released from prison. The police booked Ivy on suspicion of murder. “I didn’t go down there to shoot him,” he told police. “I just wanted my songs back.”
In summer 1958, Bruce got a call from his old friend Phil Spector. “One day, Phil called me to ask if I’d play piano on a session. I already had a date, and had to turn him down. The record turned out to be ‘To Know Him Is to Love Him,’ and it wound up being a million seller. But I wasn’t discouraged, I carried on.”
In November 1958, as a high school junior, Bruce made his first appearance on vinyl playing keyboards on Kip Tyler’s “She’s My Witch” (b/w “Rumble Rock,” Ebb 154). “You have to remember, here I am a sixteen-year-old guy and, all of a sudden, I’m in this little band and I’m playing little rock and roll shows on weekends, backing people like the Everly Brothers and watching the Champs come out and do ‘Tequila’ and all that stuff. Oh, and Ritchie Valens. We used to back Ritchie all the time. We used to rehearse with him. He’d show up with a three-quarter sized guitar and a little amp and then we’d rehearse three or four songs and go out to the Pasadena Civic Auditorium or Long Beach Civic Auditorium, because they didn’t allow rock and roll shows within the LA city limits in 1958. It was very exciting time because you would have people like the Everly Brothers star in the show and then you’d have the local or one-hit wonder kind of acts. It was great for a kid.”
In spring 1959, Kip Tyler planned to release a Johnston-Fowley composition called “Say What’s in Your Heart” as a follow-up single. Johnston lobbied for the band to be called Kip Tyler and the Sleepwalkers, and felt double-crossed when Tyler chose the name Kip Tyler and the Jamborees instead. Tyler and Fowley didn’t get along, and Johnston took Fowley with him when he left Tyler to form a production company called Modern Age Enterprises.
In May 1959, Kim Fowley produced a session for the Renegades, a makeshift studio combo that included Bruce Johnston, Sandy Nelson, Richie Podolor, and Nick Venet. They recorded Venet’s “Charge” (b/w “Geronimo,” American International 537) for the soundtrack of American International Pictures’ The Ghost of Dragstrip Hollow.
In early summer 1959, Johnston recorded his own “Take This Pearl” and “I Saw Her First,” co-written with Jerry Cooper, another friend from high school. The musicians at the session were Shostac on sax, Nelson on drums, Harper Cosby on bass, Mike Deasy on guitar, and Johnston on piano. Johnston planned to release the record as by Bruce and Jerry and the Sleepwalkers. He told Fowley that if Tyler performed as the Sleepwalkers, he would sue him. Meanwhile, Fowley left American International and began working as a food runner and assistant at Arwin Records, owned by Doris Day and her husband, Marty Melcher. Although Johnston hoped “Take This Pearl” would be picked up by Capitol, Fowley arranged for it to be released on Arwin as by Bruce and Jerry in May 1959 (b/w “I Saw Her First,” Arwin 1003). “Take This Pearl” received some local radio play, but didn’t chart nationally. As he finished his junior year at Uni High, Johnston was dating a classmate named Gina Maschio, the daughter of singer/actress Constance Moore, who played Wilma Deering, the only female role in the 1939 movie serial Buck Rogers. Johnston confided to Fowley that Gina had spent most of her life in private school and knew “all the social kids we do and thinks of them as we do.”
In August, Bruce helped Sandy Nelson with his breakthrough hit “Teen Beat.” “I got my dunka chica dunka sound,” Nelson confided, “by imitating somebody else. Jan, Dean, and Arnie Ginsburg, who I knew from University High, we’d go to the New Follies Burlesque in downtown LA to see the strip shows. But I was looking at the pit drummer more than the naked girl. This old drummer, a white guy, had a few ‘Caravan’-like beats I incorporated into an idea I wanted to do called ‘Teen Beat.’ I made a demo in spring of ’59 and took it to disc jockey Art Laboe, and we re-recorded it for Art’s Original Sound label at Ritchie Podolor’s American studio on Sunset in Hollywood with Ritchie on guitar and Bruce Johnston, an ex-classmate of mine, on piano.” The writing credit went to Nelson and Laboe, using his real last name, Egnoian. Johnston recalled, “I played on it and, by virtue of how we put it together, I qualify along with Richie Podolor as the writer with Sandy Nelson. But it didn’t turn out that way because we were too green to ask for a writing credit.” But Nelson wasn’t savvy enough to form his own music publishing company, and Laboe registered the copyright to his own Drive-In Music, a nod to the afternoon radio show he broadcast live from Scrivener’s Drive-In. Cash Box selected “Teen Beat” (b/w “Big Jump,” Original Sound 05) as a Sure Shot September 5 and it charted for the next fifteen weeks, peaking at #4.
By fall 1959, Johnston was working as a producer for Bob Keane’s Del-Fi and Donna labels. “We were fortunate enough to find Bruce Johnston at the early age of seventeen when he walked into my office,” recalled Keane. “He displayed incredible talent and a never-ending enthusiasm for music. Thanks to his musicianship, production, and A&R work, he helped shape the Del-Fi sound for the early sixties.”
While visiting a new Seattle distributor in fall 1959, Keane bought the masters to “Love You So” and “My Babe,” the top two local songs by an eighteen-year-old black singer named Ron Holden. At six-foot two inches and two hundred and ten pounds, Holden was a street-wise amateur boxer serving a ninety day jail sentence for a minor infraction. Keane released the songs on his Donna Records (1315) while Holden was still incarcerated. Unhappy with the promotion done by his distributor, Record Merchandiser, Keane switched to A&A Distributors who got KRKD disc jockey Dick “Huggy Boy” Hugg to plug the record.
By May 1960, Holden had the #5 record in Cash Box. With the single’s success, Keane asked Johnston to assemble a full-length album. Bruce arranged, produced, and helped write nine of eleven songs on Holden’s Love You So album in August 1960. “Let’s just say I put his album together,” Johnston recalled. “I’d rather not explain it other than I put the whole album together. With the Ron Holden project, I was kind of a trainee getting a chance to get my songs recorded.”
“My early years as a musician in Los Angeles as arranger, producer, artist, and A&R man at Del-Fi was a time of innocence, talent, and opportunity,” recalled Johnston. “It was like going to school by accident. I was cutting my teeth on all these different styles of music. I can’t say enough about how much both Sandy Nelson and Kim Fowley contributed to my growth and progress in the music business. They introduced me to many people and inspired me to continue soaking up all this incredible musical culture that was happening at the time. Veteran session pianist Larry Knechtel spent four hours back in 1958 teaching me piano. That was a big turnaround for me. My early heroes of the keyboard were Errol Garner and Ernie Freeman. I also learned a lot from watching Bob Keane work. He was an incredible musician, very talented. It was an amazing time. In Los Angeles in the early sixties it was all about music. Cultural barriers didn’t matter. I went all over town to watch what was happening.”
In summer 1960, Kim Fowley worked as a food runner and programming assistant for Alan Freed at KDAY. Meanwhile, Johnston recorded demos for Herb Alpert for ten dollars a song and opened some shows for Brenda Lee. He wrote, co-wrote, arranged, or produced eight singles for the Del-Fi and Donna labels, including Ron Holden’s follow-up single “Gee, But I’m Lonesome” (b/w “Susie Jane,” Donna 1324). “The intro with the piano rolls was my way of emulating the harp on the beginning of Doris Day’s “Secret Love” which had that big, flowing beginning,” recalled Johnston. “I have very fond recollections about the experience of working with Ron. He was incredible. I once took him surfing in San Diego. He was the greatest guy and a terrific talent.”
In July 1960, Johnston collaborated with Keene on “The Toughest Theme” (b/w “Teen Talk,” Del-Fi 4144), a mixture of twelve-bar blues and Big Band, recorded by the Bob Keene Orchestra [note: Keene sometimes spelled his name Keane.] When Keene signed the Pharaos, Richard (“Louie, Louie”) Berry’s back-up singers, he assigned Johnston to work with them. The Pharaos’ vocalist Godoy Colbert sang Johnston’s “The Tender Touch” with Berry providing background vocals. Johnston and Fowley penned the flip (“Heads Up, High Hopes Over You,” Donna 1327). Despite an appearance on Wink Martindale’s Dance Party television show, the Pharaos failed to chart. Next up was Ron Holden’s third single, “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” (b/w “True Love Can Be,” Donna 1328), two album cuts Johnston co-wrote with Holden.
In September 1960, Johnston enrolled as a freshman at UCLA and co-wrote “I’m Coming Home” with Janice Rado. “I remember we recorded that one at Gold Star,” Johnston recalled. “Janice was a friend of my sister’s and I brought her to the attention of Del-Fi.” “I’m Coming Home” (b/w “This Feeling”) by Janice Rado and the Sequins was released on Edsel 782, a subsidiary of Del-Fi, but failed to chart. Mel Carter recorded “I’m Coming Home” for his debut on Arwin Records (Arwin 23) that also failed to chart.
In October 1960, Johnston wrote and played piano on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Honky Tonk” (b/w “The Bend,” Donna 1329) by Studs Donegan and the Mob. That November, he placed two songs as B sides. “Your Line Is Busy,” another Johnston-Holden album cut, was paired with Holden’s seasonal effort “Who Says There Ain’t No Santa Claus” (Donna 1331). “Don’t Put Me Down,” co-written with disc jockey Jim Randolph, was the B side to Millard Woods’ “(I’m Just a) Country Boy” (Del-Fi 4150). Woods later changed his first name to Nick and joined the New Christy Minstrels.
In December 1960, Bruce helped assemble and produce Ritchie Valens’ posthumous In Concert at Pacoima Jr. High album, a mixture of demos and five songs recorded live at his alma mater in December 1958.
In March 1961, “Let No One Tell You,” another Johnston-Holden album cut, was the B side of “The Big Shoe” (Donna 1335), Holden’s fifth and final single for Keene. That same month, Johnston arranged “Those Oldies but Goodies (Remind Me of You)” for Little Caesar and the Romans (Del-Fi 4158) which reached #9 on the Hot 100.
Jane Ammeson, “Boys of Summer,” Northeast Airlines World Traveler, December 1992, 35.
Brad Elliot, Surf’s Up! The Beach Boys on Record, 1961—1981, Ann Arbor: Pierian Press, 1982, 364.
Brad Elliott, “Bruce Johnston Interviewed,” Goldmine, October 1981, 13.
Stephen J. MacParland, Inception and Conception, CMusic Books, 2011, 103.
Timothy White, “Music to My Ears, Flyin’ Traps: Different Drums,” Billboard, September 6, 1997.
“Tough Themes, The Del-Fi/Donna Years of Bruce Johnston,” Compact Disc, Liner notes by Bryan Thomas, Air Mail Recordings Archive Series, Tokyo, Japan, 1999.
“Song Writer Kills Agent for Rock, Roll Firm,” Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1958.
“The Beach Boys’ Temperamental Genius,” Teen Scoop, September 1967, 41.