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Catch a Wave: a Chat with Beach Boys Author James B. Murphy

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Written by Ken Sharp

November 6, 2015

Murphy_978-0-7864-7365-6From performing in school cafeterias to tearing it up on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, James B. Murphy’s new book, Becoming the Beach Boys 1961-1963 chronicles the back story behind how it all happened in exhaustive detail.

Culling original and archival interviews, newly discovered documents and illustrated with scores of previously unseen photographs and ephemera, the book is a marvel of research teeming with revelatory information about the group’s formative years, puncturing myths and setting the record straight about this seminal period in the group’s history. Essential reading for Beach Boys fans or rock music aficionados, Becoming the Beach Boys 1961-1963 is the definitive portrait of their launch demonstrating in detail how a bunch of kids from Hawthorne, California caught a musical wave and were soon sitting on top of the world. Highly recommended.

Rock Cellar Magazine: What prompted you to write Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963?

Jim Murphy: I was introduced to the music of the Beach Boys when my older brother, Rich, first heard Good Vibrations on the radio in October 1966.  We had never heard anything like it.  That record, with its angelic lead vocal, staccato cello, otherworldly theremin, soaring harmonies, and stellar production, transported you to another world.

It was a life-changing experience for kids growing up on the East coast in the Bronx.  We went out and bought every album the Beach Boys had already released and each subsequent new album beginning with Smiley Smile and Wild Honey.  Over the years I read everything I could get my hands on about the band.  But their early history, their origin story, never made sense to me.  It never added up.  I could never find a clear, cohesive explanation of what actually happened and the order in which it happened.  I was always left with more questions than answers.  So, I started looking into it and began writing the book I wanted to read.

Rock Cellar Magazine: What were the greatest challenges you faced working on the project?

Beach-Boys-at-Torrance-High-School-March-1962

Jim Murphy: Worthwhile challenges often bring about an introspective moment when you wonder: if you knew at the onset what you know now, would you do it again? Going to veterinary medical school in my late 30s was one of those moments for me.  Writing this book was another.  Not knowing what you’re getting into makes things infinitely more possible.  When I started working on the book, I didn’t know it would take eight years—writing at night and on weekends, searching for people to interview, reading everything I could find, comparing conflicting stories in everything published, trying to make sense of what happened, retrieving and reviewing stacks of legal documents, and tackling the actual writing.

As a first-time author, I made typical beginner mistakes with structure, veering from the story’s spine, and keeping the manuscript a manageable length.  There are many stories that didn’t make it into the book that I hope to provide on a companion website under construction.  I also had to develop thick skin to rejections from publishers. McFarland loved the proposal from the onset and they’ve been terrific partners.  I tried repeatedly to interview the surviving band members but, without a high profile platform, was unsuccessful.  I hope they enjoy the book and, perhaps, there will be an opportunity for them to weigh in on the story.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Hite and Dorinda Morgan are key movers and shakers in the band’s early career, tell us about them and their importance to the group’s career arc.

Hite-Morgan-240x300

Hite Morgan

Jim Murphy: Hite and Dorinda Morgan, a husband and wife songwriting team in their late 40s, were friends of Audree and Murry Wilson for a decade before the Wilson brothers decided they wanted to make a record.  The Morgans recorded aspiring artists in a make-shift recording studio in their living room and produced the first nine recordings by the Beach Boys, including Surfin’ and early versions of Surfin’ Safari and Surfer Girl.  And yet, after fifty years, hundreds of magazine articles, more than a dozen books, and several documentaries about the band, I knew very little about the Morgans and had never seen a photograph of them.

When I first spoke with Bruce Morgan, their son, I told him I believed his parents were overlooked in the Beach Boys story and that one of my goals was to shed more light on their integral role in the band’s early history.  Brian and the Boys went on to more sophisticated writing and production, but Hite and Dorinda Morgan were the first people in the LA music industry who believed in them.  It seemed to me we should know more about them.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Little is known about the background of Candix Records and its founders, fill us in.

Jim Murphy: CANDIX Enterprises, Incorporated, released the Beach Boys’ first record.  It was an independent record company founded August 26, 1960, in Fresno, California, by twin brothers Richard and Robert Dix, who enlisted the help of their younger brothers Albert and Sherman (a fifth brother, Theodore, and a sister, Sarita, were not involved). The Dix brothers were professional musicians and, for the previous two decades, had toured the country as the Dix Brothers Orchestra.  They hired William Silva Canaday for his knowledge of the LA music industry and the name of the record company was an amalgam of their last names (CAN from Canaday + DIX).

The plan was for Sherman to funnel the profits from the brother’s real estate and home construction business in Fresno into the record company, but Sherman had other ideas.  This resulted in a chronic shortage of capital, frustrating Joe Saraceno, their Artist and Repertoire director, and two record promoters who were always battling a shortage of records.  In fall 1961, Hite Morgan, on the strength of a recommendation from Bill Angel, the record librarian at KFWB, brought the Beach Boys’ first record, Surfin’, to Candix.  It was a great opportunity for Candix, whose biggest hit to date was the Frogmen’s Underwater that reached #44 in spring 1961, but it could not have come at a worse time.

Al-Richard-and-Bob-Dix

Al, Richard, and Bob Dix

Bob Dix had discovered Saraceno diverted Surfer’s Stomp, a #31 hit by the Mar-kets, to his own recently formed Union Records.  Saraceno resigned from Candix.  Bob had also recently fired Silva and was pursuing legal action accusing him of embezzling $15,000 from Candix.  Bob did everything he could (which I detail in the book) to keep Surfin’ stocked in record stores nationwide.  Surfin’ reached #3 in LA, but stalled at #75 in Billboard.  It likely would have gone further had it been handled and promoted differently.  In September 1963, Bob Dix chose not renew the company’s corporate status.  He had released forty-one singles on the Candix label, one (Surfin’) on his X Records subsidiary, and two on the Candix-distributed Storm label.

Rock Cellar Magazine: In the book, you follow the band playing house parties to the Hollywood Bowl in a short timespan.  Take us through what shaped them as a live act.

Jim Murphy: The key thing about the early Beach Boys in the studio and on stage is that only nine months after forming they were thrust into the national spotlight.  Unlike the Beatles, who enjoyed a lengthy musical apprenticeship, honing their live skills and stockpiling songs, the Beach Boys scored a #3 regional hit with their first record, recorded a demo reel, and landed a seven-year contract with Capitol Records.  Their Capitol debut, Surfin’ Safari backed with 409, was a double-sided hit and the pressure was on.  Demand for their personal appearances skyrocketed.  By most contemporary accounts, they were not a very good live band when they started.

But they persevered and kept at it, propelled by Murry Wilson’s persistence and assertive personality.  They played grand openings, record stores, hardware stores, appliance stores, birthday parties, gymnasiums, recreation centers, high schools, roof tops, back yards, and parking lots.  The hits just kept coming and, fueled by their songwriting and unparalleled vocals, they became one of the best and enduring live bands.  For most concertgoers, seeing and hearing the Beach Boys live was an unforgettable experience.

Rock Cellar Magazine: There are quotes in the book culled from members of bands that played on the same bill with the Beach Boys in the early days remarking they were not impressed with their performing abilities. When did they come into their own as a live act?

Jim Murphy: The Beach Boys learned to play as a band in front of live audiences.  Their first (April 24-May 5, 1963) and second (July 19-August 30, 1963) tours outside of California were hampered by the intermittent absence of Brian Wilson (Al Jardine was recruited to fill in for Brian on the road).  Some early reviews are mixed most likely because of Brian’s absence in the harmony stack.  Brian grew tired of touring very early on and decided, quite wisely in retrospect, it would better serve the band if he stayed home to write, arrange, and demo new material for the group.  But when David Marks quit, Jardine was enlisted as a permanent replacement for Marks and Brian lost his road replacement and had to rejoin the touring band.

Early-Beach-Boys-concert-handbill-212x300Their October 19, 1963, performance at the 31st Annual Y-Day at the Hollywood Bowl is available online and that gives us a pretty good idea of how the Beach Boys, with Brian, sounded as a live band toward the end of 1963.  They played Little Deuce Coupe, In My Room, Be True to Your School, Surfer Girl, and an a cappella tribute to KFWB, the radio station that co-sponsored the show.  These are solid, somewhat raw, but wildly exciting performances.  Given the technological limits of recording a live show in an outdoor cavernous venue like the Hollywood Bowl, that they sound so powerful and exhilarating is quite remarkable.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Murry Wilson, father of Brian, Dennis and Carl and the band’s manager is a misunderstood figure in the band’s history, were there new insights gleaned about his role and working methods?

Jim Murphy: Let me first say I do not pretend to know what actually went on inside 3701 West 119th Street, Hawthorne, California, as Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson were growing up with their parents, Audree and Murry.  Only the Wilson boys fully experienced Murry’s strengths and shortcomings as a father.  In fall 1961, Murry was forty-four years old, owned his own leased machinery business, had three teenage sons, each two years apart, and the family lived in a two-bedroom, one-level home.

On his modest salary, Murry provided Brian with accordion lessons, a record collection, a meeting with his musical idols, the Four Freshmen, a Wollensak tape recorder, and a used 1957 Ford Fairlane for his senior year at Hawthorne High.  Al Jardine recalled Brian was a natty dresser in high school, especially noting his stylish Florsheim loafers.  Dennis had a motorized go-kart, a BB gun, a memorable tenth birthday party, and a nine-foot surfboard.  Carl had an acoustic-electric guitar, an amplifier, and guitar lessons.  Now, material possessions do not make a childhood happy, but Murry did his best to provide his boys with things they enjoyed.

And no one fought harder for the fledgling Beach Boys than Murry.  Key players in the early Beach Boys’ story like Chuck Britz, Stan Ross (co-owner of Gold Star studio), Russ Regan, and Fred Vail are all on record with positive comments about Murry, crediting him with much of the group’s early success.  Interestingly, most of the negative things the brothers said about their father came after he died from cardiac arrest June 4, 1973.  Nick Venet, the band’s first staff producer at Capitol, provided much of the anti-Murry fodder.  But, keep in mind, in summer 1963, after Murry told Capitol the Beach Boys refused to work with Venet, Nick was gone from Capitol within a few months.  Now, before I am accused of being a Murry apologist, by many accounts, he was a flawed man, haunted by his own rough childhood.  Perhaps Murry’s greatest shortcoming was not recognizing the need to provide a more protective environment for Brian, a sensitive soul who, at the time, was doing everything, and not knowing when to step back and allow his sons the freedom to pursue their own creative vision.  But without Murry there would have been no Beach Boys.

Judy Bowles

Judy Bowles

Rock Cellar Magazine: One of the many coups of your book was tracking down Judy Bowles, Brian Wilson’s girlfriend who inspired some of his music. Tell us about her, how you located her and characterize her place in Brian’s universe and her role as his muse.

Jim Murphy: Judy Bowles was Brian Wilson’s first serious romantic relationship.  Brian began dating Judy in summer 1961 just before the group formed.  They dated during the formation of the band, the writing and recording of Surfin’, signing with Capitol Records, all of 1962, and most of 1963.  Audree Wilson helped Brian select a diamond engagement ring that he presented to Judy for Christmas 1962.  They planned to marry within the year.  Judy was the inspiration for Surfer Girl, Judy, and, after a painful break-up in fall 1963, The Warmth of the Sun.

It took me a long time to find Judy and I would not have been able to gain her trust and confidence without the help of a good friend of hers who, quite modestly, declined acknowledgement in the book.  It was a real joy speaking with Judy, one of the highlights of researching the book.  She told me I was the first writer who took the time to look for her and speak with her, and that nearly everything written previously about her was untrue.  I found that astonishing.  Judy was open, honest, funny, down-to-earth, grounded, and had a wonderfully healthy perspective on that part of her life and how things worked out.  She really loved Brian and he will always have a special place in her heart.  After the success of Love & Mercy, I would like to see a film adaptation of their love story as Brian came into his musical gift, helped form the Beach Boys, and the group experienced the ups and downs of world-wide fame.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Brian Wilson’s songwriting collaborator Gary Usher is yet another key figure in the book, how does he play into the story?

Jim Murphy: In January 1962, Gary Usher was a twenty-three-year-old bank employee and aspiring singer songwriter.  He was visiting his uncle who lived near the Wilsons and his uncle insisted Usher go over and meet the Wilsons because they had a record on the radio.  Within a half hour, Brian and Usher wrote Lonely Sea.  And 409 soon followed.  When Surfin’ dropped off the charts in late March 1962, it was Usher who urged Brian to record some new demos that April at Western Recorders where Usher introduced Brian to engineer Chuck Britz who later helped Brian record some of his most influential music.  Usher taught Brian about the business aspect of the music industry, and helped him become more assertive and to approach songwriting more competitively.  Usher was critical to the Beach Boys signing with Capitol Records in May 1962 and he co-wrote six of the songs on Surfin’ Safari, the group’s debut album.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Cite the major revelations you were able to uncover that surprised you.

Jim Murphy: The dates of September 15, 1961, for the Surfin’ demo session, and October 3, 1961, for the Surfin’ recording session, which have been accepted for the past twenty-five years, cannot be verified.  That alters the entire chronology of certain key events, including the group’s rehearsal sessions, the demo session, when Al joined the group, the renting of musical gear, the recording session, and when Hite Morgan shopped an acetate of Surfin’ to record labels.

Surfin' on Candix 331

Surfin’ on Candix 331

I believe Surfin’ was written, a Standard Songwriter’s Contract with the Morgans signed, and a demo recorded before Al joined the band.  Then, after he runs into Brian on the campus of El Camino Community College, Al begins singing with the Wilson brothers and Mike.  When Audree and Murry went to Mexico for a weekend, the guys rented musical gear, financed by Al’s mother, Virginia, in an effort to up their game.  They continued rehearsing for about a month and then recorded the version of Surfin’ released on Candix 331.

Although Surfin’ is credited to Brian and Mike, Carl contributed the guitar part and Dennis made some lyrical contributions that went uncredited.

As Murry suspected, the Beach Boys were indeed short-changed in royalties on the sales of Surfin’.  They received $990, but should have received about $2,500.

Rock Cellar Magazine: What are the major myths you’ve been able to solve while doing the book?

Jim Murphy: Here are a few that come to mind:

The rental of musical gear did not occur over the Labor Day weekend, September 2-4, 1961.  And when Audree and Murry traveled to Mexico, they most certainly did not leave their sons $800, as one source noted, for food or an emergency.

The earliest footage of the Beach Boys singing live is their performance of Surfin’ Safari at the Azusa Teen Club on July 27, 1962, filmed for Dale Smallin’s documentary One Man’s Challenge. But the film crew did not just happen to show up on a night the band was performing.  This was a scheduled taping and the group rehearsed for hours in the sweltering heat of the Azusa Recreation Center that doubled as the teen club.

Surfin’ on Candix 331 was their first release.  For reasons that I detail in the book, it was next released on X Records 301, Candix 301, the Era Records-distributed Candix 301.  Also, an “Audition Only” copy was released on the Era Records-distributed Candix 301.

This is a minor myth, but when their first royalty check arrived in mid-April 1962, it was long believed Murry added one hundred dollars of his own money to bring it up to one thousand dollars so the five boys could each receive two hundred dollars.  But the royalty check was for $990, so Murry actually contributed ten dollars.

The_Beach_Boys_6copyright-Capitol_Photo_Archives-600-x-480-600x400

Rock Cellar Magazine: Are there still mysteries about that period of time that elude you that you’d like to uncover?

Jim Murphy: Here’s four in chronological order:

A photograph of the Beach Boys with Al Jardine before David Marks replaced him has been reported to exist, but has never surfaced. Does anyone, especially the surviving members of the band, have such a photo?

I would like this one further clarified.  When did Al reconnect with Brian by the chance encounter of running into him on the campus of El Camino Community College where they were both enrolled in fall 1961?  The school year began September 11, 1961, and the Standard Songwriter’s Contract for Surfin’ was signed September 15, 1961.  Brian’s handwritten list of the Pendletones as a quartet (the three Wilson brothers and Mike Love) is dated October 12, 1961.  Hence, it may have been well into October before Al ran into Brian and began singing with the Wilson brothers and Mike.  If that is true, as I believe it to be, then Al may have joined the band after the Surfin’ demo was recorded, but before the recording session that yielded the version of Surfin’ released on Candix 331.

Second, I wonder whether Surfin’, Luau, and Lavender may have been recorded at Hite Morgan’s Stereo Masters, 5534-5538 Melrose Avenue, Los Angeles.  That would mean there was only one session at World Pacific Studio, 8715 West Third Street, Los Angeles—the one on February 8, 1962, at which they recorded Surfin’ Safari, Surfer Girl, Judy, and Karate (aka, Beach Boy Stomp).  Both Bruce Morgan and Dino Lappas, the recording engineer at World Pacific, independently recalled only one session at World Pacific.  Intriguing.

And third, I would like to discover additional personal appearances the band made in 1962, especially between January and June, and the mysterious mini-tour Murry booked in California around Christmas 1962.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Do you think this period of the band’s career is overlooked on a musical level compared with later acclaimed productions like Pet Sounds?

Jim Murphy: Not so much on a musical level, but more on a historical level.  The band has such a rich musical catalog that most career-spanning books could only devote a few pages to the early days because there was such a wealth of information to explore in the next forty or fifty years.  But I love origin stories.  I love how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman.  And how did Churchill become the man who helps save the world.  So, I was naturally drawn to the band’s early history, especially given the contradictory information out there.  And keep in mind, a musical education is cumulative, so what Brian and the Beach Boys learned in their early years laid the foundation of what came next.

You don’t reach the pinnacle without climbing the first floor.  You can’t have Good Vibrations without Surfin’ U.S.A.  And there are some songs from this period, certainly Surfer Girl, Lonely Sea, Farmer’s Daughter, and The Warmth of the Sun, that are just gorgeous early Brian Wilson compositions that portend what is to come.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Who are the unsung heroes and villains of that period in the group’s history?

Jim Murphy: One of the things that appealed to me about 1961 to 1963 was the innocence of that period.  They were a bunch of young guys that wanted to form a band, write a song, have a hit record, meet girls, and make a few bucks.  So, the players in the early days are all heroes.  Hite and Dorinda Morgan, Bill Angel, Dino Lappas, Bob Dix, Joe Saraceno, Russ Regan, Gary Usher, Chuck Britz, Voyle Gilmore, Roger Christian, Nick Venet, and Bob Norberg each played a role in Brian’s and the band’s musical growth.

Rock Cellar Magazine: Tell us about the Holy Grail most collectible Beach Boy records from that period and their value in 2015.

Red-and-yellow-splash-wax-Barbie-300x300Jim Murphy: The most collectible Beach Boys records from 1961-1962 are the red and yellow splash wax of Barbie (b/w What Is a Young Girl Made Of?, Randy 422), the Complete Selections from Surfin’ Safari by the Beach Boys promotional EP with cardboard sleeve (Capitol PRO 2186), the I Was There KFWB Day! mailer sleeve that housed the promotional 45 Spirit of America (b/w Boogie Woodie, Capitol Custom), and The Surfer Moon (b/w Humpty Dumpty, Safari 101) by Bob and Sheri.  As with most rare records, they’re worth whatever two people say they’re worth!  I would like to pose a question to readers—has anyone ever seen and can anyone verify a white label promotional copy of Surfin’ on Candix 331?  [Not the black label “Audition Only” Surfin’ on the Era Records-distributed Candix 301].  Candix produced white label promo records from Candix 303 through 330, but I have never seen a white label promo of Surfin’ on Candix 331.  I don’t think it exists, but I would like to be proven wrong.

Rock Cellar Magazine: From a personal perspective, is there a defining song or two that best encapsulates the 1961-1963 period of the band’s career?

Jim Murphy: That’s a great question.  Two come to mind.  Surfin’ U.S.A. for its sheer energy and exuberance.  In March 1963, it exploded out of AM radios with a searing guitar intro, slicing rhythm guitars, a wave of crisp double-tracked vocals, and Brian’s soaring falsetto.  It revitalized rock ‘n’ roll with an electrifying burst of freedom and rebellion.  It is their first great record and it propelled their career world-wide.  The Warmth of the Sun is a beautiful ballad with a mournful melody.  It remains one of their most personal and deeply moving songs.  It is sad, but comforting.  Desolate, yet hopeful.  A reflection on love, once so beautiful, now lost forever.  In light of the dissolution of Brian’s and Judy’s two and one-half year relationship, the haunting melancholy is laden with emotional poignancy.  Together, these two songs are a great example of why the Beach Boys will always be beloved.

Rock Cellar Magazine: You were unable to land an interview with any of the surviving Beach Boys and instead mined archival sources for your book. If you could speak to Brian, Mike, Al, or David and ask them only one question, what would you ask and why?

Jim Murphy: I wrote this book because the Beach Boys’ musical catalog has brought me years of joy.  I wanted to have a better understanding of their early history and I hoped to make a contribution to our collective understanding of the band.  I avoided the word “definitive” in the title because I truly hope the book generates robust debate.  If I got something wrong, I want to be corrected.  Perhaps there will be an opportunity for a second edition and the story can be further refined.  Of course, I would love the opportunity to speak with Brian, Mike, Al, and David.  In the meantime, here’s a question for each of them:

Brian: Tell me about your memories of Hite and Dorinda Morgan.

Mike:  Was the demo of Surfin’ recorded before Al Jardine joined the band and was the demo recorded at Hite and Dorinda Morgan’s home on Mayberry Street in Los Angeles?

Al:  Was Surfin’ (the version released on Candix) recorded at World Pacific on Third Street or Stereo Masters on Melrose Avenue?

David:  What do you believe was your most significant contribution to the early Beach Boys and tell me about a time when you realized quitting the band may have been a mistake?

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Becoming the Beach Boys, 1961-1963, is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble’s website, and McFarland Books.

Link to Rock Cellar magazine article

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