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Brian Wilson, Roger Christian, and Ice Cream Sundaes — A Research Challenge

One of the legendary stories of Brian Wilson’s early songwriting career is how he met occasionally with disc jockey Roger Christian after Christian’s shift on KFWB ended at midnight.  Huddled over ice cream sundaes, they talked about music, girls, cars, and songwriting.  The twenty-eight-year-old Christian, a hot rod enthusiast later known as the “Poet of the Strip,” kept a notebook of original poems about cars he had been writing since high school.  The Beach Boys recorded at least ten songs written by Brian and Christian, including “Shut Down,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Ballad of Ole’ Betsy,” “Car Crazy Cutie, “Cherry, Cherry Coupe,” “Spirit of America,” “No Go Showboat,” “I Do,” “In the Parking Lot,” and “Don’t Worry Baby.”  Brian found a wealth of inspiration in Christian’s notebook.  Together, they would solidify the Beach Boys’ reputation as America’s premier hot rod vocal group.

It has never been entirely clear when Brian first met Christian, when they began meeting over ice cream sundaes, and, to some extent, where these late night songwriting sessions took place.  So, let’s examine this songwriting relationship a little more closely.

Roger Christian grew up in Buffalo, New York, a blue collar steel mill town.  In 1948, at age fourteen, he hitchhiked to California in search of his perfect car—a 1932 Ford Coupe, called a Deuce Coupe after the “2” in 1932.  He worked cleaning dishes in a Chinese restaurant in Long Beach and saved his money for his dream car.  An ad in the LA Times caught his eye and he hitched a ride with a passing trucker sixty-five miles north to the old Southern Pacific Railway town of Lancaster, California.  He paid $375 cash for a beautiful Deuce Coupe.  Incredibly, without a license or insurance, the fourteen-year-old Christian drove his cherry coupe back to Buffalo.  A few years later, he got his start in radio on WSAY in Syracuse and then moved to WWOL in Buffalo.  But the upstate New York winters were harsh and the call of California too strong.

In summer 1960, Christian moved to LA and landed the noon to 3:00 p.m. spot on KRLA.  In late March 1961, he left KRLA and went to KDEO in San Diego.  On July 11, contract negotiations broke down between AFTRA and KFWB over the union’s demands for higher wages for announcers and newscasters, and AFTRA called for a walkout against the station, the first strike in LA by the twenty-year-old union.  Some KFWB disc jockeys walked out in solidarity with the announcers while others, including program director Chuck Blore, remained on-air and were fined $5,000 before resigning from the union.  Meanwhile, KFWB recruited jocks from other stations and enlisted management to man the microphones.  Record librarian Bill Angel covered Sunday morning 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. from August 12 through October 6, and Blore, using the name Charlie Brown, did a noon to 3:00 p.m. shift for one week in mid-August.

On October 6, 1961, Christian began working for KFWB from midnight to 6:00 a.m.  The station was a twenty-minute drive east from his new 1,500 square foot, three-bedroom home at 22470 Cass Avenue in Woodland Hills.  The strike ended November 12 and Crowell-Collier Broadcasting Company, owners of KFWB, agreed to a pay announcers and newscasters an increase of $32.50 a week.

Murry Wilson and Gary Usher, Brian’s first songwriting partner outside of cousin Mike Love, each recounted stories of introducing Brian to Christian.

Here’s Usher’s version.

Gary Usher first met Roger Christian in March 1961 when Usher performed his then current single “Driven Insane” at the National Orange Show in San Bernardino at a show hosted by Christian, then a disc jockey on KRLA.  Also on the bill were Ginger, Usher’s sixteen-year-old label-mate on Titan Records, and Carol Connors (real name Annette Kleinbard), whose haunting vocal propelled “To Know Him Is to Love Him” by the Teddy Bears to #1 in fall 1958.

Gary Usher

“After the show, Roger and I struck up a friendship that centered around his customized 1955 Corvette,” Usher recalled.  “I drove to Hollywood and met Roger after he got off the air at midnight.  There was a coffee shop below KFWB where we sat and talked about cars until dawn.”

Usher did not, however, keep in touch with Christian.  So it was a bit risky when Usher took Brian to KFWB one night to introduce him to an old friend.  “When he came up that night he looked different,” recalled Christian.  “Gary said, ‘Do you remember me, Gary Usher?’ and I replied, ‘Gary who?’  Brian laughed and then I said, ‘Oh yeah, now I remember.  It hurt Gary I didn’t recognize him because [Usher] had told Brian he knew me.”

Here’s Murry’s version.

Murry Wilson recalled listening to Christian play “409” on the air one night and explaining, for the benefit of his automotively challenged listeners, terms like dual quad and posi-traction.  Murry, always looking for ways to promote the band, called Christian, complimented him on his automotive knowledge, and asked if he ever wrote any songs.

Brian and Roger

Brian Wilson and Roger Christian

Brian met Christian July 3, 1962, when the Beach Boys played a dance from 8:30 p.m. to midnight in the cafeteria of Dykstra Hall, a women’s dormitory on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), hosted by Christian.  The dance was one of a series of summer dances sponsored by the Dykstra Hall Residents Association.  But this may not have been the first time Brian met Christian.  Usher’s and/or Murry’s introduction of Brian to Christian may have occurred sometime between the June 4 release of “Surfin’ Safari” (b/w “409,” Capitol 4777), the Beach Boys debut single on Capitol Records, and the July 3 dance at UCLA.

“I got together with Brian and we started writing,” Christian recalled.  “I came up with a story lyric and a rough idea for a melody, which Brian would promptly dismiss!  Brian’s melodies were so unique, original, imaginative, and melodic that I would just write a lyric and he would put a melody to it.  Sometimes, he would improve on a lyric, which is hard for a lyricist.  But Brian was phrasing them so they’d sing better.”

“Shut Down,” Brian’s first released collaboration with Christian, was recorded January 3, 1963, at Western Recorders and was the B side to “Surfin’ U.S.A.” March 4, 1963.

shut down record label“Shut Down” began life as a thirty-two line composition called “Last Drag” Christian wrote in high school about a race between a Chevy Impala and an Oldsmobile 88 that ends at a treacherous patch of road called Dead Man’s Curve.  The song referred to the cars as “shorts,” slang for a hot ride or cool set of wheels, and the relatively short wheel base of the cars.  For those in the know, the race was illegal because it happened on the strip where the road was wide.

The opening lines of the poem inspired the melody and, with judicious editing and a rewrite to fit song structure, Brian and Christian captured the drama and danger of a street race in a two-minute song.  The cars changed to a Chevrolet Corvette Sting Ray and a 413 Super Stock Dodge Dart (try rhyming Impala or Oldsmobile), shortened to Sting Ray and 413.  The song begins with a wall of double-tracked vocals throwing down the gauntlet—“Tach it up, tach it up, buddy gonna shut you down.”  The record takes off fast, mimicking a drag race as the cars peel down the road and the listener is pulled along full throttle.  The car jargon, most of it unfamiliar to the non-car enthusiast, added mystery and doom as we’re propelled forward at break-neck speed dreading some horrible wreck.  In fact, according to BMI, its alternate title was “Attention Accident.”

Mike’s nasal tenor, double-tracked and drenched in treble, is young and vibrant, perfectly suited for the lead vocal.  But Mike had trouble double-tracking his vocals and part of the third verse is muddy and difficult to understand.  He also played a simple two-note sax solo over a guitar lead from Carl, both complementing the sheer exuberance of the track.  “I’d blow a tonic to complement what Carl was doing or whoever was singing lead,” Mike recalled.  “I wasn’t exactly Coltrane.  I mean, less is more!”  The AFM contracts for Surfin’ U.S.A., on which “Shut Down” appeared, have the handwritten notation “bill for sax.”

So, when did Brian and Christian begin getting together to write songs?  Well, “Shut Down” had to be written sometime between July and December 1962, and likely closer to the end of the year.  Although it was their first recorded collaboration, it may not have been their first written collaboration.  So, during this six-month period, were Brian and Christian meeting after Christian signed off from KFWB at midnight?  No.  And here’s why.

KFWB’s weekly survey charts printed the names of their disc jockeys and their on-air shifts.  When Brian and Christian met, in either June or July 1962, Christian was working midnight to 6:00 a.m. on KFWB.  Christian did not move to the 9:00 p.m. to midnight shift until about March 2, 1963.  Hence, Brian meeting Christian after Christian got off at midnight could not have happened before March 1963.  Of course, it is entirely possible that between July 1962 and February 1963 Brian and Christian met before Christian began his midnight to 6:00 a.m. shift.

Christian later believed “Shut Down” shortened his writing partnership with Brian because he had released “Last Drag” in April 1963 as a dramatic reading for a label co-owned by Tony Butala of the Lettermen.   “When ‘Shut Down’ hit the charts, I heard from Tony.  He was going to sue the Beach Boys because they stole his song.  Murry Wilson was a little concerned that if Brian wrote with me there would be trouble.  Brian and I wrote sixteen songs in the course of two years.  Then the threat of this lawsuit popped up and we never really wrote together after that.”

As Brian and Christian both recalled meeting around midnight, it seems likely most of their collaborations were written after March 3, 1963.

So, where did Brian and Roger devour their ice cream sundae concoctions?

In 1974, Brian told Jim Pewter on KRTH, “He [Roger Christian] was like a really kind of a guiding light for me.  He’d get off at midnight.  He did a night show from nine to twelve.  We’d go to Aldo’s and we’d get a hot fudge sundae.  We’d sit there for hours talking, writing lyrics.  He and I must have written fifteen songs.”

In 1981, Christian recalled, “I did a nine to midnight radio program on KFWB.  Brian would come up to the station at midnight and we’d go down to Aldo’s Restaurant and have hot fudge sundaes and write songs.  The first song we wrote was ‘Shut Down,’ which was about a drag race.”

Aldo’s Restaurant was at 6413 Hollywood Boulevard, a few doors east of the street entrance to KFWB at 6419 Hollywood Boulevard.  Singers, songwriters, producers, A&R men, and hangers-on looking to hustle a deal, often met at Aldo’s, pouring over the trades and swapping the latest industry gossip.  Aldos suffered extensive damage from a fire on Thursday, September 30, 1965, as reported on the front cover of KFWB/98 Hitliner October 6.

kfwb2

Aldo’s was located in one of the storefronts beneath KFWB on Hollywood Boulevard prior to a fire in 1965.

Another coffee shop, Coffee Dan’s, was at 6415 Hollywood Boulevard and CANDIX Enterprises, Inc., was a little further down the block at 6425 Hollywood Boulevard.

If Brian and Roger really wanted a special ice cream treat, they could have walked a few blocks west, past Grauman’s Chinese Theater, to C.C. Brown’s at 7007 Hollywood Boulevard.  In 1906, confectioner Clarence Clifton Brown introduced the hot fudge sundae in his store on South Flower Street in downtown Los Angeles.  At C.C. Brown’s, amidst the aroma of farm fresh eggs, ripe bananas, sugar cane, Dutch cocoa, and heavy cream, ice cream aficionados slid into a black walnut booth with pink leather seats and enjoyed a Buster Brown, the house specialty made with a fresh sliced banana topped with a scoop of vanilla and chocolate ice cream, roasted chopped almonds, and whipped cream, served in a metal goblet that kept the ice cream cold.  Thick hot fudge, sweet and smooth, was served on the side in a ceramic pitcher.  Waiters dressed all in white scurried around the parlor beneath wrought iron Victorian lights suspended from the vaulted ceiling.

2 Comments

  1. Bill Golden says

    Enjoyed this trip down Memory Lane. Thanks for the photo of the KFWB building during its glory days. Also thanks for pinpointing the dates of the infamous labor strike there in 1961. I’ve been trying to research those dates myself with little success.

    Like

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