The roots of San Diego rock ‘n’ roll

(Here’s a long post, but one that answers a lot of questions about our earliest prehistory … Many thanks to Steve Thorn for writing the following piece exactly 30 years ago and to Mikel Toombs for scanning and sending it to Che Underground: The Blog.)

“This is ‘The History of San Diego Rock ‘N’ Roll, Part One: A Sleeping Town Wakes Up’ by Steve Thorn, from Kicks #3,” Mikel writes. “11/1979. Perhaps Steve — I believe he now writes for San Diego Troubadour — can chime in with Part Two.”

“The only thing happening in San Diego County is Eno and closet homosexuality.” — Kim Fowley, quoted in Phonograph Record Magazine.

The above quote from Sunset Strip’s famous rock impresario is one of the many snide remarks that have been hurled at San Diego and its people for years. Fowley’ s comment is not the most famous barb, however; that distinction belongs to satirist Mort Sahl, who once said, “There are only two things to do in San Diego — visit the zoo or join the Navy.”

As a native San Diegan, I’ve beeh buried over the years with comments made by immigrants to the county, telling me that San Diego has shallow musIcal roots, particularly in rock ‘n’ roll. A little research into the city’s musical past, however, reveals this is not the case at all.

1955 — KCBQ Brings Rock To Town
The “Fabulous Fifties” is a decade which has been described by sociologists as the era of the “sleeping generation.” San Diego at the time seemed indicative of the nation as a whole — a sleepy harbor town with nice neighborhoods and a strong alliance with the Navy. For local high school kids, all the joys and traumas of the world were centered on the high school campus.

In 1955, a love affair began between San Diego teenagers and the radio. In that year, KCBQ became the first popular music station in town to incorporate rhythm and blues into the regular programming format. The San Diego kids — like kids all over America — ate it up.

A native San Diego radio personality, Don Howard, recalls the early days of rock music in his home town. Before leaving the airwaves in 1970, Howard was a familiar voice on both rock and middle-of-the-road stations in town.

“Prior to 1955, rhythm and blues was only played on radio stations at a specified time period,” Howard remembers. “It was considered strictly ethnic music then. The records were played by black disc jockeys and their shows were sponsored by black businessmen.

“For example, when I was working at KSDO, we had a black disc jockey named Jimmy Bell whose rhythm and blues show was sponsored by the Heart Of The West, a black nightclub located at the corner of Second and Market in downtown San Diego. KCBQ raised its rock ‘n’ roll banner in December 1955, the month the station was purchased by the Bartell Broadcasting group.

The Bartell brothers (Lee, Gerald, and Mel) were early pioneers of the popular music formats. still widely used in radio today. Their contribution to the broadcasting industry dates back to 1947, when they purchased a small daytime-only station in Milwaukee. By the time the Bartells came out to the West Coast to purchase KCBQ, they already had the reputation of being one of the top independent radio chains in the country.

KCBQ was operating out of the Lafayette Hotel in San Diego at the time of the Bartell purchase. On the first of December, 1955, the station’s new ownership presented “DJ Day.”

“DJ Day” not only brought more rock ‘n’ roll to San Diego radio, but it was also a day five unique radio personalities became known as the “knights of the turntable.” The jocks were Don Howard, Harry “Happy Hare” Martin, Jim O’Leary, Earl McRoberts, and Ralph James (James is now the voice of Orson on Mork and Mindy).

The “knights” worked well together, well enough to pull KCBQ out of last place in the ratings.

“When we first went all-rock ‘n’ roll in late 1955,” Howard recalls, “we were the seventh-ranked station in a town of seven radio stations.

“When the next radio ratings came out in May 1956, we were number one — and stayed number one for five years. It was the longest reign of any radio station in the United States during those days.”

What were the reasons for KCBQ’s big leap in the ratings? One clue was the station’s successful capture of the teenage audience. The other reason was that during the ratings period, a rockabilly cat by the name of Elvis Presley released a single titled “Heartbreak Hotel.” The record was so well received by the local radio audience that The King and his loyal manager, Colonel Tom Parker, came to town for a concert.

Presley’s first San Diego visit would not be out of place in Kenneth Anger’s book, Hollywood Babylon. Don Howard and Harry Martin (Howard, incidentally, was the creator of the Happy Hare nickname for Martin) were behind the stage at the Presley show.

“Right after ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ came out, Elvis was booked into a skating rink and athletic auditorium called Palisades Garden, located on Eighth Avenue in downtown,” Howard says.

10,000 fans — the majority of them females — packed the auditorium. According to Howard, the concert was typical Presley pandemonium. But it was the aftermath of the show that really amazed and shocked him.

“After the concert, the police arrested twelve girls running nude through the halls of the El Cortez Hotel, looking for Elvis. At the auditorium, some girls broke into the bathroom of Elvis’ dressing room and stole the toilet seat. His Cadillac was covered with obscene messages and two sailors were arrested for masturbation during the show from watching the antics of the girls,” Howard recalls.

The city fathers were outraged. The day after the concert, Mayor Charles Dail passed a resolution with the city council that Elvis Presley would never be allowed to perform in San Diego again. Presley would appear again, but not until almost twenty years later. Harry Martin remembers the backstage Presley as being a gentle soul, completely the opposite of the persona Presley possessed on stage.

“My big impression of Elvis when we were waiting for him to come on stage was that while he was a big hero, he was still basically a small-town Southern boy,” Martin says. “He was pacing in his dressing room like a caged animal, but he was very polite.”

With the exception of the occasional big draw like Presley, the majority of San Diego teenagers enjoyed their rock ‘n’ roll in the form of school record hops. The hops also gave local radio personalities the chance to meet listeners face to face.

“In those days, disc jockeys were part of people’s imprints,” Martin says. “Whenever there was a school record hop, we were greeted with hysterical shouts and cheers. We’d bring a stack of records and give out prizes. I loved it — there was always a lot of spirit.”

During his many years on San Diego radio (he quit spinning records in 1974), Martin made his presence known outside the restrictive confines of a broadcast booth. One of his warmest memories of the early days was the time he arranged to have Los Angeles rocker Ritchie Valens perform at the opening of Clairemont High School in 1958.

“I was asked by the principal of the school to put on a show to promote school spirit;” Martin recalls. “I called Ritchie Valens and, in my naivete, I just asked him to come down from Los Angeles and sing in the school yard.

“It was a typical hot September day when he performed for an hour at noon, on hot clay with absolutely no grass around. He was such a loving, generous fellow.”

Valens had two big hits in the charts (“La Bamba”and “Donna”) when he performed at Clairemont High.

“I took him to the airport and thanked him, and within a few months Ritchie was dead,” Martin says. Valens was killed in the Iowa plane crash which also took the lives of Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper in February 1959.

Rosie And The Originals

The majority of rock historians agree that rock ‘n’ roll hit a dry spell between 1960 and 1962. The charts told the story: leather-clad rockers were out, acne-free boys and girls were in.

There are several key reasons why the music retreated from the intensity of Little Richard to the conservatism of Connie Francis — the deaths of Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, and Ritchie Valens; Chuck Berry’s bitter court trial; the payola scandal; and, last but not least, Elvis Presley’s military obligation.

The above events provide an insight into why the record charts of the early 1960s were being represented by such major “rock” personalities as Lawrence Welk, Steve Lawrence, and Anita Bryant Artists like Roy Orbison, Del Shannon, Ricky Nelson and Gary “U.S.” Bonds did their best to keep the rock torch lit, their singles being a welcome relief from all the “safe” music being pushed down listeners’ throats.

In 1961, a San Diego group by the name of Rosie and The Originals reached the national Top Ten with an original composition titled “Angel Baby.” Time has not been kind to this song — in all honesty, it is a mediocre recording.

“Angel Baby,” however, is representative of the type of music which was being played on the radio in 1961. Syrupy sentimentality was selling big. The song, which reached number four in the national charts, would be Rosie and The Originals’ only hit. Their story is worth telling, for it is a prime example of the music industry’s most common casualty, the one-hit wonder.

Rosie was one Rosie Hamlin, a South Bay girl who came to San Diego from the Alaskan frontier. A self-taught pianist, Rosie was in the process of writing original tunes when she crossed paths with a local group call The Originals.

The Originals were in need of a lead singer and felt that Rosie could do the job. As the group began recording demo tapes, it turned out that a Rosie Hamlin original composition, ” Angel Baby,” would be the song that would later place the band in the national Top Ten for seven weeks.

The song was recorded in November 1960 but did not enter the charts until early 1961, when the single was released on Highland Records of Los Angeles.

Whatever follow-up success the group had in mind never materialized. Rosie, however, was given the chance to record as a solo artist. In March 1961, she made a record for the Brunswick label after being seen and heard by rhythm and blues great Jackie Wilson. The A-side was titled “Lonely Blue Nights”; it didn’t come close to achieving the success of “Angel Baby.” Another aspect of the Brunswick record contract was that she would be managed by Wilson’s agent, Nat Tarnapool. Considering that Jackie Wilson was voted by Cashbox as the “Entertainer of the Year” for 1960-61, it seemed that Rosie would have continued career advancement under her new management. However, she was never heard of in the Top Forty again.

In the latter part of the 1960s, Rosie and The Originals hit the nightclub circuit, emphasizing to audiences that they were the group which recorded “Angel Baby.” Loyal fans came out to support them but all comeback attempts were futile.

KDEO — The 91 Tiger

KCBQ’s position as the king of San Diego rock received its first serious challenge in the early 1960s. KDEO (pronounced k-dee-o) brought in a group of aggressive young turks who fought a fierce battle of the ratings with KCBQ.

KDEO were the new call letters for KBAB, a station which had been operating out of an office at the Town and Country Hotel since 1955. The Dandy Broadcasting Company purchased the station in 1958, changed the call letters, and began programming a rock ‘n’ roll format.

From the beginning, KDEO emphasized youth. One of the more aggressive young jocks was Sam Riddle, who later became a famous rock television host in Los Angeles and was responsible for the popular Groovy and Boss City teen dance shows. Another early KDEO alumnus remains a familiar face on the 6 p.m. news. Mike Ambrose, Channel Ten’s fearless forecaster of meteorology, recalls his years at KDEO.

“When I first got to the station, we were actually broadcasting in two locations,” Ambrose says. “Forty-nine percent of our broadcast came out of our office at the Electricians’ Union building on Pacific Coast Highway.

“But since our license to broadcast was from the city of El Cajon, fifty-one percent of our broadcasting time came from a transmitter shack in Santee. So here we were — this big powerhouse rock station — broadcasting out of a shack.”

KDEO fortunately found a more comfortable home when it moved its offices into an old Bank of America building in Fletcher Hills in late 1961.

The managers of KDEO realized that if they ever hoped to topple “Q” they would have to allow their disc jockeys to come up with radio shtick as unique as KCBQ’s Happy Hare or “Shadoe” Jackson.

KDEO’s morning man in the early 1960s, Chuck Daugherty, was anything but shy. “Get out of bed, open those windows, and scream, ‘WAKE UP SAN DIEGO BABY!’ ” was Daugherty’s on- the-air motto for years. Mike Ambrose’s Breakfast Club, which followed Daugherty’s morning hysteria, proved to be a hit with the housewives in town.

It was in the evening, however, that KDEO pulled out all stops in the battle for rock ‘n’ roll supremacy. Bill Wade (who later became a “boss jock” with KGB) hosted a show called Bill Wade’s Platter Party. What it really turned out to be was a radio show which captured the spirit of a high school record hop.

“One of our gimmicks on the show was that we had a girl named Dee,” Wade explains, “and she was really a flash on the typewriter. She would hook a phone to her ear and would take literally hundreds of requests, dedications, and bits of gossip.

“That’s what made the show unique — the kids all listened, I doubt if we had much of an adult audience, but we really didn’t care. We just wanted to dominate the teen market at night.”

KDEO enjoyed its reputation as a leading rock force for the five-year period of 1958-1963. In 1964, KGB would make its appearance in the building and in Bill Wade’s words, “That caused the demise for all the other stations in town as far as rock was concerned.”

The Cascades And The Misfits

Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain
Telling me just what a fool I’ve been
I wish that it would go and let me cry in vain
And let me be alone again

The above lyrics are the opening lines to “Rhythm Of The Rain,” one of 1963’s top selling records and a number one record for San Diego’s own Cascades.

The record wasn’t an overnight smash but rather a recording which gained momentum throughout the nation after it received heavy airplay in San Diego.

The original Cascades consisted of John Gummoe, keyboards and vocals; Dave Szabo, piano and saxophone; Dave Stevens, bass; Eddie Preston, guitar; and Dave Wilson, drums.

Eddie Preston currently resides in San Carlos and is actively involved with the local club scene through his current group, Eddie Preston Unlimited. Preston vividly recalls when and where the name Cascades came from.

“We were originally called the Thundernotes, and were fortunate enough to have a manager (Andy Di Martino) who got us a recording contract,” Preston remembers. “We cut pur first record, ‘There’s A Reason,’ and while the record was being pressed, we I were trying to think of another name for the group because the record company felt Thundernotes was rather gloomy.

“The name Cascades was given to us when our recording producer, Eddie DeVorzon, who was washing the dishes and saw a Cascade soap box.”

“‘There’s A Reason” was released on Los Angeles’ Valiant Records, a small label which was distributed by Warner Brothers. While the record achieved some success on the West Coast, its sales were not in the same ballpark as “Rhythm Of The Rain.”

“Rhythm” was written and sung by group member John Gummoe. The song was recorded in the famous Gold Star studio of Hollywood, the same studio where Phil Spector produced his brilliant “wall of sound” recordings. It was in the sound effects library at Gold Star that the Cascades found the crashing thunderstorm tape which appears at the beginning and end of the song.

“Rhythm” was released three or four months before it hit number one. One of the disc jockeys responsible for its early airplay was Bill Wade, then employed at KDEO. Wade’s description of the record’s climb to the top is filled with a sense of admiration for the hometown kids who made good.

“I felt the record was a hit the first time I heard it. I originally heard them practice the song in a garage before they went to the label and got it recorded,” Wade recalls. “When it came out as a single, I kept playing it regardless of sales and it had no sales at first. It just wasn’t selling.

“But I stayed with it. We started to get requests, so we advanced it on our survey because of the phone and card requests. When it reached number twenty, stores started stocking it in San Diego due to the demand of the local people. From there it gained national popularity, became a million-seller and the number one record in the country.”

Eddie Preston estimates that as of 1979, “Rhythm” has sold nearly four million copies worldwide. The song has been recorded by many artists, the most famous being Gary Lewis and The Playboys.

Preston was in high school when he felt the jolt of having a number one record.

“I was so naive in a lot ot areas,” Preston admits. “Here you are in high school and all of a sudden you have the number one song in the country. A lot of it escapes you —you don’t realize how fortunate you are.”

The Cascades kept up with the times, releasing records for the remainder of the decade. Loyal fans packed the Red Coat Inn in East San Diego and radio stations always played “Rhythm” to advertise an upcoming Cascades gig.

During the same time that the Cascades were being nationally exposed, four young musicians were gaining a local reputation in San Diego. The band was the Misfits and in contrast to the more serene sounds of the Cascades, the Misfits were strictly rock ‘n’ rollers.

For long-time San Diego music buffs, the band is best remembered as the group which featured Bob Mosley, who in the late 1960s was a member of one of San Francisco’s legendary bands, Moby Grape.

The group consisted of Mosley on bass, Eddy Dunn on lead guitar, Earl Steely on rhythm guitar, and Ron Armstrong on drums. Like the Cascades. the band packed the club scene with loyal followers, whether it was performing at the Red Coat Inn or Art’s Roaring Twenties in El Cajon.

The Misfits drew enough publicity to come to the attention of Imperial Records, a West Coast label famous for the million-selling platters of Fats Domino and Rick Nelson. In 1964, the band recorded a single titled “This Little Piggy,” a rhythm-and-blues-flavored tune which was actually a thin disguise of Leiber and stoller’s “I’m a Hog for You.” Nevertheless, the local kids liked the single and the Misfits entered the Top Thirty surveys at KGB, KCBQ, and KDEO.

Marathon practice sessions in a storeroom paid off for the band. The group was managed by swimming pool businessman Bob Herrington, who was responsible for arranging many important dates for the Misfits. What the band accomplished in its three-year existence is amazing — it was the opening band for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and made numerous television appearances, including one on ABC’s “Shindig.”

Bob Mosley would later be the subject of critical adulation for his work with Moby Grape. Herrington recalls Mosley’s reputation as a first class San Diego musician and the Misfits’ guiding light.

“From the earliest days, I could see the drive in Bob. He had so much talent and his control over the band at the time was fantastic. He knew the sound he wanted,” Herrington says.

The Misfits broke up in 1965 when Earl Steely married and preferred staying in San Diego to leading a life on the road. Steely and Mosley had worked as a team and though the band members found a replacement, they soon discovered it just wasn’t the same.

“Bob and Earl were so different in many ways,” Herrington says. “I think that’s why they made a good team — they relied on each other. When Earl left, Bob lost a lot of his enthusiasm.”

In an occupation which can turn men gray before their time, Herrington remembers his days with the Misfits as “a big part of my life. We had so much fun and met so many great people.”

Editor’s note: The History of San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll, a five-part series, will continue in our December issue, focusing on the Spectacles and KGB’s rise to the top of the rock radio market.

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One Response to “The roots of San Diego rock ‘n’ roll”

  1. Dan Coffman Says:

    I am doing a story on my Brother Tim Coffman who was an early rocker, 60’s and found The roots of San Diego rock ‘n’ roll parts 1 and 2, is there more and how can I find it. He was in a Folk Group called the Pardoners in 64-65, played as a regular on KFMB’s TV 8 Dancetime, Hosted by Bob Howell, he opened for Roy Clark and Jimmy Dean at the 64 SD County fair and was the house band at the Pacesetter club in Encinitas, with one or more of several rock bands: Westwinds, Horseless Carriage and\or Purple Dove. Tim owns Rolltop Record and has produced and recorded numerous Praise and Worship CD’s and other music since 85. Can you give me any leads.

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