California Dreaming: Memories of El Monte

Paul Buff had a rather unusual job. He was an independent record producer at a time when that job essentially didn’t exist. There had been one or two in the 1950s (Sam Philips, for example, sold recordings to Chess Records before starting up Sun himself), but in general the job of record producer was a staff one — “producer” itself was barely a job title, with most production being done by A&R (artists and repertoire) men, who were also responsible for signing acts to the labels.

Buff was not only a record producer, he owned his own recording studio, PAL, where from 1957 on he recorded tracks by local bands, as well as his own material. The surf boom had made the studio, based in Cucamonga, one of the big hotspots for surf music, and many instrumental surf classics were recorded there with Buff, or his assistant Frank Zappa, enginering, most notably Wipe Out, a B-side recorded by the Surfaris in 1962 that would become a big hit in late 1963.

PAL was not only Buff’s own recording studio, but his own multi-track studio, one he’d built himself; at a time when the very best studios were making do with two or three tracks, he had five. This meant that Buff, who was a multi-instrumentalist, could make recordings by himself and lease them to record labels like Art Laboe’s Original Sound label.

One Buff recording, Tijuana Surf, would actually hit number one in Mexico in 1964. Buff played every instrument on that track, but the B-side was written and largely played by Buff’s assistant, Frank Zappa.

Zappa, an ex-door-to-door salesman who wanted to be a composer of avant garde music in the style of Edgard Varese, and was involved in his spare time with a free jazz collective, including Don Preston, Bunk Gardner, and Buzz Gardner, had started recording his own tracks, like Buff did, mostly surf instrumentals and doo-wop.

Buff’s method was to record his own tracks and then lease the masters to record companies. This meant he was not reliant on one company or distributor, and could work with whoever would be best for a given project while retaining his independence. But it also meant that his customers weren’t the record-buying public, but the record label owners. If the label owners bought it, it made money, even if it didn’t sell much to listeners. And in 1963 Zappa and his friend Ray Collins, an R&B singer and occasional collaborator with Zappa, hit on an idea which, if not necessarily one that would sell to the teenage singles-buying public, would at least sell to one record label owner.

Art Laboe, the owner of Original Sound, had been a DJ in the 1950s, running dances in El Monte where he would play doo-wop singles. In 1960, he’d released a compilation album, Memories of El Monte, featuring many of the singles that had been played at those dances.

Zappa and Collins realised that a song in that style, about those dances, would not only flatter Laboe personally, but would also promote the album. Collins sat at Zappa’s piano and banged out the I-vi-IV-V doo-wop chord sequence that had been the basis for many doo-wop hits and in particular for Earth Angel, and started singing “I’m all alone, feeling so blue…”

The two quickly wrote a nostalgic love song about memories of dancing with a lost love. As commercially motivated as it was, the song was still based on a genuine love for that music, as both Zappa and Collins were long-time doo-wop fans, with Zappa in particular having an encyclopaedic knowledge of minor West Coast vocal group records.

Laboe suggested, when the song was played for him, that a spoken mid-section be added, in which the singer would mention the names of many more bands than were named in the main song, and sing the hooks from their songs — an easy enough addition since most of those songs were based on the same chord sequence. The finished song referenced In the Still of the Night (The Five Satins), You Cheated (The Shields), A Thousand Miles Away (The Heartbeats) The Letter and Buick 59 (The Medallions), Cherry Pie (Marvin & Johnny), Night Owl (Tony Allen and the Champs) and Earth Angel.

To sing the song Laboe, who ended up producing the final record, chose Cleve Duncan, the lead singer of the Penguins. Backed by an ersatz Penguins (according to Zappa “a bunch of guys from the car wash”, although consensus seems to be that the backing vocals were the minor doo-wop group The Viceroys), Duncan turned in a perfect performance, conjuring up an instant nostalgia for an era that had only just passed.

The track was a minor local hit, and a perennial live favourite in Duncan’s performances with the Penguins, who reformed on the back of the song’s success, and it still makes modest royalties for Ray Collins to this day.

Over the next year, a loose group of musicians, based around Zappa, recorded more and more tracks in PAL (which Zappa bought and renamed Studio Z in 1964). These tracks would often feature Zappa’s friend Don Vliet, who could sound remarkably like Howlin’ Wolf, on vocals, but Zappa’s attempts to submit them to record labels proved unsuccessful — they were turned down for, among other things, having distorted guitars on them.

Zappa was planning bigger things, but in 1963 this little doo-wop track was the biggest real indication that he could turn his unique aesthetic to commercial ends.

Memories of El Monte

Composers: Frank Zappa and Ray Collins

Line-up: Cleve Duncan (vocals), Walter Saulsberry (vocals), James Conwell (vocals), Andrew ‘Jack’ White (vocals), Charles Jones (vocals), Oliver Williams (vocals), Herbert White (vocals), Frank Zappa (vibraphone), others unknown.

Original release: Memories of El Monte/Be Mine The Penguins featuring Cleve Duncan, Original Sound single OS-27

Currently available on: Paul Buff Presents Highlights From The Pal And Original Sound Studio Archives Crossfire Publications 5-CD set, plus innumerable budget compilations.

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