California Dreaming: Hey Little Cobra

The success of the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean had not gone unnoticed, and every musician with an eye for what was hot was soon cutting their own surf and hot rod tunes. Among the earliest were the Rip Chords…sort of.

The Rip Chords were a vocal duo, Ernie Bridges and Phil Stewart, who had been signed to Columbia records and released a couple of unsuccessful singles, Here I Stand and Gone. Here I Stand had been arranged by Jack Nitzsche and had been a very minor hit, reaching number 51, giving the band just enough clout with the record label for them to keep releasing singles, and Terry Melcher, the band’s producer, was eager for that to continue. Melcher, who had previously had an unsuccessful career as a singer under the name Terry Day (recording a flop single, Be A Soldier, with production by Phil Spector and arrangement by Nitzsche) had his job as a staff producer largely because of the influence of his mother, Doris Day, and was mostly working with soft pop acts like Frankie Laine. The Rip Chords gave him the chance to do the rock and roll he wanted.

But there was a problem — Ernie Bridges, who had sung lead on Here I Stand, was off to theological seminary, and wasn’t allowed to continue in the band any longer.

This problem was solved quickly. Stewart would continue to lead the Rip Chords, with two new musicians, Arnie Marcus and Rich Rotkin. Marcus and Rotkin wouldn’t play on the records, where the vocals would be shared between Stewart, Bridges (when he could take time off his training for the priesthood), Melcher, and Melcher’s friend Bruce Johnston, who, like Melcher, was a rich kid who’d decided to make rock and roll his hobby, and who had sung backing vocals on Gone. Stewart, Bridges, Marcus and Rotkin would all be credited on the records, and Johnston and Melcher would be ghost vocalists.

This arrangement suited everyone, and meant that on occasion Bruce and Terry could just knock together a track without any of the Rip Chords being involved — as they did with the band’s third single, Hey Little Cobra.

The song was brought to Bruce and Terry by Carol Connors, a singer who had started in Phil Spector’s group The Teddy Bears before moving on to work as both a singer and a songwriter with Gary Usher and Roger Christian, who when they weren’t writing lyrics for Brian Wilson songs would work together and separately on churning out tons of surf and car product and songs for beach movies.

Connors’ song is clearly based on the Brian Wilson formula. Lyrically, the connection is obvious — the Cobra is “little”, just like the Deuce Coupe, while the phrase “shut ’em down” turns up twenty-one times in less than two minutes, far more than it does in, say, the Beach Boys’ Shut Down.

But it’s the music that’s the real giveaway. This is structured exactly like one specific song — Surf City. Both songs start with an ascending tagline, going into a verse with a simple, generic chord sequence that feints at a key change as it rises into the chorus, before a twelve-bar chorus that follows a standard blues pattern for the first eight bars, before repeating the tagline, which starts on the major chord a flattened third above the tonic and rises.

There are, of course, differences — the movement up after the IIIb chord is different in both songs, for example — but the songs are so similar that there’s no question that it was Surf City, in particular, that Connors was consciously attempting to emulate (understandably enough, as this was the only song from the Wilson/Berry/Christian/Usher grouping to have reached number one at that point).

The main difference comes in the chorus vocal arrangement. Where the Beach Boys’ lead singer, Mike Love, was a bass, and so Brian Wilson’s songs tended to have a prominent, complex, moving solo bass vocal part in the chorus while the band chanted one- or two-word phrases, both Melcher and Johnston were very light tenors, and so the part which in a Brian Wilson song would have been the solo bass vocal (“Sting little Cobra gettin’ ready to fight”) here becomes the part taken by the massed vocals, while Johnston’s solo line (“Shut ’em down”) is the part that Wilson would have made a three-part harmony chant.

The track is by far the most successful attempt at emulating the Brian Wilson style to that point, both commercially ( reaching number four in the US charts) and artistically, but it’s still clearly a lesser work. Even though Melcher and Johnston were using the same musicians who’d played on Surf City, and though the Beach Boys themselves, not the strongest of instrumentalists, were playing on their own records, yet the sound on Hey Little Cobra is notably thinner than anything from the Wilson stable. In part, this is because with only two vocalists and the primitive recording techniques of the time, the track required a lot of bouncing down (recording parts on two or more tracks of a multitrack tape, then rerecording those tracks onto a single track, freeing up space on the tape, but losing a generation of sound quality in the process), but it’s notable that most of Melcher’s other productions have this light, tinny sound.

The Rip Chords as a group would have only one further hit after Hey Little Cobra, but this single’s success had proved that if you wanted to get a Beach Boys sound, it was worth getting Bruce Johnston involved. This was not lost on the Beach Boys themselves…

Hey Little Cobra

Composers: Carol Connors and M. H. Connors

Line-up: Terry Melcher (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Glen Campbell (guitar), Steve Douglas (saxophone), Leon Russell (keyboards), Hal Blaine (drums), Frank Capp (percussion), Al de Lory (keyboards), Bill Pitman (guitar), Ray Pohlman (bass), and Tommy Tedesco (guitar).

Original release: Hey Little Cobra/The Queen , the Rip Chords, Columbia single 4-42921

Currently available on: Hey Little Cobra and Other Hot Rod Hits / Three Window Coupe Cherry Red CD

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