Arthur Lee and Johnny Echols seemed to be fated to make music together. They’d lived only a couple of streets away from each other, and gone to school together, in Memphis, but had been separated when Arthur’s mother had divorced his father, a musician who had played with Jimmie Lunceford’s band, and moved to Los Angeles. But shortly after, Echols’ family also moved to LA, and they ended up once again at the same school.
While Arthur Lee had played musical instruments from an early age, having taken accordion lessons before switching to organ, Echols was the first to perform rock music, with a small group at school. Music was in the air at Dorsey High, the school Lee and Echols went to — Billy Preston and Mike Love were at the school at the same time — and in their social circles; Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Brown moved in to the apartment block in which Echols’ family lived for a while.
However, Lee soon joined Echols’ group, and his dominating personality ensured it was renamed renamed Arthur Lee and the LAGs in homage to Booker T and the MGs. They became low-level musical fixtures around LA, writing songs and producing sessions, and playing under the names of any black band that had had a hit — they performed as the Coasters one day, the Drifters the next — as their manager assumed that nobody knew what those bands looked like. They got away with it largely due to Lee’s ability at vocal mimicry, but were also helped by Echols’ showmanship. Echols would play the guitar with his teeth, or behind his head, and it’s possibly no coincidence that around this time Lee hired an unknown guitarist called Jimi Hendrix to play his very first session, on an obscure single called My Diary by Rosa Lee Brooks.
However, the LAGs were doomed as soon as Echols got taken by his friend Billy Preston (who had complimentary tickets after getting to know them in Hamburg) to see the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl in early 1964. Within days, Lee and Echols had bought wigs to make themselves look like they had long hair, and formed a new band that performed under the names The American Four and The Weirdos.
The new band had a white rhythm section, and was one of the first (if not the first) integrated bands to play the LA scene, which was still very segregated. Lee also made a deliberate choice to start trying to sing like the white pop singers of the time, originally as a joke, but as he put it later “What started out as a put-on materialized as something real and positive.” They were playing, not the soul and R&B that Lee and Echols had previously played, but top forty covers — Wooly Bully and Gloria — and put out one single, a song called Luci Baines that didn’t even try to hide the fact that it was a rip-off of both Hang On Sloopy and Twist and Shout.
This new style lasted nearly a whole year, until Lee saw the Byrds playing at Ciro’s. Both Lee and Echols quickly became part of the scene around Sunset Strip, hanging out with the Byrds, artists Carl Franzoni and Sue Vito, Jim Morrison, and Bryan Maclean, among others.
Their band once again changed its name, this time to The Grass Roots, inspired both by Malcolm X and by the pun on the word “grass”, and for a time had an extra guitarist, Bobby Beausoleil, who would later go on to be infamous for his part in the Manson murders. However, in what seems in hindsight a very wise move, they soon replaced Beausoleil with Bryan Maclean.
Maclean had been around the music scene for a while himself, and had learned guitar from Frank Zappa, with whom he shared a love of Stravinsky, and at one point had been invited to join Zappa’s band. He had also worked for a time as a roadie for the Byrds, and David Crosby in particular had taken him under his wing. He’d also auditioned for a new TV show that had advertised looking for “Ben Franks types” to play as a fictional band called the Monkees, but even though he was in fact a regular at Ben Franks (an all-night restaurant where all the hippest people hung out), he didn’t make it onto the show.
With Maclean as a member, the band had finally found a perfect balance — Lee, the aggressive, charismatic, unpredictable frontman, Echols the guitar virtuoso and mediator, and Maclean the sensitive, folky, melodist. The only problem now was their name — P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri had started recording and releasing singles under the name The Grass Roots, in what Lee always considered an act of deliberate theft of the name by Lou Adler. Inspired by a bra shop called Luv Brassieres where Lee had worked, the band became Love.
Their first recordings, made at Art Laboe’s Original Sound studios, have never surfaced, but Love recorded an entire album there in late 1965. By this point, they’d changed their rhythm section — their original bass player had quit to find steady work, and Ken Forssi, formerly of the Surfaris, had replaced him, and soon brought in his roommate, Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer, to replace Don Conka, the band’s drummer, who by this point had become unreliable due to drug addiction.
They were soon signed to Elektra (with a contract that stated “All checks shall be made to Arthur Lee on behalf of the group”, much to the band’s later annoyance), and went into the studios with Elektra label head Jac Holzman, co-producer Mark Abramson, and engineer Bruce Botnick.
Their earliest demo had consisted of two songs. The more commercial one, Hey Joe, a folk song that David Crosby had taught Maclean, was out of contention as a single because another LA band, the Leaves, had recorded it with the same garage-punk arrangement that both Love and the Byrds performed it with, so instead they went for another choice, a cover of a Bacharach and David song originally performed by Manfred Mann. They took the song, My Little Red Book, and brutally stripped out all the complex chords and the unusual timing, turning it into a thuggish, hard-hitting, amphetamine-paced rocker. The original’s swimmy Hammond organ and polite Paul Jones vocal had turned into snarling, yelling voices and stabbing guitar.
Burt Bacharach hated it, but Love had arrived.
My Little Red Book
Composer: Burt Bacharach & Hal David
Line-up: Arthur Lee (vocals, tambourine), Johnny Echols (vocals, guitar), Bryan Maclean (vocals, guitar), Ken Forssi (bass), Alban “Snoopy” Pfisterer (drums)
Original release: My Little Red Book/A Message To Pretty Love, Elektra EK-45603
Currently available on: Love Rhino CD