Kids didn’t want PlayStations or iPods for Christmas in 1966; they wanted electric guitars.
Forty years ago, rock & roll was more than just another niche commodity in the entertainment marketplace—it was part of the very fabric of teenage life. Between 1964 and 1967, inspired by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, hundreds of thousands of teens and twentysomethings grouped together in fours and fives in garages, dens and basements across the nation in a sonic explosion on a scale that’s still unparalleled. Regional music scenes sprouted across the country, from the Pacific Northwest to the Florida Keys. It’s been said that in the mid-‘60s, there was a garage band on every block in every neighborhood in America.
The Inland Empire was no exception. In fact, the Riverside-San Bernardino area is now widely regarded as having had one of the most prodigious garage band scenes in the country. There are several theories as to why.
“There wasn’t anything else to do other than play music,” suggests Allen Henninger, lead guitarist for one of the region’s most popular groups, the Bush. “It’s too hot to play sports, you’re too far from the beach to go, unless you had a car—we didn’t have cars. So what do we do? We started to play music, and that was it.”
While the lack of anything else to do explains the motivation behind some of the IE’s garage bands, there were other conditions that helped support the existence of a vibrant teenage music scene. Firstly, the scene already had strong roots in place from the earlier surf music craze, headed up by bands like the Tornadoes, from Redlands, and Colton’s Jim Messina & the Jesters. The surf era stirred the water for the tidal wave of garage bands that followed.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, there were numerous places for bands to play: high school and college dances, frat parties, military bases, car clubs, fashion shows, supermarket openings—it seemed that no public event in the mid-‘60s was complete without a live band cranking out “Farmer John” or “Gloria.” Regular bookings like these could actually be fairly lucrative. Bruce Tucker of the Mustangs remembers playing a Mardi Gras dance at Riverside City College at the age of 15.
“My dad came back to pick me up [after the gig],” he recalls. “He didn’t like the idea of me playing music, first of all, but we had gotten paid, and I’ve forgotten how much it was, but it was about as much as my dad made! He never, ever, from that night on, ever again bothered me [about playing music].”
Another significant factor was the existence of several teen clubs—venues that catered specifically to the 17 to 21 crowd. Among the most popular in the IE were the Hi Ho Club on Van Buren in Riverside, the Mystic Eye on Magnolia, and, later, the Purple Haze on Tyler Street, a 1,500 capacity venue opened in a large building that had previously been a Mayfair supermarket. At any of these places, on a Friday or Saturday night, young people could hang around and check out several local or even more famous out-of-town acts for just a few dollars.
Aside from the regularly organized teen clubs, there were also numerous dances staged by local promoters at various VFW halls and National Guard Armories. The Riverside Armory in Fairmount Park, for example, was the scene of many battle-of-the-bands competitions, where four or five local groups would be pitted against each other for a cash prize—and, more importantly, bragging rights.
Local radio also played an important role in nurturing the scene. San Bernardino’s two AM stations, KFXM and KMEN, played not only the newest hits from England and the rest of the USA, but were also supportive of local talent, giving airplay to homegrown releases and sponsoring live events, including numerous band battles, some at large venues like the Swing Auditorium.
KFXM also had a weekly publication, available for free at outlets across the IE. The KFXM Tiger included the station’s Top 40 playlist, alongside news about upcoming events and gossip about the music scene locally, nationally and abroad. Photos and profiles of local bands were regularly featured, often right on the front cover. KMEN followed suit a little later with its own KMENtertainer, which also had local bands alongside blurbs about more famous acts.
The KMENtertainer and KFXM Tiger could be picked up at music stores like Lier’s Music in San Bernardino and the House of Note stores in Riverside, Redlands, and later, Banning. These stores were crucial for young musicians, not only as sources for the instruments and equipment they needed, but as social hubs where they could hang out and network informally with other players and potential bandmates.
Lier’s and the House of Note also offered guitar lessons—not from crusty old veterans, but from youngsters their own age or just a few years older, who were usually in bands themselves and well-versed in the finer points of rock and surf music. Lier’s also offered rehearsal rooms, and fostered a feeling of community by covering the walls of the store with photos of local bands, from the most obscure no-counts to hitmaking big shots.
Among the biggest of those local big shots—at least for a season—was the Bush. Formed in late 1964 in Rialto, the Bush, originally the Bushmen, were one of the first bands in the area to sport the long-haired Rolling Stones look. Their big break came in early 1965 when they were the victors in a band battle sponsored by KMEN. Their prize was an opening slot for an upcoming Rolling Stones show at the Swing Auditorium. The young Bushmen—aged between 14 and 18 at the time—took the stage in front of more than 3,000 people.
“I remember the curtains opening, and all I could hear was screaming,” remembers guitarist Wayne Gondos. “We had just as many bras and panties thrown at us as the Stones did,” adds lead singer Steve Hoard. “For real!”
“After the Stones gig, everybody loved us,” reflects Gondos. “I went overnight from high school reject to superstar.” It was the kind of transformation every high school garage band musician dreamed of. Over the next few months, the Bush went on to become the region’s most popular group. Mrs. Jimmie Burns, the wife of a prominent Rialto orthodontist, became their manager, helping them acquire new equipment and more fashionable clothes, advising them on stage presentation and encouraging them to work on original material.
Through her contacts in Hollywood, she secured them a deal with a small record label, Hiback. Their first single, “Feeling Sad and Lonely,” released in December, 1965, became a hot seller locally, thanks in part to heavy airplay on KFXM and KMEN. It made Top 5 on both stations’ playlists. Their second release, the feedback-drenched “To Die Alone,” produced by legendary cult figure Kim Fowley (today an IE resident himself), sold less, but is today considered a seminal example of ‘60s proto-punk. The Bush’s third and final single, the quirky “Who Killed the Ice Cream Man?,” was a number one hit on both stations in December of 1966.
“One of these days in the not-too-distant future, I believe we will be proud to say that we in the Inland Empire produced the Bush and launched them on the way to international reputation,” predicted DJ John Ravencroft in the KMENtertainer—incorrectly, as it turned out; the band broke up shortly afterwards. Ravencroft, though, would go on to international reputation himself as BBC disc jockey John Peel.
Back in his Inland Empire days, Peel—as Ravencroft—was KMEN’s token English DJ, and even then was adventurous in the records he chose to spin on the air (this was before radio station formats were programmed by faceless corporations based on intensive focus groups). Peel was also extremely encouraging to several local bands, including the Misunderstood, an innovative group from Riverside whose lineup included one Glenn Ross Campbell (no relation to the more famous Glen Campbell), who played lap and pedal steel guitar in a startlingly original fashion.
Ravencroft had first seen the Misunderstood playing outdoors at the Riverside Mall, an encounter he later described as his “Road to Damascus experience.” He befriended the group, and at his urging, they relocated to England in mid-1966, hoping to find a more receptive audience for their groundbreaking music. In London, they recorded half a dozen breathtakingly original tracks on the cutting edge of the imminent psychedelic revolution. Tragically though, on the very eve of their commercial breakthrough, the group was torn apart by the Vietnam War, as singer Rick Brown was drafted and had to return to the states. Today, they are revered as one of the great lost bands of the era.
Another Riverside band, the Mustangs, formed at Ramona High School in 1964. A versatile live band, they eschewed the teen club and band battle scene for the more lucrative circuit of high school, college and military dances. In mid-1965, they recorded a single, which they released on their own Nero label, with the help of Ramona High social studies teacher Robert Melsh. “That’s For Sure,” a snotty putdown driven by a nagging fuzz guitar riff, is now one of the ultimate ‘60s garage rarities, with copies exchanging hands for three-figure sums among collectors. Buoyed by their posthumous cult popularity, the Mustangs recently reformed and continue to play live, mostly at corporate events and political fundraisers. The band’s John Tavaglione is a member of Riverside County’s Board of Supervisors.
Formed at Riverside City College in 1965, the Truths released another near-perfect single, “Pending” and “Why,” two original compositions inspired by the jangling folk-rock sound of the Byrds. They recorded their now sought-after record at a Riverside studio, William Locy Sound on Arlington Avenue, where numerous IE surf and garage groups visited to immortalize their music on acetate demonstration discs. Relatively few groups ever made the transition to an actual vinyl 45 release, but numerous rare Locy Sound acetates have been compiled for CD releases in recent years.
San Bernardino also had its share of garage rock action, including the Hysterics. The opening bars alone of their first single, “Won’t Get Far,” encapsulate all the raw urgency that makes the music of this era so exciting to listeners today: a harsh, bendy, barbed wire guitar riff, a hoarse scream of “Whoa, yeah, baby!” and garage rock nirvana has been reached before the first verse kicks in. Their other recordings, including the sensual, mysterious “Everything’s There” and the memorable “That’s All She Wrote” have been bootlegged on numerous compilations, a testimony to their lasting appeal.
In the early phase of their existence, San Bernardino’s Caretakers could be spotted in top hats and black capes, tooling across town in their custom-painted hearse. By late 1967, though, they’d reinvented themselves as a heavier, more psychedelic act, holding forth amidst clouds of purple dry ice at the Purple Haze. Their single “Good Inside” (written by ex-Bush lead singer Steve Hoard) saw some KFXM chart action in 1968, but their finest release was a version of an early Bob Seger composition, “East Side Story,” backed with a doom-laden original song “Epic,” a crowd pleaser from their Purple Haze set.
Also from San Berdoo, the Torquays (not to be confused with the Orange County band of the same name) started out as a surf group before picking up on the English sound for a batch of 45 releases, most of them on the local Rock-It label helmed by ex-DJ turned radio sales manager Bill Bellman. When their “Harmonica Man (From London Town)” started making waves on KFXM, the record was picked up for release by the Hollywood-based Original Sound label, but never quite managed to breakout nationally.
Several IE bands would see their records released by major labels, usually as a result of strong sales and airplay on their home turf. The Good Feelins’ “I’m Captured” started out as a Rock-It release before being picked up for national distribution by Liberty, while the Whatt Four saw their single “You’re Wishin’ I Was Someone Else” issued by Mercury—unfortunately, without any significant success.
Other towns across the IE spawned garage bands that are still fondly remembered by fans or revered anew by collectors of obscure vinyl. The Insects crawled out of Fontana, leaving a handful of obscure singles in their wake, while another Fontana native, Sammy Hagar, paid his dues in local garage bands before leaving town in a quest for fame that was ultimately realized.
Redlands was home to the Shades of Difference and the Intercoms, members of which would later form the successful harmony pop group the Peppermint Trolley Company. Even Lake Elsinore boasted its own garage rock heroes, Byron & the Mortals.
Colton was a hotbed of talent with bands like the Northside Moss and the Peasants, a group of Latino teens renowned for their invocations of the early Rolling Stones sound and a wild, acrobatic stage act during which bass player Ray Perez is said to have executed full back flips without dropping a note. In 1967, members of the Northside Moss and the Peasants joined forces with two of the Bush to form an Inland Empire ‘supergroup’ of sorts, the Light. Their single “Music Box,” on the A&M label, was a number one hit in the IE, but did nothing elsewhere. Their live shows at the Mystic Eye are still spoken of in awe by those who witnessed them, and recently discovered live recordings bear out their formidable reputation.
By 1968, the garage band era had begun to wane. The first wave of groups broke apart as members moved away to college, began military service (voluntarily or not) or got married and settled into family life and ‘respectable’ employment. The teen clubs closed down after concerns from local do-gooders about underage drinking, drug use, fighting and promiscuity initiated police clampdowns. The ex-garage band musicians moved on to the bar scene, college gigs or open air concerts in places like Fairmount Park. The original teenage energy, naïveté and unschooled enthusiasm that had fueled the scene had dissipated completely. It was truly the end of an era.
Today, the Inland Empire’s mid-‘60s garage scene is largely forgotten within the IE itself—almost like it never happened. Many of the musicians have left, some have passed away. Most have moved on to careers outside of the music industry, working as doctors, dentists, contractors, teachers, or insurance brokers. Tracked down for their stories, their first reaction is invariably a bemused “Why are you doing this?” Yet the music they left behind continues to have a life of its own. Original vinyl releases, mostly 45s, are in demand among collectors. CD and vinyl reissues of those records and unreleased material from the era are snapped up by rock & roll fans around the world—people who have never set foot in the Inland Empire, but who listen raptly to the sounds that emanated from here and reflect, with no small wonder, that it must have been quite some Empire to be a part of, back when there was a garage band on every block.
San Diego-based Mike Stax is the editor of Ugly Things magazine. Ugly Things is also a reissue label, where music from the Bush, the Mustangs and the Misunderstood can be purchased at www.ugly-things.com. If you were a member of an IE band in the ‘60s or have memories of the music scene back then, please contact the author at email@example.com or (619) 337-1966.