Surf Music Pioneers
When did surfing music first hit the scene?
I have been re-reading “Surf Beat – Rock ‘N’ Roll’s Forgotten Revolution” by Kent Crowley, which was first published in 2011.
Gold Star – Bob Keane – Ritchie Valens
Crowley digs deep into the origins of the genre with some interesting postulates regarding the roots of Surf music. Crowley alludes to early influences on the surf sound which included the Del Fi record label owner Bob Keane, and his young rocker, Ritchie Valens and the famous Gold Star recording studio, owned by Dave Gold and Stan Ross. According to Crowley, Valens’ (who emerged from an R&B-oriented group called the Silhouettes – not the national “Get a Job” group), laid down the foundation for the future of surf music:
“For his (Valens) version of Malaguena, Valens created the first stirrings of the style later known as surf music when he transposed the finger-picked minor-key melody to a flat-picked electric guitar style.”
From there – as a 17 year-old – it was into Gold Star for Ritchie, where he would put down his first tracks backed by a group of studio pros then known as “The Clique” and later to famously become known as “The Wrecking Crew”. Musicians on this early session included guitarist Rene Hall, drummer Earl Palmer, two additional guitarists – Irving Ashby and Carol Kaye, and finally stand-up bass player Buddy Clark. Hall would provide that driving, reverberating guitar sound, distinctive on Valens’ tracks. Out of this session came “Come On, Let’s Go” and Valens and the surf sound were on their way. (“Come On, Let’s Go” would rise to #42 on Billboard, but then the flip side “Donna” began picking up air play – and two months later entered the charts – just missing the top spot – peaking at #2 for two weeks).
Crowley spends a lot pages discussing recording equipment, and especially electric guitars – with the Fender Stratocaster being the key element in the surf sound.
The First Surf Records
So where did it all begin? Crowley points to two sources: The Belairs and Dick Dale with his Del-Tones.
The Belairs were from the South Bay area and the Del-Tones from the Orange Coast area. The competition was fierce between the two bands and their followers, Crowley reports, but in the beginning the two stood alone as proponents of this new sound. In 1961, the Belairs recorded “Mr. Moto” and the Del-Tones recorded “Let’s Go Trippin'” which are cited as being the first surfing tracks. The two founding members of the Belairs were Paul Johnson and guitarist Eddie Bertrand. They would be joined by Richard Delvy on drums, saxophonist Chas Stewart, and keyboard player Jim Roberts. Delvy and Johnson were co-composers of “Mr. Moto”.
Dick Dale launched the Del-Tones with fellow artist Nick O’Malley and guitarist Art Munson, basing themselves out of the Rendezvous Ballroom in South Bay.
The Beach Boys Join the Fray
Many groups began to emerge along the California coast line, including a fivesome out of Hawthorne, California who followed close on the heels of the Del-Tones/Belaires with a November, 1961 release of “Surfin'” and “Luau”. Dick Dale’s “Trippin'” entered the national charts in November of 1961 peaking at number 60. He would manage only one other entry onto the Billboard Hot 100, “The Scavenger” which survived for only a single week at #98. The Belairs would be a stranger to the Hot 100, but managed a #135 mention for a single week in early 1962, several months after the track was recorded. The Beach Boys’ “Surfin'” managed a number 72 pinnacle in early 1962. Their first big breakthrough came with the double sided “Surfin’ Safari/409” in later 1962 at #14/#76 respectively.
Up Next – Leo Fender and Lawrence Welk Go Surfin’
Surf Bands – Musicians – Tracks
Visit my new “Surf Waves” page for an extensive listing of the surf songs from the 1960’s. Surf music didn’t really gain a full head of steam until the year 1963, when “Surfin’ U.S. A.” by the Beach Boys crashed onto the scene.