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Click below for the transcript.
In today’s main episode, we look at the most prominent surf and hot-rod duo of the early sixties. So in this bonus we’re going to look at another duo who came from the same scene… or were they a trio, or a quartet, or a different duo? Or were there six of them? We’re going to look at the Rip Chords, and at their big hit “Hey Little Cobra”:
[Excerpt: The Rip Chords, “Hey Little Cobra”]
The Rip Chords started out as a duo, Phil Stewart and Ernie Bringas, from Inglewood, California, the next town over from Hawthorne where the Beach Boys grew up.
Stewart and Bringas originally called themselves The Opposites, because they regarded their occupations as the opposite of each other — Stewart was a private detective, while Bringas was studying to become a priest. They noticed that Jan and Arnie had started out on Arwin Records but then moved to another label, and so they tried to sell themselves to Arwin as a replacement for them — indeed, since Stewart’s middle name was Jan, for a while they were going to be billed as Jan and Ernie. That never happened, but they ended up getting signed as songwriters to Arwin’s publishing arm, Daywin, and so coming to the attention of Terry Melcher. Melcher signed Stewart and Bringas to a deal with Columbia, but changed their group name to The Rip Chords.
Their first single was actually by the duo — “Here I Stand” was a cover of a minor R&B hit by Wade Flemons, and featured Bringas on lead, and the two Rip Chords overdubbed all the vocals themselves:
[Excerpt: The Rip Chords, “Here I Stand”]
The musicians on that track were all members of the session collective later known as the Wrecking Crew, including keyboard player Leon Russell, guitarist Glen Campbell, and drummer Earl Palmer. The arrangement on that, and on many of the Rip Chords’ future recordings, was by Jack Nitzsche, who also did Phil Spector’s arrangements.
Nitzsche’s wife Gracia was also involved in the second Rip Chords single. She was a session singer who was a member of the Blossoms for a while, and the Blossoms added vocals on “Gone”, and Gracia did the spoken intro:
[Excerpt: The Rip Chords, “Gone”]
The man singing “Yeah she’s gone, woah she’s gone” there wasn’t either of Stewart or Bringas, but Terry Melcher’s regular collaborator Bruce Johnston. We’ve seen Johnston turn up a few times in the main podcast, but at the time he’d just started making surf records, in an attempt to jump on the latest bandwagon:
[Excerpt: Bruce Johnston, “Do The Surfer’s Stomp”]
Johnston came in to thicken the vocals on “Gone”, but he would soon be an essential part of the Rip Chords. As the group were touring regularly, they’d got in another couple of musicians, Rich Rotkin and Arnie Marcus, to back them on stage. Rotkin and Marcus didn’t take part in the recordings, but Johnston and Melcher added additional voices. But then Bringas, the lead singer, had quit the live lineup of the group because he couldn’t perform live and keep up with his studies for the ministry, but he stayed in the studio. So the live lineup of the band was Stewart, Rotkin, and Marcus, while the studio lineup was Stewart, Bringas, Johnston, and Melcher.
Their third single, “Hey Little Cobra” was written by Carol Connors, the former lead singer of the Teddy Bears, who had started her own solo career a couple of years earlier, with “My Diary”:
[Excerpt: Carol Connors, “My Diary”]
Connors spent much of the early sixties collaborating with people like Roger Christian and Gary Usher on beach party songs, but “Hey Little Cobra” was her first solo composition, though both Usher and Melcher have claimed to have helped her with it.
While all four studio Rip Chords are apparently on the record, the only vocalists who can be easily distinguished are Melcher and Johnston, who were never credited on the records as anything other than producers — according to the liner notes of the Rip Chords’ original albums, the vocals were all by the official group members.
“Hey Little Cobra”, with Melcher on lead, ended up making number four on the charts:
[Excerpt: The Rip Chords, “Hey Little Cobra”]
The follow-up, “Three-Window Coupe” was a cover version of a Jan and Dean album track, written by Jan Berry and Roger Christian, and made the top thirty:
[Excerpt: The Rip Chords, “Three-Window Coupe”]
By this time, Johnston and Melcher were also recording as a duo under the name “Bruce and Terry”, making records like “Summer Means Fun”, a minor hit for them in 1964:
[Excerpt: Bruce and Terry, “Summer Means Fun”]
But the age of the studio surf and hot rod group only lasted about eighteen months, and the Rip Chords’ fourth single only made number ninety-eight, while the fifth didn’t chart at all. After that, the group split up.
Bruce and Terry continued recording as a duo until 1966, and some of their records were truly excellent, like the majestic “Girl It’s All Right Now”:
[Excerpt: Bruce and Terry, “Girl It’s All Right Now”]
By the time that came out, though, both men had gone on to the work that would be what they were remembered for in later decades — Johnston joined the Beach Boys, and we’ll be hearing much more about him throughout the sixties and seventies, and Terry Melcher was producing acts like the Byrds, and we’ll hear more of him too.
The Rip Chords remained largely a footnote to their work, to the extent that much of the time when people talk about the Rip Chords they don’t even know that there was a real band at all. Stewart, Rotkin, and Marcus reformed the Rip Chords and have sometimes toured under the name in recent decades, and put out an album of rerecorded versions of the hits a few years back, while Melcher and Johnston briefly revived the name for recordings to fill out a compilation cassette of hit rerecordings, mostly by Mike Love of the Beach Boys and Dean Torrence of Jan & Dean, released only in Radio Shack stores in the eighties. Ernie Bringas now teaches theology, and also seems to be the primary author of the group’s Wikipedia page, which is largely devoted to making very clear that Bringas really sang on the records his group put out.