I am more saddened than usual to hear of the death of Terry Melcher at the all-too-young age of 62 from a melanoma. I had the fortune of speaking to Melcher at some length in the late-’90s and we had kept in touch periodically since. I was unaware of his illness.
Singer, songwriter, music publisher Terry Melcher was also among the most important West Coast rock ’n’ roll producers of the ‘60s. Melcher first hit big with the Rip Chords (“Hey Little Cobra”) in ‘64, and then as staff producer at Columbia worked with the Byrds as they helped create folk- and country-rock on some of the ‘60’s most important albums: Mr. Tambourine Man, Turn! Turn! Turn!, Ballad of Easy Rider; and (Untitled) in ‘70.
In addition Melcher produced Paul Revere and the Raiders, generating eight Top 30 hits. After a hiatus from the studio, Melcher returned in the mid-’80s to write and produce for the Beach Boys, culminating in the No. 1 hit “Kokomo” in ‘88, over 23 years after his first No. 1 single, The Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Melcher was born in February 1942 to an 18-year-old Doris Day and her first husband, trombone player Al Jorden. The couple separated soon after Terry’s birth, and Day resumed her singing career, which drew her to Hollywood by ‘48. Terry took the name of Day’s third (of four) husbands, agent/producer Marty Melcher, who died in ‘68.
A singer from childhood, Melcher made his first recording in ‘61 when he borrowed a combined $300 from a college friend and Jack Nitzsche, and made a demo at Gold Star Studios (home of Phil Spector’s recordings). Melcher took his Ricky Nelson-sounding demo to Columbia, where they were impressed enough to invite him into their producer-trainee program in New York.
Having gone through the program and back in L.A., Melcher made his first deal when he signed future-Beach Boy Bruce Johnston. As Bruce and Terry they hit the mid-charts with their, per Melcher, “half-assed surf” song “Summer Means Fun” in the summer of ‘64.
In the same musical vein, when songwriters Phil Stewart and Ernie Bringas brought some songs into his family’s publishing company, Melcher signed them to a recording deal at Columbia, calling them the Rip Chords. After a couple of mid-charters, Melcher had his first smash when he and Johnston, backing Stewart and Bringas on vocals (joined by ace drummer Hal Blaine, and Glen Campbell on guitar), recorded “Hey Little Cobra” – an at-least 3/4-assed hot rod number. Melcher and Johnston then wrote, played all of the instruments, and sang backing on one of Pat Boone’s last charting records, “Beach Girl.”
In the fall of ‘64, a group called the Jet Set, featuring electric 12-string guitarist/singer Jim (later Roger) McGuinn, bassist Chris Hillman, guitarist/singer Gene Clark, drummer Michael Clarke, and singer/guitarist David Crosby, entered World Pacific studio to record a demo of an unreleased Bob Dylan song called “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The demo got them a deal with Columbia in late-’64 and Melcher was assigned to produce them. Melcher smoothed the arrangement away from the band’s march beat, informed the band that while McGuinn, Crosby and Clark would be singing, only McGuinn was going to play on (the now) Byrds’ first single.
Says Melcher, “I thought the only guy in the band who could play well enough to record was McGuinn, so I used all the normal guys I used for the sessions: Blaine, Leon Russell [keyboards], Larry Knechtel [bass], Jerry Cole [rhythm guitar]. Basically, I took the bass/drum groove from ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ and put ‘Tambourine Man’ over it, and just had McGuinn weave his Rickenbacker 12-string through the whole thing. I put him on [overdubbed] about four times so it just jangled forever.”
That endless jangling and the group’s thrilling harmonies essentially created folk-rock. The Byrds’ harmonies and Melcher’s 12-string-over-surf production set a standard that the Beatles – and Brian Wilson himself – would soon be emulating. Although the Byrds had two No. 1’s in “Tambourine” and “Turn! Turn! Turn!,” and three other standards in “All I Really Wanna Do,” “The Bells of Rhymney” and “I’ll Feel a Whole Lot Better,” they turned away from Melcher after their first two albums.
In his excellent The Nearest Faraway Place: Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys, And the Southern California Experience, the late author and Billboard publisher Timothy White quotes McGuinn as conceding Melcher’s production contributions: Melcher brought “that creamy California sound that he superimposed on the rough-edged folk-rock sound that we were doing, and I think…it gave a luster to it that it wouldn’t have had.”
After four years, Melcher and the Byrds reconciled in ‘69 for Ballad of Easy Rider, by which time the Byrds had pioneered country-rock. By Ballad, McGuinn was the only original Byrd remaining and the three-and-four part harmony of the early sound had largely been replaced by solo vocal leads from McGuinn, bassist John York, and tasty country-rocking lead guitarist Clarence White. The title track is a bluegrassy McGuinn great. “Jesus Is Just Alright” is the original gospel-rock recording of an arrangement the Doobie Brothers had a hit with three years later.
(Untitled) is better still. A double-album set, record one is a live recording of spiky, rock arrangements of Byrds standards including “Lover Of the Bayou,” “Mr. Tambourine Man,” and 16 freaky minutes of “Eight Miles High.” The studio disc contains some great country rock moments: McGuinn’s “All the Things,” “Take a Whiff (On Me),” and especially his poignant sagebrush ode to a wild horse, “Chestnut Mare.”
Paul Revere and the Raiders are (conceding an excellent counter-case from Three Dog Night), the most unappreciated rock band of the ‘60s and early-‘70s. Coming out of Seattle in the early-’60s with a Standells/Seeds rawness, the band’s gimmicky colonial garb has no doubt blinded some to the qualities of its tough, tuneful rock’n’roll. In just three years between ‘65 and ‘67, Melcher and the Raiders kicked out four Top 10 albums.
Mark Lindsay’s ballsy vocals, Revere’s organ, and Jim Valley’s wailing lead guitar drove through stomping hits like “Steppin’ Out,” the Kinks-like “Just Like Me,” the first anti-drug hit, “Kicks” “Hungry,” Lindsay and Melcher’s (with some beachy harmonies) “Good Thing” and “Him Or Me – What’s It Gonna Be.”
In ‘67 Melcher became the Beatles’ sub-publisher for the U.S., Canada and Japan, and primarily attended to such duties through the ‘70s. Melcher’s Equinox production company signed a deal with his hero Brian Wilson in the mid-’70s that came to naught. Also in the ‘70s, Melcher recorded two solo albums including one with backing vocals from Doris Day.
On a bizarre side note, Melcher’s affiliation with the Beatles and the Beach Boys apparently led aspiring songwriter Charles Manson to approach him about a recording contract in ‘68. Melcher declined, and in ‘69 moved to England. His former home on Cielo Drive was where Manson’s minions murdered Sharon Tate and four others on August 9, 1969.
In the late-’70s and early-’80s Melcher concentrated on real estate until Mike Love and Bruce Johnston asked him to help them find some new Beach Boys material. In ‘85 Melcher and Love cowrote “Getcha Back,” which entered the Top 30, and in ‘86 Melcher produced a new charting version of “California Dreamin’” for the band.
Throughout the ‘80s, the Beach Boys had placed several songs in films (The Big Chill, Lethal Weapon 2, Troop Beverly Hills, Soul Man); in ‘87 the amassed brain trust of Melcher, Love, ex-Papa John Phillips, and Scott McKenzie (of “San Francisco” fame) decided to try to write a song for the film Cocktail, derived from the scene where the Tom Cruise character moves from New York to Jamaica. Recalls Melcher, “We went into it to see if anyone could write a major hit for the band besides Brian. I figured a lot their hits had been travelogues like ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘California Girls.’
“John Phillips had this idea about a kind of blues song about some place the band would go before they broke up. We changed all the words and chords around and I wrote the chorus. As far as the feel goes, I always loved Jimmy Buffett records, so I got a steel drummer, Van Dyke Parks played the accordion, Ry Cooder played the guitar and the slide, and Jim Keltner was the drummer, going for a ‘Margaritaville’ kind of thing.
“I just layered it until it all started to shimmer. What really made it was the out-of-tune accordion: it glued everything together, especially with the steel drum. Then we left the falsettos out of the harmonies rather than having somebody copy Brian.” The song shot to No. 1 and led the Still Cruisin’ album to gold.
- Shame to hear about Terry’s passing. A very very talented cat.
I’ve got 1 funny tale – he called me ages ago and wanted to use The Textones to back McGuinn on a new album… Until Roger told him, “Uh Ter, that’s Gene’s Clark’s gang.” He was a trifle embarrassed…
Not sure if many know about the Mark Lindsay / Carla Olson unreleased duets album – another story but not quite as funny… It included 2 Scott Kempner songs. w/ Danny Federici on keyboards, Eric Johnson on guitar… Sigh… Mark Mark Mark..
Got the Raiders hits cranked up right now: Steppin’ Out is on at the moment. No better records were ever made than those singles… w/ Cooder, Blaine, Jerry Cole, Van Dyke Parks… Leon too?
See mgrooves’s super cool Melcher playlist, which can be played in Rhapsody, here.