The Grapes of Wrath

Aside from the Music Machine, who temporarily called the port town their home, San Pedro, California was not really a hotbed of pop music in the mid-’60s. Nearby Hawthorne of course birthed the Beach Boys and the Merry Go Round and Torrance and Lomita had it’s share of groups like the Indescribably Delicious, the Rockin’ Bugs, and the Afflicted Children. Across the Vincent Thomas Bridge the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Starfires, and the Things to Come did their thing in Long Beach, but San Pedro pretty much just had the Grapes of Wrath. Most of you know the Grapes from the inclusion of their snotty “Cause It Was Her” on Garage Punk Unknowns. Last year Ron Swart, Paul Gammage, and I decided to dig a little deeper into what went on down by the harbor back in the day. Swart managed to track down Grapes drummer Bill Doheney and he was kind enough to sit down with us over a couple beers on 6th Street in San Pedro.

Bill Doheny: I’m originally from Long Beach. My Dad was a lawyer and opened an office in San Pedro on 9th and Pacific so we moved there. I went to San Pedro High School but I got married in 10th grade and had to start working to support a new baby, so I dropped out and missed 11th and 12th grade. That’s how the band fell apart too.

Just to make this clear then, the Grapes of Wrath’s illustrious career waxed and waned before half the group even finished their Junior year!

Grapes of Wrath in San Pedro, 1967

 

BD: It started out with myself and Mike Gospich. He was the best guitar player I knew as a kid. We started jamming together and it actually sounded good so we got excited and got some other guys. We practiced at my house on Mantis Ave. It was really just a bunch of kids at my house playing music. We used to be called the Witch’s Brew. Jackie Mcbride was my girlfriend at the time, soon to be wife. I had to give her a job so she was like the manager of the Witch’s Brew. That was the name that I made for her. Not that she was a witch but she liked to think she was. She worked at a place called The Cauldron down in Ports O’ Call Village. where they did stuff like that.

Built in 1962, Ports O’ Call Village was (and still is) a faux New England seaport village right on the harbor. There were quaint cottages, winding brick paths, saltwater taffy, and torch lamps at night—a perfect place for a witchcraft store!

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BD: We started sounding pretty fair, good enough to play dances and things like that. Through my older brother, guitarist Ralph Sias came along, replacing Gospich. He was a year older than me. When he came into the band he imagined it to be his. He brought along the bass player Danny Morrow, a friend from the Pirate Gymnastic team at San Pedro High. And then where was Bill Lichty, probably from school too. He had a keyboard, something that we didn’t have. He was only with the band for a short period of time. Brian Mangan was the singer. I changed the name of the band to the Grapes of Wrath. I’m not sure why but it sounded cool.

It’s not clear how much of an influence the Music Machine had on the local teen groups but the presence of a genuine “hit record” group in the neighborhood did not go unnoticed. Recalls Doheney, “Sean (Bonniwell) lived in the Point Fermin area and so did my girlfriend. When I met Sean, he was already Top 10, on TV, radio, etc. But they had only the one hit, ‘Talk Talk.’ He had a recording studio at his house. I was friends, of course, with the drummer. They practiced at a different house just below Gaffey.” Of course none of the Music Machine were actually from San Pedro but Bonniwell had shacked up with a local girl and the band (still called the Ragamuffins until early ‘66) had settled into the port town to hone their craft, venturing out to gig at the Insomniac in Hermosa Beach and points further north in Hollywood. Other local groups like the (Rockin’) Bugs (later the Grains of Sand) were a few years older and played over-21 clubs so weren’t as much part of the teen scene. The Turtles were around town though. Some of them dated girls from San Pedro High and Doheney remembers them from hanging out at Torrance Beach.

With a relatively steady lineup, the Grapes of Wrath began playing around town. Since they were too young to play nightclubs, they did their thing at weddings, get-togethers and local school dances. Remembers Doheney, “We played two or three times at the high school, four or five times at the Junior High School, and a Miss San Pedro pageant, where we were nicely kicked out and asked to please not do that again next year. There were also a few battle of the bands sort of things.” By the Spring of ‘67 the Grapes of Wrath got an opportunity to record their own record.

SPHS
San Pedro High School, mid ’60s.

Their break came when Doheney’s father mentioned to one of his clients that his son was in a rock group. The client, H. Eugene MacDonald, was a successful businessman who owned several hotels in the Los Angeles and San Diego areas and ran the Hacienda Motor Hotel on Western Ave. in San Pedro. Aside from his hotel empire, MacDonald also dabbled in the music business. He had a small label called Vita Records and had already released at least one record by a guy named Frankie Kane (V-7004 “Love Is A Stranger”/ “Sidewalk Walkin’ Blues”). MacDonald himself is credited as the writer and the producer, and the address on the label is that of the Hacienda Motor Hotel. It’s not know who Lane was but it’s the same name of the main character in Harold Robbins’ 1947 noir novel Never Love A Stranger so most likely it was a pseudonym. For whom, we do not know.

It seems that MacDonald had somehow entered into negotiations with Adam Ross, who worked alongside Standells’ manager Ed Cobb and producer Ray Harris at Greengrass Productions and Atarak Ltd., a multi-media venture specializing in “teenage projects”. Cobb and Harris had recently teamed up to form Capitol-subsidiary Sunburst Records and an October ‘66 ad in Billboard magazine has the fledgling company looking for new talent and “hiring promotion men.” “Harris and Cobb were fishermen trolling California musical waters for anything they could catch,” explains Dave Aguilar of the Chocolate Watchband who also had dealings with the the pair. “They already had the Standells on their stringer, they were dangling bait at the E-Types, and they were playing us on their line.”

The Grapes of Wrath may have just caught Sunburst’s attention through MacDonald’s vouching, but at least it was getting them in the studio. When MacDonald broke the news to the band that they were going to do a record, he had one stipulation, that his teenage son Conn would be the group’s bass player. The guys shrugged and reluctantly agreed. Time was booked at a studio in Hollywood, possibly Universal Sound Recorders or Gold Star Studios. It’s unclear whether this was an official Sunburst session or if it was a more of a trial or audition to make a demo. Doheney remembers paying for the time with his paper route money which backs up the theory that MacDonald had talked his way into getting his boys in front of some real Hollywood producers. If they liked it, maybe they would put it out. Remembers Doheney, “A band called the Standells were there and made us wait. Somebody was paying their bills and they could take as long as they wanted. We only had one hour. They were nice guys though.”

After quickly setting up in the studio, the Grapes first recorded an original, pleasing harmony jangler called “For Every Year,” a song they’d been working on and often threw into their set of West Coast covers at dances. “That’s what we were about,” Doheney explains, “We were a five part harmony kind of group. We played a lot of Association songs and Beach Boys songs as best as we could.” ”You name it, we can do it,” Sias told his school newspaper Fore ‘N’ Aft. When they finished, Ross asked them what they were recording for the B-side. “That caught us off guard,” Doheney admits, “We had not thought of a second song. So last minute, we started playing our warmup song.” This was basically just a riff they’d start off with at practice and gigs, just to get things moving. It didn’t have words… or so they thought.  “Turns out Brian, the singer, said that he did have words to the song in his pocket. He had always thought of putting words to the song and we said go for it! The first time it showed up on tape is the first time we played it like that!

The resulting song, “Cause It Was Her,” is a bonafide teenage masterpiece with sneering double-tracked vocals teetering atop a frantic Seeds-like rhythm with erratic, drawn-out drum fills and simplified Them organ patterns (not unlike the Things to Come’s “Sweet Gina” whose influence may have been heard from across the harbor). The group harmony background vocals and twangy surf guitar on the chorus really place the sound in Southern California. The frantic guitar intro is unmistakable. It turns out that was usually a bass part.

“The problem was that Gene MacDonald’s son really wasn’t up to the task,” recalls Doheney. “That’s why you hear the intro played on a regular guitar and not on bass. Danny Morrow played that part. Also, I messed up on the drum solo. Blame it on the new kit that I just got. We decided to keep the part in but I was never able to play it like that again!”

So the question is, was the band pleased with it?

BD: Heck yeah! The problem for me was to keep up the tempo. I get excited and tend to speed up things. Everyone sort of complained that I sped up the song too much.

Both songs were credited to Ralph Sias though Doheney thinks it was more of a “joint effort.” “Ralph knew how to publish the songs so his name was used,” he says. In the previously mentioned Fore ‘N’ Aft article it mentions that “Ralph sells some of the songs that he writes to other bands and Sunburst has also bought some.” “Ed (Cobb) shuffled songs he’d written between groups,” recalls Dave Aguilar. “They were introduced to us in the studio. Ed couldn’t play an instrument, so he hummed and sang them to us.” It’s possible that Cobb was stockpiling songs for his other artists and MacDonald had convinced him that his boy Sias had something to offer.

In the end Sunburst opted not to use the tracks and MacDonald pressed them up on his own Vita imprint crediting himself as the producer and Ross as co-producer. (V-006 “Cause It Was Her/For Every Year”). He then hit the streets to try and drum up some airplay. “KRLA and KFWB got copies and we hoped to get played,” remembers Doheney. “It did hit the charts in Florida. A DJ called me up and he said he had a slot in the middle of the night. I sent him a copy and that’s how it got played.”

Plans were made to go on tour. “This summer the band plans to work their way to Canada by playing clubs, and then staying up there while they get some experience,” reported the For ‘N’ Aft. “We had stickers made and everything,” Doheney remembers, “I went down to this printer on 5th or 6th St. and I had this psychedelic looking thing that says the Grapes of Wrath in shocking, flourescent kind of green.”

The proposed “tour” never took them farther than Northern California on a Greyhound bus. “A friend of mine was a ham radio operator up Red Bluff and he called me and said let’s have some fun, send me a record because it turns out I’m the only radio station for 200 miles!” explains Doheney. “So I sent him one and then I didn’t talk to him for a while then one day I called him up and he said I’ve been looking for you! You gotta come up here ‘cause both of us can make some money! Everybody here thinks you’re just the cat’s meow ’cause I’ve been playing you just like any other top ten band! We took the Greyhound bus up there. Ralph Sias has told the story that we flew out there but that’s not true.”

Not a lot of people in Red Bluff (which is a couple hours north of Sacramento) had long hair, and Doheney remembers girls lining up outside the bus with handmade signs. “Girls thought we were the Beatles.” The fun was short-lived though and back in San Pedro things didn’t really change too much after the record came out. Vine’s Music store on Pacific was the only store in town where you could buy records and all the kids in school who I was bragging to about how we just made this record wanted to be able to go to the record store and buy it, so I took about fifty of them down there They didn’t sell very many and they gave most back.

Still the popularity of the Grapes of Wrath was impressive to some of the other kids at school. Recalls Doheney, “I was in a line in P.E. with a kid next to me who was in a group called the Uncalled Four. They were another one hit San Pedro wonder. They later became the Sunshine Company. So here was this kid next to me saying he wanted to be like me and ended up becoming very successful with his band!”

The Grapes continued on playing around Los Angeles. “We once represented Fender,” Doheney remembers. “They had regular battles of the bands at the Hollywood Palladium. The category we were in was “Semi Professional” because we were recording artists.” It’s possible that this could have been the Teenage Fair. “We also played a show in East Los Angeles where our slot was right behind Canned Heat. We got there early and we were just hanging out while they were setting up and they just started bringing all this stuff in, speakers and amps and they just filled the stage with these big tall speakers. They were good too, real good. It was embarrassing!” According to Bruno Cerroti’s detailed records of Canned Heat performances this may well have been April 24, 1967 at the Carousel Theatre in West Covina with PJ Proby, the Merry Go Round, the UFO, and the Young Gyants. There was talk of an upcoming appearance at the Hullabaloo club but it is unclear whether that ever materialized.

When the trip to Canada scrapped, the Grapes of Wrath didn’t last long into 1968. Bill Doheney had to get a real job to support his new family and the rest of the group focused more on scholastic issues. Bill Lichty apparently  As for Gene MacDonald, he continued with his Vita Records for a few more years, following the Grapes 45 with a very psychedelic late 1967 release by a group called the 50th Anniversary Zoo that again apparently featured his son Conn in the lineup (V-007/ V-008 “Out Of Sight/Love Man”). The top is a James Brown cover and again MacDonald produced and either he or his son gets co-writing credit on the flip. The Zoo were apparently a real group from San Diego where Conn attended high school, though it is unclear whether the senior MacDonald may have again pressured the group to add his son. “Love Man” was co-written with Frank Cadena who was the lead guitarist and singer it seems. By 1970 Conn had moved up to Los Angeles where he recorded using the moniker Scorpio Tube. The Doors’ influenced 45 “White Birches/Yellow Listen” (confusingly V-001) was apparently Vita’s final release in 1970. TeenBeat Mayhem author Mike Markesich, who interviewed Conn McDonald years ago, told us that MacDonald remembered the Scorpio Tube was a “session type deal and not a working band,” though Cadena recalls being part of it. Hopefully the rest of the story will be revealed soon.

 

 

A version of this article first appeared in Ugly Things magazine.

Big thanks to Ron Swart (who did most of the work!), Bill Doheney, Paul Gammage, Mike Markesich, and Mike Stax.