Up Close With Michael Z. Gordon Of The Marketts
Composer Of “Surfer’s Stomp,” “Out of Limits,” Et Al
Interviewer’s note: Michael Z. Gordon grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota, and he hated it. That period of unhappiness quickly ended, however, when he relocated with his birth family to Southern California in the late ‘50s and became a principal pioneering composer in an instrumental genre of music that is now referred to as “surf rock.”
But, as it was with nearly all aspiring artists in the heyday of their youth who flocked to L.A. during the late ‘50s and early ‘60s with visions of being the next breakout artist in the primal days of rock ‘n’ roll, Gordon went through a period of disillusionment with those who he thought had his best interests. You know the story: giving up half the writers’ credits; being shafted on the producer credits; and not being paid from record sales.
“I don't mean to sound bitter, but I do regret having been so easily taken advantage of by certain people,” laments Gordon.
During the defining period of rock and roll, it’s common knowledge that the majority of the ambitious artists of the time did throw in the towel after being confronted with this all-too-common negativity, but Michael Z. Gordon was not one of them. He went on to achieve the near impossible task of gaining acceptance in that highly prized but dispassionately ruling market that dares any artist from entering its lair: mainstream rock and roll.
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[Lance Monthly] Where and when were you born, Michael?
Michael Gordon Minneapolis, MN, on 04/04/41.
[Lance Monthly] Do you have any brothers and sisters?
Michael Gordon Two sisters.
[Lance Monthly] What was your birth-home environment like? Did you grow up in a city neighborhood, or in the country?
Michael Gordon Mostly I was shuffled off to stay with other people because my parents weren't around that much. Grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota—the town from hell.
[Lance Monthly] When you were a kid, what kind of chores did your parents expect of you, and what did you enjoy doing most during your free time?
Michael Gordon I worked in my dad's clothing store most of the time. I liked music, especially Elvis and jazz drummers.
[Lance Monthly] Aside from you, did other members of your family have an interest in music as a profession?
Michael Gordon My mom was into singing when she was young and wanted to make a career out of it, but gave it up to get married.
[Lance Monthly] You say that your parents weren’t around very much and Rapid City is the town from hell? You make it sound like your early years were kind of a bummer. What was it that you didn’t like about Rapid City and why were your parents not around much?
Michael Gordon My early years were awful. My parents fought constantly and were so miserable; they couldn't think of anything but themselves, so consequently all three of us grew up with a lot of problems.
I only had a few friends because Rapid City was a "redneck" town and they didn't like anyone who wasn't one of them. There wasn't anything to do in that town except drink, and you could drink at age sixteen, so that's what we all did. I'm Jewish and I went through hell because of that, getting flack from all the kids. I carried a switchblade and had one knife fight, which ended up with neither of us wanting to really do anything drastic. So we called it a draw.
My dad was in jail part of the time for doing shady deals, one of which was to sell car paint that you could brush on. The only problem was that if it rained, the paint would wash off. After my dad started an oil refinery and sold more shares than there were available, my mom left town and took us to L.A. Saved my life because I went back there about seven years later on a Midwest tour and all but one of my friends had died of alcohol-related problems. The other was in AA and he was a wreck.
[Lance Monthly] Did you like Buddy Holly’s music? In fact, did you by chance see him during his Winter Dance Party Tour during the late ‘50s?
Michael Gordon As a matter of fact I did, and it was truly an incredible experience.
[Lance Monthly] When you were in high school, what was “in” in reference to cars, attire, and cool expressions? In Albuquerque, during the mid to late ‘50s, we wore taps on the heels of our shoes, pegged pants, pink or purple shirts, ducktails, had customized cars lowered in the back with six-inch shackles, and cruised the drive-ins with our car radios blaring away. Does this sound familiar?
Michael Gordon Yep, you nailed it right on the head. I wore a pink corduroy shirt with purple corduroy pants (pegged, of course), but mostly wore Levis and a T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up over a pack of smokes. I didn't smoke, but I thought it looked cool. My hair had a waterfall in front and a ducktail in back. Everyone hung out at the A&W drive-in and we had many drag races. The only chopped and channeled cars came from California and everyone drooled over them.
[Lance Monthly] When did you become interested in becoming a musician and was the guitar your first instrument? Do you recall the model of your first guitar?
Michael Gordon I started writing in high school and did a few demos with a vocal group I formed. Then I went in the Navy and kept on writing and recording. Finally got out after thirteen months cuz I couldn't stand it any more. I faked fainting spells and they let me out on a medical.
I got a job and kept on writing until they fired me because I paid so much attention to my music and screwed up on the job. I had a Gibson, but I don't remember the model. A friend of mine looked it up and said it was worth about $12,000. I don't know if that's accurate or not.
[Lance Monthly] What mainstream rock band influenced you the most?
Michael Gordon I think it was Phil Spector's The Teddy Bears. I know that's not a rock band, but I went to school with Spector. I wasn't really friends with him, but I heard his music and it really inspired me.
[Lance Monthly] Did you attend college after high school?
Michael Gordon Not until about thirteen years later. I needed a break from music during the ‘70s, so I basically shut music out of my life for about five or six years. I had been touring for about six years straight, doing one-nighters, driving from town to town, sometimes as much as eight to ten hours away. I was totally burned out. I mean, I didn't even listen to the radio during that time.
[Lance Monthly] Michael, The Lance Monthly has a ton of readers who are die-hard Buddy Holly fans, and I know they would love for you to elaborate on having witnessed one of Buddy Holly and The Crickets’ performances during the infamous Winter Dance Party Tour. At which town did that take place, and describe the venue, the kids, the music, and maybe the other artists? In addition, would you say that the experience was a major influence on you in becoming a serious musician?
Michael Gordon Funny, but up until now, I never realized that the show I saw was his last performance in Clear Lake. Keep in mind that it was almost fifty years ago, so I don't remember most of it except that it was incredibly crowded and it was a din of screaming mimis, so it was hard to really enjoy the bands.
What inspired me the most was that he was a singer, songwriter, producer and accomplished musician; all the things I wanted to be. However, it didn't really hit me until a few years later (when I went in the studio to record my first demo) that I flashed back for a moment and thought about the influence of Holly. Spector came into the studio that day and said, "It doesn't sound like a hit to me," and he was right.
[Lance Monthly] So when exactly did your Mom take you and your two sisters to L.A.? I assume that you went to high school there, given that Spector was also one of its students? What’s the name of the high school?
Michael Gordon We came to Glendale, California, in 1957 and I had no friends, so I was pretty miserable. I finished out my junior year at Glendale High and then we moved to Los Angeles and got an apartment in the Fairfax district. I did my senior year at Farfax High and I was in seventh heaven. For the first time I actually had friends. I met a guy named Ron Goldstein and we formed the Microns. We recorded one record, "Bongo Beach Party" and "Mr Bongo Man."
I graduated in 1958 and enlisted in the Navy. I was shipped over to Norman, Oklahoma, for training in the Naval Air Corps. During my leave, I flew back to visit my dad who was still in Rapid City and heard about the Winter Dance Party Tour, so I went down there with a couple other guys. It was a horrendous drive and the car was an old Chevy with a rumble seat. We each took turns riding in the back. Froze my gonads off.
[Lance Monthly] Did you and Phil Spector communicate much with each other while in high school? Describe his demeanor. Was he considered “popular” or did he keep to himself?
Michael Gordon No, I just knew him, but he was a year ahead of me. I heard he was a songwriter, so naturally I wanted to talk to him; but he was kind of eccentric, even then.
[Lance Monthly] Did you take guitar lessons?
Michael Gordon No. I was self-taught, and I sucked. When we went on our first tour with the Mar-kets, I asked the guitar player, Eddie Kay, if he would give me some instruction, and on the five-day ride to Iowa, he taught me more in five days than I had learned in the last three years before that. By the time we finished the first tour, I was a halfway decent guitar player. At the same time, I was teaching myself how to play the piano. I remember buying a small booklet called "Smucker's Book of Piano Chords," and learning the relationship of all the chords really helped my guitar playing.
[Lance Monthly] Moving to L.A. from a small town in South Dakota must have been sort of a culture shock. What was your take on the city shortly after your arrival there?
Michael Gordon As I said, Glendale was a total loss. My mom worked nights as a phone operator, so I bought a used Polaroid and went to Hollywood to make some bucks. I stood in front of Grauman's Chinese Theater, took pictures of tourists, and sold them for a buck apiece. However, the only problem was [is] that they had a photographer that worked for the theater, so they told me to take a hike. But I came back the next night and they called the cops on me. The cop was a nice old Jewish guy who just took me home and told me not to go back there. The next night I went back, and for a few weeks after that, until I had used up all my goodwill with the cops and had to call it quits.
However, coming to L.A. and meeting people with the same interest as mine was like putting me in a whole new world. I formed several bands in high school and none in the Navy. I was finally able to get my creative juices flowing.
[Lance Monthly] How bad were the weather conditions at Holly’s last venue and did you stay until the last song? In fact, do you remember Holly’s final song? In addition, did you take any photos at the venue? Do you know if anyone else did? Try your best to recall anything, no matter how trivial, about the event, because it is probably the most historic rock ‘and’ roll venue ever.
Michael Gordon Funny, but the thing I remember most was freezing my ass off in the rumble seat on the way back. I think the last song of the night was The Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace." Although it wasn't my favorite song, I went home humming it that night.
Another thing that stuck in my mind was the name of the place, "Surf Ballroom." I think that was in the back of my mind when I wrote "Surfer's Stomp." I remember thinking that the admission of one dollar was really high for a rock show. Something else that stuck in my mind that I totally forgot about until now was Dion & The Belmonts. I loved that group and wrote a song for them called "I Didn't Lie." They came out with a song called, "Runaround Sue," which was strikingly similar in structure to mine. "I Didn't Lie" was later recorded by Lanny Duncan and Marc Cavell on Candix Records.
[Lance Monthly] Michael, describe the L.A. music scene in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Was it as ruthless for the aspiring artists as has been reported?
Michael Gordon The early sixties was great! You could make a record for around one hundred dollars, have it pressed up, give a D.J. fifty dollars, and you had a record on the air. That's how we broke “Surfer's Stomp.” I remember hearing KFWB announcing it for the first time saying that it was the fastest rising newcomer on the charts! The bad part were the people involved.
Joe Saraceno put his name on “Surfer's Stomp” as a co-writer, and to add insult to injury, I had to change my name because Saraceno was ASCAP and I was BMI. In those days we couldn't write together. He also took my name off as producer of “Surfer's Stomp,” but left it on the flip side. So many people were being ripped off, but didn't complain because they were making money. But I'm sure by now everyone knows that whole story.
[Lance Monthly] Was it your intention originally to be in a vocal band rather than one that was instrumental?
Michael Gordon No, I was pushing my songs for other artists and none of my bands were good enough vocally. As a singer, I sucked, but I did the kind of songs that didn't require a good voice. No one seemed to care.
[Lance Monthly] When did you hook up with the Mar-kets and what instrument did you mostly play?
Michael Gordon 1960. I was working in an insurance company and had already formed the Mar-kets. After I wrote “Surfer's Stomp,” I took it to Sarceno. He didn't think they were good enough to record in a studio, so he used studio guys to play with us. I played rhythm guitar. None of the guys ever got credit for playing on the session.
[Lance Monthly] Were you more interested in writing than performing, and was “Outer limits” your first high-profile composition?
Michael Gordon I only performed to make money and to promote my records. My first love was writing. “Surfer's Stomp” was my first hit record. I wrote "Outer Limits" and submitted it to the TV show producers, but because the riff was too close to “Twilight Zone,” they turned it down. I took it to Lou Bedell at Dore Records and he turned it down [too], so finally I went back to Saraceno and he agreed to record it.
We used Jack Nietzsche to arrange the first recording of the song because I wanted to use French horns, but Jack was so stoned that he interchanged the bridge of my song with another song. Saraceno wanted to leave it and we had a big argument; he let me go ahead and book another session. This time I used Al Capps, who got it right. Saraceno never showed up for the second session, but took my name off and put his own name on as producer when the record started to break. If you check any website, Saraceno took credit for the arrangement even though he couldn't write a lick. Nice guy. We had to change the name of the song [to “Out of Limits”] after Screen Gems threatened a lawsuit.
[Lance Monthly] Michael, when the leading Buddy Holly historian, Bill Griggs, learned that you had attended the final Holly venue at the Surf Ballroom, he excitedly passed these questions on to me for you to take your best shot:
Billy Griggs “A. Does he have any pictures from that evening? B. Does he remember what songs were performed? C. Does he remember which act he liked the best? D. How energetic were the acts, especially [that of] Buddy Holly’s? E. How did he hear the news the next day? F. What were his thoughts about hearing the news [after] having seen those artists the evening before? G. Is it true that the original title to his song was "Outer Limits" and had to be or was changed because of the television show? H. Who decided to make the change? Was he asked to do it, or voluntarily did it?”
Michael Gordon A. Unfortunately, no. B. “Chantilly Lace” (because it was the last song), and "Peggy Sue" and “Every Day.” But my favorite Buddy Holly song was, “Raining in My Heart.” [However], keep in mind I have trouble remembering what I had for breakfast this morning. C. Buddy Holly, of course, but the group that stood out most in my mind later was Dion and the Belmonts. D.
What I remember most was the screaming and the band mixed together to form a din when Holly sang. I wasn't close up, but I don't remember Holly being that energetic. The crowd was, of course. Big Bopper was the most energetic. He had that kind of personality. E. The radio. F. It was really hard to believe. I remember thinking what a waste it was and wondered how they could have flown in that kind of weather. I always felt that Holly would have probably still been an integral part of the music business to this day. G. Yes. H. I wasn't given a choice. Joe Saraceno gave Warner Bros. permission to make the change and informed me after the fact.
[Lance Monthly] Michael, enlighten our readers on the preferred spelling of the Mar-kets. I’ve seen it as Marketts, and Markets. Why the variance?
Michael Gordon The Mar-Kets was the original spelling, but there was a group called the Mar-keys and Liberty thought it would cause some confusion, so we changed it to Marketts.
[Lance Monthly] It seems to have been a common practice in L.A. during the early ‘60s to record a rock instrumental with hired studio musicians, release it with a fictitious band name, and then make the group a reality with different musicians if the tune hit. A good example of this was “Let’s Go (Pony)” by The Routers, which hit number 19 on the Billboard charts. Although great for the composer, somehow it seems like the public was deceived. Would you say Saraceno was an advocate of this practice?
Michael Gordon Absolutely! That's all he ever did, even when there was actually a group, he would not use the group, but hire studio musicians because then he could put himself down as "leader" and get quadruple scale for the sessions.
[Lance Monthly] So, was Warner Brothers The Mar-kets’ principal record label and was the company fair in paying the mechanics royalties to the members of the band, who actually performed in the recordings?
Michael Gordon The Mar-kets recorded for Liberty and the Marketts recorded for Warmer Bros. Joe never paid one member of the band including myself.
[Lance Monthly] When “Surfer’s Stomp” hit, how high did it rank in the Billboard charts and, as a result of its success, did the Mar-kets immediately tour?
Michael Gordon Number eleven and we were out the first week the record came out.
[Lance Monthly] Michael, approximately where did the first tour take the Mar-kets and with what other acts did the group perform? In addition, who was your tour manager and would you say that the Mar-kets were well taken care of?
Michael Gordon Our first tour was in Iowa, Des Moines, I think. We played with Little Eva, Jannie Grant, Paul and Paula, Linda Scott and Bobby Vinton. Artist's Management booked our tour, but there was no one else.
Well taken care of? We stayed mostly at Big Six motels, which actually charged $6.00 a night at that time, and one of us would register and book one room and the other four came in afterwards. We split the $6.00 cost between us.
[Lance Monthly] Of all the groups and artists with which the Mar-kets toured, who would you say was the classiest and a joy to work with?
Michael Gordon I'd say Leon Russell and Glen Campbell were the two nicest guys I worked with.
[Lance Monthly] How long after the Mar-kets began touring did some or did all of the band members begin to feel that it was becoming a real drag and why? What, in fact, was the biggest turn-off in touring in the early ‘60s?
Michael Gordon It took about a year before some of the band members became disillusioned. The worst part was all of us driving in a beat-up old car pulling a U-haul trailer in 100-degree heat for the first couple of years.
[Lance Monthly] Although you indicated that the Mar-kets weren’t paid for their record sales, would you say that at least the touring income was decent?
Michael Gordon Depends upon what you call decent. Our usual gig was $300-$500 a night and the most we ever got was a thousand for a college gig.
[Lance Monthly] How high did “Out of Limits” chart nationally?
Michael Gordon It went to number one in Music Guide Magazine and was number one on most station's charts nationally.
[Lance Monthly] Were you married and raising a family during your breakout years with The Mar-kets?
Michael Gordon No, I was going with someone but didn't get married until a few years later.
[Lance Monthly] Sonny West, who wrote “Oh Boy” and “Rave on,” told me in a past The Lance Monthly interview that he reluctantly gave up half of his writing credits for those songs to Norman Petty before Petty would allow Buddy Holly to record them. Sonny caved in because half of something big is a heck of a lot better than all of something that isn’t. Why did you let this happen to you?
Michael Gordon I was just too stupid and naive to know better. I was a young kid and easily manipulated. I just didn't know any better. Aside from the “Surfer's Stomp” incident, the worst part was taking my name as producer off “Out Of Limits” and “Let's Go.”
[Lance Monthly] Would you say that your saving grace monetarily during the early ‘60s was because of your writer’s credits and not that of performing?
Michael Gordon Yes, but the performing paid for my living expenses and allowed me to put money aside that I earned from writing.
[Lance Monthly] When did the Mar-kets call it quits?
Michael Gordon I think we broke up in 1966 and the only two I keep in touch with are Bill Moody and Randy Viers.
[Lance Monthly] So after the Mar-kets, where did your musical career take you? Did the ‘60s psychedelic period of the mid to late ‘60s have a big influence on you?
Michael Gordon The drug scene turned me off. I became part of a successful writing team with Jimmy Griffin until he turned to drugs. We wrote [more than] sixty songs, fifty-one of them were recorded by hit artists of the ‘60s. We got together after twenty years and had just written the title song for "The Devil and Daniel Webster" when he was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away a few months ago. He was such a great guy.
[Lance Monthly] Have you been able to sustain yourself financially throughout your music career without the aid of day jobs?
Michael Gordon Yes, I've never had a day job since I started in the music biz. I turned to composing after the Marketts and was under contract to United Artists, Imperial Records, and finally Snuffy Garret where I met Jimmy.
[Lance Monthly] What are some other tunes that you wrote after the days of the Mar-kets that have charted or at least showed promise?
Michael Gordon “Apologize” by Ed Aames earned me my second BMI Award; “Love Machine” was number one in Australia and several other countries; “Beware” by Bill Buchanan was number one in many cities back East; and I had a bunch of others that climbed up the charts for a few weeks and then disappeared.
[Lance Monthly] I see that you’re presently into film production?
Michael Gordon Most of my film projects include music because I want to include my songs if I can. I have a new film coming out called "Silent Partner," and I am working on a sitcom about an aging Mafia family. We are supposed to start shooting in July, which will include my music.
[Lance Monthly] Here are some final questions from some ardent Holly fans in reference to your attendance at Buddy’s final Winter Dance Party venue:
Holly Fans A. Did Buddy ever mention about reforming with the Crickets to the audience, and what was gonna be the next single or album? B. Did Ritchie Valens mention which was going to be his next release after “Donna/La Bamba?” C. Did Buddy, Ritchie, The Bopper, and Dion and the rest of the gang introduce their songs and if so, was there much talk with the audience? D. What I would like to know is if Buddy, Ritchie and the rest of the bunch joined in to sing “La Bamba” as a very last song. E. What was the concert you went to next after the Clear Lake show? F. Was it different going to see a concert after that? G. Are you still in touch with the people who saw the show with you? H. Do you ever go over the evening, the events before, during and after with each other? I. What was it like seeing Buddy Holly play the drums?
Michael Gordon [A and B] Sorry, I don’t recall; [C] I seem to recall [that] there was with Big Bopper and Dion; [D] Again, I really don't recall, but I thought the Big Bopper did the last song.
[E] I don't think I went to another concert for several years and only then because I was part of the show. I might have gone to a Jerry Lee Lewis concert. [F] Yes. [G] No. [H] No. [I] Sorry, but I don’t recall that.
[Lance Monthly] Michael, if you could go back in time and do it all over again musically, what would you do differently?
Michael Gordon I would be smarter and savvier in the business, and I'd hook up with honest people.
[Lance Monthly] Thank you very much, Michael, for your visit with me. Your replies have been very straightforward and astute, and I do appreciate that. What are your final thoughts?
Michael Gordon This has been good for me too because it has brought up some good memories as well as bad ones. I don't mean to sound bitter, but I do regret having been so easily taken advantage of by certain people.
As it was so aptly put, "it was the best of times and it was the worst of times." But I have been very fortunate in being able to reinvent myself through the years going from a songwriter to a musician to a composer for TV and films, and finally to a screenwriter and producer with eight films under my belt so far. I've always felt that someone was watching over me because I have three great boys, and, as my beautiful wife likes to remind me every night, "this is the good life."
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