Up Close With Tracy Sands
First Waver SoCal Surf Guitarist Recalls Some Of Orange County’s Rock History
[Dick Stewart] Tracy, when and where were your born?
Tracy Sands June 26th, 1950; Santa Monica, California.
[Dick Stewart] Did you grow up in a city neighborhood or in the country?
Tracy Sands At first, we moved around a lot, Lynwood, Southgate, Huntington Park, you know, close to L.A.; then a couple of years in the San Fernando Valley before finally settling down in Anaheim in 1956. At the time, Anaheim was really “the sticks,” or as Angeleans would say, “the boonies.” In fact, most of Orange County was nothing more than dairy farms and orange groves. Oranges everywhere.
[Dick Stewart] How big a birth family did you have?
Tracy Sands I have two sisters and a brother. I am the oldest.
[Dick Stewart] Aside from you, were there other members of your birth family that had an interest in playing an instrument?
Tracy Sands My father was a pianist during the big band era, a big fan of Freddie Slack and Pete Johnson, so he really had that 'boogie' thing down. There was always a piano in the house, sometimes two, so all of us kids got to spend a good amount of time learning how to play. My dad was a stern teacher, put us through the paces; he was more interested in us getting the “theory” right, the playing would come with time.
My brother later became a drummer, the older sister played only the piano, and my youngest sister picked up bass and guitar. As a family, we sang like the Osmonds :) (actually, it wasn't bad).
[Dick Stewart] What were the typical things that you did to entertain yourself during your youth?
Tracy Sands There were literally thousands of records in the house. Each week, my father would bring home more. My greatest and most favorite hobby of all time is playing phonograph records. My dad made records in the ‘40s. First thing in the morning I would put one of my father's records on the player and blast it good and loud as a soundtrack to accompany my breakfast. I was, and still am, absolutely fascinated with the whole concept of recorded sound.
Outside of that, I had some interest in model trains, and radio. At some point, I became a radio junkie, built a crystal set (no batteries; always “on”). I'd fall asleep each night with the earphone plugged in and groovin' to the top tunes.
[Dick Stewart] Was surfing big in your family?
Tracy Sands Surfing was never a real big topic at the dinner table. My mother's family migrated from Kansas in 1939, settling down in Santa Monica. She spent a lot of time at the beach as a teen and didn't have a glowing opinion of surfers or surfing in general. Also, the movie “Gidget” portrayed surfers as brawling college boys and ne'erdowells. Nothing you would aspire to. Of course, this was all before the explosion of popularity surfing, following the release of the Beach Boys' first hit, “Surfin.”
I took up bellyboarding in earnest when I was 16. There's nothing more exciting than being eye level on a wave heading 40 mph toward the shore. But after nearly killing myself a coupl'a times, it became 'that thing I did in 1966. Surfing is great exercise though. You never see any fat surfers.
[Dick Stewart] What was the leading rock ‘n’ roll station in your area and what artists did you dig the most?
Tracy Sands There were three competing top 40 stations in the L.A. area: KHJ 930AM, KFWB 980AM and KRLA 1110AM. There was also a station in Riverside, KFXM 590AM that would “break” new records. If you wanted to hear the “bubbling under,” you'd tune to KFXM. [It was] the first station to play “Tequila” and “Pipeline.”
The 'top 40' was more eclectic back then. The cream rose to the top as nature intended. You could have Dave Brubeck, Chuck Berry, The Fireballs, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Johnny Nash and Shelly Fabares side-by-side on the charts, all worthy contenders, all terrific records, not like it is now: all split up, every style of music with it's own chart [and] it's own audience. The charts that mattered were not the national Billboard listing, but the local list compiled by the programmers at the stations. KRLA had their very unique top 20 countdown show every Sunday morning, compiled from a list of the actual best sellers submitted by advertiser “Sight & Sound Music” in Pasadena. What a racket. If you wanted your favorite record to climb the local chart, you'd have to buy it at Sight & Sound.
I was a top 40 junkie. I didn't have a favorite; I liked it all. My personal favorite top-ten instrumentals of the era: “Pipeline,” “Surfrider,” “Memories of Maria,” “Cry for a Shadow,” “Mr. Moto,” “Apache,” “Penetration,” “Because They're Young,” “Wipe Out” and “Miserlou.”
[Dick Stewart] When did you pick up the guitar, how did you obtain it, and do you recall what model it was?
Tracy Sands My first real guitar was a beat up old Harmony archtop one of my sisters picked up at a garage sale for a nickel. It was really in bad shape, with cracks in the top and a hole big enough to pass a microphone; hence my first electric guitar, which I played through a small 'Knight' PA amplifier much to the annoyance of all of my neighbors. That was around 1963.
I constantly tweaked around on that thing, making improvements as time permitted, including a real pickup, but it just played terribly. In the meantime, I picked up one of the newfangled Fender-Rhodes electric pianos. They had just hit the market and were fraught with problems of their own, but it was loud and I could keep up with guitars and drums.
In 1967, I bought my first 'new' guitar, a Rickenbacker 325JG—no, not a Fender. By then, I got the Beatle bug and developed a passion for silly love songs.
[Dick Stewart] Did you take lessons?
Tracy Sands In 1968, I took some lessons from ex-Kenton alumnus Ralph Blaze. He helped me focus on the dignity of the instrument and expanded my overall perception of what a guitar is capable of. It was time well spent, but for the most part, I'm self-taught.
[Dick Stewart] What high school did you attend and what was “cool” as far as sayings, attire, and cars?
Tracy Sands I went to Savanna High School in Anaheim, California. Cool sayings? I don't know, they seem so part of the culture now: words like “bitchen,” “outta sight,” other things you can't print here. Bitchen was always a weird word. It made adults nervous. I used it all the time.
Attire? Real Levi pants and jackets, Pendleton woolen shirts, Beatle boots (I wore out three pairs a year), trench coats (yeah, really), and leather jackets if you had the “cahonies” to back it up.
Cars? That's easy. GTO, GTO, GTO. Maybe an occasional XKE or Corvette. In all likelihood, you drove a family hand-me-down, but that was just while you were saving up for your GTO.
[Dick Stewart] When did you get serious about playing professionally and what was the name of your first band?
Tracy Sands I first got serious about singing. I was a huge fan of Bobby Rydell, Bobby Vee, Jimmy Darren, etc., but at 11 years old I did a better impression of Wayne Newton than Frank Sinatra. Actually, I sounded more like a Smurf, so it was easy to make the decision to leave the singing up to someone else. Around 1963, folk music with a 'beat' began dominating the charts and guitar instrumentals were real popular with all the kids. If you could play 'Walk, Don't Run' on a geetar, you had a social advantage over the next feller. Well, I knew I just had to have one of them six-stringers of my own and for the time being, I'd just play anybody else's.
The first 'real' band I was in was called 'The 007.’ There were seven of us (duh) and it was total chaos. All were great players, but we were young and had gigantic egos; all top dogs, no team players; no cohesive effort to work as a unit. I played trumpet in 'The 007,’ which added to my frustration. By this time, all I wanted was a Gibson SG and the loudest amp I could find.
[Dick Stewart] Where did you and your bandmates typically rehearse?
Tracy Sands Usually at each other’s homes, IN THE GARAGE, of course!
[Dick Stewart] Was playing instrumental guitar rock and roll your original passion?
Tracy Sands Playing any kind of guitar rock & roll became the sole focus of my life from about age thirteen on. I felt like I had this spiritual calling, I mean, for real.
[Dick Stewart] Were your parents supportive of your musical endeavors?
Tracy Sands My dad was a pianist from the 'big-band' era and didn't have a lot of faith in rock & roll. He was always waiting for 'real' music to make a comeback. Funny though, he really had that boogie-woogie thing down and spent a lot of time playing down on Central Ave. To me, that blues and boogie stuff was not much different than what I was listening to on the radio. Just a sort of rock & roll for people over 30.
We had this neighbor fellah that lived around the corner named Harold Rhodes. I went to school with his kids. He was making this newfangled 'electric' piano. When the (now highly revered) suitcase 73 key version first became available, my parents agreed that it would be a good investment and the neighborly thing to do. We literally went out and got the first one off of the assembly line (no, it wasn't a guitar, but it was loud). In that regard, they supported me as long as my efforts were local and low-key and didn't interfere with important things like chores and schoolwork, especially schoolwork. Bring home a bunch of Ds and grounded; no band.
[Dick Stewart] What type of venues during your early career did you play and how was the pay?
Tracy Sands Oh, you know, it was the same as everywhere else, old dance halls, teen centers (every community used to have a 'teen' center), bowling alleys, auditoriums, shopping centers, amusement parks. We'd play anytime, anywhere, for anyone; band battles, dances, proms, parties, grand openings, funerals; it didn't matter. If it paid, all the better. If it didn't, good, call us again, we'll come and play for free. It was never all about money. Not then. It was all about obsession, moving forward, practicing everyday, learning, perfecting, making records, playing 'live' as often as possible.
[Dick Stewart] Do you recall some of the names of the other local bands (especially those that were heavy on surf instros) during your early band days?
Tracy Sands Wow, that's a tall order. I wish I could remember all of them; there were so many, and it was a long time ago. I don't recall any of them being exclusively instrumental, at least not for long. In order to be competitive, somebody had to open up and sing eventually.
In 1963 instrumental guitar music was at its peak, but the top-40 slots were dominated by vocal groups like The Four Seasons and The Fireballs (originally an instrumental group). The Chantays, The Lively Ones and Dick Dale always included vocal numbers in their live sets. You almost had to do a few covers to keep the crowd happy or to avoid sounding repetitious.
The best teen bands in my area at the time were The Viscounts, The Santanas, The Vandels, The Electras and The Chevelles. All were heavy on instrumentals, but they had at least one member who could sing and the repertoire was about 60/40 in favor of vocals.
[Dick Stewart] Tracy, what was the band that you felt had the most promise and when was it formed? In addition, was the band’s playlist heavy on guitar instrumentals?
Tracy Sands When I first met The Electras in 1963 they'd already been together a couple of years. I thought they were very professional sounding for a bunch of kids. I took a tape of theirs to Stu Phillips at Colpix records and he was very interested. Before we could really get the ball rolling, Stu left Colpix to direct The Hollyridge Strings for Capitol and I lost track of him.
The Electras did eventually make a few records and enjoyed some local exposure, but it wasn't enough to keep them together after high school. At the time though, they were the best band in the land, vocally and instrumentally.
[Dick Stewart] What early ‘60s guitar instrumentals did you like to cover the most and why?
Tracy Sands Well, lets see here—I could break it down to say, my top five: “Walk, Don't Run,” Lonnie Mack's “Memphis,” “Apache,” “Sleep Walk,” and “Cry For A Shadow.” All these seem like obvious 'go-to' choices but what the heck, they were all terrific records and that “Memphis” confounds me to this very day, to get it just right the way Lonnie had it. That record still stands on its own, as do the others I mentioned.
[Dick Stewart] When did you become passionate about writing musical compositions and were most of them instrumentals?
Tracy Sands I've always been passionate about writing music, not to say it was all good. My favorite scenario is to be able [to] collaborate with another writer. I find I do my best work when there's someone else there to act as a sounding board; to let me know if it's crappy or not. I occasionally have brainstorming sessions with Jim Masoner. You oughta hear some of the new stuff he's writing. He's taking this whole surf instrumental thing to another level. We've also talked about a new Lively Ones album, the group now consisting of three original members plus John Benton and myself. John's a real purist, [who] gets that 1963 tone precisely; not only can he tell you when you're doin' it wrong, he'll play it for you right.
[Dick Stewart] When and at what studio did you first lay down some tracks and were they covers?
Tracy Sands I recorded here and there from 1963 to 1965; nothing too memorable or remarkable as none of it was released. I never kept a copy of any of it as the producer would always walk off with the tape and then you'd sit and hope 'til the next opportunity. Then in April 1966, while playing electric piano in a group called The Lords, we went into a small studio to record a new original tune.
The Lords were heavily influenced by The Bobby Fuller Four and Tommy James and The Shondells. The studio was very well equipped with state of the art this and that and gold records on the walls. Needless to say, we were well impressed by our surroundings, and the recording went smoothly. Done in a couple of takes. We quickly ran through an old Gershwin tune (what the?) to provide a B side and within a week we were on the radio. Another two weeks and we were off the radio. Back to square one. A little footnote about the studio: one of their other clients was a then unknown local group that called themselves The Carpenters, and this was not the last time I'd bump elbows with them, but that's another story.
[Dick Stewart] So when was the other time you bumped elbows with the Carpenters?
Tracy Sands Well, it's a bit of a story—a good one though. To set this up, it would be beneficial to take a look at where the whole local music scene was in 1967. The crowd of musicians that I ran with had a certain kind of attitude. We resented authority figures, especially cops, school counselors and the LBJ war machine. We weren't anti-war, I mean, we were punks, but we were patriots. It wasn't the body bags that made us nervous about the war. Any poor schlep can stick his head up at the wrong time and get a face full of shrapnel. What was truly horrifying was what was coming back alive, the “older brothers” who had been the first to go when the war escalated: the nightmares, the uncontrollable anger, the failed marriages, the parents’ grief, the murders, the suicides. That's what scared us to death.
The musical 'gene pool' was becoming less populated as many of our friends went to fight for freedom while others became full time college students. What was left was this hodge-podge assortment of ne'erdowells; pros, poseurs and wannabees. You no longer had the luxury of recruiting the best; it was all down to who was left.
And that's how the chips fell on that spring day in 1967. To the best of my recollection the band members were as follows: Gene Hendricks (drums), Bill Latimore (bass), Paul Collins (guitar), Edwin Ferreira (guitar), Tracy Sands (Rhodes piano), and Barry Fineman (glorified front guy). Gene didn't have the best rock & roll clock, but he was enthusiastic and Barry got along with him. Bill was always “searching,” but he was big and the notes were low. Paul was my best friend and a delightful guitarist, jingle-jangle. Edwin played a '50 nocaster and was tuned in to the old school thing long before it was hip. And there was Barry in his multicolored sport suit, sunglasses and Avalon hair. We showed up angry and ready to do battle, sponsored by Pepsi.
Downey is what some people refer to as a suburb of L.A. To me, it was a small city 12 miles northwest of Anaheim that I would probably never travel to intentionally. We'd done band battles before, at the Buena Park Mall and Pacific Ocean Park, both for Thomas/VOX, but this one was different. There was a main stage located centrally in the community park, and across a grassy knoll, another stage with a grand piano and drums, very professional and glitzy. I said to myself, “What the?”
There were five groups to play that day, semi-finalists, starting at 10 A.M. with some group called The Carpenters to go on last at around 12 noon. Now, I'd heard of The Carpenters but I didn't know anything about them. I'd seen The Animals, The Leaves, The Pyramids and so I could only imagine that we were going to be sonically assaulted by four guys dressed in overalls with guitars shaped like screwdrivers and hammers.
As the morning progressed, we watched the other bands as they got up to play. There was one group in particular that was very good and we all said amongst ourselves, “If that's our competition, we got it licked.”
So we got up to do our set and kicked ass. Thoroughly satisfied with our performance, we dragged our gear off the stage. I noticed a lot of official looking people walking around with cameras. One press badge said Los Angeles Times, so I said to the lady, “Hey! Wanna get a picture of our band?” She said, “No, thanks. I'm here to see The Carpenters.” Richard had really done his homework.
Everybody was going around the corner to the other stage now, so Paul and I followed them more or less out of curiosity. In a few minutes they walked onto the stage, dressed elegantly as if for a funeral. I remember they had a bass player with them, I'm not sure if they had a guitar; my attention went directly to the chick on the drums.
They started out with some upbeat tune I didn't recognize, not rock and roll—not even close; Richard playing very artsy with expanded chords topped with competent, but poppish vocals. I said to myself, “Who does this guy think he is? Craig Hundley?” Karen was articulate on the drums, however lackluster. Then they broke into a Beatle tune and Paul and I fell out—laughing and rolling on the grass holding our gut. It was rude, but it was an honest response and this was war after all.
After their performance, I casually sauntered over to the back of their stage with the intention of getting to know the girl drummer. Paul stood back a bit, determined to give me enough room to make a fool of myself. As not to seem imposing, I started in by asking about her drum kit, as if that was my interest. I found out right away she wasn't a gear head, but her response was enthusiastic and warm hearted nonetheless.
Richard was talking to reporters and posing for pictures when he turned around and caught a glimpse of me about a minute into my hopeful conversation with Karen. He yelled at Karen to come over to the front of the stage where he was. She said, “Excuse me; I hafta go.” Richard then said to her in a voice loud enough so I could hear, that she was “not to fraternize with members of the other bands.” To save her any further embarrassment, I just walked off. I thought to myself, “What a jerk!”
Soon after, the results of the band battle were made official [and] The Carpenters came in [at] number one. We knew right then we'd been had. I said to Paul, “C'mon; let's get outta here.”
[Dick Stewart] What, in your opinion, was the necessary ingredients in producing a hit 45 in the ‘60s aside from just plain luck?
Tracy Sands George Martin once said that just because a record says produced by George Martin, doesn't mean it's going to be a hit. I never had any trouble getting played on the radio. Nobody ever asked me for money or drugs. It's hard to hold their interest though. If you're not part of a bigger picture, you slip through the cracks right away. Only the top forty count, and there's a million groups wanting a shot at it. We were lucky to have some great producers overseeing our recordings: Gary Paxton, Joe Osborne, Tony McCashen, Mike Durrough. You'd think with their track records, we'd be a shoe in. But it takes a lot of dedication, a lot of getting along together as a band “family,” and having the whole package ready to go at a moments notice. A good example is “One of These Days” by The Lords (April 1966). It came out on Zero Records. That's how many we sold! Just after it's release, the lead singer was drafted and it was chaotic. By the time we got things sorted out, it was over. The record was dead. Time to move on.
[Dick Stewart] Did you continue your career in music with great vigor well after the ‘60s era with a serious burnout now and then?
Tracy Sands I'm happy to say that there's never been a time when I didn't have something going on somewhere, musically, although the opportunities aren't what they were. I still go out to play with friends on weekends and invest a bit of time recording demos of my original material.
Burnout? No, not really. I'll play for anyone, anytime and without exception feel pretty good about being there. It's been awhile since I've been able to make a living at playing full time. There's not much nightlife in Southern California. Not like the sixties when there was a pub on every corner and a packed house seven nights a week; live entertainment in every club. The cable companies and video rental stores don't want you going out at night anyway, and they've poured a lot of money into organizations like MADD to insure their success. People just don't leave their homes any more to go out and drink with friends and be entertained. The local pub is all but gone now and the few that are left mostly have karaoke, you know, one personality to deal with music selection, volume and pay. It's a no-brainer for club owners who are struggling to stay afloat. Besides, you can't go anywhere at night without being harassed by the gendarme.
[Dick Stewart] Did you continue your education after high school and did you major in music?
Tracy Sands I showed up at the community college like it was the next logical step, but it was just high school all over again with the fashion plates and attitudes. Plus there were drugs and demonstrations and things were looking very bad. The tragedy at Kent State was not a surprise to me. It was unavoidable—imperial storm troopers over reacting with impunity. Like most remarkable events of the sixties, their memory fades from consciousness—not quietly, but certainly. This is what we were singing about all along.
After the first semester, I changed my major from music to biology. After the first year, I was done.
[Dick Stewart] When you say you recorded from 1963 to 1965, that would have given you an age range of from 13 through 15. You were actually laying down tracks in the studio at age 13? And being so young, surely the producers, et al., must have pulled the wool over your eyes, right? What was your parents’ take on your ‘60s studio days?
Tracy Sands Yeah, not that I was a prodigy or anything. We had lots of boogie-woogie records in the house and I would sit at my father's piano “monkey hear, monkey do” until I got it right. I remember doing this from about age five. The boogie 12-bar pattern is what set the stage for rock and roll to begin with, so when the sixties came along, I guess you could say I was prepared. My father didn't encourage it. It wasn't legitimate music to him although for years he went out to south central every weekend to play the boogie blues.
I didn't have to worry about producers being unscrupulous. Like I mentioned earlier, if things got to where it looked like it was going to be real, my dad would pull the plug anyway. It was okay as long as it was “just a hobby.” This went on 'til I was out of high school. I think he felt as though if I became successful, I wouldn't want to finish my education. He was right, but ultimately he was wrong. A lot of people were disappointed when I'd bow out of a situation just when things were picking up. Replacing me was a hassle, but easily enough done. I missed a lot of opportunities as producers got the idea that I couldn't be relied upon at a crucial moment. Also, in retrospect, I think my father felt abused by the industry in general, perhaps rightly so. Survival of the fittest, you know.
After I was done with school, I got the hell outta dodge with no regrets. But the war was still on and there were new obstacles to overcome.
[Dick Stewart] I, too, remember many of my buds that returned from Viet Nam having such a rough go of it in civilian life and some of the stories have been tragic. Were you over there?
Tracy Sands No, I didn't go. I didn't do anything extraordinary not to go. I was just one of those who wasn't called.
[Dick Stewart] Are you presently married? Any kids that have developed a music career?
Tracy Sands I never had a lot of luck picking out a “life partner.” I've had the same girl fiend now for about ten years, which is sort of a success story. I get immersed in my work and don't have a lot of time for “recreation.” To me, playing music is everything; my recreation, my church, the time I spend soul cleansing.
My son has a punk band called Prime Syndicate. You know: loud, tattoos, mosh pits, [and] frantic-paced, “discordal” three-minute hate songs. Just like his old man. My youngest daughter sings. I'm hoping for the best.
[Dick Stewart] What’s your take of today’s mainstream music?
Tracy Sands It's all pretty good. The cream rises to the top. Our top 40 station out here is KIIS-FM. They have a very eclectic playlist. Kinda reminds me of old school top 40, like when Johnny Hayes was at KRLA. If it's good, it gets on. The biggest difference today is that every style of music wants their own top 40. Country, R&B, Rock, Metal, Punk, Pop, Rap,World Beat, Hip-Hop, Christian. The genres are clearly defined. That's not the way it used to be.
[Dick Stewart] What advice would you give to an aspiring musician who wants to make it in the mainstream world?
Tracy Sands Don't quit your day job.
[Dick Stewart] What has been your day job and what music projects (if any) are you working on presently?
Tracy Sands I'm an Electronic Engineer at Bad Cat Amplifiers in Corona, California. I've been with the company almost six years. I have my own company, Vintage Technology in Fullerton. We import exotic string and picks and manufacture a line of guitar effect pedals. I've also been a sustaining member of the surf instrumental band, The Lively Ones (Surfrider) since about 1994. With three original members, it's always a kick and these guys just get better with age. We do festivals, car shows, casinos, etc. and have been the opening act for, or backed other artists that I really admire like Jewel Akens, Brian Hyland, The Buckinghams, The Rip-Chords and The Rascals. We did a benefit a few years ago with The Fireballs. They were incredible. Sounded just like their records!
Currently, I'm rehearsing a new blues band, like the world really needs another blues band. And of course, I've got about two-and-a-half hours worth of original material I'd like to find artists to do. My checks from BMI could use a boost.
[Dick Stewart] Thank you Tracy for sharing your music experiences with out readers. What are your final comments?
Tracy Sands You have a great magazine and I'm looking forward to the next issue. Thanks for the interview and your interest in Orange County's rock history.
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