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Larry Ellis of the Illusions Talks About Then and Now
By MuzikMan
(more articles from this author)
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I met Larry Ellis a few weeks ago in cyberland. I was looking for people to support my zine with music, interviews and articles. He was very interested. We started talking and one thing led to another. He sent me a copy of the Illusions CD and also offered to do this interview. He was very gracious and thanked me for keeping the music alive with my web site. It has been an true pleasure and honor to work with a man like Larry Ellis.

He and the group deserve all the success that is coming their way. Thank you Larry!

MuzikMan: Do you feel really good about your music getting some exposure? It's like getting the break you and the group deserved, just 30 years late!

Larry: If someone would have told me three years ago that The Illusions would be popular again and have a CD at the end of this century, I wouldn't have believed it. It's a fantastic feeling knowing that The Illusions were never forgotten. None of us would have known in 1963 when Bobby Mason and Tom Brown rearranged Frankie Laine's 1951 hit ŒJezabel,' into an aggressive surf instrumental and we recorded it in a very small studio in Long Beach California, that the record would be considered a surf music classic over thirty years later. When Rhino Records was putting together the Cowabunga Surf Box Set in 1996, they approached Tom Brown about including Jezabel on it. With our record being on Cowabunga and also on the LP Diggin' Out, by Norton Records, The Illusions were given a permanent place in the history of the 60's music. We were a great band and we tried everything we could think of to make it big. We just always seemed to get involved with the wrong people in the music business. It's a very common story among musicians. I guess that's where the old cliché, (young and dumb) came from. Gerd Dietrich contacted me in 1997, about restoring all of The Illusions old records and producing a twenty track CD. I called Tom Brown and Bobby Mason to share the good news with them. We all agreed to the offer, and I sent all of my old worn out records and numerous rare pictures to Germany. The acetate with the six songs recorded in 1964 was extremely worn and I told Gerd that I didn't think it could be saved. Gerd answered, don't worry, we have the technology today to restore the most worn records. He was right. When the CD was finished, it sounded wonderful. Many of the songs on the ŒSurfin' & Stompin' CD are originals. We were trying to get record companies interested in us by making these recordings, but no one showed any interest. We were happy that Jezabel received airplay in the 60's, but we wanted to do more. The majority of the songs on our current CD, except Jezabel and a couple of other ones, were never heard on the radio. It's so ironic that after all these years, today we have a CD getting air play and being sold all over the world. I'm glad that I was able to find Tom and Bobby so the three of us could enjoy what's happening. The rest of The Illusions have vanished. The three of us have only been in touch with each other since 1996. Tom and I see each other frequently and Bobby lives in Aspen Colorado, so we have only spoke with him by phone. We were the three originators of The Illusions back in 1961, and now we're the only three who have resurfaced.

MuzikMan: How much do you think the music industry has changed?

Larry: Music is music, and there will always be a percentage of unscrupulous individuals out there looking for young musicians to take advantage of.

Unfortunately, the younger bands just starting out have to be very cautious when signing any contracts. You learn through trial and error in the music business, but the mistakes that are made, cause so much friction between the band members that it usually breaks up the band. That's my perspective of the music business. As far as the music goes, I think there are too many unnecessary electronic gadgets today. There are drum machines replacing drummers. There are synthesizers capable of duplicating a horn section. We went to a show in Las Vegas and the background music was performed by a keyboard and a bass player. It sounded like an eight-pieced band. They were tucked away out of site from the audience, so no one was interested in how the music was being produced. Only a musician would wonder about it. I could hear the brass section and guitar but I only saw the two musicians. I thought about the sixties and the powerful energy that The Illusions produced when we would be using two saxes and an organ on some of our instrumentals like ŒLast Night.' I always enjoyed seeing a band perform with a horn section. It's nice to see real people playing the instruments instead one person duplicating everything.

MuzikMan: When you played all those gigs with The Illusions backing up the likes of Dick Dale, what were the groups feelings at the time regarding being able to „make it‰ like the headliners did?

Larry: We felt like we were equals to most of the groups we were backing up or performing with. I think that's why we didn't take a lot of pictures of us with them. I certainly wish I had of now. I do have a picture that I took of Dick Dale when he came down to The Lido Ballroom and played one weekend. Another time in 1962, we played at a YMCA event with Dick Dale. We were all getting started then, so we didn't see it as a big deal. In the early sixties, we felt like we would become famous like The Chantays or The Rumblers. We recorded our first demo record at Wenzel's Music in Downey. We were a four-piece group at the time. That was the in place to record then. It was where The Chantays and The Rumblers recorded their records. Our recording didn't go anywhere, and it was one of our first disappointments in the world of music. We continued on though and added a sax and keyboard player the group. In 1963, we thought we were on the right track. We signed a one-year recording contract with Round Records and had a DJ from a local radio station as our agent. Nothing could stop us now, we thought! After we recorded Jezabel, our agent started pushing it just like he said he would do. It was getting airplay and we were landing a lot of good gigs. We were doing live TV shows and at different times we were the house band at The Cinnamon Cinder, The Score and of course our longest gig at The Lido Ballroom. We were in the thick of the music business, performing with artist like, Jan & Dean, The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons, The Righteous Brothers, The Coasters, The Rumblers, The Chantays just to name a few. The Illusions were a very happy band at the time. Little did we know that our agent was a few bricks short of a load. He started lying to us and ripping us off. I'll bet that sounds familiar to a lot of other musicians out there.

We never received a dime from Round Records for Jezabel. We were in the musicians union and I filed charges against our agent for payment of some gigs and a recording session where we backed up Little Julian Herrera. Before anything could be resolved, he disappeared. Later we found out that he was committed to a mental hospital. Jezabel also faded away. We continued playing as the house band at The Lido. We met Marlow Stewart while we were there and recorded Earthquake with him. The record was more of a souvenir 45, to promote Marlow. It never went anywhere, but John Blair and The Nightriders recorded a knock out cover of it on their ŒFiberglass Rocket' CD, in 1996. We still had dreams of becoming stars, so we all chipped in enough money to pay for four hours at Sunset Studios in Hollywood. The price was $200. That wouldn't get you much today. There were six songs recorded that day. Each of us chose a song to do. Some were originals and some were covers. Some were vocals and some were instrumentals. We wanted to show the record companies how versatile we were. The acetate was taken around to record companies in Hollywood, but none of them showed any interest. The music world was changing and The Beatles were coming. Reality began to set in as we were meeting our future wives. The music business was losing its appeal to all of us. First Bobby left the band. I followed shortly after he did, then Tom called it quits. The band stayed together for about a year after we left, then The Illusions disbanded. Everyone went their separate ways and all contact was lost.

MuzikMan: Do you have any regrets with the decision you made to give up music and take your life a different direction?

Larry: No, I have no regrets at all for giving up that life style. It's great to have those memories to reflect back on. One of my fondest memories is that I met my wife Carol while I was in The Illusions. We wanted a stable family life with a house and a white picket fence. We succeeded in achieving that dream and also raised two wonderful sons. I believe that everything happens for the best. Looking back, I think that if we were meant to be famous, it would have happened. All the opportunities were there for us, but the Gods' were saying no way. There must have been a reason, like maybe we would have had to fly on airplanes and we all know what happens to famous people when they fly!

MuzikMan: Have you had any thoughts of getting the group together to record again? You have a really good label to work with in Gee-Dee.

Larry: I live in Long Beach California and Tom lives in Venice California, which is about a 45-minute drive. Bobby lives in Aspen Colorado. I think that if he lived closer to us, we would probably be playing once in a while. We went to the Rendezvous Ballroom Reunion at The Hard Rock Café in Newport Beach on March 28th, and it was fantastic to see so many of the old sixties groups playing together again. Just to name a few: The Tornadoes, The Chantays, The Lively Ones, The Bel-airs and of course Dick Dale. The Illusions were invited also, but had to decline because we didn't have enough of the original members. They're going to make this an annual event. Bobby Mason said he would come to California next year and the three of us will be able to perform together. We'll ask a bass player from one of the other bands to help us out.

The Huntington Beach International Surfing Museum allowed us to put up an exhibit for The Illusions. We covered an area 8' x 8' with old pictures, posters and other memorabilia. They asked us to play there on the day of the official dedication of the exhibit, but once again we had to decline, because it would have been only one guitar and drums. A band called The Sand Dunes performed that day. They were one of the younger groups who are playing a lot of the old traditional surf music. They were great musicians with matching personalities. Tom and I have played together since our reunion in 1996. He brought his drums over and we set up in the garage just like the old days. We played all day and had a ball. Carol played rhythm guitar and our son Troy played bass. I do believe that Gee-Dee music would be willing to work something out with just the three core members of the band. Gerd has mentioned it before. Bobby has hinted that he might like to move back to California. Time will tell.

MuzikMan: How do you like the 3rd wave of surf music? Do you feel that the talent is there? The potential for the genre to expand and innovate to possibly create an entirely new surf sound is becoming evident when I hear some of the music, what do you think?

Larry: Yes, I agree. Many of these young musicians are like gunslingers from the old Wild West. They're fast! I really enjoy their music. Groups like Los Mel-tones, The Eliminators, Slacktone and Jon & the Nightriders just to name a few are keeping the genre alive. I'm not that interested in bands that lean toward the punk sound. Power cords don't impress me. I'm a picker and I respect other guitar pickers. I can see a new surf sound being developed. That's the evolution of music. Music is constantly changing, but after a style gets so old, it becomes new again. It is rediscovered by the new generation and they make a few changes to fit their taste and give it a new name. No matter what kind of new style is developed in the surf music genre, it will always have a little bit of the traditional surf sound attached to it.

MuzikMan: At the height of The Illusions success, who would you say were your biggest influences to create the music that you did?

Larry: That's a tough question. We were a top 40 band and we played everything on the current charts. I'll try to answer the question though. When it came to the surf sound, I'd have to say Dick Dale was the influence behind our version of Jezabel and our surf music repertoire. We had a horn section which we used a lot, because we could double on instruments, we could have two Saxes and a trumpet. It was a big band sound. We could do all the soul songs on the charts that had the heavy brass background. Songs by Wilson Pickett were fun to do because of the horn section. Solid instrumentals using our brass section like Last Night by The Mar-Keys and Night Train by Buddy Morrow would really get the audience moving.

The Illusions were also a very good vocal group. We did all the top vocals by The Beatles, The Stones, The Righteous Brothers. We would also always have our favorite slow Do-Wop songs for the cheek to cheek dancers. Songs like, In The Still Of The Night, Heaven and Paradise, with the lights turned down low always filled the dance floor. I hope that answers the question. There were so many good influences back then, that it's almost impossible to pick one or two as our main one.

MuzikMan: Those were exciting times back in the 60's, do you feel that the excitement is returning for surf music?

Larry: I'm amazed at what I'm witnessing today regarding surf music. It seems like I hear it everywhere now. It was good clean, fun loving music. There were places back then to go and dance that had plenty of room. The Lido Ballroom's capacity was 2000 and it was filled every weekend. Musicians played the songs then. There was no canned music. Recently I played with a band called The Breakaways. They do traditional surf music. There are two other members from the old sixties bands in the group. The Marketts and The Nocturnes. We played at a benefit at California State University in Long Beach. We were the openers for the all day event and played for two hours. The college crowd loved the music. They were dancing and requesting old surf songs that they weren't supposed to know about because of their age. When our time was up and we breaking down our equipment, the next group was at the side of the stage going over some of their lyrics. It was a Rap group. I could hear them saying something about burning down a liquor store. I'm not trying to be funny or anything, but that's the truth. Since Rap gives me a severe headache among other disorders, we left before they started doing their thing. I think that people want to hear music that makes them feel good. Music that will give them, or bring back fond memories. When people hear surf music, it puts a smile of their face and rhythm in their souls. Yes, I most definitely see the excitement returning to surf music.

MuzikMan: Do you still pick up the guitar at home and start playing and then put the tape player on to see if you hear anything worth developing?

Larry: Not a day goes by that I don't pick up the guitar. After I quit the music business, I taught Carol how to play guitar. We have been playing together now for thirty years. We have our two acoustics in stands in the front room and we play them faithfully. We also play electric's about once a week in the garage. We have written and recorded around eighty songs on our Teac reel to reel tape deck. The majority of them are vocals. I'm thinking about writing some surf instrumentals now that it's so popular again. When I write a song, the words usually come first. To find a melody, I turn on the tape deck and just start experimenting with various melodic structures and tempos. It would be compared to brainstorming to solve a problem. After I filled the cassette tape with ideas, I would go back and review them. If something caught my attention, I would ask Carol's opinion. There have been a few songs that just seem to come together effortlessly. When that happens, I leave well enough alone. I figure that must be the way it's supposed to be.

MuzikMan: I feel the Internet is a marvelous resource for many interests; do you feel the music industry is utilizing it properly to promote music?

Larry: I believe that the Internet is the greatest thing to come along since sliced bread. I know that some individuals are abusing it, but I just don't go there. Thanks to the Internet and web sites like yours and others, the music from the sixties is spreading all over the world. Information about artist, labels, collectors, books can be located instantly. If it weren't for the Internet, The Illusions and our new CD would have never happened. I have met so many interesting and influential people related to music through the Internet over the last couple of years. I would have never met them if it weren't for the Internet. Since 1996, The Illusions have been able to get a web site, thanks to Charlie Kenyon, the creator of The Surf Music Hall Of Love, and also have a CD released, thanks to Gerd Dietrich, of Gee-Dee Music.

MuzikMan: What kind of music do you listen to while relaxing at home or driving?

Larry: That's easy. When I want to let my mind go and relax at home, I like to listen to Enya. When I'm driving, I usually listen to an easy listening rock station. Another way I can relax or unwind at home is by playing my box guitar. It's like therapy.

MuzikMan: Finally, do you feel like you are back in the loop and excited about the potential and possibilities of the future? That is if you decide to head towards music again!

Larry: I'm still amazed about the chain of events that occurred since my son Rodney bought me John Blairs book, The Illustrated Discography of Surf Music, 1961-1965, in 1995. I was completely unaware that anyone even remembered The Illusions. John's book started the ball rolling. Next came Robert Dalley's book, Surfin' Guitars. Robert Dalley is responsible for me locating Tom Brown and then later I tracked down Bobby. It's a good feeling to be back in the loop with the music scene, but of course today I'm older and wiser. I still remember all of the bad business mistakes we made back in the sixties. I'm having a lot of fun now with music. Carol and I play all the time. Occasionally we play at small parties. It's more of a hobby today. When I play with The Breakaways, it's for charitable events for underprivileged children. Music is a hobby now. Towards the end of The Illusions days, it was becoming more work than fun. I don't want it to ever get that way again. I love music too much to let it seem like a job. I'll keep my day job, and keep music as a sideline.

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