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The Story of The Rip Chords

Rip Chords - 2 Album Covers

My name is Ernie Bringas. I was one of the two founding members of the Rip Chords – the other being my business partner, Phil Stewart (1938-2013). Later, our group expanded to four when Columbia producers, Terry Melcher (1942-2004) and Bruce Johnston joined us. The music of the Rip Chords was recorded from 1962-1965 at Columbia Records in Hollywood, California. We placed five singles in the TOP 100 and also produced two albums for a total of 33 recordings. However, we are best known for our mega-hit, “Hey Little Cobra,” which was fully layered by Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnston (more on this shortly).

Later in life I served as a United Methodist minister for almost twenty years, which is important to this history as you’ll soon see. Presently (2017) I am employed as an adjunct faculty member of the Maricopa Community Colleges (Phoenix area); as such, I teach religious studies at Glendale Community College. But let’s get back to the Rip Chords. The following is the full story of our group.


MISINFORMATION

This is the story of The Rip Chords. Misinformation and disinformation about the Rip Chords abounds, especially on the Internet, and specifically in terms of who we were and who actually recorded our body of work. For example, a website called classicbands is misleading and sometimes unfortunately wrong; that’s because the individual they are interviewing never recorded with the ’60s Rip Chords.  Furthermore, numerous books, articles, and CD booklets, written on the basis of hearsay over the past decades, are equally misleading.

The information below is written to clarify the historical record; it must not be sacrificed for expediency, personal gain, pride, or any other reason.  To the extent that this is humanly possible—since no account is infallible—the end goal herein is to reflect the greatest approximation of the truth.


RIP CHORDS – THE REAL STORY

Succinctly stated, the original Rip Chords (Phil Stewart and me) expanded into four primary voices (adding Columbia producer, Terry Melcher and co-producer, Bruce Johnston).  Within this coalition of four, the Rip Chords music would be hammered out.  Terry and I would handle most of the lead vocals, but Terry was our best lead vocalist and carried the lion’s share.  Bruce and I would handle the falsetto parts.  Phil’s deep-ended voice would add the needed bottom.  All four voices, in most cases, would contribute to the background vocals. That’s the short of it.  But how did all this happen? The answer is a bit more complicated.

The story begins with Phil Stewart and me.  From a legal perspective, we are the original Rip Chords (we alone are under contract to Columbia, and we alone receive the group’s royalties).

Just out of high school, Phil and I started singing together in 1957.  In 1962 (via some help from actress Doris Day‘s recording company, Daywin) we auditioned for Columbia record producer, Terry Melcher.  He accepted us as his “first” project. Twenty-year-old Terry Melcher had acquired his position at Columbia with the help of his very influential mother, actress/songstress, Doris Day.  But Melcher’s ensuing success he owes only to himself.

He became one of Columbia’s most innovative and successful producers.  Aside from the Rip Chords, he would go on to produce such groups as the Byrds, Paul Revere and the Raiders, and, much later (for another label) the Beach Boys hit record, “Kokomo”.


THE FIRST SINGLE – HERE I STAND 

Ernie (L) and Phil (R)

Phil and I (the Rip Chords) released our first single, “Here I Stand,” in March of 1963.  We are the sole vocalists on this recording.  Terry, our producer, wanted a unique sound for our first record.

He asked me to sing the lead and then had me overdub multiple falsetto parts to create the choral effect he wanted.  Phil sang the baritone where needed.

Listen:

As already noted, our producer was the legendary Terry Melcher and he was at the very beginning of his career. Our lead guitarist was Glen Campbell, a great studio musician prior to his own success.  His guitar lick provided the driving musical hook for “Hear I Stand” – you can’t miss it on the original release although it’s been watered down in subsequent remixes (when someone remixes they generally produce a different version of an original recording by altering the balance of the instrumental and/or vocal tracks).

It was a good and necessary showing for a first release. To say this was a failed release, as some sources claim, is inaccurate. “Here I Stand” had moderate success, peaking nationally at #51 but reaching the Top 20 in some major markets (e.g., KFWB and KRLA in Los Angeles, WQAM in Miami, WLS in Chicago).


GONE – THE RIP CHORDS’ SECOND RELEASE

On our second release, “Gone,” Phil and I were joined vocally by Bruce Johnston, a good friend of Terry Melcher.  Phil, Bruce and I were the only three voices on this recording.

Although Bruce and I overlap each other on some of these recordings, our differences are clearly showcased on “Gone.”  First, listen to my lead vocal in the melody:

This next audio  highlights Bruce’s high-pitched falsetto.  I believe that Bruce has one of the best falsetto voices in pop music, especially at the very high-end of the vocal spectrum.  Bruce’s falsetto is clearly heard in this tail ending of “Gone”… Incidentally, Bruce Johnston eventually became a member of the Beach Boys after the Rip Chords disbanded.

In spite of Bruce’s contribution, “Gone” did not fare as well as its predecessor, although it did hit the national charts.  For whatever reason, “Gone” did not receive universal exposure.  But in the geographical markets where it drew airplay, it went to the top of the charts.  For example, during the week of August 1, 1963, in San Antonio, Texas, “Gone” climbed up to #2, right above Elvis Presley’s #3 song, “Devil In Disguise.”  (See image of KTSA Top 55.)


THE DOUBLE WHAMMY

At this point in time, I had just graduated from California State University, Long Beach. I was now ready to begin my ministerial studies at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. This would not be a problem. I could always fly back to Hollywood for the recording sessions.  Touring on the road, however, was another matter altogether. If I were in school, who would tour with Phil on the road as the Rip Chords?

Ernie (left) and Phil (right) singing in the Hollywood Paladium on Dec 8, 1962

Prior to this complication, Phil and I had made several appearances for promoting our hit singles of “Here I Stand,” and “Gone.”  We made several TV appearances and did a few shows around the L.A. and San Francisco areas. A charity performance with the Tommy Dorsey Band was a special highlight. Also, our performance at the prestigious Hollywood Palladium was most memorable. But now that I was headed for seminary, it was clear to everyone that Phil couldn’t walk out on stage by himself; after all, one person does not constitute a singing group.

There was yet another much more serious problem that arose. The conservative officials of my church denomination (Evangelical United Brethren Church), were not very pleased with my rock & roll involvement. They demanded I get out of the business. They believed I should not, in a manner of speaking, serve two masters. If I refused, they would suspend my ministerial license, and block my entrance into seminary. I did not want to give up my educational and ministerial pursuits. Reluctantly, I agreed. But this left my partner, Phil, with a double whammy!  Who would tour with him?  He couldn’t walk on stage by himself.  More importantly, who would record in the studio with him?

The touring problem was solved by hiring two young men (Rich Rotkin and Arnie Marcus) to join Phil on stage, but only for the Rip Chords touring aspect.  Rich and Arnie were never under contract to record and, consequently, they do not appear vocally on any Rip Chords recordings.

The recording problem was solved  in-house. Obviously, Phil as a lone vocalist did not constitute a recording group.  Therefore Terry Melcher (the Rip Chords producer) and Bruce Johnston (who had sung on “Gone” and was now co-producer) stepped in to fill the void created when I departed for seminary. Thus, the recording group now, and temporarily, consisted of Phil, Terry, and Bruce.

With the exception of Phil, the touring group and the recording group were two distinct, separate entities.  Unfortunately, this expedient solution would eventually cause a great deal of confusion about our legacy (more on this later).


THE “HEY LITTLE COBRA” SINGLE

It was also during this critical period that Melcher and a young songwriter named Carol Conners collaborated on a song called “Hey Little Cobra.”  Recognizing the song’s potential, Melcher called for a Rip Chords recording session.  

Prior to this event, Melcher did not consider himself a vocal talent (although vocally he had already experimented somewhat at Columbia). But as it turned out, his lead vocal on “Hey Little Cobra” was outstanding.  He not only discovered his voice, but he also discovered he had a great “sound” (the equivalent in photography of being photogenic).

So Melcher the producer, writer, and arranger, had also become Melcher, the singer.  It would not be an exaggeration to say that Terry Melcher was to the Rip Chords what Brian Wilson was to the Beach Boys.  But unlike Brian, Terry was singing for a group of which he was not a member.  As a consequence, he never received his well-deserved recognition as a vocalist (at least not until recently).  The same is true for Bruce Johnston, who does the falsetto on “Hey Little Cobra.”  The song peaked at #4 nationally in early 1964.


ERNIE – BACK IN THE STUDIO

After having been gone from the Rip Chords for three months, the Bishop of our Church overturned the former ruling of church officials that had barred me from recording. I was free to return to the group, provided I restrict my involvement to recording and refrain from touring with the group (as this might detract from my theological studies).

With this understanding, I ended my three-month absence from the group. I REJOINED THE RIP CHORDS!!! Sorry for the emphasis here but this key factor is what everybody seems to forget.  At this point in time, we hadn’t even started recording the Hey Little Cobra and other Hot Rod Hits album.

Also note:  Although I was once again recording in the studio, I was still restricted from touring.  As a consequence, Rich Rotkin and Arnie Marcus continued to tour with Phil Stewart on the road.


THREE MYTHS

Aside from the “Hey Little Cobra” single, which I have already credited to Columbia producers Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnston, a major question arises: Who was vocally responsible for the body of work originally issued by the Rip Chords (a total of 33 recordings)?  Incidentally, four of those 33 songs (“’40 Ford Time,” “Bunny Hill,” “Big Wednesday,” and “Wiameah Bay”) were instrumentals — instrumentals that were recorded by studio musicians  (the legendary Wrecking Crew) who were backing us up.  But we were strictly a vocal group, so we can’t take credit for those four recordings. Nevertheless, they were incorporated into our body of work as album fillers.

The question remains: Who sang what?  For outsiders who contemplate the history of the Rip Chords, there are three monumental myths that must be confronted:

  1. The first myth proposes the idea that Rich Rotkin and Arnie Marcus were vocal contributors to the group’s recordings.  This is not true. However, as I will soon show, Rich and Arnie do have a partial claim to the Rip Chords story, but only as part of the TOURING group, not the SINGING group.  This is confirmed by Sundazed.com which states clearly: “Led by writers, producers, arrangers and musicians Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnston, along with original Rip Chords members Ernie Bringas and Phil Stewart, these big board big-guns left an indelible mark on the surf ’n strip sounds of the ’60s.
    Ernie (L) and Bruce (R) July 2012

    The above comment from Sundazed (that released the compiled CD in 2006 as Summer U.S.A.! The Best of the Rip Chords) was also confirmed by my long-ago colleague, Beach Boys’ Bruce Johnston (see photo on the right).  I met up with Bruce in July 2012.  Bruce agreed and confirmed what is now common knowledge; it was only Terry, Bruce, Phil, and I who recorded all the vocals for the original Rip Chords in the 1960s.

  2. The second myth proposes that Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnston were solely responsible for all the vocal recordings that followed their debut on the “Hey Little Cobra” single.  This untruth originates from the fact that I left for seminary shortly before the “Hey Little Cobra” single was recorded.  Proponents of this view are either ignorant of the fact that I returned to the group shortly thereafter, or, they believe that Phil and I were sidelined for the duration.  In either case, they’re wrong.  With the exception of the “Cobra” single, our vocal imprint is clearly audible on almost all recordings, including the Hey Little Cobra and other Hot Rod Hits album and all other projects thereafter; that is, the “Three Window Coupe” single and the Three Window Coupe album.  This whole issue of who sang what, provides a perfect segue to myth number three.

  3. The third myth proposes that even if Phil and I were not totally sidelined by Terry and Bruce following my return to the group, our vocal contribution must have been limited or inconsequential.  On the contrary, we were all involved with the final product.  Not unlike the Borg in Star Trek, we were all ASSIMILATED!  It was easier for me than for Phil to make this adjustment.  Both Phil and I were capable of doing leads (Phil has a marvelous “Johnny Cash” sounding voice), but I had the advantage of a more rock-oriented voice and a falsetto ability to boot.  To be clear:
    • Terry sang lead on 16 songs which included 3 released singles,
    • I sang lead on 9 songs which included 3 released singles,
    • Terry and I sang composite leads on 2 additional songs which included 1 released single,
    • Phil sang lead on 4 songs, and
    • Bruce did not sing any leads.

Therefore, any attempt to downplay the vocal contributions of Phil and I, flies in the face of these numerous recordings.


WHO SANG ON WHAT:  LEAD VOCALS

As stated above, Terry had 16 lead vocals.  Here are a few of my favorites:

 

I had the lead vocal on nine (9) Rip Chords songs.  Of these nine, three (3) were released as singles by Columbia Records:

 

My other six vocal leads are:

 

Phil has four leads.  You can clearly hear his different vocal range:

Furthermore, all four singers (Melcher, Johnston, Stewart, and I) were fully engaged with various contributions on almost all recordings (The “Hey Little Cobra” single being the most memorable exception).  For example, Phil’s baritone/bass parts can hardly be missed throughout.


WHO SANG ON WHAT:  FALSETTO

As for falsetto, I’m everywhere and so is Johnston.  I’ve included selections of songs below so that you might distinguish our voices, and compare those with the blended falsetto of both Bruce and I.

My falsetto appears alone on:

Johnston’s falsetto appears alone on:

 

But sometimes our falsetto voices were combined (partial list below).

 


THE CALIFORNIA SOUND

Incidentally, none of us were on all the songs.  But when all four voices were present, the sound was incredibly rich.   Terry had a very creative recording technique by which vocal parts were not simply duplicated (overdubbed) by the same person, but sometimes duplicated by different voices (cross-overdubbed).  In fact, many of the background harmonies were repeated by one or two of the other singers, making it virtually impossible for an outsider to distinguish who was singing what.  Even some lead vocals were recorded in this manner, as was for example, the composite leads of Terry and I on “My Big Gun Board.”  Incidentally, I consider “My Big Gun Board” to be one of our best recordings because of its overall vocal balance between the four parties and, because of its superb melody.  I lobbied for its release as a single, but to no avail.

To be sure, neither Phil nor I deny that Terry and Bruce were major contributors in shaping the Rip Chords music and to what is now known as the “California Sound.”  It was Terry and Bruce who took the checkered flag in their asphalt single, “Hey Little Cobra.”  Not only was that our greatest hit, but that sound became our hallmark signature.

However, in my opinion, that sound was never so vibrant and expressive as when all four voices registered their influence, which was on most of the recordings. Neither, Phil nor I, as a duo, nor Terry and Bruce as a duo (who later recorded their own music under the moniker of Bruce and Terry), ever recaptured the marvelous sounds of all four voices as found on the Rip Chords albums, especially the Three Window Coupe album.


THE 2006 Columbia/Sundazed release,
Summer U.S.A.! The Best of the Rip Chords,
says it best:

NO GROUP EPITOMIZED THE SUN-SOAKED CALIFORNIA SOUND BETTER THAN THE fabulous Rip Chords… Led by legendary producer Terry Melcher along with future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston and ace-vocalists Ernie Bringas and Phil Stewart, these long-board big-guns left an indelible mark on the surf’n strip sounds of the ‘60s….

 


THE BREAKUP

As noted above, Terry and Bruce sought their own claim to fame by starting their own group.  But their success as a duo was not to be.  Predictably, however, this divisional distraction was counterproductive.  The old axiom that “a house divided against itself cannot stand,” proved true.  The breakup of the group, in any case, would have been inevitable.

Personally, I had already made a conscious decision to pursue my ministerial calling rather than my recording career.  Bruce was being courted by the Beach Boys (which he eventually joined).  Terry had his hands full producing other Columbia artists, and Phil was leaning toward Country & Western (his true love).  We all seemed willing to move in these different directions.  This is not to imply that at some points along the way, hard feelings did not ensue.  We were all a bit self-centered and impetuous in our younger day.  But I don’t believe any of us set out to hurt anyone, or deprive anyone his rightful place.  Whatever the case, all four of us share responsibility for the group’s decline.

Looking back, I know we didn’t achieve our full potential as a group.  We didn’t get it all, but I’m grateful and satisfied for what we did accomplish, and, when I say “we,” that includes all four singers.  But I cannot close this narrative without reiterating the importance of Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnston.  Without them, one wonders at the outcome.  Shortly before Terry’s lost battle against melanoma, I had the opportunity to share with him my personal gratitude for the time we shared together, and his talented contribution to our group.


 

ADDENDUM:  THE NEW RIP CHORDS

In the mid 1990s the group was revived. But none of the original singers were part of this new rendition. This new group is comprised of seven or more members (off and on) two of which are Rich Rotkin and Arnie Marcus. If you’ll remember, back in the ’60s, Rich and Arnie were hired to go on tour with my partner Phil Stewart because, aside from Phil, the other three singing Rip Chords were unavailable to tour. (Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnson were busy as Columbia producers, and I was pursuing my seminary education).

Although Rich and Arnie do not appear vocally on any of our recordings, Columbia’s powerful marketing machine successfully promoted them (along with my partner Phil Stewart) as being the Rip Chords.  Obviously, this was all done for the sake of expediency (an action that is convenient and practical, although possibly improper).  With the exception of Phil, the trouing Rip Chords were not the real McCoy.  This reminds me somewhat of Milli Vanilli, the German R&B duo from Munich who got into hot water because they had not recorded any of the vocals heard on the records.

Be that as it may, this makeshift tour group appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand and toured with him on his Caravan of Stars.  They also appeared in a Hollywood movie, A Swinging Summer.  Columbia promoted their names and pictures on all advertising campaigns and product; that is, interviews, publicity shots, magazines, album covers, and so forth.  Therefore, Rich and Arnie’s names and photos (through no fault of their own) continue to surface on every reissued product since the 1960s.

Is it any wonder that people are confused about the Rip Chords identity?  Hopefully, my previous comments will help clarify the issue.

Having said this, however, I feel that Rich Rotkin and Arnie Marcus have a reasonable claim for being part of the Rip Chords even though they made no vocal contributions on our recordings.  I say this for three reasons:

      • First, Rich and Arnie made it possible for Phil to go on tour without me.  It allowed the recording Rip Chords to have representation in the field.  They became the touring wing and the extension of our recording group.  This is a very important aspect for selling records.
      • Second, we must remember that Rich and Arnie were only brought in to fulfill touring responsibilities. They were never part of the recording group, i.e., their vocals do not appear on any original Rip Chords music. This had to be difficult and awkward for them. I can’t imagine it.  They certainly paid their dues while holding up the front and center duties of touring.
      • Third, by reviving the Rip Chords in the 1990s, Rich and Arnie have helped to put the group back on the “oldies but goodies” map.  They tour extensively and, therefore, help to promote and continue the Rip Chords legacy, even though it perpetuates confusion about who sang on the original songs.

CAVEAT (buyer beware):

Again, please note that the New Rip Chords are not the original singing Rip Chords of the ‘60s.  The problem today is that the Internet (including Amazon) sells the new recordings of the new Rip Chords along side those of the original ’60s group.  This gives the false impression that the new group is simply an extension of the earlier singing group.  This is wrong and very misleading; anything recorded after 1965 does not involve or reflect the original singers (Terry Melcher, Bruce Johnston, Ernie Bringas, and Phil Stewart). In short, the real Rip Chords no longer exist.  So when you buy any Rip Chords product today, be sure it’s the real thing.

Ernie Bringas, 2017

 

 

 


Discography

(For convenience, the song title quotation marks were intentionally omitted on all lists below.)

Original singles

      • 1962/63 A-side—Here I Stand (Ernie Bringas on lead vocal) and B-side – Karen (Phil Stewart on lead)
      • 1963 A-side—Gone (Ernie on lead) and B-side—She Thinks I Still Care (Ernie on lead)
      • 1963/64 A-side – Hey Little Cobra (Terry Melcher on lead) and B-side – The Queen (Terry on lead)
      • 1964 A-side – Three Window Coupe (Terry on lead) and B-side – Hot Rod U.S.A. (Terry on lead)
      • 1964 A-side –One Piece Topless Bathing Suit (Terry and Ernie on lead) and B-side – Wah-Wahini (Terry on lead)
      • 1965 A-side – Don’t Be Scared (Terry on lead) and B-side – Bunny Hill (Instrumental by The Wrecking Crew.)

Original albums

Hey Little Cobra and other Hot Rod Hits – – 1964

(In the order they appear on the original Columbia album)

      • Here I Stand (Ernie on lead)
      • The Queen (Terry on lead)
      • 409 (Ernie on lead)
      • Trophy Machine (Terry on lead)
      • Gone (Ernie on lead)
      • Little Deuce Coupe (Terry on lead)
      • ’40 Ford Time (Instrumental by The Wrecking Crew)
      • She Still Thinks I Care (Ernie on lead) NOTE: The correct title of this song should have been, She Thinks I Still Care.
      • Shut Down (Ernie on lead)
      • Drag City (Terry on lead)
      • Ding Dong (Phil on lead)

Three Window Coupe – – 1964

(In the order they appear on the original Columbia album)

      • Three Window Coupe (Terry on lead)
      • Bonneville Bonnie (Phil on lead)
      • Gas Money (Ernie on lead)
      • This Little Woodie (Terry on lead)
      • Hot Rod U.S.A. (Terry on lead)
      • Old Car Made In ’52 (Phil on lead)
      • Surfin’ Craze (Ernie on lead)
      • Beach Girl (Terry on lead)
      • My Big Gun Board (Terry and Ernie on lead)
      • Surf City (Terry on lead)
      • Summer U.S.A. (Terry on lead)
      • Big Wednesday (Instrumental by The Wrecking Crew)

Footnote:  This is the official Rip Chords’ website of founding member, Ernie Bringas. The Rip Chords group was formed by Ernie Bringas and Phil Stewart. Then, Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnston joined Ernie & Phil. All original recordings of the 1960s had only the voices of these four people. Two other people (see above “Three Myths”) were involved with the touring aspects of this group.

This website was first published on June 8, 2003, and last updated in 2017.

For more information click on this  Wikipedia article:  The_Rip_Chords.