THE STORY OF THE RIP CHORDS
My name is Ernie Bringas. I served as a United Methodist minister for almost twenty years. Presently (2016) 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.
In my younger day I was one of the two founding members of the Rip Chords - the other being my business partner, Phil Stewart. Later, our group expanded to four when Columbia producers, Terry Melcher 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. But 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).
Misinformation about the Rip Chords abounds, especially in terms of who we were and who actually recorded our body of work. Information about our group on the Internet is riddled with errors. For example, other internet sites inaccurately report who actually recorded the Rip Chords music. Furthermore, numerous books, articles, and CD booklets, written on the basis of hearsay over the past decades, are equally misleading. For instance, a website called Classicbands is misleading and sometimes unfortunately wrong. The upcoming information 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. For more information click on this Wikipedia article: The Rip Chords Band.
RIP CHORDS – THE REAL STORY
Succinctly stated, the original Rip Chords (Phil Stewart and I) expanded into four primary voices (adding Columbia producer, Terry Melcher and co-producer, Bruce Johnston). Within this coalition, the Rip Chords music would be hammered out. Terry and I would handle most of the lead vocals, although 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 myself. 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
Phil and I (the Rip Chords) released our first single, "Here I Stand", in March of 1963. I carried the lead and falsetto (using multiple overdubs), with Stewart singing the baritone.
Our producer was Terry Melcher and that was his only role. The lead guitar of Glen Campbell, a great studio musician prior to his own success, provided the driving musical hook; 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).
Ernie (L) and Phil (R)
GONE - THE RIP CHORDS' SECOND RELEASE
On our second release, "Gone", Phil and I were joined vocally by Bruce Johnston, a good friend of Melcher. Phil, Bruce and I were the only three voices on this recording. Johnston possessed a fantastic Beach Boys-oriented falsetto that complimented my “Four Seasons falsetto.” Although Bruce and I overlap each other on some of these recordings, our differences are clearly showcased on "Gone". I sing the lead and also add a falsetto. But the interjecting falsetto belongs to Johnston . I believe that Johnston is one of the best falsetto singers in pop music, especially at the very high end of the vocal spectrum. Listen to the tail endings of "Gone" ( listen ) and The Queen, and I think you’ll agree. (Incidentally, Johnston eventually became a member of the Beach Boys after the Rip Chords disbanded.)
In spite of Johnston ’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.
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?
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 Tommy Dorsey and, his 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. The conservative officials of my church denomination (Evangelical United Brethren), 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, and, 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 him as part of the Rip Chords, but only for the touring aspect. Rich and Arnie were never under contract to record and, consequently, they do not appear vocally on any Rip Chords recordings. Unfortunately, this expedient solution would eventually cause a great deal of confusion about our legacy. I will have more on this later.
But this still left Phil as the only recording vocalist. Obviously, Phil as a lone vocalist did not constitute a recording group. It was this predicament that prompted Terry Melcher (the Rip Chords producer at Columbia) and his friend Bruce Johnston (who had already contributed vocally on "Gone") to fill the void created when I departed for seminary. Thus, the recording group now consisted of Phil, Terry, and Bruce.
HEY LITTLE COBRA
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 in the public eye). The same is true for Bruce Johnston, who does the falsetto on "Hey Little Cobra". Although Terry and Bruce alone appear on this recording, it was Terry’s lead vocal that gave this song its winning impetus (peaking 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 CAME BACK TO THE RIP CHORDS!!! Sorry for the emphasis here but this key factor is what everybody seems to forget. We hadn’t even started recording the “Hey Little Cobra” album. Also note: as I was still restricted from touring, Rich Rotkin and Arnie Marcus would continue to accompany Phil Stewart on the road.
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, 2 of those 33 songs (Big Wednesday and Wiameah Bay) were instrumentals — instrumentals that were recorded by the studio musicians who were backing us up. But we were strictly a vocal group, so we can’t take credit for those two recordings. Nevertheless, they were incorporated into our body of work.
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:
- 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 legitimate place in the Rip Chords story, but only as part of the TOURING group, not the SINGING group. This is confirmed on the Sundazed web page 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." It was also confirmed by Beach Boys' Bruce Johnston (see photo and description below).
In July 2012, Ernie met up with Beach Boys' member, Bruce Johnston, at a Beach Boys' concert.
Bruce agreed and confirmed Ernie's statement that only Terry, Bruce, Ernie and Phil recorded all the vocals for the Rip Chords in the 1960s.
Photo: Ernie (L) and Bruce (R)
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 erroneous 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, Phil and I recorded vocals, including the Hey Little Cobra album and all other projects thereafter; that is, the Three Window Coupe single and 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 incorporated into it. Not unlike the Borg in Star Trek, we were 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 flexible voice and a falsetto ability to boot. To be clear:
WHO SANG ON WHAT
As already stated, I had the lead vocal on nine Rip Chords songs.
|Three were released as singles by Columbia Records:||
Photo of the founding Rip Chords, Ernie Bringas (left) and Phil Stewart (right), singing at the Hollywood Palladium on Dec 9, 1962. The Rip Chords were formed by Ernie and Phil before Terry Melcher got involved.
|My other six leads are:|
|Note that Terry and I share composite leads on:|
|Phil has four leads:|
Furthermore, all four singers (Melcher, Johnston, Stewart and myself), 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. As for falsetto, I’m everywhere and so is Johnston.
|My falsetto appears alone on:||
Johnston’s falsetto appears alone on:
| But sometimes our falsetto voices were combined, as in:
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 or 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, 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….
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 report without reiterating the importance of Terry Melcher (now deceased) and Bruce Johnston. Without them, one wonders at the outcome. Shortly before Terry’s lost battle against skin cancer, I had the opportunity to share with him my personal gratitude for the time we shared together, and his talented contribution to our group.
Ernie Bringas (2003-2016)
ADDENDUM: THE NEW RIP CHORDS
In the mid 1990s the group was revived. None of the original singers are 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). Be that as it may, this makeshift 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 (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 story? Hopefully, my previous comments will help clarify the issue.
Having said this, however, I feel that Rich Rotkin and Arnie Marcus have a legitimate claim to 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 brought in to fulfill touring responsibilities. 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. I wish them well in their musical endeavors—be it touring or recording new product—and consider them to be a part of the phenomenon that came o be known as the Rip Chords.
- 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.)
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)
* * *
This is the official Rip Chords' web site 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 only with the touring aspects of this group. This web site was first published on June 8, 2003, and last updated in 2016. For more information click on this Wikipedia article: The_Rip_Chords.