If the surf music from the 1960s had one defining sound, it would be the opening drum roll and familiar guitar melody from the Surfaris’ 1962 hit song “Wipe Out.”
Known as the most important instrumental song of the decade and featured in films such as Dirty Dancing, “Wipe Out” was written and recorded on the spot in a little recording studio in Cucamonga by a group of high school students who had formed a band called The Surfaris.
The meteoric success of their first hit led the group of teenagers from Glendora to co-headline a tour with the Beach Boys and sign with prominent labels such as Dot and Decca. The group went on to have other hits including “Surfer Joe” and “Point Panic.”
Fans can hear those tunes and more when The Surfaris bring their classic songs and sound to Campus Jax in Newport Beach on Wednesday, June 16.
Bob Berryhill, the band’s rhythm guitarist and only surviving member of the group, recounts his stories of being a fundamental sound of the 60s.
Simone: If you could, walk us through the story of how the group came up with the song “Wipe Out” on the spot?
Bob: Of course. You know, we were about 15 years old and everything was new to us then. We had been playing in a band for about three months and Ron Wilson, our drummer, came to me one day at rehearsal and said, “Hey Bob, I had a dream about a song called Surfer Joe.” So, Ronnie had a vocal song with words about surfing at Doheny Beach, and I put some chords to it, and we arranged it into a nice little Beach Boy-esque arrangement. Our manager Dale Smallin listened to it and asked if we wanted to record it. We thought “Yeah alright! Let’s go to Hollywood!” Well, he goes, “We can’t afford that, so let’s go to Cucamonga instead.” It was cheaper out there, and there was a guy named Paul Buff who created his own studio in an old shoe store building on Main Street.
We all met in my driveway, and our manager says, “Ok boys, we need $150 or we can’t go out and do it.” Everybody opens their pockets, but we don’t have any money- we’re 15 years old! So, like any teenager would do, you go ask mom. I went in the house said, “Mom, we can’t go without a check,” and she wrote a check for $150 (equivalent to about $1,500 today). It was a lot for a mom to invest in a band and she invested in me, and supported me, and was a really good person.
We got in my ’56 Ford Pickup and I only had my learners permit so my dad had to go with us. We get there and knocked on the big wooden door which creaks open. It was dark inside and this little guy with red hair pops out and says, “Hi! I’m Paul Buff, come on in.” We began to record Surfer Joe, then Paul gets on the talk back button and says, “Boys, that was good, but you need a second song for the other side of your 45.” We didn’t have a second song, so our manager said, “Why don’t you write one right now?”
Ron Wilson, being a marching band drummer, knew how to put together a drum solo very quickly and he starts doing the “Wipe Out” beat. He was totally willing to just do the whole track himself, but I said, “Let’s put some chords to it, and a melody, and a baseline, and play in the key of B.” We start playing and I said, “Ok, we’ll have drum breaks in the middle.” We did it three times, and there was the song! Then we had to decide what to call it. Jim wanted to call the song “Switch Blade” and started flicking his switchblade at the mic, but it didn’t sound good. My dad went out in the back alley and grabbed an old board made of plywood and broke it over the mic and it goes “crack!” really loud and the bass players goes, “That sounds like a busting surfboard.” There was already a song called “Busting Surfboard,” so how else do you bust a surfboard? You wipe out. We all knew how to surf, and our manager Dale heard the crack and comes out to microphone and goes “Hahaha wipe out!” in a falsetto voice. He did it one time and we got it. Two weeks later, we had a 45.
Simone: You got to tour with the Beach Boys. What was that like?
Bob: We co-headlined a tour to Australia and New Zealand in January 1964. I had my 17th birthday in Auckland. We were still so young, 17, 18, and the Beach Boys were a little older than us. We got to know them really well, watch each other perform each night, and talk about the things we liked. In those days, Mike Love and Brian Wilson were runners and would go out to the track every morning. Dennis and Pat and I would go surfing. Jim Fuller, Pat Connelly, and Brian would hang out with Carl Wilson, and they’d go downtown, to the stores and clubs and things. We got to really hang out and have a lot to fun together. It was great to personally know guys who were just young guys trying to make it in this world.
We did a lot of TV shows and sold-out Sydney Stadium several times. They were a great crowd and fun to be with. There were no drugs in those days, just alcohol, but we weren’t even old enough to drink. It was really calm; nobody tore up hotel rooms. There were a lot of parties, and after parties, and even a radio contest. The radio said, “If you like the Beach Boys call in, and you’ll have breakfast with the Beach Boys, and if you like the Surfaris, you’ll have supper with the Surfaris.” So, basically, girls would call in, and they chose five girls to go to breakfast with the Beach Boys and five girls to have dinner with us. Press was there and the Beach Boys were kind of upset because they didn’t want to get up early in the morning to go have breakfast! But they dressed up in Hawaiian shirts and all that and had a nice time. We went out to a nice steakhouse and had dinner and a show. It was a fun time.
Simone: Ken Forssi from Love played in your band at one point, how was it playing with him?
Bob: We had a 1965 tour of Japan, and our bassist had left the band because of some trouble he had. We were on Decca records (originally on Dot) and Decca was part of Universal. We were on the lot and our producer came in and said, “Boys, we need a song for TV show,” which was called “90 Bristol Court” here in America. It was about a young teenage girl, and in Japan, they had the same show, but it was called Karen. So, we wrote and recorded a song called “Karen” and the Beach Boys recorded the same song. The Beach Boys got to use their version in the US, and the show used our version in Japan.
My wife was reading Cashbox or Billboard and on the top hits, she noticed our song was number 2 in Japan! We had no idea. So, we went to do a tour of Japan and needed a bass player for it. A friend of Ronnie’s was Ken Forssi, and he came over and we rehearsed with him. Ken had a Mini Cooper and took us for a ride in it, he was kind of a crazy guy, he drove that thing really fast! He raced it all around. It was fun little car, and he lived in Hollywood. He had a Fender Violin bass, like a Hofner. We came back to the US and played a little more, did some TV shows. Nice guy, I enjoyed being with him.
Simone: Who’s in your band now?
Bob: The rest of the band has passed away. My wife started playing bass for me 30 years ago, and my sons, Devin, who plays the guitar, and Joel, who plays the drums. They started 20 years ago, so this is our 20th anniversary playing together as the Surfaris. They call us “The Amazing Berryhills.” It’s not just kids and mom and dad, you have to have order and business and know the ins-and-outs of touring. My sons have wives and I have four granddaughters. I’ve taken them all on tour with us to Hawaii several years ago, with all our equipment. I’d set them up at a great hotel and we’d do our music, and then go to the beach. I’ve always wanted to play with my family. They can share in the ups and downs with you. I think it was Brian Wilson who said, “Families who sing together, stay together.”
Simone: What’s been the highlight of your career?
Bob: Just having such a hit record at such a young age. Meeting all these disc jockeys, promoters, managers, agents, TV directors. You go into the make-up room before you’re on TV at 16 and go, “What do I need make-up for?” and they go, “Well we have to cover up that pimple,” you’re 16, 17! My mother would pick out uniforms for us, these nice blazers with skinny black ties and black pants. She was kind of our early manager; we were only sophomores in high school. We got to meet Roy Orbison and recorded at professional studios, where Frank Sinatra recorded. We’d be there and Glen Campbell would be down the hall, the Beach Boys in the next room over. We got to meet Burt Bacharach and all these people.
Simone: What other Surfaris songs do you wish everybody heard?
Bob: Our follow-up hit to “Wipe Out” was called “Point Panic.” Then we did “Scatter Shield.” Ronnie wrote another song after we went to Hawaii called “Waikiki Run.” When we’d go to play in another country, we’d fly through Hawaii and in those days, we didn’t have security or TSA. We’d have a 2-hour layover in Hawaii and Pat and I said, “Let’s go surfing!” We got off the plane, ran out of the terminal, and put on our bathing suits. We got a cab and went down to Waikiki Beach, rented a couple surfboards and surfed for an hour. We ran back to the airport all sandy. They wouldn’t let us on the plane until we changed clothes! So, we changed, got back on the plane, and went to Japan. You know, exciting times.
Simone: What advice do you have for modern day garage bands trying to write a hit?
Bob: It’s a thing of consistency and working hard at your craft. I’v been living in Nashville now for a year and a half. My wife and I are around a lot of musicians, and they are really serious about their craft. They really work at it, and it’s about trying to make the best song you can make. Get your guitar playing skills impeccable. Be ready, be cooperative, work hard with each other and make the best product you can. When I was in junior high, I’d spend three or four hours a day playing guitar. I learned to read music and orchestrate. I played in a jazz band to learn inside chords.
Learn how to work with others, learn to be pliable. You might want your way, but at times there are others who have better ideas. Be open to criticism, don’t take it to heart. You’re not gonna die because somebody didn’t like your song—you need to keep going. Be a part of the whole process because music cares. You have to be available to your fans and treat them right, give people love and inspiration to want to reach their goals, and they do, through you at times. When you’re up on stage, love the people, and show them that you’re there to give them what they want, which is a great time.
The Surfaris and The Tourmaliners perform on Wednesday, June 16 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $150. Visit https://www.campusjax.com.