Friday, May 10, 2013

Usher In My Room


By Chet Williamson

There's a world where I can go / And tell my secrets to / In my room / In my room ….”

The above words are the opening lines to an international rock ‘n’ roll anthem. It’s time we reclaim one of its authors as our own. Though born in Los Angeles, he grew up here. He went to grade school in Grafton and later graduated from a local high school.

His name is Gary Lee Usher, a prolific songwriter who is widely recognized as an architect of the surf music. Along with Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Usher co-authored the immortal “In My Room.”

According to IMDb (Internet Movie Database), Usher was born on December 14, 1938, and “grew up in New England. He attended Norcross grammar school and graduated from Westborough High School in Massachusetts in 1957.”


In high school Usher was a well-liked and active student. He was called “Ush.” He liked “convertibles, haircuts, cards, clothes, transmissions,” and his favorite expression was “Oh, say now!”

Usher’s activities were playing baseball, basketball, and in addition to writing for the school paper, the Oriel, he worked on the Yearbook, The Cotton Gin – named for another famous Westborough citizen, Eli Whitney). Appropriately, his school epitaph read: “Race with the Devil.”

Usher's high school shot
Absolutely nothing is said about music. In a 1964 article in Worcester Telegram, writer James Lee pointed out that Usher “had no interest in music in his school days. He had a talent for art and he spent much of his time on that. He even taught it in the lower grades.”

The headline to the story read: “Former Bank Teller Here Becomes a Top Songwriter.” Lee opened his piece with the question: “Like to hear a success story?” Answering the question, he stated, “The subject is Gary Usher, who resigned as a teller at the Worcester Five Cents Saving Bank three years ago to go to Hollywood to write music. He’s now one of the leading rock ‘n’ roll composers in the country – specializing in surfing music – and his weekly income reaches four figures.”

Lee also noted that between 1963 and ’64 Usher published more than 150 songs, 100 of which had already been recorded. At the time, his songs were recorded on more than 40 albums and he was under contract to Capitol records as both a writer and a singer. Usher was also committed to writing music for American International Pictures. As Lee duly noted, “Not bad for a 24 year-old who never had any musical education,”

Lee reported that Usher became interested in music in 1958, a year after graduation, while stationed in Korea, “at a lonely outpost on a 2,000 foot mountain. Out of boredom, one day he walked 13 miles to a store, where he bought a Japanese guitar, then sent for a booklet on how to play it. It took him six months to learn. Then he started composing songs.”

Pvt. Gary Lee Usher
Returning stateside, Usher was stationed at Ft. Devens. He told Lee that he purchased an electric guitar, made some demonstration records, and began shopping his songs around Boston. The results? “They were bad,” Usher admitted.

After his discharge in 1960, Usher moved to Los Angeles, worked in a bank, and studied art at El Camino College. “He received an associate art degree but was discouraged when he realized the time it would take to get established in art,” Lee said.

In 1961, Usher returned to Westborough and for six months worked at the Worcester Five Cents Savings Bank. “Yearning to get into the musical mainstream, he left for Los Angeles late in 1961,” Lee wrote, adding, “There he filled some minor entertainment jobs, attended college, wrote music, pitched for the San Francisco Giants’ farm teams and worked at the City National Bank in Beverly Hills.”

Lee contends that Usher’s big break came in June, 1962. As legend has it, while visiting his uncle’s home in Hawthorne, CA. five unknown kids calling themselves the Beach Boys were rehearsing across the street. “Gary got acquainted with them,” Lee said. “He collaborated with one of them, Brian Wilson, in writing a song, ‘409,’ which was paired with ‘Surfin’ Safari’ for Capitol. Named after the Chevrolet 409, the tune sold a million and a quarter records in ’62.


In a 1971 interview with writer Gene Sculatti, Usher said, “I was a hot rod freak. I had a 409. One day we were driving up to Los Angeles looking for a part for my car, and I said 'Let's write a song called '409'. We'll do a thing 'giddy up, giddy up,' meaning horses for horsepower,' just kidding around. We came back and put it to three simple chords in five minutes, and it developed into a million-dollar car craze.”

“That was the turning point,” Lee said. “Within a month Gary figured in the writing of 40 songs. He quit his bank job that August and resigned from baseball in the fall. The Beach Boys used many of the Usher/Wilson songs in 1962 and ’63 to skyrocket them to No. 1 position among American vocal groups.

“Dick Dale and the Del Tones similarly prospered on Gary’s compositions. In the film, Muscle Beach Party, Gary had a hand in writing six of the tunes. His next film release is Girls on the Beach. He not only wrote the music but he was commissioned to score the picture, a seemingly impossible job for one unschooled in the technicalities of music. However, he accomplished it. The film is scheduled for release in the fall.”            




Ironically, the two biggest songwriters of the surf music craze, Usher and Wilson, knew very little about the subject. "Dennis Wilson was the first Beach Boy to pick up on surfing,” Usher told Sculatti, “He was aware of Dick Dale, the Pendleton jackets and that whole shot. It just rubbed off. I never surfed"

According to the Wikimedia Foundation, Usher said that the experience in writing “In My Room,” found the two fledgling songwriters taking their craft more seriously. “Brian and I came back to the house one night after playing ‘over-the-line’ (a baseball game). I played bass and Brian was on organ. The song was written in an hour …. Brian’s melody all the way. The sensitivity … the concept meant a lot to him.

“When we finished, it was late, after our midnight curfew. In fact, Murray, [the Wilson brothers’ father] came in a couple of times and wanted me to leave. Anyway, we got Audree [the Wilsons’ mother], who was putting her hair up before bed, and we played it for her. She said, ‘That’s the most beautiful song you’ve ever written.’ Murray said, ‘Not bad, Usher, not bad,’ which was the nicest thing he ever said to me.”

Usher also offered his comments on what the song meant to Wilson adding, “Brian was always saying that his room was his whole world.” In the same article, Wilson seconds this opinion: “I had a room, and I thought of it as my kingdom. And I wrote that song, very definitely, that you’re not afraid when you’re in your room. It’s absolutely true.”

In his short, action-packed life, Usher also worked with an amazing array of artists such as Glenn Campbell, Gene Clark, Dick Dale, Wayne Newton, Annette Funicello, Gram Parsons, and Chad & Jeremy, among countless others. He produced three albums for the Byrds, “Bookends” for Simon and Garfunkel, and is responsible for discovering Firesign Theatre.
Usher owned his own record label (Together Records), produced hundreds of sessions, and as IMBd stated he became a major figure on the surf-rock scene. He was involved as a producer and/or songwriter with many surf/hot-rod groups of the period which include the Hondells, the Competitors, the Quads, the Road Runners, the Super Stocks, the Four Speeds, the Silly Surfers, and the Surfaris.”
 
In the 1970s, Usher took time off from the music scene only to return in 1984 to record Sanctuary, and in ’86 collaborated on a session with old friend Wilson -- although, as of this writing, only "Let's Go to Heaven in My Car" has ever been released. On May 25, 1990, Usher died from cancer. He was 51.

For a complete picture of Usher see: The California Sound, an Insider's Story, the Musical Biography of Gary Usher by Stephen J. McParland  

Gary Lee Usher

DOB: December 14, 1938 (Los Angeles)
DOD: May 25, 1990 (Los Angeles)

STANDARD

“In My Room” by Usher and Brian Wilson


The Wikimedia Foundation offers a few notable facts about “In My Room.” “It was released on their 1963 album Surfer Girl. It was released as the B-side of the “Be True To Your School” single. The single peaked at number six in the U.S. A remake by Usher’s own band, Sagittarius peaked at eighty-six in 1969. “In My Room” remained on the Billboard Top 100 for 11 weeks, peaking at #23 in 1963.”

Continuing its take on the tune, the Foundation also noted that, “David Crosby (of the Byrds and Crosby, Stills, Nash (and Young), admitted to being an admirer of the song, quoting, “’In My Room,’ was the defining point for me. When I heard it, I thought, ‘I give up – I can’t do that – I’ll never be able to do that.’”

In 2001, Crosby, along with Jimmy Webb and Carly Simon, got to sing a version of “In My Room” on “An All Star Tribute to Brian Wilson.”

The song is heard in the animated film Happy Feet and a cover of “In My Room” appears on the soundtrack to the TV series, “Friends.”

As performed by the Beach Boys

Brian Wilson

Bill Medley w/Phil Everly and Brian Wilson

Wilson Phillips

David Crosby, Carly Simon, and Jimmy Webb

Linda Ronstadt

Danny Gatton

Tammy Wynette

Grant Lee Buffalo

Other popular songs by Usher

“409” – as performed by the Beach Boys

Sacramento” – as performed by Gary Usher



Recommended

“Tomorrow” – as performed by Gary Usher and Zane Ashton http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UiLynEFFfxA

Lonely Sea” – as performed by the Beach Boys

Usher wrote hundreds of songs. Here are a list of others: “Barefoot Adventure,” “Cactus Juice,” “C.C. Cinder,” “Cheater Slicks,” “Chug-A-Lug,” “Coney Island Wild Child,” “Country Fair,” “Cuckoo Clock,” “Don’t Ever Leave Me,” “Don’t Give Into Him,” “Draggin’ Deuce,” “Four n the Floor,” “Harder and Harder,” “Heads You Win – Tails You Lose,”  “Hot Rod U.S.A.,” “Let’s Put the Fun Back in Rock ‘n’ Roll,” “Lonely Surfer Boy,” “Mag Wheels,” “Milky Way,” “My Little Beach Bunny,” “My Little Surfin’ Woodie,” “My Sting Ray,” “My World Fell Down,” “Nifty 50,” “Playmate of the Year,” “Pom Pom Play Girl,” “Power Shift,” “RPM,” “Ski Party,” “Soul Stompin’,” “Sugar & Spice,” “Ten Little Indians,” “Three Surfer Boys,” “Tied Down,” “Truth is Not Real,” “Twins,” “Wax, Board, and Woodie,” and “You Made a Believer Out of Me,” among many others.


This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome. Also see: www.jazzriffing.blogspot.com











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