The Duo-tones, masters of surf guitar

The Duo-tones, who play the Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo Sunday night.

He wouldn’t realize it until much later, but one day in 1961 Paul Johnson created a new musical genre.

He’d been playing guitar for only a year. Johnson was a freshman at Bishop Montgomery High School, and in the process of messing around with his new Stratocaster, he wrote a song called “Mr. Moto.”

Johnson and his buddy Eddie Bertrand had met on a school bus. Both were just learning to play, and both were obsessed with the guitar. “I used to draw the thing on my notebooks,” Johnson recalled. They played at family parties, but then one day Johnson’s sister introduced him to a rare specimen – a drummer – and suddenly the kids had a band.

“Back then there weren’t bands everywhere, so it was kind of a rare thing,” Johnson said. “We’d never seen a real drummer…He was a drummer in a dance band at Redondo. We invited him to come over and try out and he was terrible but we loved it. We’d never heard drums with our music before.”

Thus the Bel-Airs were born. They added a piano player and a saxophonist and in March of 1961, they went in the studio and recorded the single “Mr. Moto.” Music historians would later call both this single and Dick Dale’s “Let’s Go Trippin’” – recorded at almost the same time –  as the first surf rock songs.

“I was learning how to play the guitar and it was just part of the process of discovering,” Johnson said. “You know, a lot of good tunes come out of discovery. You are discovering new chord progressions and stuff and practicing them and Mr. Moto kind of came out of that….We were all just finding our way together as kids, learning how to play.”

They didn’t call it surf music at this point. Johnson was influenced by Link Wray, the Ventures and the nearby sounds of Tex-Mex music. The Bel-Aires instrumentals were just kind of a take on their influences. They didn’t think they were creating anything particularly new.

“It was completely unselfconscious, not like today when kids are so sophisticated and so aware of what their role is in culture,” Johnson said. “We just did our music, oblivious to what it might mean in the larger world.”

But in the summer of 1961, everything exploded. The surf scene itself was just emerging, and surfers were journeying down in droves to hear Dick Dale play in Balboa.

“We heard about Dick Dale and the Rendezvous Ballroom, and the surf craze had just hit, and all of sudden all these surfer guys were going down to see him,” Johnson said. “We were hanging out at Torrance Beach, and we thought, ‘Well, what are we doing?’ We had already recorded a record, and it hadn’t really gotten on the radio or anything, so we said, ‘Let’s get in on this.”

They started throwing dances at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Ave. in Redondo. At the very first one, 200 kids showed up.

“At that point there was no association between the music and surfing but I remember at that first dance we threw a surfer guy comes up to me and he goes, ‘Wow, man, it sounds just like it feels out on a wave,” Johnson said. “You ought to call it surf music,’ And over the course of the summer the surfers going to the Rendezvous and to the dances we threw started calling it surf music. They adopted the music to the culture.”

The Bel-Airs threw five dances that summer, and each one got bigger and bigger.

“The last one we threw was at the Hermosa Biltmore and we had 1,500 kids there, all stomping on the ballroom floor,” Johnson said. “That was the peak. It was like we were just right in the curl of this whole phenomenon that was the culture finding its identity, and becoming the surf culture.”

The Bel-Airs record was released the following January and they became a national hit, getting widespread radio play and appearing on television shows. Surf bands cropped up all along the Southern California coast, and particularly locally. Some called surf music “the Sound of the South Bay.” The Bel-Airs eventually had their very own club on Catalina Ave. near Torrance Blvd., called the Bel-Air Club, where they threw dances almost every weekend.

It was a great way to go through high school. “For a high school kid, I was making good dough, and we were having a blast,” Johnson said.

One of the kids who’d attended some of those early Bel-Airs shows was Brian Wilson, who along with his brothers had a vocal group called the Pendletons. They’d soon change their name to the Beach Boys, and unlike the early surf groups, very consciously write songs about the surf culture.

“A lot of surfers were saying, ‘Who are these gremmies? That ain’t surf music…You guys are surf music,” Johnson recalled. “The Beach Boys were never embraced by surfers until they started singing about girls and cars, and then they became more authentic – that is what their lives were really about. Then they took it to a whole other level where it became a totally different thing….What I called California music, which kind of grew out of what we started.”

The surf music era essentially ended when the Beatles arrived. Johnson later went on to have success as a studio musician – he played on Sonny and Cher’s first record for a whopping $10 – and joined a folk-rock band called The Everpresent Fullness in the late 1960s. He took the 1970s off, began playing again in the 1980s and became a member of the Surfaris in the 1990s.

On a surf music tour, Johnson came to know Gil Orr, a guitar player for the Chantays (who had the hit “Pipeline” in the 1960s). They realized from the very first time they played together that they had something special, and they formed the Duo-tones. Their recordings and live performance have since helped give surf music a new relevancy. It isn’t that it ever went out of style, but the Duo-tones stripped back approach – just two guitars, often at least one acoustic – somehow reveals a deeper soulfulness in the music.

The Duo-tones music has been embraced critically.

“Paul Johnson, more than any other artist, has succeeded in bringing surf music into the present without sacrifing its past,” wrote Guitar magazine.

Johnson was never a hard-driving individual performer like Dick Dale. His music always featured two guitars, and stripped away, melodies more clearly emerge and his and Orr’s playing shines. The Latin influence of surf music particularly stands in relief.

“Every band I’ve been in, and I’ve been in quite a few, it’s always been about the interplay of the guitars,” Johnson said. “And I’ve had relationship with various guitar players over the years. For me, it’s all been about exploring what two guys with guitars can sound like together, and of course the Duo-tones can in a way be seen as a culmination of that – by taking away the drums the bass, it’s all about the guitars.” 

For more information and song samples, see The Duo-tones play Old Town Music Hall in El Segundo Sunday night. 7 p.m. $20.



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