Saturday, February 2, 2013

Bill Yerkes on Surfboards, Stratocasters, Striped Shirts

Have you ever wanted to go back in time and be a fly on the wall during important periods in rock & roll history?  Maybe you could have heard conversations happening with Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and Dion on the Winter Dance Party tour in 1959.  Perhaps, you could have listened in as The Beatles were about to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.  If you're a Beach Boys fan, what if you could go back to when they were still wearing their striped shirts in 1966 and about to release some of their greatest material?  "Balsa" Bill Yerkes did just that as he chronicled 4 concerts during that year.  The first one was a couple of weeks before Pet Sounds was released!  Another show had them discussing an upcoming single called "Good Vibrations".  The band had no idea the music they made that year would impact pop music and culture forever.  Bruce Johnston shared some wonderful insight in the foreword he wrote for the book as well.  We talked with Bill about the pictures and stories he compiled in The Beach Boys on Tour 1966, Surfboards, Stratocasters, Striped Shirts.  I can't recommend this book enough!

These photos detail 4 separate shows you attended from the band in 1966. What were your initial impressions of each of the guys...Mike, Carl, Al, Dennis and Bruce?
I met Dennis first and it was like we were instantly old friends. That’s the way Dennis was. I think it was a surfer to surfer thing. Here he was in upstate New York and he meets another surfer. So right away he’s checking out the magazine and asking if he can have a copy. We were talking about surfing and then Bruce came in and so it was like three surfers in the midst of a bunch of hodads (referring to the frat guys). So, the three of us hit it off.

Denny was born to be a rock star and he reveled in it. No one enjoyed being a rock star more than Denny, but at the same time he was very down to earth. Hanging out with Denny was just like hanging out with any of the other guys from the beach. When there were girls around Denny went from being surfer to rock star immediately. When it was just Lance (roommate), Dennis and I in the classroom/dressing room, Denny handed me a wad of bills and said, "Can you find us some food?" So I walked downstairs and went to one of the fraternity guys, handed him the wad of bills and said, "Can you find some food for us? The rest of the band will be showing up soon and they're gonna be hungry." There's a photo of Bruce digging into a box of food with the fraternity guys hanging around. That was so different from today when bands have these riders in the contract specifying food requirements.

"Balsa"Bill with Bruce Johnston
Bruce was very down to earth too. He just started talking about surfing and checking out the magazine.

One thing I remember was Bruce showing me, and some girls I’d brought along, how he’d learned to play the bass. We were in a motel room and he had his Fender and a little practice amp and he was showing me the bass line on most of the Beach Boys songs when he first went with them (pre-California Girls). He walked up a line from the root to the third and then the five and then the six. It was atypical boogie woogie bass line. It was the same thing Jerry Lee Lewis or Johnnie Johnson (Chuck Berry’s piano player) would play with their left hand. He said it was on most of the songs and, being a trained pianist, he learned it by rote. He was playing pretty loud and there was a knock on the wall and he hollered “Sorry Mike!” Mike Love was next door with his wife Suzanne.

I never talked to Mike very much but I remember he had an almost deprecating sense of humor. I told him we played Beach Boys records in Keller’s Surf Shop where I worked and he said he hoped it didn’t scare the customers away.

Al was very quiet and reserved. Don’t remember ever having a conversation with him.

Carl was quiet and very serious. You can see it in the photos. He was intense about the music.

You and your roommate, Lance Wheeler, came up with a great plan to get backstage at the first show. I'm sure you've reflected back to that moment and glad you went along with it. 
Oh yes. Actually it wasn’t the first time we’d ever done this. It was the first time at Cornell. We were students at Ithaca College across town. The first time we did this was at a Simon & Garfunkel concert in the gymnasium on the IC campus fall of 1965.

We knew the guy who was running the concert, Peter Borrell.  We just slid over there early in the afternoon and were helping out and in come these two guys, one carrying a guitar, and they said, “Is there a Simon & Garfunkel concert here tonight?” No entourage. No back up band. No nothing. It was us two guys in tweed coats carrying a guitar.

We gave them some inside info and helped them write a few jokes about the school and the town, made fun of the college president’s wife, some of the staff, stuff like that.

There were no backstage photos because Garfunkel (or Art and Paul as we called them after that), didn’t want any photos until his hair was right.

But to pull off the same scam over at Cornell where we didn’t know anyone… And the thing was being run by the fraternity council. Well, I didn’t think we’d get in. But, as I tell the story in the book…well, I’m not going to tell it here. They have to buy the book.

It wasn’t the last time we did it, either. We did it again at the Motown Review at Barton Hall at Cornell the next year with artists like Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Jimmy Ruffin, The Contours.

I have a bunch of Beach Boys backstage photos that didn’t make the book because they were too posed or staged. You know, people just standing with the BB’s smiling at the camera. You’ll notice most of the backstage shots in the book are candid. It was only available light, no flash.

The Beach Boys celebrated a huge 50th Anniversary tour last year. But when you captured the band on film in 1966, they were just 5 years into their band existence and a very pivotal moment of their career. Pet Sounds is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums in pop/rock music of all time yet the band was just about to release it. Tell me about their excitement over this upcoming project. 
There wasn’t a lot of talk about Pet Sounds. Carl told me about the name and how it came about. Frankly I thought it was a stupid name. I was thinking a typical name for a Beach Boy’s album would be: “Let’s All Go Surfin’ in our Little Deuce Coupe with Wendy and Rhonda. The album was released just a couple of weeks after I met them the first time. But as I talk about in the book: The Beach Boys on stage in 1966 were one thing. In the studio it was quite different, as we all would soon become aware.

One thing about the book: Everything I say in the book I experienced personally. No second hand stories. No rumors. We can read all sorts of reports today about what one person or another speculates about what they thought. If they didn’t tell it to me personally or if I didn’t see it and document it photographically, then it’s not in the book. I may have done some research on dates and times and names to help my memory. For example if I had a question, I emailed Bruce as he was on the 50th Anniversary Tour and he helped me tighten it up. Steve Kortoff or Roy Hatfield’s name, for example.

There's a photo of Mike & Bruce writing the set list on their hands and then another of Bruce showing the set list. I'm so used to seeing neatly typed out set lists these days that it never occurred to me that bands did this back then. It all seemed so innocent. 
The photo of them writing the set list on their hand was in April and the photo of Bruce showing the set list was November. I’d remembered that they did that and we were just killing time backstage and I had Bruce show the set list and I clicked the photo.

Mike Love & Bruce Johnston writing the set list
on their hands
A few years ago I was emailing Alan Deane (RIP) a guitar player in LA who’d transcribed Beach Boys vocal arrangements. I sent him the photo and as we were speculating about the songs I just said, “Well, let me email Bruce and get him to translate it.”

Sets were short back then and they could fit on your hand. And of course there were no Word processing programs on portable computers. I’ve got a set list from Mike and Bruce’s show somewhere. It’s just printed out on paper in big print. Then they lay it on the floor.

When I was a folk singer back in the sixties I used to write the set list on a piece of paper and tape it to the guitar. That was pretty standard too. Not as much room on an electric guitar or bass.

At one of the shows, they told you about another cool upcoming single called "Good Vibrations". Did they have any idea how huge this song would be? 
If they did, they didn’t say anything about it.

Rehearsing "Wouldn't It Be Nice"
Another great moment at one of these shows is the band quickly rehearsing "Wouldn't It Be Nice". Tell us why they had to do this. 
Oh, let’s let people buy the book and find out about this (laughs).

You really captured some great moments on stage and behind the scenes. What prompted you to release the book now after all these years? 
When they called me to supply surf boards for the stage for the 50th Anniversary Tour I started looking through my old photos. Frankly I was stunned to see how many I actually had. I’d had some scans done a few years ago and have the prints hanging in my store: Balsa Bill Surf Shop. From time to time people would ask about the prints.

Also about that time an old friend told me that he’d like to get some archival quality prints of some of the photos. So I’m thinking well maybe more people might want some. And then I’m thinking, “I wonder if I have enough for a coffee table book”?

I submitted the project to a publishing house and got no response.

I mentioned it to Bruce Johnston and he was stoked. He offered to write the Foreword. Sent me a copy of a Foreword he’d done for a Beatles book. And he said that now was the time to do the book. This was last spring. In July I hadn’t heard anything from the publisher and about that time I was asked to write something for a book about legendary surfer Dewey Weber. I talked to the guy, Jerry Anderson, at Headline Graphics who was doing the book and he’d done the books for a couple of other friends, The Bing Surfboards book by Paul Homes and had worked on the book about pioneer surfboard builder Dale Velzy.

I decided to form a publishing company and go ahead and do the book. So Surf Chaser Publishing was born and the project was underway.

My brother Jay had worked in the pre-press department at Florida Today (Gannett papers) and was an expert in the field. He knew how to lay everything in and manipulate the layout just the way I wanted it. So with his help, we put together the book and published it and had it printed.

The book landed on a ship in LA on a Tuesday morning in December. The dock workers union picked that afternoon to go on strike. So that set us back a little. We did get the book just in time for Christmas.

Headline Graphics rescanned all the negatives on a Hell drum scanner. You can see the quality in the mid tones when you get a quality scan job like this. We were able to print them in full bleed and blow up the 35mm negatives quite a bit.

These photos had been rejected so many times over the years by Beach Boy publicists, Capitol records, etc. But I knew I had something and all it took was a little encouragement and a way to do it.

Where can people stay in touch with what you’re doing?

My Webite: has a link on the first page to info on the book:,Stratocasters,StripedShirts.htm

There’s also a page of reviews:,Stratocasters,StripedShirtsReviews.htm

My email is

I also have a Facebook page:

And of course the book is available on Amazon: