Gary James' Interview With Billy Hinsche of
Dino, Desi and Billy
Billy Hinsche was one third of the popular mid sixties recording group Dino, Desi, and Billy. Dino was the son of Dean Martin and Desi was the son of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball. The group released four albums before they broke up. Billy Hinsche, who plays keyboards, bass, guitar, and sings, has been with The Beach Boys since 1974. Billy's association with The Beach Boys includes performances for Presidents Ford, Reagan and Bush, and sold-out shows at major stadiums and venues throughout the world.
Billy appeared on David Letterman's 1994 anniversary show and sang an Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down On Me" and Warren Zevon's "Desperados Under the Eaves."
Billy's latest project is a video titled "Play Songs of the Beach Boys, Piano Accompaniments To Rock Classics"
We spoke with Billy Hinsche about his musical career.
Q - Billy, how long have you been with the Beach Boys?
A - Well, around 20 years.
Q - How did you get that gig? Did you have to audition for it or was it by personal recommendation?
A - The way I explain it is, when my group was first starting, we opened for The Beach Boys. We did our first tour with them. That was in '65. My sister met Carl Wilson and they got married. So you know it was a family thing really. The boys offered me a job with them a couple of years later. I thought about it and my folks and I both agreed I should finish college first and then at that time I would join the group. In 1974 when I graduated from UCLA is when I joined the band.
Q - Were you a Beach Boys fan before you joined the group?
A - Absolutely. A very big fan. In fact, I couldn't believe it when they asked us (Dino, Desi, and Billy) to play in The Hollywood Bowl with them and then go on tour with them. It was very exciting to meet them. I think we all met for the first time in rehearsal at the Hollywood Bowl. That was even when Brian (Wilson) was still playing with the group. He was still playing bass and they were still wearing their striped shirts, white pants.
Q - You play keyboards for the group?
A - Yeah. I play piano.
Q - In terms of recognition, you were a star in Dino, Desi and Billy. With The Beach Boys, you're a side man.
A - Yeah. I've had a lot of different roles over the years. Actually when I started going out with the guys even when I was in my group, I would play tambourine or percussion, when I wasn't officially a member. In fact, I played tambourine and percussion at Carnegie Hall with them, a long time ago. I've played electric piano, a Wurlitzer piano for them for awhile. I played bass for a couple of tours. I had guitar on different songs in different eras. But I was switched. There was a lot of switching going on during those earlier times. People would double on instruments and I was one of them.
Q - I guess what I was getting at is, in Dino, Desi and Billy, you had the fame and glory. In The Beach Boys you don't have that. You're a sideman. Was it hard to make that adjustment?
A - No, it really wasn't, because it was such an honor to be with The Beach Boys. I had a pretty important role I thought. I would get introduced you know, every now and again, depending on the circumstance, the timing and pacing of the show. On stage now I even take a solo on "Help Me Rhonda" and my name is called out. Sometimes someone will say "Billy of Dino, Desi and Billy." So I still get it, the recognition. It's true, I'm not as integral a part of the group as I was in-my own group, but that's ok. I'm really happy to be where I am. It's not really that big of a deal. I've had plenty of recognition over the years. I'm flattered that you want to do this interview.
Q - Who or what inspired you to pick up that Rickenbacker guitar?
A - Probably first, seeing The Beatles, seeing "A Hard Day's Night" and then Roger McGuinn (The Byrds), who was a friend. I thought his guitar was pretty cool, and then Carl also had one. So, I had to get one. I still have one, not the same one, but I still have one. I just got one recently.
Q - You must've paid big bucks for that.
A - Well, I got a pretty good deal from Rickenbacker actually. I went down the other day with Carl's two sons, my two nephews to Rickenbacker. Rickenbacker is designing a custom, limited edition Carl Wilson issue guitar. It's gonna be a six string, and that's all I'm gonna tell you, because it's not a done deal as far as all the particulars of how it's gonna look and everything. They're working on that right now.
Q - As a guitar player with Dino, Desi, and Billy, how would you rate yourself with the competition you had at the time?
A - For my age, I thought I was pretty good. I've been blessed musically. I was playing piano since I was 3 years old. I took up the violin since I was 7. I kind of have a natural ear for it, inclination for it, and understanding. See at the time, there really weren't any bands our age. There really wasn't anybody to compare us to. The other groups to me were a lot older, even though they weren't really. But just a few years older made them so much older.
Q - Well, The Beatles did have 10 years on you.
A - Right.
Q - Dino, Desi and Billy formed in 1964. Is that correct?
A - Yeah we did.
Q - Your father was a realtor and sold homes to both Dean Martin and Desi Arnaz?
A - Not true.
Q - How then did you meet Dino and Desi?
A - We all went to grammar school together. Good Shepherd. Beverly Hills Catholic it's also known as. Dino and I were friends. We met when we were 7, in second grade. A couple of years later Lucy Arnaz came to school and was in our class. Desi was a year or two younger then I think. And so we went along there for a couple of years and everything started to hit as far as the music. The Beach Boys were Number One. The Beatles came along. Music was real exciting. It was just like everyone grabbed a guitar. Being best friends we started to practice and play on little acoustic guitars and learning songs that were popular in those days. We asked Desi to be in the group and of course he was delighted. We asked Desi to set up his drums in school sometimes and do special performances, go room to room and just solo for awhile, or be in the halls. After lunch, we'd come back and there'd be Desi, sitting on the drums. He was so good at that age. It was kind of a treat for everyone. Dino and I actually started playing six string guitars. Dino eventually picked up the bass. But when we first started out, we were both playing six string guitars, acoustic, then we switched to electric. We had pretty shoddy equipment. Desi had a pretty nice set of drums. Dino and I were both playing guitars out of one amp and singing, both of us, out of another, with one microphone, a funny little Wollensak microphone. It was funny because it was so make shift, kind of.
Q - And if you're Dean Martin's son, you could have the biggest and the best of anything, couldn't you?
A - Yeah, well we eventually did. But, when we first started it was for fun, and we just kind of threw what we could find together, an amp here, an amp there. We eventually got around to getting Super Beatles (amps), you know Vox Super Beatles, and the Rickenbackers, and the Hofners. Dino wanted to kind of emulate the McCartney sound and look, the whole vibe.
Q - Was it Dino's decision to take up bass?
A - Yeah. He thought it was a good idea to round out the sound.
Q - Otherwise you would've had to add another member.
A - That's right. It was like, we were learning songs like Chad and Jeremy. Chad and Jeremy actually stayed at the Martin's for a couple of months, which was neat too. They were pretty big. I can't remember the circumstances, why they lived at the Martin's, but they were there. They were doing The Dean Martin Show, maybe, something. But they ended up staying there. We got to meet them which was cool, because they were English. We had never really had a lot of experience with current popular English artists. I remember they came over to Lucille Ball and Gary Morton's house and listened to us rehearse. It was just a kick, you know?
Q - Didn't Dean Martin invite The Beatles over to his home when they were in Los Angeles in 1965?
A - Actually, that was at Warren Cowan's house. He was the big publicist (Rogers and Cowan) and I think he still is. He was the main guy at the time.
Q - Were you there?
A - No. I was a little disappointed. It was Dean's family, basically. All the kids, they got to meet 'em.
Q - Here's the story I have of how Dino, Desi and Billy got a recording contract: you were practicing at Desi's house.
A - Actually, it was at Lucy's.
Q - You were in the basement?
A - She had a...what you would call it, it was separate from the main house. It was like a play room, where there was a pool table and jukebox. It was a game room, that's the word I was looking for. It had a little stage. That's where we rehearsed. We also rehearsed at the Martin's house in their living room. There was also a projection room with a pool table and a little stage. It was kind of similar setup and it was part of the main house. So we would alternate. We rehearsed in the garage too at the Martin's. I guess we started at Lucy's, cause Desi's drums were already set up there. Rather than him drag all his drums around we would just drag our guitars and amps over. It was a lot easier. Then we moved over to the Martin's 'cause we were getting bigger and better and we needed a little more room.
Q - And Frank Sinatra walks in, sees and hears you guys and offers you a contract with his new label, Reprise. Is that true?
A - Yeah. It wasn't like he just strolled in. I mean, it was pre-arranged that we would meet Mr. Sinatra. We practiced all our five songs that we knew. (Laughs.) We plugged in our crummy little equipment. We hadn't really made it yet. We were playing around town. We played at parties, at Rory Calhoun's daughter's party and Stan Herman's party. He was a realtor. So we were just pretty new. Sinatra and Dean were together at the bar at the Martin's house. We met Mr. Sinatra, set up and played. After we did our little set, he came over with Dean and said, "How would you boys like to have a contract with my label, Reprise?" "Sure, Mr. Sinatra," and that was that.
Q - In 1965, you had two top 20 hits "I'm A Fool" and "Not The Lovin'Kind."
A - Yeah. That's right. We did 'em both on Ed Sullivan.
Q -After the first album, how were sales for your other 3 albums?
A - There weren't as much sales for the subsequent albums. They sold well, but not as good as our first album sold. We came out really big, and then it got progressively less and less.
Q - How many records did you sell?
A - Oh, boy. I'd have to guess. I don't know, a few hundred thousand.
Q - Combined?
A - Yeah, combined. Probably five hundred thousand. I don't know. That's really a guess.
Q - I saw you on Hollywood Palace. You mentioned you were on Ed Sullivan. What other shows did Dino, Desi, and Billy appear on?
A - You got a minute? There's a ton of 'em. Shindig! Hullabaloo, Shivaree, Lloyd Thaxton Show, American Bandstand, Where The Action Is, Mike Douglas, Joey Bishop, The Dean Martin Show 'live' four or five times. Those are the ones that come to mind.
Q - Besides The Beach Boys, who else did Dino, Desi, and Billy tour with?
A - Paul Revere. Tommy Roe. We also opened for Sam The Sham. We did shows with the Lovin' Spoonful, Mamas and Papas.
Q - Did you tour outside of the US?
A - We went to Canada. We had our own plane. (Laughs.) There was the three of us and our friend who was our 'roadie', Jay Judson. And now he's a professional chef and he works for Jeannie Martin on a full-time basis.
Q - No road manager?
A - Yeah, we had a road manager, Bill Howard, who was also our manager. Before Bill, we had Dean's right hand man, Matt Gray. He's passed away now. Matt couldn't take the high intensity of the fans, the mob scene, you know, no pun intended. So he just got out and we were handled by Bill Howard.
Q - How was the money in those days for opening a show, was it any good?
A - Yeah. It was just par for the course. It was good, but not today's standards, but yeah it was definitely good, a couple of thousand (dollars) I guess for shows.
Q - And you would be onstage for how long?
A -Oh, we'd do 20 minutes, maybe 30. That was what people did in those days. Shows weren't that long. I think Beatles only did 30 minutes. It was in and out.
Q - Did you guys have "groupies?"
A - We had fans. Just fans really. Teeny-boppers is what they were called.
Q - Who came up with the name, Dino, Desi and Billy?
A - Well, you know we were hard pressed to come up with a name. We didn't really have one off. I think the way it stuck was when Tony Martin introduced us for the first time ever. 'Here's Dino Martin, son of Dean, Desi Arnaz, of Lucy and Desi, and Billy Hinsche, their friend.' Here they are Dino, Desi, and Billy. And that's kind of how it happened. We came up with silly names, Martin and the Martians, Arnaz and The Argonauts, Hinsche and The Henchmen. You know, really corny stuff like that. Gary Morton wanted us to call ourselves Two D's and a B!
Q - You could've used your last names and been "HAM."
A - Yeah. Where were you when we needed you?
Q - I was at home watching you on the Hollywood Palace.
A - HAM! That would've been perfect.
Q - Wasn't it just a little bit intimidating to be in a band with the sons of such famous personalities?
A - A little bit, because they were such huge stars and they still are, you know. Even though Lucy is gone, who could ever replace her talent? Of course, just going over to the house and seeing them was a little scary at times. Yeah, I know what you're saying. It was a little bit intimidating. But, they were very nice people. If anybody had a problem, it wasn't my problem, because they really treated me right.
Q - Rolling Stone remarked, "Though presented as basically cuddly and cute, Dino, Desi, and Billy were also hip, and later tackled heavier fare like Dylan's 'Chimes of Freedom.' By 1966, they were eclipsed by psychedelia." Is that what stopped Dino, Desi, and Billy, psychedelic music?
A - Maybe so. We were kind of put in a niche there. They wanted us to stay young and be very pop. I think the psychedelic thing was a more mature thing. A more mature sound, head music. We weren't writing or doing stuff like that. Plus our album sales were going down and we had a pretty good run with Reprise. It was just economics. It was also because Dino and Desi were going in other directions. Desi wanted to be an actor and Dino wanted to do a million different things. He dabbled in acting, and wanted to learn how to fly a helicopter and a plane*. He wanted to play professional football. He wanted to be a race car driver. And, he did all that.
Q - And the group called it quits in what year?
A - 1969. I wanted to hang on until I was going into college. Desi was going on his mother's show. We couldn't keep together, because like I said, they had other interests.