Gary James' Interview With Dee Dee Sperling of
Dick and Dee Dee
In the early 1960s, Dick and Dee Dee made quite a name for themselves on the Pop charts. Their first really big hit was called "The Mountain High". Other hits followed, including "Thou Shalt Not Steal", "Turn Around" and "Young And In Love".
In 1969, Dick And Dee Dee quit the music business. In 2003, Dick (St. John) passed away. In 2006, Dee Dee (Sperling) wrote a book about her life titled Vinyl Highway.
Dee Dee talked with us about what it was like to be on record and on the road in the beginning days of Rock 'n' Roll.
Q - Dee, Dee, you've written the story of your life. Why? Did you feel someone else would do it and get it all wrong?
A - I didn't ever think that anybody else would ever write it. I got this really strange feeling I needed to do it. I resisted doing it 'cause I was thinking why do I want to live in the past when the present is so busy? I knew it was a huge commitment that I had never tackled. I'd written, but I'd never tackled a book. I also know, how could I pick and choose from all the ten year career, the things that would be meaningful. I thought basically, no, I don't really want to do that. Then, this thought came back, no, you really do need to do this. I went back and forth with myself literally, a long time, maybe a month or more. Finally, I realized this was going to haunt me. It was something I really did need to do. So, I said alright, I'll try this. I wrote maybe a hundred pages non-stop pretty much. When I started, I was working at that time. I had two different jobs. I was working as a property manager in Santa Monica. I managed four apartment buildings and also worked in a law office in the afternoon. So, I really had only very limited time. I got up an extra half hour and I would write for maybe twenty minutes or half an hour. I put it aside and wouldn't think about it and the next day at the same time, I would continue. It took me a long time to find out about process and what that process really is. I didn't know it, but I was in the process once I started that. Once I was doing it on a daily basis, my subconscious was continuing the thought process even when I was consciously doing other things all day and sleeping at night. When I got up the next day and sat down at the same time and place, it just clicked in. I never had what they called "writer's block." It just would come right out. I'd read a few pages before and go on. So, after about a hundred pages, I thought, wait a minute, better read this. I work on a computer. I printed it all out on a printer and I read it and said "Oh my goodness, this is truly awful. This is just terrible. Now what do I do?" I thought I better go back to school. So, I went to UCLA and took my first memoir class. I started learning things like Show, Don't Tell. There were maybe twenty to twenty-five people in the class. They didn't seem extraordinary in any way. But I learned that everybody has a fascinating story about some part of their life. Everybody's had experiences or situations that are really fascinating if they know how to write them properly. So, I started getting some guidance there. I wound up taking three different memoir classes throughout this process of writing this book, which took four and a half years. Suddenly my life freed up incredibly where I retired from the property management business during that time and I left the law office, so I was writing full-time. I became totally immersed in this and that of course sped it forward a lot.
Q - Not to be morbid, but why was Dick on his roof when he fell? Couldn't he have paid someone to do the work for him?
A - Dick is a very independent person. Quite frankly, I heard from his wife Sandy. She actually wrote a letter to people about a year after he passed away, going into detail about how that happened. It was in early December and he went up on his roof. I live in the same town. I live in Pacific Palisades where they lived and so I knew the weather. It had rained about four or five days before that. He might've gone up there to check the drains to make sure the leaves weren't clogging the downspouts. Or, he might've gone up to put up Christmas lights. She didn't say what he was doing up there. But, she did tell him not to go up there, that it would be dangerous. His response was to start singing the song "Handy Man". Then he went out the front door and didn't come in, in awhile. Their house was on a very busy street. It was on Chautauqua, a street that takes you from Sunset Blvd, down to the beach. Like a thorough fare basically. So cars are always whizzing by. So, they drowned out any noise he might've made. Then someone knocked on the door and said "My God, there's a man lying in your driveway!" Sandy ran out and he was in a coma, lying there. It was not a two story house. It was only one story and it was a very low roof. It wasn't much taller than an eight foot ladder...maybe twelve or fourteen feet. I've known people who've fallen from high heights, one out of a tree and one off a roof and they broke some bones. But it was how Dick fell. I guess he fell on his shoulder and head. He was in a coma for three months and then he passed away, in December of 2003.
Q - So, are you still singing?
A - After the 60s. when Dick and I broke up the act, I've been singing throughout the years in different forms, but not professionally. The past year I've really been involved in promoting Vinyl Highway. It's a whole world unto itself. I've been traveling with it out there. I decided in January 2008, I wanted to get back to singing. Of course, I had one singing partner and I sang harmony, I didn't sing lead. I have a good friend who I haven't seen since we were on The Dick Clark Caravan Of Stars tour many, many years ago in the '60s, Lou Christie. Lou lives in New York. Lou had called me when Dick passed away and we've had a lot of phone conversations. I consider him a good friend. He said "I want to help you with this." Dick had a four octave range and a powerful falsetto obviously. Lou gave me the phone number of The Mamas and Papas former arranger and musical director, Johnny Kito, who lives here in the Los Angeles area. What Johnny does is he writes up scores and rehearses bands and orchestras for people and he plays keyboard and he travels with them. That's what he was doing with The Mamas and Papas. I talked to Johnny and he suggested we hold auditions in Los Angeles for someone to replace Dick. I had visions of American Idol. You don't know who's going to come in the door and how are you going to reject people? In the meantime I sing in a choir and I thought of somebody I knew, that I had known for many years. He has this beautiful tenor voice. I didn't know about the falsetto. I talked to him about this. We got together and I gave him the "Best Of Dick And Dee Dee" CD. We decided to go for the five major hits. We learned the five songs and we called up Johnny and he came over and played keyboard. And so we're ready to go out.
Q - How will you be billing the act?
A - We're going to call it Dick And Dee Dee and then underneath it "Featuring The Original Dee Dee Sperling Phelps and Michael Dunn".
Q - You knew Dick from where?
A - Junior High (school).
Q - So, how did the two of you get together?
A - He was 18, 19 and decided to go to the Art Institute in downtown L.A. and become a commercial artist. I was at City College in Santa Monica. Dick was at a party in somebody's house and their dad was in the entertainment industry. Dick went into the guy's office when nobody was watching and kind of went through an address book and under Arranger he found the name Don Ralke. So, he copied the name and phone number down. So he called Don and said "I'm just forming a production company with these three brothers and we're looking for new people, so why don't you just bring in what you have." Dick was writing songs and recording on his own tape recorder. He had about three or four songs he was working on. That's when we were re-acquainted accidentally by bumping into each other in Westwood, when I was working at a summer job. I guess it was between high school and college. They put Dick in the same store I was in when he started working for them as a box boy. So, we used to have lunch breaks together. I told him I was a songwriter. He looked at me and said "I am too." That was quite unusual. I didn't know anybody who was a songwriter. He didn't either. We got together and I had the lyrics to a song called "I Want Someone" and he had this melody and it fit the same lyrics as if it had been written together. He sang his melody to my lyrics and I picked it up pretty quick 'cause I hear harmony. I sang my harmony to it. He tuned on the tape recorder and recorded it. Then when he was playing it back, I heard another harmony. As I say, I hear harmonies. (laughs) So, I sang another harmony, a third part and then Dick not to be bested by that, sang falsetto in unison with his low voice and it sounded really amazing. It sounded like these four voices, but there were only two of us. So, we just looked at each other...what is that? He told me he wanted to be a singer and had all these songs he was doing himself. He was about to take this tape to these producers, so why didn't he take this tape we were doing. To let the producers hear all of the voices, he booked a studio real cheap. We had to get there at 6:30 in the morning and did our lower voices. Dick was playing piano and no other accompaniment. Then they played that back and we put on the high voices on the second track. They mixed it together and we had our tape. When he went to meet with the producers, he showed his songs and he showed this one song of ours. They said "we'd like to record you as a solo artist, but we'd also like to record that song with the girl." So, they set up a session at Goldstar Records. They were gonna do us first and then Dick was gonna stay on after and do some solo stuff. Basically that was our first session together. They had a whole orchestra there and of course it was amazing. This of course is all in the book. And we did the session and I left. Dick went on to do his solo things which they did release. He had a number of things released throughout the years we were singing as Dick and Dee Dee.
Q - So, you were like sixteen when you became famous?
A - No. I was older. I was eighteen.
Q - You graduated high school then, before your record success?
A - The record came out the summer I graduated. It was June and boom, the record came out. This is "The Mountain's High", which was the B-side of "I Want Someone". "The Mountain's High" was supposed to be just a throw-away song.
Q - Did you go to college?
A - I managed to do a year. That June, "The Mountain's High" came out and we were booked for a tour of Texas that August. So, we did that. When we got back, it was breaking all over the United States. We got an offer to do a mid-West tour with Jan and Dean. So, I had to make a choice. My parents wanted me to go back to school. I had a boyfriend at the time. He wanted me to stay there. I was getting a lot of pressure to do that. But, I was really confused. I didn't know what I should do. I made the decision finally to take some time off and go on these tours.
Q - Who did you two model yourselves after? Did you say "we're going to be the male - female version of The Everly Brothers"?
A - Oh no, not at all. We were winging it. This was all just trial and error. It was more about the sound we were creating. I don't even think Dick saw us as singing together. It wasn't like we were planning a singing career. It just happened. He just happened to stick this thing on a tape he was showing producers. When it was a hit, we had to make these choices. Now there was a lot of pressure...can you get another hit? From then on, we were looking for material. We were trying to find songs. There was no one to really base ourselves after, because there really were no male - female couples. We were kind of a unique entity in that era. I guess April Stevens and Nino Tempo were before us. But they sang a completely different type of music. We didn't really connect that we were anything like them. We didn't think about that.
Q - How did life change for you when that first record became a hit?
A - The first tour of Texas, I devoted a real large chapter of Vinyl Highway to that tour because it was so life altering for me. At that time we knew some of the Southern states were segregated. We also knew there were Freedom Riders going down from the colleges to integrate the South and peacefully sit at lunch counters and sit in the front of buses instead of going to the rear. We didn't realize when we were going to Texas that we were going to be on an integrated tour in a segregated state. It honestly did not even cross our minds. We of course were both from California. I wasn't even sure that segregation was going on in Texas. I was really very ignorant of the parameters of that kind of a thing. I thought that was more further south. So, we wound up the first week in Texas, the headliner was Ray Peterson and he came and went. Then Gary U.S. Bonds was the headliner for the second part of the tour; the second part of the month Gary came on tour with two of his musicians. So, here we were on an integrated tour, traveling in a van all around Texas. It wasn't too bad in the cities, but we had to travel down many lone highways through these tiny towns. We faced blatant racism on all fronts. Besides the difficulty of that, Gary and his musicians had to go to another part of town and stay there. They had to eat going to the back of restaurants while we went in the front door. It was a huge, gigantic hassle. It created all kinds of time delays as well as being so ghastly on every other front of what that was all about. We were actually chased down the street by men with baseball bats. We managed to get in the van and get away. I'll tell you what he did to provoke this because he kind of made it worse than it might have been. This was near the end of the tour and we were absolutely exhausted. We were completely fed up with this segregation situation. We were hungry and tired. It was mid-day and we'd been driving all night in this van, trying to get to the show the following night. It was noon and a hundred degrees or so. We were passing through this town and it looked like it was from the Frontier Days. It almost should have had board walks. A one horse town. Old, dusty pick-up trucks parked on the streets. Everybody indoors 'cause it's so hot. The promoter let us out on the street and basically said "OK, get lunch. I've got to get gas and do a few things. I'm coming back in an hour. You be here at this spot." So, he took off. Dick and I and Gary and his two musicians, a totally integrated group, standing on the sidewalk. We see in the window of these beat-up old restaurants, "Whites Only" signs. So, we said where can we all eat so we can just get out of here? Usually, the Greyhound stations offered something to eat, even if Gary and his musicians had to go around to the back, they could at least eat. Someplace said "Whites Only" and that was the end of that subject. We found the Greyhound station. We were so tired, we were kind of stumbling in the front door. This big, burly man came out and he looked at Gary and his musicians and said "You know, the colored entrance is around back." That was the tipping point. We had gone through weeks of this. We sort of had had it at that point. I just looked at Dick and said "Why don't we go back there too? What's to prevent us from doing that? We can all eat quickly and get out of here." And Dick says "Yeah." This man was glaring at us of course. He went back where he belonged and we went around and Gary said "Are you sure you want to be doing this?" Well, yeah, what is the harm in this? So we went in the back entrance. It was divided by a screen. You could sort of see the White patrons through the screen on the other side of the Greyhound station. The man told them we'd gone around to this back area. We really shocked the people who were sitting in the back too. They were kind of stunned 'cause I don't think they'd ever seen any White people come in the back like that. We sat down and as everybody relaxed, we started talking normally and everything seemed normal. We ordered some sandwiches to eat there and then all of a sudden it got really, really quiet. So, Dick starts humming. You could hear Dick through the partition of the White part of the restaurant. Then he started singing, really loud, "God Bless America" (laughs). Now, I don't know what provoked him to do that, but that wasn't the smartest thing. The man who'd come out originally with three other men, leapt to their feet and went running out the front door. Gary jumped up and said "We go to get out of here." We ran out the back door. Luckily we went around the building. There were two choices...right or left. We just bolted one way and they were coming around the other way. So, we didn't run into them, fortunately. They were behind us now, chasing. They grabbed some bats and were after us. We were running out and down the main street. The promoter came along just then in the van. He's going along really slow. The door kind of opens and we're jumping in. Dick pushed me up. Gary and his musicians jumped it. They pulled me up. Dick is running along side and the driver looks in his rearview mirror and sees these men and he panics and pushes the gas and we start to take off without Dick. Dick is trudging along after the car, after the van, and these men are coming after him. I'm yelling "stop! You gotta get Dick." He slowed down and everybody reaches out and pull Dick and slam this thing shut and we just took off.
Q - What year was that?
A - This was August of 1961.
Q - Did you ever meet the Big Three? I'm talking about Frank Sinatra, Elvis, The Beatles.
A - Wow! Sinatra, no. Elvis was a little before our time. When Elvis really hit, we were in Junior High. I was a huge Elvis fan. I did see Elvis when he was 19 years old from the audience, as a kid. My mom actually took me. I couldn't drive yet. Once he opened his mouth, it was like the same with The Beatles, everyone started screaming. Elvis at 19 was a sight to behold, believe me. The Beatles were in a category of their own. When they hit, they were so huge, so quickly that nobody ever really toured with them unless you were Bob Dylan or somebody. We saw them from a distance when we were in London. We saw Paul in a restaurant. We didn't have a connection with them. We did with The Rolling Stones. We had a number of interesting things with them.
Q - So, you met The Stones?
A - Yeah, the TAMI Show. Dick was hell-bent on getting us on that show. We'd been touring and weren't around when they were booking it. Our manager was somehow under the radar and didn't realize what was going on. By the time we got back, it was completely booked up. Dick was just hell-bent we were gonna do that show. Just to keep us quiet I guess, they said you can come back stage and watch the show. If somebody doesn't show up, you can do the show. So we went there and Dick was hangin' out a little bit with Lesley Gore. She was on the show. That night we were performing at the Long Beach Arena with Tina Turner and The Rolling Stones. It was Ike and Tina in those days. Ike and Tina came on first. Dick and I came on second and The Rolling Stones came on third. After the TAMI Show and they completed filming it, they got us on the bus and said "Why are you gonna take your cars down to Long Beach? The bus is going down there. Why don't you just ride on the bus?" So that's what we did. So, we did the show with The Rolling Stones. I remember Mick was standing there. His jaw almost hit the floor when he was looking at Tina Turner. He couldn't believe his eyes. I think it was the first time he'd ever seen Tina. Tina was dancing all over the place and in those days Mick pretty much stood in one place. He didn't really move around a lot. After that, Mick took off. He was moving all over the place. We went to England and we were in a club with Brian Jones was Andrew Loog Oldham, who was their producer and manager. Dick whispered to me, "I'm gonna try and get Andrew to record us while we're here." That was a real bizarre thought, 'cause we were signed with Warner Brothers and Don Ralke. Dick said "This will give us a big hit record." So, he started talking to Andrew. Andrew started looking at his watch like he had to go somewhere. Dick came running back to me and said "Andrew is leaving. I'm not going to let him out of my site until he agrees to do this. So, can you get back to the hotel yourself?" I said OK. So Dick took off after Andrew. I stayed there with Brian and this guy named Michael Aldred, who was one of the hosts of the show called Ready, Steady, Go!. It was a British Television show in London. We shared a cab and I went back to my hotel. The next morning, Dick called me and said "Well, I've done it. We're gonna have a session." We were only gonna stay in London one more week before coming back to the U.S. He said "First, Andrew needs permission from Warner Brothers." So Dick wanted me to call Joe Smith who was our contact. He said "Joe has a harder time saying no to a girl." So I called Joe and said "You know Joe, if we can record with Andrew Loog Oldham, what would that be like?" He said "Well, you have a contract with The Wilders, but let me see what I can do." We talked to The Wilders and they gave us permission to do this. They thought it would be a huge career plus to have this session done with Andrew. Andrew told Dick "I can't pull musicians in time, but I'm willing to do this. I've got some old Rolling Stones tracks that we're not going to release and if they're in the right key for you and you like the songs, you can go in and put your voices on 'em and I'll just deck out Mick's voice and you can have those." Dick said "Great!" Dick had in his hand an acetate that Andrew had given him of those songs and they were in the right key. We had the words written on hotel stationery. We sat there, listened and wrote the words. (laughs) It was a Friday night and we went to Decca Studios, which is where The Stones recorded. Keith was there. Brian was there. Andrew was there. At that time Andrew was trying to promote Keith Richards and Mick Jagger sort of like Lennon and McCartney. He was trying to do Jagger / Richards as a songwriting team. Since they'd written these songs, they had interest in seeing other people do their material. The songs were called "Blue Turns To Gray" and "Some Things Just Stick In Your Mind". And so we recorded them. Now, The Stones were playing all the tracks and in some cases singing back-up. We completed this thing in a few hours. We went back to L.A. with this disc. Well, they were just about to release, I think it was "Thou Shalt Not Steal". So, this got put on hold. At that time we were doing Shindig! a lot. We were almost semi-regulars on the show. So they decided to premiere it on Shindig!, which they did. It was funny because on that show I was hearing it again. We hadn't heard it in a while. I was hearing it for the first time in a long time. Then we did another Dick and Dee Dee song and I was thinking the other Dick and Dee Dee songs that The Wilders produced had so much more brightness to the voices. Somehow in the translation we lost a lot of the brightness. But anyway, the song was never a hit and they promoted both sides of it. It got national exposure. It was one of those things. We never had two hits in a row. We'd have a hit and a miss, a hit and a miss. It went like that.
Q - Do you remember the club The Stones were in when you and Dick ran into them?
A - I'm not sure. Brian Jones became a good acquaintance / friend. He would call when they would come to L.A. because The Stones started to do Shindig! too. He was really a beautiful person. He said to Dick in the club that time "Hey man, do you have any pills?" Dick thought he meant he had a headache. (laughs) We were really naive then. Dick said "Yeah, I got some Excedrin." Brian just put his hand out like, "give me what you got." Dick dumped some Excedrin in his hand. He was drinking alcohol and washed 'em down with the alcohol. He was going around asking other people. It was very sad. Of course he eventually drowned. He probably wasn't real clear when he was in the water.
Q - Sounds like he was headed down the wrong way.
A - Yeah, even when he came to L.A. he was kind of spaced. He was just stoned a lot. I don't know on what. He just was. You know, that was part of the culture at that time. But this was to the extreme with him.
Q - Why did Dick and Dee Dee stop performing?
A - Well, our last hit was in 1965. It was "Thou Shalt Not Steal". We were on Warner Brothers at that time. We were on Liberty for a number of years. How and why we left there is written in Vinyl Highway. A very funny story. We were on Warner Brothers for the rest of our career. That was when Warner Brothers was flying. They were signing everybody. They were such a hot label. Joe Smith was in charge there and everything was really incredible. The record industry started to do some really strange things between '67 and throughout the mid-70s. The record industry really went through a 360. In our case, they did a massive clearing house of anybody that hadn't had a hit in a year or two. And so we were among the people that were dropped. It was one of those things. I think by that time, Joe Smith wasn't there. The whole culture had changed. At that time, a lot of the San Francisco groups were coming in. You had a lot of the psychedelic stuff happening. It was just going in a whole different direction. So, Dick and I were dropped from that label. We were still with The Wilder Brothers for a while. Then Dick decided we weren't sounding as current as the music we were listening to because of the Wilder Brothers. So, when our contract ran out, he didn't renew it. We started being independent. We did a session with Ray Ruff for Dot Records. We just kind of bounced around, but we never had another hit. Meanwhile, we kept performing, but our venues were shrinking. Instead of these large venues, they were becoming these small clubs on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Dick was really concerned and trying to revive his solo career at that time. The whole time we were singing, he said he wanted to be a solo artist someday. That was his goal. We weren't getting along really well and that's in Vinyl Highway. At that time, I had a completely different approach that I was seeing musically that I thought we should be doing more of the sound that was happening at the end of the '60s. Dick wasn't writing that kind of stuff. Basically we were drifting apart, big time. We were only coming together just to perform shows. We had our gigs. We'd do the show and go separately in our cars. At one final session, we had a couple of tracks we had to cut. I spoke in the center of a song. I had this idea to just say some poetry. He just flipped out. He just go real upset. They erased it. After the session, he walked me out. He was really mad and he just said "I'm breaking up the act and moving on." And that basically was how it broke up.