Gary James' Interview With Ernie Orosco Of
Ernie And The Emperors
Back in 1965 Ernie And The Emperors had a big hit, a number one hit we might add with a song called "Meet Me At The Corner". Signed to Frank Sinatra's label, Reprise Records, they toured all over the U.S. Later, the band would morph into The Giant Crab, Big Brother Ernie Joseph, Faith and The Brian Faith Band. Ernie Orosco, a.k.a. Ernie Joseph, talked to us about the colorful history of his group.
Q - I couldn't help but notice that your big hit, "Meet Me At The Corner" sounds like a British Invasion group recorded it, say The Searchers.
A - Yes. We were doing that kind of thing back in the day.
Q - You guys must've studied the British Invasion sound pretty seriously, didn't you?
A - Yes, we did. We were fanatics.
Q - But here's what I don't understand; Ernie And The Emperors sounds like the name of a '50s group.
A - I know.
Q - How did that happen?
A - We were The Emperors when we initially started and we found out there was another Emperors that had a single out, so the band decided on Ernie And The Emperors. That's how that came about. I just happened to write that song, "Meet Me At The Corner" and it evolved from there, The Emperors to Ernie And The Emperors.
Q - You're often referred to as a garage band. Do you like that term?
A - That's how it started with every band. Even the British guys were in garages. That's how you start. That's where you practice.
Q - The Ramones sound like a garage band. Ernie And The Emperors don't.
A - We were kind of polished. We gave up sports, all of us. We were involved in sports and we just dropped everything. We just got into music. We dropped surfing. We just got serious at a real young age, fifteen to eighteen, and just practiced every night. We dropped all sports, football, baseball, basketball, track. Everything.
Q - You don't hear many stories like that.
A - Three brothers. My dad was an athlete, played football and baseball. He wanted us to be athletes in the beginning. He also was a musician. He and my mom used to sing on State Street on the main drag in Santa Barbara. We grew up on the main drag there. I think I was six years old, the oldest of three siblings. My mom and dad played every club there on State Street. It's kind of eerie to go back there and walk back in time. It's really, really something.
Q - How did you guys land a deal with Reprise Records? That's the label that Frank Sinatra started.
A - Yup.
Q - Did someone from the label see your band at one of the Battle Of The Bands competitions you entered?
A - Yes. That is correct. We won two straight, the big ones and got their attention and they signed us. Frank Sinatra liked us. He like what he heard and signed us. We went to Warner Brothers and our parents had to sign for us. We were all under eighteen. Jimmy Bowen and Frank Sinatra said, "Let's sign 'em. Let's get their parents consent." We took a trip to Warner Brothers Reprise Records' Burbank offices there. Went in there and just signed all the papers.
Q - Let me get this straight. Frank Sinatra heard your band?
A - Oh, yeah. That was his label.
Q - Did he personally see you at this Battle Of The Bands competition?
A - Not Sinatra, but one of his scouts.
Q - Where did this scout see your band?
A - At the Earl Warren Showgrounds.
Q - You got to open for The Isley Brothers there, didn't you?
A - Yes, we did.
Q - Did you have a record deal at that point?
A - At that point we were getting polished. It was like the Fall of '62. That was the first (concert) at Earl Warren they ever had. My dad was the manager at the time and he called out there and sold them on having us open for The Isley Brothers and a host of other bands from the '50s. I was only a sophomore in high school. We started playing there and they liked us a lot and became the house band at Earl Warren. That was in '62, and the next year '63 they had the giant Battle Of The Bands and it was very emotional. It was like by crowd applause. They started with eight bands. We won the one and took first place at Oxnard, California. First it was Earl Warren. We took number one there. We went on to take on all the people from L.A. Country and Ventura Country and we took first place there and started getting a big reputation.
Q - Since you were in Los Angeles in 1965, did you ever cross paths with Jim Morrison?
A - Yeah. Fast forward to 1968 and Morrison recorded in L.A. and he came and crashed our recording session. He really liked what he heard. I was in a band called Giant Crab. We weren't The Emperors then. He came in. We became good friends. He was about 25 in '68.
Q - What was he like?
A - He had his leather jacket on and his leather pants. He was by himself. I guess he lived across the street I read in a book later on. I think I was in TCT Recording in L.A. I was in awe when he came in. I started talking to him. He said, "Oh, I really like your sound. You sound good. Where are you guys from?" My manager, Bill Holmes, came to me and kicked him out. He said, "This is a session. I'm paying for it." I said, "But, that's Jim Morrison." He said, "I don't care if it's Elvis Presley." He kicked him out the first time. He (Jim Morrison) came back to Original Sound Recording and hung out with us. It was like a glass sliding door. He waved to us and said, "Hello. Good to see you." It was the last time I saw him. After that we were doing an album called "Confusion" and our manager was Bill Holmes, sought after manager, and had another guy come in. Yeah, that was our thing with Jim Morrison. Yeah, Jim was a good friend of ours actually. What I thought of Morrison? He wasn't flamboyant. He wasn't ostentatious. He was a very down to earth guy. It surprised me. He was kind of vulnerable in my eyes. He'd never been in a band before. I could see that. He was a little insecure as I look at it at my age now and look back on it. I kind of picked up on it. He was vulnerable. He was kind of insecure. He was admiring people that got along and got things done. He saw it a mile away from TCT or CTD Recording on Cahuenga Boulevard in Los Angeles, the first time we met him. That's when my manager kicked him out. The second time he was behind the sliding glass door and he let him hang out there.
Q - Did you ever see The Doors?
A - No. I missed them. In '67 they played a daytime show at a football field and we were playing somewhere else. It was just a timing thing. He struck me as a great guy. It's kind of eerie the guy that played the part of Jim (Val Kilmer) in that movie. I saw the movie once and I got home from a gig and I said I can't believe we met him and he really liked us. I was on tour with Strawberry Alarm Clock when he died. I knew Jimi Hendrix too. He was in the same company, Warner Brothers Reprise. That's how I got backstage when he played Santa Barbara. We talked.
Q - Would it surprise you to know I interviewed a gentleman by the name of John Ceperich who told me Jim Morrison faked his death and that he's very much alive?
A - No. It wouldn't surprise me. He was a great guy. He surprised me because he wasn't arrogant. He was a down to earth person who looked very vulnerable to me. He never played in a band. I didn't know that 'til later. We were more like a real band. We were more seasoned like club people. We just learned everything, Rhythm 'n' Blues. After the British Invasion we advanced in music. We got really skillful at everything.
Q - What did you think of Jimi Hendrix?
A - I thought he was awesome. He was the shyest guy I ever met. He was a awesome person. I really cried when he died. I was in Atlanta, Georgia and I just broke down 'cause I knew how nice he was. A great guy. I talked to him twice. I talked to him at Devonshire Downs in Los Angeles in 1969. The first time was 1967 when he played Robb Gym at USCB. I walked back there and said "Ernie And The Emperors" and they let me through. The security guards let me right backstage. It was Mitch Mitchell, Noel Redding. I said hi to 'em. I said, "Where's Jimi?" He said, "To the right and in back of the dressing room." When I got back there he was sitting behind these mirrors and I can see it right now. They had lights all over the place. He was kind of bashful. I told him how good he was. He had a problem with the monitors. He asked if I could hear the vocals. I said, "Yeah, I could hear the vocals." I was right in front. I remember he broke a guitar string towards the end of the first set and a guy threw him a brand new Stratocaster with all the strings on it. The end of the guitar, the strings weren't even clipped. They were like sticking out. You'd cut 'em. You'd clip 'em. But yeah, it was like dangling out the strings like somebody strung it out and forgot to clip 'em. It was kind of unusual. I remember that. A brand new Strat after he broke a string. He was kind of a little bit insecure, but then he picked the show up. The thing I noticed most about Hendrix is how he kept his cool. He tuned up his guitar while he was talking to people. I admired that. In those days there were no tuners. You gotta have a good ear to even make it. We had good ears 'cause our parents played in bands. It was awesome. I was very inspired by Jimi.
Q - Did you ever meet Janis Joplin?
A - I met her, but she was kind of high. I met her in Santa Barbara as well. I introduced myself and she said hi. She was really good. Put on a great show.
Q - Ernie And The Emperors performed all over the U.S. Was that as a headlining group or as a support group? Where did you perform?
A - We actually played all over California basically. What happened was Sinatra and the people at Warner Brothers wanted us to tour with The Kinks and my dad would not allow that. We were still minors and he didn't want us to drop out of high school. So they let us go and we were picked up my Uni Records. Bill Holmes of The Strawberry Alarm Clock, that family. They were all from Glendale. We were from Santa Barbara. We were just like brothers with them 'cause we'd spend time after going to Boss Big Boys, eat together. They'd get a booth. We'd get a booth. We'd all help each other do backup vocals on their records and they had this lead singer, Greg Munford, who sang "Incense And Peppermints" and he was a ghost musician from The Giant Crab. Years later people are realizing he was a backup singer for The Giant Crab. He was never given any credit in those days. Our band had broken up, The Giant Crab. The second album we had Greg helped us exclusively. He only did a couple of songs on the first album. Then he got with us and we started backing him up and then we changed the name to Big Brother Ernie Joseph. I just went on tour with him since the band was breaking up and having some personal problems. He eventually came back, but I finished out the Southeast tour with him. In 1969 we started it.
Q - Big Brother Ernie Joseph. That's a '60s name if I ever heard it.
A - Yeah. Three brothers in the band. I was the big brother. That's what they called me all my life.
A - Yeah. And then this old band called The Swingin' Medallions. Roy Orbison as well. And another one hit wonder, Steam. They did "Na Ha Hey Hey" We toured and did shows the them. We played with
Davy Jones in Charlotte, North Carolina. I remember that. We played with The Brooklyn Bridge too, Johnny Maestro. We used to hang out at Paul's Lounge in Charlotte, North Carolina. That was a big place. We used to play there and we used to go there just to hang with him, shoot some pool before the gig. We were jut like buds.
Q - Did you go on the road with some of these people?
A - We went on the road. This was like in Tennessee, Virginia. Back then Bruce Springsteen had a band from New Jersey called Steel Mill. They were just kind of starting out. They were writing original music. We played half a dozen shows with 'em as I recall.
Q - Was Bruce Springsteen a stand-out then?
A - Yeah, he was. I remember the song "Hail, Hail Resurrection". He did it great. He got people involved. It was awesome. He had hair half way down to his back, tie-dyed tank top and jeans with a bunch of patches on the butt. Kind of the hippie thing back then.
Q - What was Ronnie Van Zandt like?
A - See, I was with Ed King when he was putting the band together. We were playing in '71 and he announced to the band he was gonna quit The Alarm and and join a new band called Lynyrd Skynyrd. At that point nobody had even heard of 'em. I said, "Are you sure you're doing the right thing?" I can tell you exactly where this was, Winthrop College in South Carolina. I had pictures of that. Our tour bus and he had his Winnebago. He said he was considering quitting. He opened for one of their (Skynyrd's) shows. I remember him saying he was going to give notice here, and he did really well. We were playing somewhere and I heard "Sweet Home Alabama" on the radio and I realized Ed stayed with that band and actually had a hit. I was in Great Falls, Montana, playing at a concert when I heard it on the radio. I thought that's awesome. 1975. By that time I came back to California, late '74. We started '69, the Southeast tour and ended in '74. It went on for five years on the road. It was supposed to be three months and it ended up five years 'cause they really liked us. They started booking us like crazy. We had a drummer who was just great. They called him Stud. They called him Stevie D. His last name was Dunwoodie. He played with The Grateful Dead. He had his own band called Jonathan Goodlife. In '69 he said he had a lot of things going (on) and was going to do studio things with The Dead 'cause everybody liked 'em. Then when I got back in '70, he called me and said, "Yeah, are you still touring?" I said, "Yes, I am." He was quitting his band and The Dead were too mellow for him. He was more like a Led Zeppelin drummer. He played all the John Bonham licks. He said they (The Dead) put me to sleep. He was only nineteen, just turning twenty. But he moved down here to Santa Barbara. Brought his drum set in our garage and it was magical when he played. Played with his sticks on fire night after night. We started getting a big name. We had a single called "EST" and all the stations started playing it in the Southeast. We just took off from there with him and stayed for five years (on the road). It was a great run with him. He died in 2011.
Q - Natural causes?
A - Yeah. Wasn't feeling good. Went to sleep, never woke up. Sixty years old.
Q - Life on the road is tough. It could have had an impact on his heart.
A - Yeah, 'cause he was high strung. He couldn't rest. His I.Q. was up through the roof. He was like a mechanic. Twenty years old. Really bright. I never played with anybody that bright. He really put the torch to our asses. I just want to be like him. Very proficient. Very meticulous. I want to be in a band that doesn't have any excuses, want to go surfing, want to go to the movies, want to go out to dinner. I want a guy who is still playing his own music. Are you still touring? When he called me, the drummer I had before gave me notice. The road was too tough. He couldn't go on anymore, so I had to call my manager and tell him to call the tour off. And then he called. The timing was perfect. I said, "I did cancel the tour but I don't think it's too late. I think I can call my manager and we can start touring." He said, "You got me. I'll be there. I'll have my drum set in two days and I'll be at your house."
Q - Is there an Ernie And The Emperors as we're talking?
A - Yes.
Q - You perform?
A - Yeah. I played my class reunion. All of these people won't let go of that name. "We don't care what your name is. You'll always be Ernie And The Emperors to us." We're playing all these reunions and these other private parties, people that we grew up with from the '60s. It's like a full circle. It's kind of like starting again. It's awesome.
Q - You strike me as a clean living guy. No drugs.
A - Yes. Exactly. My parents were that way. They were very religious. They played in bands all over and they sacrificed so much for us. My dad worked a full time job and practiced at night.
Q - Since you toured with all these national acts, did you see the "groupie" scene building up?
A - Oh, yeah. I saw that building up. I think it's more admiration that you're doing what you love. It an anachronism to have people follow a dream. Once you do that it's kind of magical and the trust that people had for us was just unprecedented. It's like they would lead you to their house and leave the key under the mat. They figured if you made it and you're from California, you must be legitimate. They had that much trust for us. I remember that. I was just blown away by the way we were treated.
Q - And you're talking about everybody, aren't you?
A - Everybody, yeah. They were amazed. My dad said, "Don't take advantage of anybody," and we didn't.