In 1963 he was playing guitar for Little Richard. By 1965 he was playing clubs on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles with the band Love. Jim Morrison called Love one of his favorite bands. Love's album "Forever Changes" made Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time and was also inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. Robert Plant also calls Love's "Forever Changes" one of his favorite albums. And so it is only fitting that we spoke with Love guitarist Johnny Echols.
Q - Johnny, if you were a Los Angeles band in the mid-1960s, what a perfect name Love was.
A - Yeah. It actually worked out good. We were The Grass Roots initially and we had a run-in with Lou Adler and he had been drinking. He was telling us he was going to make us the next Beatles, trying to impress his girlfriend he was with, and that he was gonna do all this stuff for us. Now, we'd never heard of Lou Adler. So, Bryan (MacLean, Love singer, songwriter, guitarist) and I were on a break, so we said, "Well, let's put you in touch with our manager." And for some reason that seemed to rub him the wrong way and he goes from being this gushing supporter of what he's going to do to we'll never work again and how dare you disrespect him like that.
Q - That's strange!
A - Yeah. There was kind of a method to his madness because he knew we had a huge following in Hollywood. So if he released an album and called it The Grass Roots, people would go out and buy this record before realizing it wasn't the same group and that's exactly what they did and that's basically what put that group on the map. We had a trademark, but we were told by a business manager that if we chose to go to court, it would take a lot of time and it would cost us a lot of money. So we decided The Grass Roots kind of had a term that may not necessarily go over in the wider public, having a drug connotation. So we decided to change the name. Arthur (Lee, Love vocalist) had worked at a place called Luv Brassieres where he was in the packing department. It was spelled L.u.v. Brassieres. Bryan and I were driving past with Arthur one time and we saw the billboard and I said, "You know, Arthur used to work there." And of course everybody started laughing and then Bryan said, "That would be a great name for a group." I said, "Yeah, but we should do L.o.v.e. rather than L.u.v." And so basically that's how we got the name.
Q - When I interviewed Mike Love last year (2016) I said to him, "If you were a singer in the 1960s and Love was your last name, it was such a perfect fit.
A - That's weird, because we went to school together. He was actually a couple of grades ahead of us. We all went to Dorsey High School in Los Angeles.
Q - So, you know him then?
A - Yeah. I know him peripherally. We weren't the best of buddies. We knew each other to say "Hey." We still know each other to say "Hey," but we never were close buds. In our high school it was strange. Billy Preston was in my first group. So was Marilyn McCoo from The Fifth Dimension, and Ron Townsend from The Fifth Dimension. He was the janitor at our high school. (laughs) That's how we all got together to do assembles. At school they would have these little talent shows and we would perform for them. Arthur once heard us playing and decided he wanted to be a musician. Before that he'd never been involved in music. So it kind of snowballed from there.
Q - Before Love you were the guitarist for Little Richard. How did you get that gig?
A - Well, through Billy Preston. They were close family friends. But also Richard would come by the neighborhood when I was a kid and he would hand out dollar bills to all the kids. He'd come by in the back of a limousine or Bentley and he'd just hand out dollars. We got to know him from that. Everybody would run over to his car and he would give us all dollars. Then later on when I started playing with Billy, he would come to some of our gigs. He was always giving us advice on what to do, how to handle ourselves and all of that. I would play on sessions with him. I did tour with him. That's a long story. I think it was '64 when Jimi Hendrix also went to England, and Billy Preston, to tour with Little Richard and that's when we met The Beatles. I had to come back (to the States) 'cause there was a death in the family, so I didn't get to tour. My history with Richard goes back quite a way.
Q - What year did you meet The Beatles?
A - '64. They weren't at that point having made it. They were still playing local clubs. I remember then following Little Richard around. They just idolized him. So they were basically groupies for Little Richard. He would pat them on the head and tell 'em one day they might sell a few records. Something like that.
Q - Johnny, it had to have been before 1964 that you met The Beatles. "I Want To Hold Your Hand" went to number one in January, 1964 and they came to America on February 7th, 1964.
A - So this must have been '63, yeah. I know they sent us tickets to The Hollywood Bowl. When I heard them on the radio I didn't even know they were the same people we had seen in England. Brian Epstein sent us tickets and backstage passes to The Hollywood Bowl. Whenever that was, it would've been months before that. So it's possible that it was '63.
Q - You were playing with Little Richard when you met The Beatles?
A - I was playing with Little Richard and Jimi Hendrix was part of Little Richard's group, but he was basically Little Richard's valet, chauffeur, and he played in his group. So I was going to play in the group with him and then I had to turn around and come back. So I never performed while they were in the U.K.
Q - You did get to see The Beatles on stage in '63 then.
A - Yes, I did. We got to see them in some little club. I'm not sure whether it was The Cavern Club or not. We saw them in this little club and there were lots and lots of people there. I thought they were a bad cover band. They did The Isley Brothers' "Twist And Shout". They did some of Richard's tunes. I really didn't think much of them when I first heard them to tell you the truth. Neither did I think much of Jimi Hendrix when I first saw him because we played at The California Club in Los Angeles and he was kind of a journeyman musician, but he was nothing spectacular. He was just a guitar player. But you never know.
Q - When you saw The Beatles they had the Beatle haircuts, the collarless jackets and the Cuban high-heal boots. Did you say to yourself, I've never seen a band that looks like this?
A - I was kind of put off by their look actually. I just thought they were kind of strange looking. They were so sycophantic and effusive of their praise of Little Richard and American music, they just sang basically like American groups. So I didn't really have a strong impression that they would be anything more. I'm playing music then and you see lots of different people and so they weren't someone that stood out to me as someone who would actually do what they did. As I said, I didn't even realize they were the same group when Billy came over and gave me the tickets to The Hollywood Bowl for that show. Then he said, "Those are the guys we met in England." I finally realized and put it together, but I didn't know they were the same people.
Q - Did the girls scream when they came on stage?
A - Yes, they did at The Hollywood Bowl. In England there wasn't a lot of screaming. This was almost a continuation of beatniks. It was a different kind of look, the people who came to see them. They were all dark and wore black clothing and leotards, the women did at least. It was kind of different. That's the best way I can put it.
Q - The people were classified as Mods or Rockers.
A - Yeah. There were more people outside I think than were inside the club. There was a bigger scene happening on the street it seemed. Everybody was drawn to that quadrant, to that area even though The Beatles were downstairs playing. It was crowded. It was just a nice crowd inside. Outside was where all kinds of stuff was happening. You'd see these strange looking folks. As I said, they reminded me of Bohemian types, beatniks is what I would have described them as.
Q - What were these people doing? Talking?
A - Yeah. Just talking. Hanging around and looking up and smoking grass. Just hanging our basically.
Q - Your parents moved from Memphis to Los Angeles. Were your parents singers or musicians or in some aspect of the entertainment business?
A - Well, we were in the South and obviously being in the segregated South at that point in time, it was necessary to get away from there in order for my father to have work. Arthur's parents and my parents, actually our grandparents, go back back before our parents were born. They were close friends and taught in little school houses in Memphis and West Memphis, Arkansas. Arthur's mother left first. She was divorced by then, and then about three or four months after Arthur moved to Los Angeles, we did. Just by happenstance we ended up moving right down the street from Arthur. Like two doors down from him. That wasn't planned. It just happened that way. We ended up on 27th Street. Arthur was a couple of years older than I was. He was kind of my big brother. My father loved playing Gospel music and Blues. He played Rufus Thomas and Dewey Phillips was a Country DJ and that's basically what we listened to as kids growing up, Country and Rhythm And Blues stations.
Q - When you were in Los Angeles you did a lot of studio work with Glen Campbell and
The Bobby Fuller Four at Del-Fi Records. Bobby Fuller Four? Did you play lead guitar on their records?
A - Oh, no. He was just on the label there and we would see him in the studio. As far as working on his records, I think I worked on one of the songs. I'm not sure it was ever on his album. That was with Bob Keane. He asked me if I'd come in and put down a guitar solo on one of the tracks. But I don't know if I ever heard it after that. It's been a long time. I worked with Glen Campbell a lot. We would play guitar solos over tracks or play with some of the up and coming groups that Bob Keane had signed to Del-Fi Records. We were studio musicians.
Q - I know of only three acts on Del-Fi Records, Sam Cooke, Ritchie Valens and Bobby Fuller.
A - Yeah.
Q - Did you get to know Bobby Fuller?
A - No. I would see him around, but we weren't friends other than to say, "Hey, how you doing?" I was younger. I was still a kid. So we didn't really become close, no.
Q - When Bobby Fuller was found dead in his mother's car, did you hear anybody saying he was murdered?
A - Billy Cardinas was one of the producers that worked with Del-Fi and Bob Keane, and he was pretty close to us because he produced us and some of the people from East L.A., the Hispanic community. He thought that Bobby was kind of tied to some unsavory characters from Mickey Cohen and those kind of people. He thought it was a hit and for some reason one of these mobbed up people wanted Bobby's contract and he wouldn't sign with them. I'm not exactly sure because like I said, I was a kid. From listening to Billy, it had to do with some kind of mob thing. I don't know that for sure. It's just hearsay.
Q - Contract disputes can be settled in a court of law. To kill somebody means you're not going to get the guy to record for you, period.
A - Yeah. That's right, but dealing with those kinds of people, especially back then, that character Mickey Cohen, I don't think he was wrapped all that tightly. So I don't think he thought things trough. Violence was the way he did things. If you didn't go along with the program you're liable to get hurt or killed. It's not surprising that they would have done that because that's how they did things. The next group they wanted to sign would not give them any problems knowing their history.
Q - In the mid-1960s, how difficult was it to get a gig in one of those Sunset Boulevard bars? Could you make a living playing those clubs?
A - Oh, yeah. We made a very good living. Actually, we were able to have apartments and cars, earning probably twenty to thirty dollars a night each. You could rent a place in Laurel Canyon for like ninety dollars a month. That was our first house on Kirkwood. It's all relative. You could buy a brand new Volkswagon for like seven hundred to eight hundred dollars. The money is relative is what I'm saying. We were able to earn a living. It was different because at that point, Pat and Lolly Vegas, who ended up being Redbone>, they were friends of ours, so they would hook us up in places like The Purple Onion or Seawitch or Pandora's Box. Places like that. You would go in and you'd be the house band for three or four months. We had lots of gigs like that where we would play two or three months at a time at clubs. So we definitely were able to earn a living.
Q - You would play how many sets a night?
A - Oh gosh, we'd probably play four sets a night. We'd play a set and I think we were off for sometimes half an hour, fifteen, twenty minutes, whatever, depending on how large the crowd was. We'd go back and play another one. So we'd start probably around eight o'clock and play 'til one forty-five A.M. when clubs let our and then we'd go play after hours clubs after that. So we would play many times, seven, eight hours a day or night.
Q - You'd be earning sixty dollars a night then.
A - Yeah, something like that. What everybody wanted, this was the Holy Grail, was to earn a thousand dollars a week for the group. (laughs) And that's because Pat and Lolly were earning that and we thought if we could make a thousand dollars a week we'd have it made! Back then that probably would be considered nine to ten thousand a week now. You could live on that!
Q - How many nights a week would you work in that band?
A - We'd work six, seven nights a week. Some nights we'd go out to this place called Cappy's in the Valley and we'd play after hours and that would be Saturday, all the way up to one or two in the afternoon, get a little sleep and play in Hollywood. So we were playing six, seven nights a week. We played continually so you got to hone your chops on the songs you played. Basically you're playing cover songs, but you get to be very, very good at playing those cover songs because you played then night after night after night.
A - Well, we were The Grass Roots then. We had entered another sphere by then because we were no longer just playing one club after another. We were playing a place called The Brave New World and so at that point we hired Bryan. We were bringing in capacity crowds, so many people they would block off the parking lot and fence it off and put speakers out there and charge admission in the parking lot to people who couldn't even get inside the club. But Bryan was really the impetus for many of the things that happened. He had been with The Byrds. There's a group that used to follow The Byrds. They were called The Freaks. There would be about seventy or eighty of them and they would go from club to club and dance. They started coming and of course other people came to see the Freak show and pretty soon it just became the "in" thing. Then when they moved on to another group, Frank Zappa's group, we still had the crowds because of that.
Q - Before The Grass Roots you were known as what?
A - We had several names. We were known as The American Four, and then we were Arthur Lee And The L.A. G's. We used that like the Memphis group The M.G's. The L.A. G's were the Los Angeles group. There were a couple other names. The House Rockers I think. The Johnny Echols Combo. Anyway, we were playing mostly Jazz. Same guys, but different names depending on the venue we were playing and the size of the room we were in.
Q - When did you group become Love?
A - That would've been in '65. We were playing a club called Bido Lido's. We were getting huge crowds. At that point we were still The Grass Roots even though the other group had a record out then. I told you about Arthur and Bryan and I driving and seeing the billboard, we decided we were going to change the name but that we would not publicize it until after we had legally trademarked the term and the name Love so nobody would steal it again, and so we did that. We announced at Bido Lido's that we were Love. Actually we gave them a choice between Summer's Children, Asylum Choir, Dr. Strangelove and Love. Of course everybody chose Love, but we had already trademarked that name so we were going to be Love regardless. We gave the audience an opportunity to be a part of it.
Q - Jim Morrison really liked your band. Yet I recall reading somewhere that The Doors prided themselves in blowing Love off the stage at some gig. Is that true?
A - It never happened. (laughs) We knew Jim. He always hung out. He was basically a hanger-on. I saw him daily and he was always at the clubs we played. He would ask me once our record was released if we would hook him up with Elektra. I knew Jim's history. I knew he was an alcoholic and that he was a handful so nobody wanted to vouch for him. But Love got an offer after our records started to break to sign with MCA. They offered us a huge sum of money back then which is probably larger than any other group had received, but we had to leave Elektra and we knew Jac Holzman wasn't going to let us go. He's finally in the game. He has a Rock group that's successful. He's not just going to let us go. So we thought if we hooked him up with The Doors; We played with them a bunch of times and we knew that he may let us go once he had a successful group besides Love. We asked him to come from New York to hear The Doors. Come down to The Whiskey. The first time he came he got really pissed off and said, "These guys are horrible. That's a drunk on the stage. They don't have a bass player. They sound like a lounge act." And so of course he didn't sign them. And then Arthur and I, we were kids, so we kept hounding him to come back. A couple of weeks later he came back. I think he was in California for another reason. He came down again and he thought they were horrible. So I don't know how we managed to do it, but we talked to him a third time and this time he brought Paul Rothschild. Paul had just gotten out of prison for selling grass. So he came with Joe and this time they were on the money. They were playing on the same bill as
Iron Butterfly. So Jim was straight that night. He put on a fantastic show. They really loved them and so they talked to our manager at the time, Ronnie Heron, and she introduced them to The Doors. We all went to Contor's and sat down and chatted. They worked our a deal and signed the group. Of course they didn't let us go as we had naively believed. They kept us, but basically the money that would've been spent on Love was now spent for The Doors. So we basically shot ourselves in the ass by doing that. We basically insisted that they sign The Doors and that's how they ended up being signed. But as far as blowing us off the stage, there's no possibility that they could have. As I explained earlier, they didn't have a bass player. They just had a very, very lightweight lounge sound. The girls came to see Jim because he was a nice looking guy with his tight clothes and he'd make sexual innuendos from the stage and do kind of erotic things and so the young girls loved him. They liked that aspect of the group and that's why they came. The Doors were way down on the bottom of the list that we would have expected to really break out the way they did because they were very, very light weight sounding.
Q - If not for your efforts, you have to wonder what would have happened to The Doors.
A - They would have broken up because they were on the verge of breaking up. They were playing I think at The London Fog and other places that Jim's antics kept them from being able to play again, so they really weren't making much money. They were playing at The Whiskey and sometimes Elmore would pay you and sometimes he wouldn't. He always paid Love because our manager was the booking agent there so we got paid, but a lot of times the groups that played there didn't. And so they were really on the verge of breaking up. So it worked out great for them.
Q - I guess so, and all the people who became Doors fans.
A - Absolutely.
Q - Did Elektra do a good job in promoting your records?
A - No, they didn't. That's why we wanted to leave. See, Elektra was a novice label then. They had been a Folk label and they had Nonesuch, which did Classical music. We were their first real foray into Rock. They had Judy Collins, Jeff Buckley, mostly Folk people. So when they signed us, they weren't into Rock. "My Little Red Book" started to break out and was actually receiving air play. They were just overjoyed with this, but probably "Little Red Book" would have reached number one had they been able to get in all the markets. There were many places, because of having a lack of distributorship or partnerships, that our record wasn't played on the radio or people couldn't buy it in the stores because Elektra at that point wasn't able to get them everywhere. So that was one of the reasons we wanted to leave. When they signed The Doors I think they had some other affiliations with a distributor they worked out and that just happened at the same time. Because "Light My Fire" broke out the way it did, they were able to get a good distributorhsip / partnership and get them played. The money from our sales went to promote The Doors.
Q - And that's why we never heard much of Love's records.
A - They were still charting, but they just weren't doing as well as they could have had if we had the proper promotion. I think they were trying to teach us a lesson also in the fact that we were trying to get out of our contract and sign with MCA and they just kind of went out of their way at that point. I think it was a personal thing with Jac. He thought he was responsible for breaking us and getting us started, which was the furthest thing from the truth. We had opportunities with Columbia and RCA before we met Elektra or Jac Holzman. But the fact is, the things I mentioned earlier that I learned from Little Richard; one of the things he said was, "Always own your copyright. Always own your own music." So we had started a publishing company and we had titled it Grass Roots Music. And so Arthur and I owned the rights to our music. When Columbia was interested in signing us they wouldn't allow us to keep the publishing. We had to sign it over to them, and RCA also. Elektra was the only company that allowed us to keep the publishing and own the masters to our records, which was something that was unheard of back then. These are things that we learned from being around Richard and Bumps Blackwell and J.W. Alexander and Sam Cooke. They had kind of schooled us and told us what we should do. So we listened to them and that was fortunate because I was able to live and we earned a nice living just from the publishing royalties and the licence fees we've gotten over the years from our music. Had we signed with another company that wouldn't have happened.
Q - Had you been a group around today, you would've had to give up your masters, publishing, and merchandising to the record company. They would've owned your likeness, your image!
A - That's absolutely right. We learned those things early on. And that's why we signed with Elektra. We would've gotten more money and airplay from the other record companies, but we would also have signed away everything to them. That's the only reason we signed with a start-up company like Elektra.
Q - I forgot to ask you, when you were drawing these huge crowds into the L.A. clubs and drawing a celebrity audience, would people tell you, "Mick Jagger is in the audience. Keith Richards in in the audience."?
A - Oh, yeah, they would tell us. They would say, "Did you see Jagger?" I have known Mick Jagger from earlier because we opened for The Stones. Billy Preston and me. It was called Billy Preston And The Soul Brothers. We opened for The Rolling Stones at The Shrine Auditorium. So I got to meet Mick back then. I think we were at The Trip when they came to see us, The Trip or The Whiskey. We were playing this song, we called it "John Lee Hooker". We played this one song for forty-five minutes. Sometimes we'd play this song the whole night, just one song. He heard us playing that and he was really interested in that song. He kept asking me about it. Did people really enjoy these extended jams? How did they like the fact that you would play this one song for so long? We explained it to him. We told him this was basically our signature. People loved to come hear us because we would do long, long guitar solos like they did in Jazz groups. That's basically what we were trying to emulate, the Jazz groups. Soon after that they had a record called "Goin' Home" that they released that was basically a direct knock-off of "John Lee Hooker", which turned into "Revolution" on our second album. Yeah, we knew who was there. Robert Plant would come down to The Whiskey and hear us play.
Q - You knew everybody and everybody knew you!
A - We just happened to be at the right place at the right time because of the way things were changing. We had this different sound. We were emulating Jazz groups that people hadn't at that point heard. Long, extended jams. I think we were probably one of the first groups to do that before The Grateful Dead. We were doing this back in high school in '63 when we were playing these songs like that. It wasn't our thing. We were just emulating Jazz musicians.
Q - Was it a big jump for you to go from playing a cover song to sitting down and writing your own songs, or was that easy for you?
A - Well, that was pretty easy because we were basically rearranging songs that we'd already heard. As we progressed and got better at it, we started spending more time sitting down and writing cohesive songs that had a beginning, a middle, and an end. So it kind of morphed from listening to somebody else, getting ideas from somebody else, to actually becoming full-fledged songwriters on our own.
Q - You lived in this house you called The Castle.
A - That's right.
Q - I'm just wondering if people like Morrison or Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix would show up at your doorstep after one of your gigs?
A - All the time. We didn't have to say the door was open. This was a humongous place. We'd always come home from a gig and bring the gig with us. Jimi would stay there from time to time, or Morrison would come there. Anybody was welcome. It's still there. Vera Wang owns it now. She's refurbished it and it looks fantastic. It was just a beautiful, beautiful place. When we lived there it was a funky, hippie place. (laughs) I think it was sixty rooms. Upstairs were individual apartments where we lived in the place, but downstairs people could hang out and we'd never know they were there because there were so many rooms.
Q - And you paid ninety dollars a month rent for the place?
A - That was each of us. Basically what we did is paid the property taxes on the place and the upkeep, meaning turning on the electricity. Before we moved in, people had been squatting there. An old silent film star had owned the place and she was in France. Jack Simmons was a realtor in the area and he knew Bryan's family and he mentioned if we would pay the property taxes we could stay there. And of course they wanted to get rid of the transients and the squatters who were there. So that's what we did.
Q - Who was the silent film star who owned the place?
A - That I can't remember. Somebody told me her name. It was a lady and she owned the property. We only dealt with Jack. We never dealt with her.
Q - You left Love in 1968 and then rejoined in 2002. So what were you doing with your life between 1968 and 2002?
A - Well, we tried a couple of times in the interim, in '69 we started playing again as Love, but Bryan chose not to be a part of it and it just didn't work anymore. I moved to New York. First I moved to Chicago. I was doing studio work there and then I moved to New York and became a session musician there and lived there, got married and had a child. That was my life. A stable, studio musician. I did that for years until... Arthur and I would always talk to each other. I'd come back to Los Angeles and visit family or he'd come out and visit me in New York. We tried many times to put the group together because he knew we had something magic then, but it was just difficult trying to do it because there was some hard feelings about the way things ended. Putting it back together was not easy. We had an opportunity after they released the "Love Story" DVD, excuse me, this was the CD set, before the DVD. The CD story is a box set. Rhino Records released it. They were going to sponsor a world-wide tour. So we were hooking up together. Bryan and me and Kenny and Michael spending time getting our act back together and renewing our acquaintances and friendships. Then we're waiting at the session and Arthur didn't show up. Nobody knew. I'm starting to get pissed off thinking it's the same old Arthur again. I found out later he had been convicted of being an ex-con with a gun and had been sent to prison for twelve years. This was an absolute shock. We didn't even know he was going to court and that there was a chance of him going to prison for anything. When that happened of course it put the kibosh on the group getting back together again. So Bryan and I and Kenny would talk from time to time about putting something together and maybe doing a benefit show for him. Then Kevin Delaney called me, and this was Christmas, 1992, to tell me he was he was doing an interview with Bryan and Bryan had a heart attack and died right there in the restaurant. Kenny Forssi had died just a little bit before that. I thought damn, maybe the universe is telling us something. Maybe we're not supposed to be doing this. I just kind of remained in limbo until Arthur got out of prison. The Appellate Court overturned his conviction because of ineffective counsel. He never should've gone to prison in the first place. They never found him in possession of a gun. It was just neighbors complaining about the noise and told them he had brandished a weapon when he came to the door. Basically he was railroaded and the Appellate Court let him go after six years. We ended up hooking up again and touring until he died. (August 3rd, 2006)
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