In Memoriam: The Richie Rotkin and Arnie Marcus interviews

Richie Rotkin, member of The Rip Chords, passed away on Saturday, July 15. He was 82. In 2006, ESQ interviewed Richie and Arnie Marcus about their tenure in The Rip Chords and working with Terry Melcher. Here, presented online for the very first time, is that interview.

ESQ: What was your first impression of Terry Melcher when you met him?

Rich Rotkin: He looked very young and very “Hollywood.” [He] seemed very in control.

Arnie Marcus: I thought he was a nice guy, and I knew he was very talented because I had heard his name before. But he seemed spoiled and full of himself. And I knew he was powerful because of his family’s high-profile background, but I wasn’t awed by him. He seemed OK, but he wanted to run the whole program. As I got to know him, I found he had a nice presence. He took a liking to me of all the guys in the group. He clicked with me maybe because I was a wise guy and fun-loving and he took to my free spirit.

ESQ: What aspect of Terry’s professionalism helped to push you to become a better recording artist?

Rich: Totally hands-on and knowledgeable. Came down from the booth into the studio and stood right next to me to show me how to do my recording parts.

Arnie: As it turned out, a lot of what I didn’t like turned out to be positive. He was a genius. I watched him work the dials in the control room. He really knew what he was doing. He was fascinating to watch. I hadn’t realized he had such a good voice, either, until he gave me some harmony ideas. He’d hit highs and lows – his voice was very pure. He really had to put together Richie and me with Phil and Ernie. As you know, the group was Ernie and Phil, and Richie and Arnie was hired to blend with them; it was not an originally self-developed group … but then neither was the Lovin’ Spoonful!

ESQ: Share a vivid memory that occurred in the studio during a Rip Chords recording session.

Rich: Terry took us on a tour of the studios, and when we got to his office (which was impressive) he became like a kid and began shooting rubber bands at us. As we left Terry’s office we walked by another office where Jackie DeShannon was and then I realized the company we were keeping.

As the “Hey Little Cobra” single and album session progressed I saw a “boy” doing what I always thought was a man’s job and doing it well. The single most impressive thing I had ever seen was when I was in the control room with Terry and Bruce and looking at the biggest board I had ever seen. Terry said, “Hold it!” and everyone stopped. He picked out one guitar part and said, “Play it again alone,” and there was one wrong note, evidently out of tune. I thought to myself, “Man – this guy’s a genius – no one else had picked that up. The sounds that Terry and Bruce created, as the session went on, were to me, The Rip Chords, Jan & Dean, and The Beach Boys – rolled into one, in terms of quality, professionalism, and sound.

Arnie: Terry knew I was a talented bongo player (he saw me play in the audition). He specifically pointed me out and said, “Arnie, I want you to do a bongo solo for me and I’m going to write the song for you” – to play to. (This was “Big Wednesday.”) That was another reason he took to me. “This is going to be a special song, so just do your thing.” I don’t remember if Bruce was on that, or not. Terry’s arrangements were also great. He specifically told me, “You’re the man on the bongos.” Then, he asked me to change a few things on the bongos, but I stood up to him because I felt they were okay. He agreed.

ESQ: Describe Terry as a producer.

Arnie: He’s a genius – his arrangements, his mixing, etc., he had a great ear. He and Bruce always collaborated without us. They got more involved than I originally thought they would be. We were basically fall guys to promote their records, and then all of this press came out that we weren’t on the records, but we were. I even did the vocal solo on “Surf City” with Terry on harmony. He had a great ear and was great in the studio. He was confident.

ESQ: Describe Terry as a guy.

Rich: Terry knew business, but he also had a devilish time. I mean, we were just kids in our 20s!

Arnie: Eccentric, fun at times. A little moody at times but still OK with everybody. Tried to get along with everybody. He was cool with everybody. He was intense. But I never lost my own style or presence in front of him. He was a real character.

ESQ: What do you feel is Terry’s legacy?

Rich: Terry was an extraordinary talent who helped create the California sound of the ’60s, which is still – and always will be – one of the greatest times in rock ‘n’ roll. You have to give him his due – his legacy should never be underplayed. He was very innovative (used a trash can over Bruce’s head to sing “Shut’em down,” and he really knew his way around a studio. Remember, it was only three tracks, and he and Bruce got all that sound out of it!

Arnie: I didn’t even realize all that. It just goes to show his genius. I don’t think Terry even knew how great he was. He wasn’t humble, but I didn’t think he really knew how talented he was. It was natural for him. He always made things happen in the studio. He always seemed distant and evasive with me because his mind was always busy. He didn’t seem to make time for the group other than the work time. We were never chummy. It was all business with him. He loved the action. He was so focused on the music. Not much of a sense of humor. Look, he was a young kid at Columbia and had a lot to prove and a lot to do. He was very private and distant. His mind seemed all on music and creativity. That is his greatest legacy.

ESQ: Talk about sitting down with Bruce Johnston in 2005.

Rich: How do you adequately say thank you to one of the two people who changed your life? What was accomplished by talking to Bruce was the fact that I realized that the Rip Chords, and especially “Hey Little Cobra,” will live on forever, and my family will always be able to say that I was a part of the greatest time in rock ‘n’ roll. Thank you, Terry! And thank you, Bruce!

In closing, although I had been in show business since the age of seven, it was clear that I owed the rest of my life to Terry and Bruce due to all that they did, and all that they taught me which led to the success of the Rip Chords. I mean, what are the odds of having a major hit record??!!

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