Laurel Canyon, Epix’s upcoming two-part docuseries directed by Alison Elwood, captures the sounds which came together in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles. Starting in the mid-sixties, the area became a Shangri-La as musicians from all genres moved to the country, which was four minutes out of the city. The Monkees’ Mickey Dolenz lived next door to Alice Cooper, who bought the place directly overlooking Frank Zappa’s house. David Crosby introduced Joni Mitchell to Graham Nash. The band Love introduced Elektra Records to the Doors. Johnny Echols, one of the founding members, lived with the rest of the band at The Castle, close enough to Laurel Canyon for more than the occasional pop-in.
Before founding Love with Arthur Lee, Echols played in bands with Billy Preston, and did studio sessions alongside Glen Campbell. Echols also backed up Little Richard when he toured England and hosted four guys who “used to follow Richard around,” he says in Laurel Canyon, “sycophants as far as I could see. Later on in Los Angeles, I was invited to see the Beatles. I didn’t believe it. These little guys that ran around chasing Richard are the biggest thing in the world.”
Love’s 1967 album Forever Changes comes in at number 40 on Rolling Stone magazine’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list, and on summer playlists around the world. The band was the first rock act signed by folk label Elektra Records. Love’s lead guitarist Echols, who wrote songs like “Revelation” off the album Da Capo,” spoke with Den of Geek about giving back to the musical community until it hurt.
DEN OF GEEK: Love was the first rock band on Elektra. What was it like having a label all to yourself?
JOHNNY ECHOLS: Well, it was good for a period of time. Because they had come from the folk classical music era, we were the first rock group. So it was a learning experience for both of us. We had been offered contracts with several much larger companies – Columbia, MCA, and Capital – but Elektra was the only one that allowed us to own the publishing, which basically is where the lion share of the income comes from in the music business. So them allowing us to have that, and we still own the publishing, was major for us. That was basically the reason we signed with an unknown small label, which Elektra was at the time
When Love was first started, I saw that you recorded with Jimi Hendrix. Can you tell me about that?
Yes. Arthur Lee wrote a song called “My Diary.” It was about an episode with his girlfriend. Her mother found a diary, and forced them to break up. Anyway, Arthur wrote a song for Billy Revis at Revis Records and this woman who was assigned to Revis Records, Rosa Lee Brooks. She did the vocals on it. But Arthur wrote a sad story about her mom finding the diary and Jimi Hendrix played on that. I think that was one of the first one, not the first, but one of the first records that he played on. And that would have been somewhere around 1964.
I had met Jimi playing at the California Club. He was with the Isley Brothers, I believe, at the time, and he was auditioning to play with the O’Jays. I met him there and we got to be friends. So Arthur Lee and him were much, much closer over the years. We did hang out together and at the time I was not impressed with Jimi, just to say the least. He was kind of a journeyman guitar player, but it was nothing spectacular. And then, about two years later, some friends told us there’s this guy, because I knew him as Jimi James, named Jimi Hendrix and we should go to the Whiskey and catch him.
So we went down and Arthur said, “Hey, that’s the dude that played on our record.” I said, “Wow, yeah, it is.” He looked entirely different. He was dressed totally different. Before, he used to wear these suits with the real skinny ties and real tight pants and boots. And now he was dressed totally far out and he just played amazing. The transformation in him, from that guy that I saw playing at the California Club to being Jimi Hendrix, was just phenomenal. I still, to this day, don’t understand how he went from where he was to where he ended up in such a short period of time.
Who were you listening to when you were teaching yourself guitar?
Well, Adolph Jacobs of The Coasters was a mentor teacher. He taught me quite a bit, but I listened to people like Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Albert Collins, Albert King, all the Kings, actually, and Kenny Burrell. I really, really liked jazz. So Mundell Lowe, Kenny Burrell, these were major influences on me and of course Laurindo Almeida was another.
Because the movie is about Laurel Canyon, tell me about The Castle.
Well, The Castle actually was in the Las Villas area, but it was owned by an old silent film actress. We basically paid the taxes on it and upkeep, and we were able to live in this 70-room mansion for just very little money, as long as we kept the place up. She was never coming back and it had become derelict. The police were always there because there were squatters and stuff living there. We were given that offer by a realtor, my friend. And that’s how we started living there and it became the place. There were people from the Jefferson Airplane or Jimi or The Doors, so many different people would come there and hang out because it was basically a 24-hour party spot.
The Rolling Stones and the Yardbirds noticed you early on in your career. Can you tell me a little bit about that and some of the bands you opened for?
When I was playing with Billy Preston, we opened for the Stones at the Shrine. That would have been, I think, in 1964, I believe. So we got to know them from that. And of course the guys from Zeppelin, I got to know Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. We got to know them from them just coming by and hanging and watching the group play. But so many people would come through there because The Whiskey was like a Mecca. So many groups from all genres would just come there and hang out and catch the group play. So that’s basically how we met them.
Love had trouble in the South, playing southern shows?
Correct. We couldn’t actually play in the South being a mixed race group. If you were a black group playing R&B that was one thing. But if you’re a mixed race group, they wanted to have you play in front of segregated audiences and all that kind of nonsense. Of course, we would have none of that. So we would, at times, get bookings because they didn’t know the racial makeup of the group. And then when we get there, they find some reason to cancel it or insist that we play to a segregated audience, and of course we didn’t. So, except for Texas and the Miami Pop Festival, we didn’t play any of the places in the South. It was a hindrance because there are major markets in the South and Middle America that were basically off limits.
There was a lot of upheaval happening at that time. You had the civil rights movement happening. It was in full force and you also had the Vietnam War and kids, the World War II generation coming of age, and all of these things converged at the same point in time. So it was just difficult for a bunch of California hippies, mixed race, to get gigs in any place other than the East coast and West coast, which is basically what we did.
You had Elektra all to yourself, and then you gave it to The Doors. Could you tell me about that?
We had been offered a huge sum of money, probably one of the largest signing bonuses ever to go to MCA, and they were going to buy out our contract. Well, we knew Jack Holzman and Elektra would never let us go because we were their ticket into the game. So we thought, well, if we hook them up with The Doors, maybe they’d let us go. And we did that. And of course they didn’t let us go. And all of the money that was normally would have been spent promoting Love now went to promote The Doors. So we basically shot ourselves in the proverbial foot by doing that. But they were our friends and so we were happy for them and there were never any hard feelings. That’s just the way it went. But yeah, we were kids then and that was a boneheaded move, but we thought it would work. Sadly. It didn’t.
We got Jack Holzman to come down to see them. And it took him three times before he finally realized that The Doors were someone that they should sign because he hated them the first couple of times he saw them. Jim was an alcoholic and he would be just roaring drunk those times and was crude and inappropriate. Back then you couldn’t say some of the things on stage that you can say now. Well, if someone protested or didn’t like what you said, you could get arrested for being lewd or lascivious behavior. So, Jim Morrison was definitely not someone that record companies were all that enamored with. We had to, kind of, use a lot of pressure to get Elektra to finally sign. But it worked out great for them.
You came out of blues and most of the groups in that area came out of folk. Was there a cliquishness and how were the jams and how did all of that mix there musically?
That’s what caused us to have that fusion because we had so many different genres of music being played in there. You had during that time, Johnny Rivers was holding fort at The Whiskey and he played kind of country rock. And then there were people that down the street at PJ’s would be more into blues. And then you had Kool & The Gang playing kind of bluesy music and we kind of melded that all together into a sound that was current. But it was also a sound that the younger people could identify with. So that was kind of a melding of so many different genres. And it happened because so many different peoples were put together in that area in Laurel Canyon. So the music was part of that. It came together because of the different people who had moved to that particular area because Laurel Canyon was the epicenter of music and Hollywood for the longest time.
Laurel Canyon part one airs on May 31 and part two airs on June 7 on Epix.