Something Else! Interview: Joel Larson, co-founder of the Grass Roots

Drummer Joel Larson, a founding member of the Grass Roots, isn’t part of the group’s current line up — but he was on board for their most memorable accomplishments, starting with their debut single in the autumn of 1965, a moving rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Jones (Ballad of a Thin Man).” The Grass Roots’ subsequent disc, “Where Were You When I Needed You” then introduced them to the greater public, peaking at No. 28 on the national charts during the summer of 1966.

With its soaring harmonies, clever arrangements and sparkling textures, the Grass Roots’ subsequent long player (also called Where Were You When I Needed You) would rate easily as one of the finest recordings of the 1960s. Then, the Grass Roots suddenly and mysteriously vanished from the scene — only to be revived later by producer Steve Barri with an entirely new set of players. Larson returned for a celebrated stint in the 1970s, but has since left as the band continued forward with Dusty Hanvey, Mark Dawson, Joe Dougherty and Larry Nelson.

That edition, with most of its lineup in place since 1985, is appearing with the Turtles featuring Flo and Eddie, Monkees lead singer Micky Dolenz, the Buckinghams and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap on this summer’s Happy Together Tour. (Complete tour dates and venues are below.) But before they hit the road on June 8, 2012 for a series of more than 40 shows, we decided to travel down memory lane with Larson — who still plays drums, but also now works as a crew member for film and television productions, including “Mission: Impossible III,” “The Bucket List,” “Iron Man” and “Iron Man II,” “I Love You, Man” and “Thor,” among others.

Here, in the latest SER Sitdown, the Grass Roots’ original drummer recalls the band’s earliest days, career intersections with Bob Dylan, Gene Clark and Ed Sullivan, and what it was like to become an overnight success …

BEVERLY PATERSON: An early version of the group was called the Bedouins. How did the name the Grass Roots come about?
JOEL LARSON: We had already thought about changing our name anyway, because nobody knew what a Bedouin was — which is a man that wanders in the desert. The Grass Roots just sounded good, and it fit right in with the times. But there was actually another band called the Grass Roots out of Los Angeles that had already been making some noise. There were Arthur Lee’s band. He used to book them under a few different names, though. Sometimes, they were also called Love or December’s Children. Arthur finally decides to stick with the name Love, and that when we officially became the Grass Roots.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Were you surprised by how quickly the Grass Roots obtained success?
JOEL LARSON: I sure was, because we really didn’t pay any dues. We never went looking for a record label, or anything like that. Lou Adler just happened to hear us and took us right into the studio. After we recorded some songs, we went back to San Francisco and got a phone call from the label telling us “Mr. Jones (Ballad of a Thin Man)” was the pick hit of the week! We couldn’t believe it. We were are, four guys traveling around with our equipment stuffed in a Chevy, making the pick hit of the week on Los Angeles radio stations! Upon hearing the news, we started yelling and jumping up and down, all over the place. It was a very memorable moment.

BEVERLY PATERSON: The band instantly became pegged as a folk-rock act. Were you already playing that style of music by the time Dunhill Records picked you up?
JOEL LARSON: No, we played real hard and fast stuff, because that is what surf music is all about. Folk rock is much more laid back, so we had to learn how to slow down and play more together — instead of just getting out there and making noise! But we fortunately were able to adapt to playing folk rock, and found we were especially good at doing harmonies. This was 1965, and folk rock was what was happening at the time. The sound was all over the place, 12-string guitars and tambourines. The Byrds kicked it off, and pretty soon there were bands everywhere playing folk-rock music.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Later, after the Grass Roots originally went their separate ways in 1966, you ended up playing with the Gene Clark Group.
JOEL LARSON: Gene had left the Byrds about the same time the Grass Roots split up, so we were both just kind of hanging out and looking for something new to get into. I was actually very close friends with all of the Byrds, and even played on some of their recordings. Bill Rinehart of the Leaves also played in the Gene Clark Group, which was a good band. We never did stay together long enough to recording anything, although we did have original material. The played the Whisky a Go Go on the Sunset Strip, and halfway through the show, Gene decided he wanted to climb up on the rafters. And so that’s what he did! I also got to play with the Mamas and the Papas, Lee Michaels, the Turtles and Derek.

[SOMETHING ELSE! INTERVIEW: On the anniversary of his death, we remember an interesting conversation with Gene Clark on the lasting impact of the Byrds, and his genre-melding creative process.]

BEVERLY PATERSON: The first Grass Roots album, Where Were You When I Needed You, is excellent. How was the material for the record selected?
JOEL LARSON: That was a real good album, and I’ve always been happy with the songs. Most of the stuff on there was written by PF Sloan and Steve Barri, who produced the record, so they were pretty much in charge of what was happening. But that was definitely our sound on the album. Back then, a lot of bands were only allowed to sing vocals, and studio musicians were brought in to play on other parts.

BEVERLY PATERSON: Was Bob Dylan aware that you recorded “Mr. Jones”?
JOEL LARSON: Yes, because after the single took off, we all moved to Los Angeles permanently and one of the guys I lived with was Michael Clarke, who was drummer for the Byrds. Bob Dylan was friends with the bands — they were doing a lot of his stuff, like “Mr. Tambourine Man,” “All I Really Want To Do” and “Chimes of Freedom” — and he used to hang out with them at a club called Ciros, where they always played gigs. So one day, Michael and Gene Clark, who was also in the Byrds and a real good friend of mine, brought Bob Dylan to hear up play at the Trip, which was a club on the Sunset Strip. He mentioned our record to us, and we got to hang out with him for a while. Dylan is Dylan, you know, so it was pretty exciting meeting him like that!

BEVERLY PATERSON: The Grass Roots appeared on the Ed Sullivan show, which was quite an honor. What can you tell me about that?
JOEL LARSON: We were on the very first episode televised in color. The cameras were temperature sensitive, and we filmed under these extremely hot lights for a real long time. But it was still exciting! We played “Eve of Destruction,” which was originally recorded by Barry McGuire. That song was like the No. 1 hit single of 1965, so everybody knew it. After filming the show, I went to get a cab to go back to the hotel and ran into Ed Sullivan, who asked me where I was going. I told him I was headed back to the hotel, and he offered me a ride in his limo. So, he called his limo up and I rode 10 blocks across town with him. Ed Sullivan was a nice guy!

BEVERLY PATERSON: What are some of your all-time favorite Grass Roots tunes?
JOEL LARSON: I’ve always liked “Where Were You When I Needed You,” because it was the first real song we got together on. We had a lot of input on that song, and saw it happening in the studio right before our eyes. So, it was pretty fun and exciting recording that song. I also like most of the later stuff the band did, especially songs like “Sooner or Later” and “Things I Should Have Said.” And “Glory Bound” was always fun to play live.

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Here are the upcoming dates for the Happy Together Tour, featuring the Grass Roots, the Turtles featuring Flo and Eddie, Monkees lead singer Micky Dolenz, the Buckinghams and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap …

Friday, June 8: River Center / Columbus, Georgia
Saturday, June 9: Civic Center Arena / Dothan, Alabama
Sunday, June 10: Riverbend Festival Grounds / Chattanooga, Tennessee
Tuesday, June 12: The Plaza / Orlando, Florida
Wednesday, June 13: The Hard Rock / Hollywood, Florida
Thursday, June 14: Florida Theatre / Jacksonville, Florida
Friday, June 15: Ruth Eckerd Hall / Clearwater, Florida
Saturday, June 16: Anderson Music Hall / Hiawasee, Georgia
Sunday, June 17: Renaissance PAC / Montgomery, Alabama
Tuesday, June 19: Keswick Theatre / Glenside, Pennsylvania
Wednesday, June 20: State Theatre / New Brunswick, New Jersey
Thursday, June 21: Music Hall / Tarrytown, New York
Friday, June 22: American Music Theater / Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Saturday, June 23: NYCB Theatre / Westbury, New York
Sunday, June 24: Hampton Beach Casino Ballroom / Hampton Beach, New Hampshire
Wednesday, July 11: Humphrey’s By The Bay / San Diego, California
Thursday, July 12: Chumash Casino / Santa Ynez, California
Friday, July 13: California State Fair / Sacramento, California
Saturday, July 14: Orange County Fair / Pacific Amphitheatre / Costa Mesa, California
Sunday, July 15: Fort McDowell Casino / Fountain Hills, Arizona
Monday, July 16: Buffalo Thunder Casino / Santa Fe, New Mexico
Tuesday, July 17: Sandy City Amphitheatre / Sandy, Utah
Friday, July 27: Waterfront Park / Bangor, Maine
Saturday, July 28: The Paramount / Asbury Park, New Jersey
Sunday, July 29: Filene Center at Wolftrap / Vienna, Virginia
Monday, July 30: Musikfest Cafe Artsquest Center / Bethlehem, Pennsylvania
Wednesday, August 1: Cain Park / Cleveland Heights, Ohio
Thursday, August 2: Fraze Pavilion / Kettering, Ohio
Friday, August 3: Caesars Windsor / Windsor, Ontario, Canada
Saturday, August 4: Genesee Theatre / Waukegan, Illinois
Sunday, August 5: Wisconsin State Fair / West Allis, Wisconsin
Tuesday, August 7: Sanford Center / Bemidji, Minnesota
Thursday, August 9: Performance Center / Effingham, Illinois
Friday, August 10: Iowa State Fair / Des Moines, Iowa
Saturday, August 11: Little River Casino Resort / Manistee, Michigan
Thursday, August 23: Cardinal Stadium / Louisville, Kentucky
Friday, August 24: Paramount Theatre / Aurora, Illinois
Saturday, August 25: Ho – Chunk Casino / Baraboo, Wisconsin
Sunday, August 26: Corn Palace Festival / Mitchell, South Dakota
Monday, August 27: Minnesota State Fair / St. Paul, Minnesota
Wednesday, August 29: Carnegie Library Music Hall / Homestead, Pennsylvania
Thursday, August 30: New York State Fair / Syracuse, New York

For more information:
www.theturtles.com
www.mickydolenz.com
www.thebuckinghams.com
www.the-grassroots.com
www.garypuckettmusic.com

Beverly Paterson

Beverly Paterson was born the day Ben E. King hit No. 4 on the national charts with "Stand By Me" - which is ironically one of her favorite songs, especially the version by John Lennon. She has also contributed to Lance Monthly and Amplifier, and served as associate editor of Rock Beat International. Paterson's own publications have included Inside Out, and Twist And Shake. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
  • Joel Larson

    Hi Beverly!