Little Honda

Gary Usher, a prolific producer and songwriter based in Los Angeles, made quite a name for himself despite having a low win percentage. He produced well over a hundred singles during the 1960s (including several of his own vocal recordings), for some 20 different record labels large and small, by about five dozen artists (though many of them were hired session singers and musicians as opposed to actual recording acts), which amounts to an average of one new record per month. Yet despite this impressive quantity, only about a dozen titles reached the national charts and just one, a commercial tie-in to a popular Japanese motorcycle, hit the top ten. "Little Honda" was credited to The Hondells, a nonexistent group at the time of the record's creation!

In 1961, the 22-year-old singer wedged his foot in the door at the small Titan label and recorded "Driven Insane," a great track, if overly serious in its subject matter (cowritten by Usher with the mysterious and likely nonexistent Dolores Nance, its arrangement bears a striking resemblance to Jody Reynolds' 1958 hit "Endless Sleep," which also carries the Nance name). Gary struggled those first couple of years, but by 1963 he had struck up a friendship with Brian Wilson and the two worked on-and-off from that point.

A brief association with Challenge Records resulted in a few Usher-penned-and/or-produced hot rod songs featuring local singers and studio musicians, released under the names The Four Speeds and The Sunsets. He experimented within the surf-and-drag genre that was peaking at the time (thanks in large part to the success of Wilson's Beach Boys, who far outlasted all the Cali-based "fun and sun" music makers), toggling between instrumentals (by The Tri-Five, Dave Myers and his Surftones and The Super Stocks) and musical-chairs vocal group efforts (credited to The Quads, The Timers, The Competitors and others), throwing a spoken word record (by dance show host Lloyd Thaxton) into the mix. During this time, Gary and Brian penned several Beach Boys songs together, including "409," "Ten Little Indians" and "In My Room." Then the trendy motor bike from the Land of the Rising Sun became the subject of a song that was Gary's biggest hit as a producer.

The Beach Boys had recorded a few songs for a low-budget film, The Girls on the Beach, starring TV actress Noreen Corcoran of Bachelor Father fame. Wilson's lyrics for "Little Honda" evoked mental images of a wind-in-your-hair experience ('Put on a ragged sweatshirt, I'll take you anywhere you want me to...Second gear, a-lean right, third gear, hang on tight...Honda, Honda, go faster, faster!!!'). Taking yet another stab at assembling a hit record from scratch, Usher teamed with Nick Venet and produced a version featuring singers Chuck Girard and Joe Kelly of The Castells (their hits: "Sacred" and "So This is Love" in '61 and '62) with Richard "Richie" Burns and regular "Wrecking Crew" studio players including guitarist Glen Campbell. Usher named the group The Hondells, a case of the song coming before the artist's name...or for that matter, the group itself. The single, released at the end of summer '64, went top ten in October. Honda motorcycles, manufactured in Japan since the mid-'50s, had been marketed in the U.S. for a few years and were already the top-selling cycles in North America. The auto company (their cars were still several years away from making an impact in the U.S.) couldn't have been more pleased with what amounted to an unpaid two-minute ad for their product that played on hundreds of radio stations several times a day.

The Hondells

Burns was chosen to recruit three singers and head a touring version of the Hondells. An album was thrown together, full of quickie tunes about motorized vehicles (bikes, rods, anything with wheels). Roger Christian was working at the time as a deejay on top-rated L.A. station KFWB; one of the few radio personalities to moonlight successfully as a songwriter, he cowrote several Beach Boys hits with Wilson, contributed material to leading surf and hot rod acts Jan and Dean, The Rip Chords and Ronny and the Daytonas, and made a few bucks on his contributions to Capitol Records' documentary-style double-LP The Beatles' Story, which featured his narration (along with that of script writer John Babcock and newsman Al Wiman). In his liner notes for the Go Little Honda longplay, Christian gave all the credit to Burns, going so far as to claim the group had been founded in 1962!

The Hondells were happenin' and the mostly-for-show version of the group appeared on all the top TV shows. The Wilson-Usher song "My Buddy Seat" retained the two-wheel theme but had a disappointing run on the charts, though it made more noise than the follow-up singles, mostly-overlooked updates of '50s hits "Sea of Love," "Sea Cruise" and "Endless Sleep." The group stayed visible in '65 with appearances in the Frankie and Annette romp Beach Blanket Bingo (lip-syncing "Cycle Set") and three other teen-fling vacation movies: Ski Party (performing the film's theme and "The Gasser"), Beach Ball (they did "My Buddy Seat" in that one) and Winter A-Go-Go (they supplied the theme but didn't appear onscreen); all songs were Usher-Christian compositions except the last one, a Howard Greenfield-Jack Keller ditty.

Venet and Mike Curb assumed creative duties on Hondells records, while Usher continued to fabricate would-be hits for other labels, many of the songs in the car-song category; "Honda Bike" by The Devons suggested he wasn't yet ready to abandon the imported cycle craze nor, as it turned out, the Hondells, whoever they might actually be at any given time. But Richie and the guys began to get restless, taking issue with the limited scope of material and sellout moves like their recording of Curb's "You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda," based on a commercial campaign for the motorcyle. As a compromise, songs of a more serious nature were chosen for release. One of them, Usher's production of "Younger Girl," an early Lovin' Spoonful song penned by John Sebastian, landed them back on the charts in the spring of 1966, though it faced strong competition from a version by east coast group The Critters.

During a stretch with Decca Records, Gary used Chuck Girard and Joe Kelly as vocalists on many recordings (as Chuck and Joe, they remade Bob and Earl's "Harlem Shuffle") and produced The Castells' final sessions in '66, all the while flinging ideas at the nearest wall to see what would stick, unleashing the results as usual under various names, some real, some not. Despite the modest success rate it seemed there were plenty of record company executives willing to give Gary Usher free rein to continue putting out variations on the formula. He settled in at Columbia Records for awhile and scored a few hits with established acts (The Byrds and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap) while establishing at least two groups (The Peanut Butter Conspiracy and Sagittarius) with limited results. In 1967 The Hondells joined him at Columbia for a couple of singles and by the end of '69 Richie Burns was heading a last-gasp version of the group that had completely abandoned the dual-wheel street-legal motif in favor of a country-rock sound. By 1970 the Southern California coastline seemed much quieter than it had been several years earlier.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Little Honda My Buddy Seat