Dirty Water

'I'm gonna tell ya a big fat story, baby''s all about several years in the existence of a very cool rock band. The Standells traversed a hill-shaped curve from 1962 to 1970, peaking at the halfway mark with "Dirty Water," a song simultaneously complimentary and critical of Boston, a city none of the Los Angeles-based group members had ever set foot in. Yet the song has stood the test of time and been embraced by the Massachusetts capital in a very big way. For the band, navigating a music industry career was not without its obstacles; a dozen active players came and went, always numbering four at any given time while Larry Tamblyn and Tony Valentino remained constant.

Inglewood native Tamblyn gained a foothold in the music biz at 16, waxing the rocking if unremarkable "Patty Ann" at the beginning of 1960 for former restaurant owner Eddie Davis's Faro Records. Two singles followed in '60 and '61, both teen-style ballads: syrupy "The Lie" and the mildly doo woppish "This is the Night," each receiving a smattering of airplay on various Southern Cal radio stations. His older brother, actor-singer Russ Tamblyn (a Supporting Actor Oscar nominee for the 1957 scandal flick Peyton Place prior to his turn as Riff, a fleet-of-foot "Jet" in film classic West Side Story, among well over a hundred screen credits), gave Larry an "in" to haunt certain Hollywood hangouts and make connections. He and Tony Valentino (born Emilio Tony Bellissimo in Longi, Italy, he moved to the U.S. in 1958 at age 17) co-founded the band in 1962; Tony was the lead guitarist and Larry played keyboards. The name came from "standing around waiting for something to happen," Larry's way of describing the frustrating process of getting booked for live performances.

High school acquaintance Jody Rich (real last name: Ulrey) joined as bassist and 15-year-old Benny King (a.k.a. Benny Hernandez) was the band's first drummer. During an extended gig at the Oasis Club in Honolulu, Hawaii, a Japanese night spot with exotic dancers, Tony and Larry realized they needed stronger bandmates; Jody had become overbearing and quit at some point...or did they fire him? Or did he fire them and suddenly realize he was left with an underage drummer? After returning to the States, replacements were brought in: bassist Gary Lane (born Gary McMillan in St. Paul, Minnesota) and drummer Gary Leeds of Glendale made the act stronger and ready to make a record with Eddie Davis. "You'll Be Mine Someday," a solid doo wop-influenced romancer released in December '63 on Faro subsidiary Linda Records, was credited to Larry Tamblyn and the Standels (just one "l"), the band's first official release. Its similarity to Tamblyn's earlier discs gave no clue as to future efforts.

They signed a contract with L.A.'s Liberty Records in February '64, just as The Beatles were landing their first U.S. chart topper. "Shake," a lively dance track, spent about a month on the playlist of local top 40 leader KRLA; flip side "Peppermint Beatle" was designed to cash in on the Fab Four's explosive success...or not. Leeds (one Gary too many?) left after about a year, playing behind Johnny Rivers and others before landing a spot with fake-Brit-trio The Walker Brothers and changing his professional name to Gary Walker. This left an opening for Dick Dodd of Hermosa Beach, a former Mickey Mouse Club kid and sticksman for surf bands The Belairs and Eddie and the Showmen; Dodd (Mouseketeer name: "Dickie") was an excellent drummer and singer.

Benny King, Larry Tamblyn, Jody Rich, Tony Valentino

The Standells were hired as regulars at the trendy P.J.'s nightclub in West Hollywood. Prompted by singer Trini Lopez's starmaking success with his live album Trini Lopez at P.J.'s the previous year, they released a rock equivalent, The Standells In Person at P.J.'s, in the summer of '64. Jimmy Reed's "Help Yourself" was pulled from the LP for single release and received considerable airplay on KRLA (the station's program director, Reb Foster, had written the album's liner notes), as did "Linda Lou," a remake of Ray Sharpe's '59 hit. Many of the live tracks were reminiscent of Joey Dee and the Starliters' Peppermint Lounge output in New York; that fall the Standells settled in for several weeks at a similar venue, the Peppermint West Lounge.

The band's first film appearance came in December. Get Yourself a College Girl starred Miss America '59 Mary Ann Mobley and as-yet-unproven singing star Nancy Sinatra and featured Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto, The Animals, The Dave Clark Five and Jimmy Smith, in addition to the Standells doing Larry Williams' "Bony Moronie" and "The Swim" (a lyrically-adjusted, otherwise-carbon-copy of "Shake"). As '65 rolled in they moved to Vee-Jay Records (Beatles karma?) and worked with producer Sonny Bono on "The Boy Next Door" (listen for Cher on backing vocals), a ballad with an unconvincing spoken word middle section; in February it reached Billboard's "Bubbling Under" list, the group's first appearance on a national chart. After one more Vee-Jay single it was time to move on...but not before they took over the tube.

A January episode of ABC-TV's short-lived sitcom The Bing Crosby Show had them playing a fictional British Invasion-type group called The Love Bugs (showing off some fancy footwork!), performing a Tamblyn original, "Someday You'll Cry," issued a few months later as the flip side of a one-shot MGM Records single, "Zebra in the Kitchen," a quirky pop theme ('...bears eating ice cream!') for the film comedy of the same title starring former Dennis the Menace Jay North. The guys got a chance to do a little acting while using their own group moniker (in which case is it really acting?) in a March episode of CBS horror-com The Munsters titled Far Out Munsters; they rented the house at 1313 Mockingbird Lane and threw a wild party until Herman and the family came home...and joined in the fun. The group performed the year-old Beatles breakthrough "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and a leechlike original, "Come On and Ringo." Another TV guest shot on ABC's Ben Casey starring Vince Edwards aired before the end of the month, along with appearances on American Bandstand, Shindig! and the syndicated Hollywood Discotheque.

The turning point came when they met former Four Preps singer Ed Cobb, who wanted them to record a song he'd written in response to being robbed in Boston while taking a stroll with his girlfriend; all four Standells made suggestions about altering the lyrics to something less downbeat. The result was "Dirty Water," a stop-you-in-your-tracks rocker with a distinctive guitar riff and lyrics sung by Dodd that celebrate the city while pointing out some of its flaws: '...down by the banks of the River Charles...that's where you'll find me, along with lovers, muggers and thieves...' and a line confusing to anyone aware of their Los Angeles origins: 'Well I love that dirty water...oh, Boston, you're my home!' The track was recorded at Armin Steiner's garage/studio in March '65 with Cobb producing and Lincoln Mayorga, who'd worked with the Four Preps years earlier but had nothing to do with this recording, credited as arranger. Cobb negotiated a deal with Capitol Records' subsidiary label Tower, but the song sat on the shelf several months before getting a release late in the year.

Larry Tamblyn, Tony Valentino, Dick Dodd, Gary Lane

Dodd quit and was briefly replaced by Dewey Martin (born Dewayne Midkiff) of Ontario (Canada, not California). The single broke big in Orlando, Florida, making it to number one on WLOF in February '66. Dick wanted to come back (after all, he was the singer on the track), so Martin was out (he joined The Buffalo Springfield...lucky break!), then Gary Lane left, replaced on bass by Dave Burke. "Dirty Water" developed gradually over four or five months, eventually hitting number one in several cities including L.A.; it peaked one slot shy of Billboard's top ten in July. ABC's Batman TV series exploded during this time and the band, who admitted being fans, plastered Batman logos on their instruments!

The quartet's well-earned success had them opening for The Rolling Stones and doing their own headlining shows across the U.S. "Sometimes Good Guys Don't Wear White," a counter-culture anthem by Cobb, delivered attitude ('You think those guys in the white collars r'better than I am, baby? Then flake off!'), reached the top ten in L.A. and several other cities and went top 50 nationally in September. This punkish phase evolved with Cobb's "Why Pick on Me" (' you get your kicks when you see men cry, cry, cry?'), dipping a little into psychedelic territory and pulling off a mid-chart autumn run. Burke split and John Fleck (condensed from Fleckenstein), a previous member of Love before they used the name Love, became the band's fourth bass player. Albums (titled after the hits) sold poorly compared to the singles; a third Tower album, The Hot Ones!, was made up entirely of covers of 1966 hits and completely bombed, setting a pattern for future longplay disappointment.

Their peak had passed, but they didn't know it yet. A country-novelty remake of "When I Was A Cowboy" (first recorded in 1944 by its composer, Leadbelly, as "Out on the Western Plains"), was a failed experiment, released on Tower as The Sllednats (read the name backwards). Then they supplied the theme (penned by Valentino and Fleck) for the spring '67 counter-culture "hippie" movie "Riot on Sunset Strip" starring Aldo Ray as a tough cop, which featured one other Standells track ("Get Away From Here") and a song by soon-to-be Tower labelmates The Chocolate Watch Band. The next single, "Try It," written by Joey Levine and Marc Ballack, ran into trouble right away, becoming a target of Gordon McLendon, a conservative Democrat in Texas and the owner of many radio stations, who banned the song as immoral based on lyrics like 'I can tell that you want some action...action is my middle name...come over here, pretty girl, I'll give you satisfaction...' The Standells and McLendon debated the issue on Art Linkletter's daytime series House Party and, despite the four group members mounting a good defense, it killed any momentum the song had left. The issue cooled by early '68 and a version by Levine's band The Ohio Express made a minor showing on the charts.

The Standells bounced back from the "Try It" debacle with a soulful, horn-infused track, "Can't Help But Love You," which reached the charts in November 1967. Concerts, club shows and television appearances (including an episode of The Dating Game) kept them going for several more months. Tamblyn made a solo single, "Summer Clothes," as Larry on the Sunburst label; Dodd, who quit the group again, had a couple of solo 45s on Tower. Early '68 single "Animal Girl," a mellower-than-usual effort, was the final Tower release by the Standells. The guys cut ties with prod man Cobb, Bill Daffern replaced Dodd on drums, then Fleck flaked and was replaced by Lowell George (who soon defected to The Mothers of Invention and, later, Little Feat). Tamblyn and Daffern formed the band Chakras in 1969 and had one single on Reprise, but abandoned the project. Tamblyn, Valentino and various musicians continued doing live shows as the Standells for the next year or so.

More than a decade later, the inevitable reunion occured after a Rhino Records album, The Best of the Standells, sparked renewed interest in the band. Larry Tamblyn, Tony Valentino and Dick Dodd led a lineup that changed considerably over the coming years. They performed in Los Angeles and many cities around the U.S., popped up frequently in Las Vegas and Reno casinos and even recorded a live album in 1986, Ban THIS!, a jab at Gordon McLendon who, coincidentally, passed away that year at age 65 by accidentally shooting himself while cleaning his gun. Gary Lane picked up his bass again and rejoined the band in 2000. By that time the Boston Red Sox had been spinning "Dirty Water" during games at Fenway Park; in 2004, while making a run at the World Series (against the St. Louis Cardinals, who'd defeated them in two previous championship matchups in '46 and '67), the team invited The Standells to perform their signature song - and recently-minted Red Sox anthem - during the series' second and final Fenway appearance on October 24. The Sox shut out the Cards in four games (their first World Series victory in 86 years!)...and those "Idiots" have been playing "Dirty Water" during and after games ever since.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Dirty Water Try It