By Richie Unterberger

In the early 1960s, there was an explosion of youth fads that coincided with a sharp rise in the pool of top Los Angeles rock'n'roll session musicians. What does one have to do with the other, you might ask? Well, many record labels with an eye on each trend saw both new markets to exploit, and the ready availability of studio manpower to capitalize upon them. Studio-only, temporary aggregations of top session men formed to cut instrumental albums. The speed at which the groups were assembled was matched only by the speed at which the actual discs were recorded. Surfing, hot rodding, the folk boom -- all were ripe were plundering.

    Though such exploitation LPs are usually thought of as the domain of small budget labels (and indeed, many such long-players did appear), much bigger companies got in on the act as well. In the case of the Avalanches' 1963 Ski Surfin' album, the then-young Warner Brothers label grabbed ahold of two fads at once. It was hardly the first all-"surf" album; it wasn't even the first ski-themed LP, folk singer Bob Gibson having issued one, Ski Songs (one of the first records by a noted folk performer whose arrangements used electric guitar), on Elektra as the 1950s were turning into the 1960s. Surely, however, Ski Surfin' was the first album to cash in on both skiing and surfing at once.

    Such a feat might have been hard to pull off with songs that included lyrics. There were no such encumbrances on Ski Surfin', however, which benefited from an ace group of Hollywood session players who comprised the Avalanches, including one future superstar. Drummer Hal Blaine, the most famous of all L.A. '60s rock session players, can be heard on too many hits recorded in the City of Angels to count, including several by the Beach Boys, the Mamas & the Papas, and Phil Spector-produced acts. Guitarist Billy Strange, in addition to playing on numerous Hollywood '60s recordings (including some by Rick Nelson, the Beach Boys, and Love), worked as an arranger for Nancy Sinatra and Dean Martin, and also co-wrote one of Chubby Checker's biggest hits, "Limbo Rock." Guitarist Tommy Tedesco's resume is at least as extensive as Blaine's and Strange's, including credits stretching from the Beach Boys, Phil Spector, Elvis Presley, and the Monkees to Frank Zappa.

    Filling out the band were steel guitarist Wayne Burdick (who played on records by country artists such as Lefty Frizzell, Johnny Western, and Freddie Hart) and pianist Al deLory (another active sessioneer, to become most famous for producing hits for Glen Campbell in the late '60s). Campbell himself, incidentally, was yet another prolific Hollywood session man at the time, though he doesn't appear on the Avalanches' LP. One future superstar who does, however, is David Gates, who handles Fender bass, a good five years before he began his run as songwriter, keyboardist, and singer for soft rock hitmakers Bread. While his presence here might surprise (or even shock) those who know Gates only for his Bread smashes, in fact he'd been knocking around the Hollywood rock biz as a session musician, songwriter, and producer since the early 1960s. Composing the Murmaids' 1963 Top Three girl group hit "Popsicle and Icicles"; writing the Girlfriends' medium-sized 1963 hit "My One and Only, Jimmy Boy," one of the greatest Phil Spector soundalike productions ever; and producing Captain Beefheart's first two singles (as well as writing the A-side of the second, the Howlin' Wolf-like "Moonchild") were just some of his most notable pre-Bread achievements. Alas, he doesn't write any of the material on Ski Surfin'.

    The talent involved in generating Ski Surfin' spilled over to the control booth, as it was engineered by Stan Ross at Gold Star Studios -- the same engineer, and same facility, behind many of Phil Spector's records. Producing was Wayne Shanklin, Jr., whose father, Wayne Shanklin, Sr., was noted for writing or co-writing big hits by Frankie Laine ("Jezebel"), Jerry Wallace ("Primrose Lane"), and Miss Toni Fisher ("The Big Hurt").

    Shanklin, as it happened, wrote virtually all of the original material on Ski Surfin', getting credited as the sole author of four tracks and the co-writer (with Al deLory) of a fifth, "Winter Evening Nocturne." The remainder of the LP was devoted to covers of songs with a wintry theme, including such pre-rock era tunes as "Winter Wonderland," "Sleigh Ride," jazzman Claude Thornhill's "Snowfall," "Midnight Sun" (which Johnny Mercer and Lionel Hampton had hands in composing), Irving Berlin's "I've Got My Love to Keep Me Warm," and Frank Loesser's "Baby, It's Cold Outside." As for the Shanklin-penned tunes, the ski-winter themes were mostly conveyed by the titles, a la "Slalom," "Ski Surfin'," "Avalanche," and "Along the Trail with You."

    For those who fear the results were a wholly cynical exercise, take note that there's some really hot guitar playing throughout the record, often with growling, distorted, reverberant tones. If it was likely quickly written and recorded, it wasn't mailed in, even if some of the cover material made for rather unlikely choices to be made over into pseudo-surf instrumentals. If you've always wondered how "Baby, It's Cold Outside" could be made into a pounding midtempo rocker with sustained fuzzy riffs, here's yer chance; it and one of the other more intense numbers, "Avalanche," would also feature on a Warner Brothers single. Dig, too, how the guys manage to turn "Sleigh Ride" into a son-of-"What'd I Say" electric keyboard-anchored groove.

    Ski Surfin', however, did not result in an avalanche of sales for the Avalanches, who never did another album. Of course, most of them remained active in the music business as key behind-the-scenes figures in 1960s Los Angeles rock, though they didn't necessarily abandon the opportunities to do similar quickie LPs when they came up. In fact, Strange did quite a few such albums in the '60s as a solo artist, with Blaine cutting several on his own as well. Buried as it was within the players' massive resumes, Ski Surfin' passed into the realm of rarity, noticed only by those who recognized some of the names -- then all but unknown, now familiar to and respected by serious students of '60s rock -- in the small print on the back sleeve. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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