SURF-ROCK CLASSIC "WIPE OUT" INSPIRES
PUZZLING WAVE OF COUNTERFEIT SURFARIS
by Phil Kuntz
|John Mason, former chairman of Nevada's Republican Party, came to Washington
in May to lobby for an ambassadorship. For small talk, he recounted how he
had been the teenage guitar slinger on "Wipe Out," the seminal 1960s
surf-rock instrumental by the Surfaris.
Mr. Mason has told the story for years. References have appeared in
newspaper profiles since he ran unsuccessfully for lieutenant governor in
1994. "The life of the song is far greater than I thought the recording
would be," he told a reporter in May.
Drum roll, please: Mr. Mason didn't play on "Wipe Out." The closest he came
to being a Surfari was in 1963, when he was in a group that impersonated the
band for several weeks. A fellow impostor says a club owner who discovered
the ruse chased them out of Calgary, Alberta.
A Teenage Rave-Up
Nearly 40 years later, a puzzling trend continues. People with no role in
"Wipe Out" keep trying to claim a piece of one of rock's most magical
spontaneous moments -- a frenzied, two-minute-37-second, drum-and-guitar
rave-up by four teenagers that became every wannabe rocker's
"Since the day it started, there have been people claiming to have been
there," says Robert Berryhill, the real Surfaris' rhythm guitarist. "It's
too numerous to count -- probably hundreds."
Last year, a man tried passing himself off to San Diego newspapers as the
Surfaris' lead guitarist. In March, obituaries for talk-show loudmouth
Morton Downey Jr. said he wrote the song, a canard he floated years ago.
Then there was the gas-company repairman who noticed a Surfaris album in Mr.
Berryhill's home one day in 1967. "I was in that band," he told Mr.
Berryhill's wife. "I was on rhythm guitar." Pointing to the rhythm guitarist
on the back-cover photo, Gene Berryhill replied, "See this person right
here, this is my husband."
Not Exactly the Beatles
Counterfeit oldies acts tour regularly, but the surfeit of fake Surfaris is
part of another phenomenon -- bogus minor celebrities seeking renown, not
remuneration. People pretending to be one of the 30 genuine "Little Rascals"
surface occasionally. Old bands are vulnerable because many used stand-ins.
The Surfaris are especially so because, unlike the Rolling Stones or the
Beatles, few ever knew what they looked like. "There really isn't enough
limelight to go around, so people are looking for reflective glory," says
Fred Wilhelms, a Nashville lawyer for Artists & Others Against Impostors.
1Listen to the memorable riff from the song "Wipe Out." RealPlayerG2 is
The Surfaris formed in September 1962 near Los Angeles. The five teenagers
liked surfing and emulated the reverb-heavy, staccato instrumentals of surf
music's patriarch, Dick Dale. After a few months playing dances, they
recorded their first song, "Surfer Joe," at a $12.50-an-hour studio in
Cucamonga that December.
They needed a B-side, so they made one up on the spot. Lead guitarist Jim
Fuller, then 15, plucked a melody. Drummer Ron Wilson, 18, speeded up a
cadence from his high-school marching band. Mr. Berryhill, 15, strummed his
guitar and recommended drum-solo breaks. Pat Connolly, 15, played bass.
Saxophonist Jim Pash, 13, had to work that night, so there's no horn on the
Mr. Fuller suggested opening with a switchblade click and calling the song
"Stiletto," but they opted for breaking a shingle to simulate a surfboard
cracking. The band's manager, Dale Smallen, added a mocking cackle he did
for laughs at parties and the immortal words "Wipe Out!"
Mr. Smallen had 2,000 copies pressed to sell at gigs. A few months later,
Mr. Smallen sold the master tapes for a $200 advance and a
four-cent-per-single royalty. The two producers who ended up in control of
the songs, Richard Delvy and John Marascalco, in turn sold shortened,
remastered versions to Dot Records for a bigger royalty. Then, after "Wipe
Out" started selling big in Fresno, the band sold its four-cent royalty for
$2,000 -- chump change for a single that would sell 500,000 copies by year's
The Substitute Surfaris
Fake Surfaris started popping up almost immediately, the first after Dot
requested a whole album. One of the documents Mr. Delvy, himself a drummer,
signed with the label listed members of his own band, the Challengers, as
the Surfaris. The substitute Surfaris recorded the album's other 10 songs.
According to affidavits filed later in a court suit, Dot released the album
as the Surfaris' "Wipe Out" without knowing that none of the real Surfaris
were on those 10 songs.
The real Surfaris say they recorded 10 songs, too, "but when we finally
heard the album, everything but 'Surfer Joe' and 'Wipe Out' was somebody
else," says Mr. Pash, whose sax wasn't even on those two songs.
By now, the Surfaris -- and their parents -- were wise. They fired Mr.
Smallen, demanded that the album's credits be corrected, joined Decca
Records, hired a lawyer and sued everybody involved. In June 1964, the four
boys on "Wipe Out" secured a $47,000 settlement (today's equivalent of
$270,000) and got back the future royalties they had sold. Mr. Pash, whose
only complaint was having his image inappropriately used on the album cover,
got $3,000 and the unique distinction of being formally disassociated from
"Wipe Out." Lawyers got 20% of the boys' settlement and future royalties.
Messrs. Delvy and Marascalco also retained shares.
After "Wipe Out" hit, a lesser-known group that had called itself the
Surfaris first asserted a legal claim on the name. They lost and became the
Original Surfaris -- and then added "Wipe Out" to their repertoire.
Creating more confusion, a band called the Impacts released an instrumental
called "Wipe Out" just before the Surfaris' song took off. "The chord
progression is exactly the same," insists Merrell Fankhauser, the Impacts'
guitarist and songwriter. "I still can't believe that it was a coincidence."
He considered suing, but to untrained ears, the songs have nothing in common
beyond an opening "Wipe Out" yell. His case is further hurt by a tape
recording made some years ago in which he is heard introducing "Wipe Out" as
"the tune that really got it started for me," and then starting his own song
before shifting into something that sounds like the Surfaris tune. "The
fantasy becomes the reality," quips the Surfaris' Mr. Pash, who supplied the
tape. Mr. Fankhauser says he was playing a version of his own song.
Last year, a man named Jim Agnew told reporters in San Diego that he played
lead guitar for the Surfaris. At the time, he ran a nonprofit program called
"Blues in the Schools," which sponsored performances to expose students to
that genre. Mr. Agnew told the San Diego Reader that he was the real
Surfaris' Jim Fuller -- his stage name, he said -- and even identified
himself as Mr. Fuller on old publicity photos. After the Reader located Mr.
Fuller, Mr. Agnew confessed. Contacted recently, Mr. Agnew initially
declined to be interviewed and apologized, in a voicemail, "on behalf of the
Surfaris." Reached later, he says, "I only played with them three or four
times." Mr. Pash insists that "there was never anybody in my band by that
Mr. Mason, the would-be ambassador, began his career as a fake Surfari in
1963, after concert promoter Donnie Brooks tried to book the real band on a
Canadian tour. The band members' parents wouldn't let them skip school. So
Mr. Brooks hired the Vulcanes -- a band that included Mr. Mason, now an
entertainment lawyer who was Nevada's GOP chairman from 1995 to 2000 -- to
tour as the Surfaris, people involved say. (Mr. Brooks says he doesn't
remember doing that, but allows that "it could have happened.")
To avoid detection, the Vulcanes drew mustaches and beards on Surfaris
albums shown to radio interviewers, recalls Vulcanes saxophonist Don
Roberts. After the tour's last gig, a Calgary club owner "accused us of
being impostors, which we were," Mr. Roberts adds. "He chased us over 100
Over the years, Mr. Mason has told a former law partner, reporters and
others that he was in the Surfaris, and he discussed the matter with several
people while in Washington this spring. Nevada Rep. Jim Gibbons, a novice
guitarist himself, was completely fooled: "I knew of John Mason when he was
a rock star," he says. "But I didn't put it together until he or somebody
else said, 'This is the John Mason that is the guitarist with the Surfaris.'
Asked to explain, Mr. Mason initially insists that he recalls recording
"Wipe Out." But then he says he was honestly mistaken, explaining that he'd
recorded with other bands. "I'm going to confess to confusion," he says. "I
thought it was the real group." He later deleted Surfari references from his
law practice's promotional autobiography, calling them "perhaps misleading
and inaccurate." As for an ambassadorship, Mr. Mason says the White House
has told him there won't be any openings for a while.
An Acne Treatment
Today, Mr. Smallen, the ex-manager with the laugh, lives in a hotel and
complains that he made only $220 off the single. The real Surfaris continue
profiting from "Wipe Out," which twice hit Billboard's Hot 100 chart,
reaching No. 2 in 1963 and No. 16 in 1966. The band broke up in 1967, but
the song has been licensed to numerous movies and commercials, including an
ad years ago for Stridex face pads. Last year alone, "Wipe Out" generated
about $225,000 for the band and its attorneys, says Lawrence Parke Watkin,
the band's main lawyer.
In 1989, a brain aneurysm killed Mr. Wilson, the group's drummer, at age 44.
Mr. Connolly, the bassist, has long been out of touch with the others.
Messrs. Fuller and Pash still tour as Surfaris. Mr. Berryhill, a devout
Christian, says he uses " 'Wipe Out' as a draw to tell people about the
Lord" in another band with his wife and two sons.
Both groups legitimately call themselves the Surfaris and maintain Web sites
with the latest news, including this March 18 press release from Mr.
Berryhill: " 'Wipe Out' Was Not Written By Morton Downey Jr."
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