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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2004/12/01
by Mike Gruenberg

Terry Melcher

Terry Melcher
In My Life
Terry Melcher died in November. His passing may not mean much to some of you, but to me, I feel as though a part of the music history I have grown to love has just been taken away. He was a record producer and he was certainly not as famous as the groups he produced. He was also a performing musician, but he clearly was not as musically gifted as the artists he worked with were and yet, his influence on rock music is unmistakable and definitely profound.
To me, people like Terry Melcher are the true heroes of rock ‘n’ roll. There are many musicians that play their instruments at virtuoso levels. There are many singers who have incredible octave ranges when they perform, but it takes someone like a Terry Melcher to bring out that talent and translate it into a cohesive performance to be recorded.
Whenever you ask a young person who their heroes are, they usually respond by pointing to athletes, musicians or actors. As a youngster growing up in New York, my heroes were the usual array of local baseball players. Given that I lived in a city where the World Series was seemingly played every Fall, any number of players on the Yankees, Dodgers or Giants were fair game to be chosen. My dad, an immigrant from Austria came to this country in 1939. He developed a love and understanding of the game of baseball. My fondest memories were of him and I watching his beloved Dodgers consistently coming close to a World Series victory only to have those dreams dashed by the their cross-town rivals, the dreaded Yankees. Watching and discussing baseball was an activity that we both loved. We both had our heroes, usually on opposing teams.
At any given time in my youth, Willie Mays of the Giants or Duke Snider of the Dodgers had to contend with Mickey Mantle of the Yankees as to who was my hero du jour. As I got older, my baseball heroes gave way to music related heroes and John Lennon became the person I admired most. Perhaps, not a hero in the sense of Mickey Mantle, but he was a person that I admired and he was my favorite Beatle. At the time of the Beatles popularity, I began to notice the work that George Martin; their producer was doing with the group. To me, the combination of the talent of John, Paul, George & Ringo was neatly polished by the behind the scenes work of George Martin. One set of talents interacting with another set talents combining to make a superlative final product. I began to take notice of other producers and began to understand the profound influence these people had on the presentation of the music.
Whether it was Phil Spector with his Philles label powerhouse of stars or Andrew Loog Oldham with the Stones or Phil Ramone producing Bill Joel and others, it became a source of admiration to me when I understood how their talents influenced and molded every step of the recording process. It was at this time that I got to know the work of Terry Melcher. He came to prominence with his producer talents for the Byrds. He also worked with Randy Newman and Ry Cooder. He produced records for the 60’s group, Paul Revere & The Raiders and many others.

Prior to being a record producer, he wrote, performed and sang with a number of California surf groups. He formed a group with Bruce Johnston called appropriately enough, "Bruce and Terry" to little acclaim. Bruce went on to sing and tour with the Beach Boys. Terry did have a bit of success with surfing oriented music when he wrote for and performed with the Rip Chords whose hits included "Three Window Coupe" and "Hey Little Cobra." Through his connection to Bruce Johnston, Terry sang and played on the infamous " Pet Sounds" album.
Terry’s worldwide success was tied to the early hits of the Byrds while he was a staff producer for Columbia Records. His production talents on "Turn, Turn, Turn" and "Mr. Tambourine Man" for the Byrds are a clear testament to his production skills. However, when the Byrds released the "Ballad of Easy Rider" and I saw that Terry produced the record, I understood how special this guy had to be. At the time, I did some research and found out that he was the adopted son of screen actress, Doris Day. As a matter of fact, in his later years, he managed many of his mothers’ charitable activities, but for the most part, he made his mark in the music business on his own. His musical career earned him 16 hit singles and 7 gold records. A remarkable achievement that few have duplicated or surpassed!
As I got older, I came to the realization that heroes need not be famous people in the public sense. I also concluded that there are yardsticks to understand why certain people are regarded as heroes. Sports and music gave way to more mundane measurements as my realm for defining a hero. Therefore, a teacher who had a positive influence or a fireman who saved a family in a burning building or even a parent could become someone to be admired. Terry Melcher became a hero for me not only for his public achievements, but also because he did it quietly on his own. He gave us great music over many years. Although Terry had not produced any albums lately, his legacy remains and his influence is irrefutable. He qualifies as someone that I have admired and will continue to do so. We have his music to remind us of his work.
Of course, holding up someone as a hero needs to be put into proper perspective. I am always reminded of the book by Alice Childress, "A Hero Ain’t Nothin’ But A Sandwich" because the title says it all in relation to the process of holding someone in great esteem. It’s personal, but an example of a true hero is the parent who is working multiple jobs to support a family. Sure, it’s great to admire Derek Jeter, (and many people do) but it’s the people that go to work each day and support their families that are the ones to be truly admired.

For me, as I look back on the people I have admired most, the person who has remained at the top of my list is neither an actor, star athlete nor astronaut. His achievements were important to me and his accomplishments were more special to me than any home run hit at Yankee Stadium, but most people will know Mickey Mantle and not this person. To this day, he is with me and I am glad for that. His strength, knowledge and gentle nature are the very examples I try to emulate on a daily basis. Even though my dad passed on over 30 years ago, he is still my hero.
Heroes are simply people. We have different heroes for different times of our lives. We learn a lot about ourselves when we understand why we choose the people we admire most and the people who become our heroes. People like Terry Melcher are important to me because he could have used his mothers’ fame and fortune and glided through life. Instead, he worked in a difficult business and through hard work found success and that is to be admired and I thank him for all the great music he gave to the world. The difference between someone to be admired and a hero lies in the relevance that person has to your individual life. Even though, both my dad and Terry are part of my life, Terry is admired whereas my dad is my true hero.

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