The Rendezvous Ballroom Reunion: Surf Rock and the Righteous Brothers


The Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa was one of the most important venues in Orange County, for both the rise of surf rock and the legendary group, the Righteous Brothers. Before it burned down for good in 1966, it had hosted hundreds of live shows dating back to Tommy Dorsey, Stan Kenton and the Big Band era of the late 1930s. This week L.A. Letters covers the history of the Rendezvous and also previews the upcoming reunion show that includes members of legendary surf rock groups like the Chantays, the Surfaris, former members of Dick Dale and the Del-Tones as well as Bill Medley from the Righteous Brothers.

On the weekend of August 1, 2014, over 100 musicians who played around Orange County and many at the Rendezvous during the glory days of the early 1960s will be reuniting for a musical extravaganza at the Garden Grove Elks Lodge. Before discussing the musicians appearing at the forthcoming reunion show, historical context on the influence of the Rendezvous is important to discuss. The Rendezvous was the mecca of a lively musical circuit in an archipelago of clubs that also included the famous Hangars of the Marina Palace/Airport Club in Seal Beach and other sites in Anaheim and Huntington Beach.

The Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa was originally built in 1928 and was rebuilt even bigger in 1935 after a fire destroyed the original structure. In its early years, it was called, 'the queen of swing." Over the years it hosted big band jazz, early rock and roll, R & B and of course Surf Rock. The block long structure facing the Pacific Ocean between Palm and Washington was located near the pier in the heart of Balboa and included a 12,000-square-foot dance floor which could hold 1,500 couples.

Musician and producer Tom Potts played shows at the Rendezvous with his early Surf Rock group, the Chancellors. Potts grew up in the area attending Santa Ana Valley High School and even attended many shows in the space before he played there. Over the years he has remained in touch with musicians like the Righteous Brothers, Rhythm Rockers, Dick Dale, the Chantays, the Surfaris and many others.

Aerial photo of the Balboa Peninsula, ca. 1950 | Photo: Rendezvous Ballroom Facebook Group

In addition to being a musician, Potts is also a videographer and musical historian. From 2006 to 2011, he hosted and produced a show on Time Warner public television, "Around and About Orange County." In addition to the five years he spent there, Potts tells me that the show has actually been running in Orange County for 30 years now and is the longest running cable new shows in the county. He says, "It's part of the great media department at Santa Ana College, and believe it or not, it is also where Will Ferrell started his TV career when he was in the media department at Santa Ana College." Lee Ferrell, Will's dad, was a longtime orchestra leader for Bill Medley and the Righteous Brothers.

After producing several segments on the Rendezvous and the storied history of Surf Rock in Orange County, he decided to organize a reunion show because he was still in touch with dozens of the players from the era. The first reunion concert was in 2012 and it packed Original Mike's in Santa Ana and the Silverado Community Center for two days. The second version of the reunion happening this summer at the Garden Grove Elk's Lodge is even bigger and includes even more musicians.

Potts' longtime colleague Jim Washburn describes the event: "The Reunion is a history-making aggregation of performances by O.C. musicians who were active in the 1960s; both hit-makers whose influence was felt worldwide and local heroes who entertained thousands on the home front in county nightclubs. Most are still active performers, while some haven't strutted their stuff in decades." The headliner of the event is definitely Bill Medley from the Righteous Brothers, who will be appearing on Sunday night August 3.

Medley, like many of the other participating musicians, was a local boy from Santa Ana High School. Medley's partner in the Righteous Brothers, Bobby Hatfield went to Anaheim High School. When they began in 1962 they were in a group called the Paramours. The two musicians became friends at Cal State Long Beach, and by 1964 they were world famous. Many contemporary fans may know them for their biggest hit, "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," produced by Phil Spector. The classic song was also resurrected in 1986 after appearing in "Top Gun."

The story of how they got their name is one of the most famous tales in musical history. It was said that at one of their early shows, a marine yelled out after their set, "that was righteous, brothers!" Though Bobby Hatfield died in 2003, Bill Medley continues to play frequent gigs five decades after he started. He will be playing the reunion show on Sunday night after returning from a weekend of gigs in Reno. Medley will also be giving away signed copies of his memoir, "The Time of My Life."

The Chancellors ca. 1963 | Photo: Orange County CA Musicians Group Facebook

The Chantays also attended Santa Ana High, and they were still in school in 1963 when they recorded their best known song "Pipeline." Following their almost instant success, they not only played the Rendezvous, they toured with the Righteous Brothers, Roy Orbison, and even appeared once on the Lawrence Welk Show. "Pipeline" remains one of the most iconic surf rock songs ever. Some of the Chantays will be playing at the reunion and some of their members will also be playing in an ensemble made of musicians called "the Surf Legends," which includes players from the Bel-Airs, the Lively Ones, Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, and the Surfaris.

The Surfaris originally started in Glendora and also played many shows at the Rendezvous. Their biggest hit, "Wipe Out," from 1963, still gets radio play and remains a classic, like "Pipeline" and Dick Dale's well known song, "Misirlou," which became popular again after appearing in "Pulp Fiction" back in 1994. Although he played countless shows at the Rendezvous, Dale will not be appearing at the reunion; nonetheless, several of his longtime band members will be there and performing live. Other musicians scheduled to appear include Barry and Butch Rillera from the famed O.C. rock and roll group the Rillera Brothers. Jim Washburn notes that "they were the first group in O.C. to play rock, R&B and blues ... and later were instrumental in backing up the Righteous Brothers and Dick Dale." Paul Johnson will also on stage -- his band the Bel-Airs made one of the first surf recording, "Mr. Moto." Grammy- and Oscar-winning songwriter Paul Williams, who was a member of Potts' second band, the Chancellors, may show up to play if time permits.

The lineup of 100 musicians will be presented from noon to midnight on Saturday and Sunday, August 2 and 3. On August 1 many of the musicians will be playing 18 holes of golf at the well-known Willowick Golf course in Santa Ana. Rock and Roll Tequila has crafted a unique guitar-shaped bottle of their finest top shelf tequila to award some lucky golfer. The concert will also include a few groups like Stonehenge, who came to rise shortly after the Rendezvous burnt down in 1966. Many of the musicians in attendance played at the Rendezvous, but most were at least very active in the community of live venues. The reunion intends to celebrate the era and these dynamic players.

After the Rendezvous was destroyed by fire in 1966, the lively musical scene changed with the times. Many narratives on the Surf Rock era note that the British Invasion of bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, starting in 1964, effectively killed the Surf Rock genre. Like all dynamic creative work, Surf Rock burned very bright for just a small window of time. The Beach Boys of course emerged from this era, but they evolved and transformed as the years went on.

Orange County Musicians Reunion in previous years | Photo courtesy of Tom Potts
Orange County Musicians Reunion in previous years | Photo courtesy of Tom Potts.  

All in all, the camaraderie between all of the different musicians remains strong. Tom Potts realized this a few years ago and was overwhelmed by all of the support and energy he received after coming up with the first reunion idea in 2012. The initial success has led him to produce an even bigger event than the first one. He is again being assisted by Ken Jones, with help from Pat Quilter, Steve Schmitt, and Rob Joly.

The upcoming reunion shines a light on the vibrant early Orange County musical scene centered at the Rendezvous Ballroom. Though it burned down almost 50 years ago, the dynamic spirit born in the space continues to resonate around Southern California, the rest of the country and even internationally. Tom Potts recently told me, "We didn't realize until later, just how special the era really was." Salute to Potts and all of the participating musicians, they are pioneers and game changers playing the soundtrack of L.A. Letters.

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