The Story of Charlotte O'Hara and Bonnie & The Treasures

by Joel Najman

Jerry Riopelle is a famous rock star! His name is a household word, the radio plays his songs and his live performances are major musical events. All this is true - in the state of Arizona!

I spent Christmas '82 in Phoenix, Arizona and found the five teenagers in my hosts' household eagerly awaiting the annual New Years Eve concert by Jerry Riopelle. "Is this guy really a star?" I asked. "Sure he is!" came the unanimous reply. Could this be the same Jerry Riopelle I remember from Clydie King, Nino & April and Bonnie & the Treasures? "Bonnie & the WHO?" my hosts queried.

Because of key radio people who believe in his music, some clever local promotion and obvious talent, Jerry Riopelle is a genuine celebrity in Arizona, though he enjoys only a cult following in most other places. His nine albums over the previous twelve-year period have failed to produce that elusive hit single that would have brought him national recognition. Yet his last four LPs have each sold close to 50,000 copies in a state with less than three million population.

Curious about all this, I brought his then newest LP 'Juicy Talk' back with me to Vermont. I found an appealing collection of energetic, mid-tempo rockers with lyrics that are both romantic and sexual, with many playful double-entendres. One selection, the reggae-flavoured 'Take It Like A Woman', so appealed to our radio audience that we arranged a telephone interview to unravel the mystery, "Who is Jerry Riopelle?"

He told us he was born in Detroit, moved to Florida, then spent these last twenty years in California; how calypso, blues and even country rhythms influence his music; how he co-wrote songs with TV's Stuart Margolin and produced his 'And The Angels Sing' album for Warner Brothers. He told us how Kenny Loggins, Meatloaf and Rita Coolidge have recorded his songs; how he has performed on shows with Jimmy Buffett and Charlie Daniels. He told us how, for a short while back in '65 and '66, he was part of the amazing Phil Spector phenomenon as it was unfolding in Los Angeles. After our radio interview was over we kept the tape rolling and Jerry graciously shared his recollections of Phil, Philles and Gold Star. Our conversation went as follows:


Tell us about your work with Phil Spector and how you first got involved with him.

I played on the Righteous Brothers' records and some of the Ronettes' songs. I played keyboards. At one point Phillip was going to have a stable of producers, and I was the first one he hired. Actually, I was the only one. He never did hire any others. His engineer, Larry Levine, had heard a record I had made myself, he played it for Phillip who liked it so much he decided I would be his first 'producer', and I started working for him. At first, I was working with him, but after a while, when I got to where I did the voices on the records, he wouldn't even come to the studio. I did background voices, arranged them, produced them, and he'd come down later and make a few changes here and there. I was very heavily influenced by him for quite a while.

Did you work with Phil on 'Home Of The Brave'?

No, I did that one myself. When the record came out, it was covered by Jody Miller. We didn't expect their record, and they didn't expect ours. It was published by Screen Gems, and no one expected that this was going to happen. When the record came out and the big battle started, Phillip took control of the battle. It became like it was his record instead of mine. He became so busy calling up the trades and doing interviews, saying how HIS new record 'Home Of The Brave' on HIS Phi-Dan label was being covered and that HE had the original. I was the producer, but he became so busy supporting the record that it became to him like his own. Of course it was - he owned it, and it was put out by his record company - but, in fact, I was the producer of it.


We also found the second Bonnie record, 'Close Your Eyes' on Warner Brothers. You are credited as both writer and producer.

I had forgotten entirely about that one, and I wrote it too? I forget how the song goes. I cut the record at Gold Star with the same engineer Phillip used.

A lot of people tried to copy Phil's sound, but you came the closest of any I've heard.

I probably know more about the 'sound' than anybody does.

Who was Bonnie? Anybody we know?

The name she went under was Charlotte O'Hara. I swear, that was the name she went under. That was her stage name when we found her. That was not her real name! She was a white girl with red hair.

Do you know if Ronnie Spector cut a vocal over the same track?

No, Ronnie never sang it.

Were there any other records from Phil's production company? What was it like to be in close proximity to Phil?

No, he never built up a production company as he planned. He was such a crazy guy. He could be awful, and he treated people very poorly. The hardest part of being around Phil was the way he treated other people. His wife Ronnie left him very quickly - Ronnie couldn't be married to him at all, not because of what he was like, but what he did to other people, not what he did to her. Like he had a great maid and butler, this old English couple, and boy, he was just awful to them. Nobody could stand the way Phillip treated them.

What are you recollections of Darlene Love?

Darlene was a great artist and she still is today! She's somebody I'd like to work with.


What can you tell us about the public service song 'Things Are Changing'?

My goodness! My wife has been working for Dr Landy, who is Brian Wilson's shrink, and I've been telling her about this song that I wrote with Phillip and Brian, but I couldn't remember the title of it! Phillip originally started the song with Brian, but it was just a chorus or something, nothing to do with the lyrics. I made the track and produced one version, with Darlene, I believe.

From what's been said, Brian wrote a song called 'Don't Hurt My Little Sister'.

Yes, that's right.

Was that version ever recorded?

I don't know about that. I know it started out as a piece Brian had written and Phillip had worked on it with him. But then the government wanted this piece, so I took it and rewrote it and produced the track on it, which is very much a 'Spector' type of track.

In the studio, did you set up the instruments and the people the same way Phil did?

Oh, yes. He used about twenty rhythm. He used four keyboards, all playing the same thing. He used two or three bass players, all playing the same thing. Several rhythm guitars, all playing the same strum. It makes for such a huge 'Wall Of Sound'. Several drummers, several people playing tambourines! Just tambourines! The sound was mostly dependent on the right amount of echo blend, the right amount of doubling of instruments. But instead of doubling them like we do nowadays, playing them twice, because we only had three tracks in those days, we did it all at once.

How did you get the 'Things Are Changing' assignment?

Well, basically I was working with Phillip and he didn't want to deal with it. He kept saying, "You take the call, you talk to them". So finally, not only did I end up dealing with the government for him, I ended up producing the track and taking over the whole deal.

How did your association with Phil end?

I couldn't get anything done! With Bonnie & the Treasures, it took me forever to get that one song recorded. He wouldn't let me work as a producer, he wouldn't let me do things. He would say things like, "If it was me I would book the session". So then I started doing just that, booking sessions with his money. Then he'd get upset! So I said, "That's what you said you'd do if your boss was being the asshole you are being! I can't get any records made, you won't sit down and listen". I always thought he wanted a buddy worse than he wanted a production company. He'd call me up in the middle of the night and want to go out and get hot dogs, and talk about music and stuff, which of course was exciting. But the fact was I thought he needed that from me more than he needed to teach someone how to produce records, which was what I wanted to learn. But I did learn a lot from him about songs.

Do you think you were treated unfairly?

It's not so much how he treated me, he never did anything that bothered me that much. It just wasn't stimulating enough, because I couldn't get enough done. It was just so hard to get anything out of him, he was just so non-committal about everything.

Did he work very hard and long when he was in the studio?

Oh yes. When he was in the studio he wouldn't roll the tapes for four or five hours. The band would be playing and playing and playing. "Do this, do this, do this. Try this, try this, try this!" And he would never turn on the tape machine. And then finally, after all that, when everyone was just worn out, he'd let me turn on the tape deck and do a couple of takes.

Did you play keyboards and guitar?

I played keyboards, not guitar. On the Righteous Brothers' songs, some Ronettes' and all the Ike & Tina Turner tracks. I played on all those.

How much of a marathon was the 'River Deep - Mountain High' session?

That was an extraordinary session. It was unbelievably exciting. I mean, how could you possibly put Phil Spector together with Tina Turner? It didn't make any sense at all. I consider that record one of his really great achievements.

That record went to #2 in Great Britain, but barely dented the charts over here in the States.

Yes, that was a great disappointment.

Is that the reason Phil went into retirement?

You know what I think? What bothered him most was the Beatles. The Beatles came along when he was by far the most important personality in rock music, and all of a sudden he was sort of booted into second place overnight, and it was really shocking to him. His first attitude was, "These guys aren't anything". You know, his ego was very large. That was the beginning of his decline.

Have you seen him since those days?

I haven't seen him in quite a while. A few years ago I ran into him at A & M Records. He was riding around on a motorcycle. He had just been at the studios working. No, I haven't seen much of him at all.

Thanks for talking with us.

My pleasure, Joel.

Imagine my surprise to learn that Jerry had not owned a copy of 'Home Of The Brave' in many years until I mailed him a Phi-Dan copy. I also found it curious that many of the names, titles and sessions I brought up had not been asked of him before. Yet, after a few gentle reminders, the memory was sharp and clear, and it became excitingly evident that Jerry's was a rare perspective of the Wall Of Sound from within Phil's private and guarded inner circle. Today, Jerry looks at the Spector episode as but a brief moment in a musical career that has progressed and evolved to where it is today. He is totally immersed in his current music and the music he will make tomorrow. The echo chambers at Gold Star are light years behind him. My most recent 'phone call caught him laying down tracks for his next album. And how good is he? Just ask anyone in Tucson or Phoenix!

First published in PHILately magazine, #3, 1984


[ Contents ]
[ Part 1 ]
[ Part 2 ]
[ Part 3 ]
[ Part 4 ]
[ Part 5 ]
[ Part 6 ]