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Brits meet Yanks for '60s music symposium on Catalina Island

by Adam Forrest, Beatles News Editor

Last Saturday, Catalina Island, known in its hey-day for its concerts by some of America's most famous Big Band orchestras, rocked to the tunes of a different era as "The British Invasion Rocks America," a rock 'n' roll symposium, sponsored by the Catalina Island Museum, was held in the island's iconic casino.

The event, attended by almost 600 fans, some of whom made the trip to Catalina just to come to the symposium, was the first in a trio of events spotlighting '60s rock, which also includes a July 4th concert this Wednesday and an exhibit at the museum, "Gimme Some Lovin': The Spencer Davis Group," which opened Saturday and runs through Aug. 22. "The symposium was the first of its kind," says Michael De Marsche, the museum's executive director.

The symposium included a panel of celebrities very well qualified to talk about the music of the '60s in Britain and America, and was comprised of Peter Asher, of Peter and Gordon and later a producer for James Taylor, Linda Ronstadt and others, Spencer Davis of the Spencer Davis Group, Micky Dolenz (need I say, of the Monkees) and Emperor Rosko, an American DJ who started by filling in for Wolfman Jack and went on to be one of the pioneers of British pirate radio on Radio Caroline (which was fictionalized in the recent movie "Pirate Radio", UK title "The Boat That Rocked"). Expertly moderating the panel was producer, humorist and Beatles scholar Martin Lewis.

Spencer Davis and Peter Asher at the symposium

The panel discussed their early musical influences, and Davis commented how American music had dominated in Britain for as long as he could remember.

Dolenz remembered, "My parents were both musical and in the business, my mom was a singer in the big band era, and there was music in the house all the time." Micky said had been brought up on pop classics like Gogi Grant and songs from Broadway shows like West Side Story, but that when he picked up a guitar and tried to use it to impress girls, he soon found out they much preferred folk songs like "Tom Dooley."

It was that folk music that caught on over the other side of the pond. Peter Asher remembered that, as a kid, he was always fascinated by American music, and when he discovered the guitar accompanied music of Leadbelly and Woodie Guthrie, that inspired him to want to learn guitar chords.

But it was so much more than just American folk music, Emperor Rosko talked about what was then called black music, which was played on what was then called race radio, and how songs played to those limited markets were picked up and rerecorded by white artists like Pat Boone who became famous for his version of Tutti Fruiti, which was originally recorded by Little Richard.

"And along came a truck driver who wanted to make a record for his mama," Spencer recalled, "and goes into the studio, and of course, that was Elvis Presley. That was a godsend for white radio, a white singer with blues influence, that's when the floodgates opened."

Micky Dolenz and Emperor Rosko at the symposium

But before the Beatles, why didn't it happen so much the other way around, British music coming back over to America? Dolenz recalled, "There was just so much music then. Go back and look at one of those Top 100 charts from that time, there was music like The Singing Nun, to country music, and vocal groups like The Shirelles, the surfer sound, all of this on the very same chart on the same week, including Frank Sinatra, and even sometimes songs from the musical theater would break through. So it was tough for anybody to get on the chart and then stay there."

Britain and America have a long and fascinating history of music in common. But what of the future?

About today's music, Emperor Rosko said, "The music from the '60s, you could get your hooks into. They had melodies, you could remember how to sing them, the songs had meaning. Today it's more social comment over drum machines than it's about real music, and guys like Spencer and Peter made real music."

Peter Asher said, "What was unique then was a sort of a mind of a decade of amazing change, interracial change, enthusiasm change, social change. It really made a difference in breaking away from the music of the older generation of the fifties. That's why the music still resonates with kids today."

Spencer Davis summed up the evening by saying, "What was a hobby of mine, discovering these records, parlayed into a life-long career for me. It was the chemistry of us getting together, we played off one another, and the sum was greater than the parts. It's a passion, you can't rationalize it, you just did it."

And indeed, at this symposium I think what I learned most is that, because of the four men on the panel and all the other heroes of rock 'n' roll from the '60s, and all the diverse music, from blues to folk to rock and roll, American music and British music truly became greater than the sum of its parts.

For more information about the Catalina Island Museum, visit

Published July 2, 2012

This article is Copyright © 2012, Adam Forrest, and may not be reproduced on other web sites or in print, in whole or in part, without expressed permission

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