By Chris Epting
Huntington Beach Independent
May 6, 2014
"Paul sat down next to me on the plane and asked me how I got that sound out of the guitar. I explained to him how I bent the strings when I played, which nobody was really doing back then, and he said he was anxious to go explain what I was talking about to George."
That's Barry Rillera talking. The "Paul" he calmly refers to is McCartney, and the "George" is Harrison. Rillera, a Huntington Beach resident since the early 1980s, is a legendary guitar player but also a quiet and modest man who doesn't wear his stories on his sleeve.
But, oh, what a little digging produces.
It started in Santa Ana in the early 1950s, when he and his brothers put together what is considered to be Orange County's first rock 'n' roll band.
The Rhythm Rockers, as they were known, were influenced by everything they heard around them -- music played by their father, on the radio, in back rooms and at dance halls. The brothers absorbed it and spun it into their own early brand of rootsy Southern California rock 'n' roll.
Blending soul, rhythm and blues, Latin, jazz and more, the Rhythm Rockers were at once the county's most innovative and flexible band, able to play any kind of party or concert and please the crowd.
One night at the old Harmony Park Ballroom in Anaheim, R&B singer Richard Berry asked Rillera about a song the band was playing, "El Loco Cha Cha" by Rene Touzet.
Berry, who was singing with the Rhythm Rockers that night, was writing a song, and inspired by the infectious and simple rhythm of "El Loco," he finished it backstage that night while waiting to go on. He would soon record a version of his song, but not until another band, the Kingsman, covered it would much of the world become aware of "Louie, Louie."
The stories just go on and on. Rillera and his brothers would soon become part of the Righteous Brothers phenomenon, playing the music behind the blue-eyed soul of Bill Medley and the late Bobby Hatfield. The Righteous Brothers were booked on the Beatles first big tour of the United States in 1964, which is how Rillera ended up on the plane with the Fab Four.
"That tour was a real experience for all of us," Rillera told me. "Oftentimes, the kids in the audience were not aware that there were any opening acts before the Beatles. And so during many of our shows, all we could hear were kids screaming for John, Paul, George and Ringo."
And then there was that guitar sound that Rillera achieved, bending his notes by pushing up on the strings.
"In many of the arenas where we played, the Beatles could sit backstage and hear our set through a little speaker in their dressing room. I guess they liked the sound of my guitar that they would hear each night, and that's why Paul tracked me down on the plane. A few years later when I heard that beautiful George Harrison song, 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps,' and I heard him bending those strings, I remember smiling."
After that memorable tour, Rillera would go on to play hundreds of important recording sessions with producers such as Phil Spector and tour with Ray Charles and many other notable musicians. He was even performing at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, the day Bobby Kennedy was shot.
Kennedy was shot by Sirhan Sirhan just after midnight June 4 after having given a speech at the hotel during his campaign to be the Democratic nominee for president. Kennedy later died of his injuries.
"That's one night that stands out to me more than any of the others," he said. "I remember all of the excitement in the building from all the Kennedy supporters. But then I remember the moment just after we all learned what happened. Everything changed so quickly. It was just such a tragic night, and the way the mood turned is something I'll never forget."
Thankfully, we can all still enjoy Rillera's music in Huntington Beach. He and his group perform the first Friday of every month at Harvey's Steakhouse, 6060 Warner Ave. The repertoire today includes all kinds of classic rock, plus a few surprises.
When you see Rillera play, just know you're watching an honest-to-goodness musical legend, whether or not he cares to admit it.
CHRIS EPTING is the author of 19 books, including the new "Baseball in Orange County," from Arcadia Publishing.