Beyond a Shadow of Usher – Dick Campbell on Gary Usher

Explore Dick Campbell’s collaboration with Gary Usher with Blue Winds Only Know.

In 1971, the year Gary Usher gave this interview [which appears in the print edition of Scram #15], his musical tastes were continuing to evolve from his hot rod/surfing roots of the early 60’s. He had an idea for a concept album entitled “Beyond A Shadow Of Doubt” which would reflect his developing philosophical views on metaphysics, and he asked me to write the music to his lyrics. We had written some other tunes, such as “Good Ole Rock & Roll Song” recorded by the Cowsills, and had become great friends in the process. Gary had taken me under his wing since I’d come out from the Midwest where my “Dick Campbell Sings Where It’s At” LP had been released on Mercury Records in 1966. He signed me as a writer to his L.A. label, Together Records, and later I moved with him to RCA, and then to Rip Music (BMI), a publishing company owned by Danny Thomas.

For the next couple of years we recorded several demos for the “Shadow” project in various L.A. studios, and Gary wrote a book to be included with the proposed album. But, for several reasons, the album never went beyond the demo stage and snuggled into hibernation for thirty years until it was revived by Gary’s son in 2001. Gary Usher, Jr. dusted off the old reel-to-reel demos and released them, along with the book, as a “work in progress” on Dreamsville Records. Although the songs were in demo form, the excellent Usher production touch gave them a very finished polish considering that they consisted mostly of my acoustic guitar parts, lead vocals by Gary, and background vocals provided by Gary, Curt Boettcher, and myself. As Gary’s latest release, some dozen years since his death, “Beyond A Shadow Of Doubt” presents an excellent indication of the direction in which he was heading, as well as proof of his enduring popularity among Usher aficionados.

As for why this project took so long to see the light of day, my opinion is that Gary was beginning to weary of all the perceived crapola he had endured through his first decade in the record industry. He was definitely tired of the commercial-vs.-artistic aspect of the business, and was exploring Eastern philosophy in his personal life. Then there was the horrific blow he suffered in early 1974 when his wife Bonnie died suddenly in her sleep from an apparent epileptic seizure. Bonnie’s death was hard on us all, as my family and Gary’s were quite close on a social level. After that, the wind just went out of Gary’s sails for a year or two and he eventually ended up going to an island off the coast of Washington. Gary later remarried (to Sue Cypher, daughter of actor Jon Cypher of “Major Dad” TV-fame) and also dabbled again in music production, but he never returned to the level of interest in music that he had enjoyed in the beginning when his songs like “409”³ helped kick off the hot rod record craze.

Although Gary’s name was not as well known to the general public as that of the man who’s career he helped launch (Brian Wilson), his vast recorded repertoire continues to be collected by his fans. In addition, CD reissues of Gary’s early productions and new CDs of previously unreleased material, such as the “Shadow” project, are becoming more available. The advent of the internet, and it’s auction sites like eBay, are also a good way to find rare Usher nuggets. Recently I saw an acetate demo of a song we’d written, “California Way,” sell for $241 to an unknown collector. This would have amused Gary since it’s probably more money than we ever got paid for that particular song. Another interesting aspect of the internet is the proliferation of message groups on various subjects. There’s one on Yahoo hosted by Ron Weekes which is dedicated to discussions of Gary Usher, and in the area of books an excellent five-volume biography on Gary has been written by author Stephen J. McParland.

When Gary died of lung cancer in 1990, his reputation in the record industry had long been secured. Even more importantly, his personal influence on his many friends is still felt to this day. He had a great sense of humor, but knew when to get to work; he was successful without being overbearing; and he was competitive without being unkind. Time and space does not permit me to relate the dozens of anecdotes which would illustrate these attributes, but I can leave you with at least one. When I first arrived in California, Gary and I would play a board game called Stratego in which each side would have forty army pieces. These pieces, of various ranks, were lined up against each other in such a manner as to conceal their ranks from the opponent with the object being to capture each other’s flag. Since both Gary and I considered ourselves military buffs, the competition to achieve “the thrill of victory” was raised to a level usually reserved for important things like the Super Bowl.

While Bonnie worked on making us lunches, the battles would rage for hours. Every time we played Gary would whip me, and after half a dozen losses I was beginning to experience “the agony of defeat.” But, like Gary, I’m competitive too—just not as kind. I bought my own Stratego game and studied it for hours. Finally I arrived upon a “corner strategy” of encasing my flag in a layer of bombs backed up by majors, so that when Gary’s miners broke through the bombs they’d be killed before reaching my flag. The next time Gary and I played I beat him. Then I beat him again. Now here comes good part. On the third game he had become so unglued that he actually attempted to distract my attention so he could switch his flag, an unmovable piece, to a less vulnerable location. I caught him, we had a good laugh, and never had to play Stratego again—the novice apprentice “just off the boat from the Midwest” (as Gary used to kid me), had beaten the master, thus gaining a certain degree of parity.

In closing, let me just say that Gary usually acted calm and cool under fire, whether it was a game or a big budget recording session for a major label. One day in 1971, we were set to go into a studio for a song demo session, so I stayed overnight at his house for an early morning start. At 6:01 A.M., I was awakened by the sound of rumbling, the vision of window blinds flipping up and down, and the feeling of my bed violently shaking. Even “just off the boat” and without prior experience with earthquakes, I was immediately able to deduce the nature of this event. It went on for what I claim is 60 seconds before ceasing. I, and the Usher children, then beat it into Gary’s room and up on his large bed where we joined him and Bonnie for assurance. The Sylmar earthquake had been 6.6 magnitude, killed 65 people, and caused 500 million dollars damage, but that morning the “Master” was in the studio without fail—and the “sorcerer’s apprentice” was right there with him. One can live through an act of God, but not beyond the shadow of Usher.