Phil Dirt - Reverb Central - PO Box 1609, Felton, CA 95018-1609 USA
Collection: Rare Surf Volume 3: Johnny Fortune - Johnny Barakat and the Vestellsdotdotdotdotdot
artworkThis is a must have, no if's, and's, or but's! AVI's third issue in their acclaimed Rare Surf series compiles the entire recorded output of both Johnny Fortune and Johnny Barakat & the Vestells.

Johnny Fortune was already a successful session musician before the surf sound hit. He'd play guitar on Sam Cook's "Chain Gang" and Barbara George's "I Know". In '63, at the age of 16, Johnny recorded the Soul Surfer sessions at Bob Summers' Sound House studio in El Monte, where the Lively Ones also recorded much of their output. The session musicians were Johnny Fortune (Sudetta - guitar, bass), Jim O'Keith - sax, and Joey Sudetta, a mere 10 years old at the time, on drums. Johnny's band mates John Fisher, who co-wrote many of the tunes, and brothers Vincent Sudetta and George Sudetta did not play on the sessions. Offered a chance to tour England with Johnny Burnette, he had to decline due to his being under eighteen. Johnny's sound is quite unusual within the surf genre. He has a warm and muffled, relatively dry sound with unusual whammy action that sets it apart from the rest, and from the big guitar sound of the Duane Eddy's of the world. Johnny's tunes are melodic and rhythmic, and have a lasting quality about them.

Johnny Barakat is a study in survival and triumph. Just after graduating from high school, Johnny was shot during a robbery at his father's grocery store, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. His mother gave him a guitar to fill the time and distract him from the justifiable depression of his loss. This was 1961. During this period, he gradually regained the use on one leg, and partial use of the other. Johnny started an R&B band called the Mystics. With them, he wrote a tune called "Mystic Stomp", which he played once for Gene Hofford a.k.a. Gene Gray & his Stingrays, who renamed it "Surf Bunny." In '63, Johnny formed a new band he called the Vestells, and began recording. They recorded with Paul Buff at Pal studios. They issued just one single, but some other tracks survived. The quality of the recordings are age-compromised, but still vibrant vital listening. The Vestells had a marvelously raw intense sound, full of damped reverb. The Vestells were Dave Tunno (drums), Dan Bilbery (bass), Danny Poor (Sax), Mark Piscatelli (rhythm guitar), and Terry Gibson (rhythm guitar).
Picks: Soul Surfer, Midnight Surf, Chinese Surfer, SurferÕs Trip, Lone Surfer, Wild Weekend, Surf Rider, Sunset, Soul Traveler, Moonglow And Theme From Picnic, Siboney, Dragster, Surf Madness, Static, Sophisticated Surfers, Go Surfer Mo (El Zebra), 5-4-3-2-1 Surf, Surfin' Bread (Shortnin' Bread), Surf Riders In The Sky, Smack, Happy Time, The Long Ride, Static (take 2), The Wedge

Track by Track Review


Soul Surfer dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

This is one of those magical tracks that stands alone soundwise. "Soul Surfer" was written in the back seat of the car on the way to the studio. An afterthought of sorts, it became a classic in it's own time, being covered by contemporary bands. Johnny Fortune's melodic sense, combined with some flamenco and jazz influences to create a wholly unique sound. Highly melodic and magnetically rhythmic.

Midnight Surf dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

This is a soulful surf tune with a percussive opening and a smoothly suave progression on guitar against a very savvy sax. It flows with a stunning fluid Spanish feel. Totally great. I remember playing this to death on the record player when I was supposed to be doing homework.

Chinese Surfer dotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

This is an almost entirely un-Oriental track. At least it has none of the trite eastern clichˇs used in so many tracks with oriental names. This is a slowish, well written thing with a groovy melody line, and a fluid lilt.

SurferÕs Trip dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

This is another great Johnny Fortune track with an infectious lead line and a fine round tone. It has plenty of fast paced almost prancing soul, with an infectious hook.

Lone Surfer dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

This is a very sad semi-slow number with fine whammy and exceptionally delicate picking. Like an Ernesto Lecuona tune, it literally dances on the guitar strings. The trumpet adds to the bull fight feel. Marvelous.

Wild Weekend dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

This is a fairly pedestrian cover of the Rockin' Ramrods' hit single. It is much less inspired than the rest of Johnny Sudetta's work. It is interesting to hear the song done in a less intense fashion.

Surf Rider dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

The Ventures' tune made into a surf monster by the Lively Ones takes on quite a sophisticated air in this treatment. Johnny Sudetta's guitar work is super fine, and he has added some notes to fill the nooks and crannies, as well as playing with a softer attack, which is especially interesting against the strong drum work. It all makes for a very nice variation on this classic song.

Sunset dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

This tune has all the markings of the kind of thing that the Buddy Merrills and Bert Kempferts of the day would have included in their compendiums of instrumental magic. This is very pretty, almost too pretty. Not only melodic, but fingered much like Les Paul might. Very good technique. It's easy to see from this track why Sudetta was able to do studio work on hit singles.

Soul Traveler dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

This is almost a Paul Johnson kinda construction, but with Johnny Fortune's great tone. The jazzy damped chops and sassy sax over the fine drums are very cool, and the fluid guitar work is magnificent.

Moonglow And Theme From Picnic dotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

This is a mighty polished and MOR merger of two standard film score songs. The drums are doing the soft brushed thing, while the bass plays a softly picked thump-thump walking line. The guitar work is almost Three Suns pretty.

Siboney dotdotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

Siboney is among the many exotica standards adopted by the surf bands. It's flamenco routes (Ernesto Lacuona) are obvious, and it's bull fight mariachi horns are very inviting. Like Herb Alpert would have like to sound. The rhythm is infectious, and the simple nature of the Spanish influences is most rewarding.

Dragster dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

If it says Johnny Fortune, you need it. A master at the age of 16, already a veteran of hit records by Sam Cooke among others, and his 10 year old brother is the drummer. Great tune, and Johnny had a totally unique sound.

Surf Madness dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

Super chunk abounds in this simple but powerful song. The heavy deep reverb provides major meanness, while the boys cry out "Surf Madness." The simplicity of the progression-melody is not a deterrent to enjoyment, as the performance is so chunky. A very cool track.

Static dotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

Low down note bending, super reverb guitar, slow plundering beat, mean sax... it's all too evil! Not much melody, but a very nasty progression and intense surf noodleage.

Sophisticated Surfers dotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

Great dribbling surf double picking, a mean low-E tone, and a solid progression, backed by rock steady drums and solid bass work. This is back alley tough.

Go Surfer Mo (El Zebra) dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

Echoed to the max, this tortured surf oddity cries out institutionalized surfer. Old " Surfer Mo musta been one weird dude. Stinging twang, and disjointed thinking. Pretty cool.

5-4-3-2-1 Surf dotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

A tough surf jam without a direction, just lots of grunt.

Surfin' Bread (Shortnin' Bread) dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

It's amazing how many of the bands did this song. It was a childhood classic in the fifties, so it's easy to understand I guess. This is just plain mean. The guitar is even with the sax. They are playing in different octaves, with the guitar really low down dirty surf, and the sax raspy nasty street fighting midrange. This is probably the most interesting of all the surf covers, though it is certainly not the best performance or recording, just the most unusually and honestly delivered.

Surf Riders In The Sky dotdotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

This is among the chunkier, more interesting surf versions of this song. It is not the rhythmic pristine Chantays approach, nor is it the Ramrods' cowboy arrangement. Johnny Barakat rearranged some of the riffs, added some unexpected repeats, and generally created an intense experience. The slight meter shift in the first few notes is kinda funny. It lets you know Johnny Barakat and the Vestells weren't pro's, just a neighborhood band having too much surf fun. An absolutely honest and wonderful track.

Smack dotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

The "smack" is a kiss... This is a tasty little number with a silly little melody line and period voice bits injected. A solid example of the way the garage bands mimicked the hits without giving up their edge and innocence.

Happy Time dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

This was the B-side of The Long Ride single. The sound of this track is a much lighter than the rest. The guitar is much less reverbed, playing in a more rockabilly pluck fashion. It's quite a happy tune, as the title implies. Infectious and fun.

The Long Ride dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

Johnny Barakat was a kid who'd been shot in a holdup of his folks store, and left restricted to a wheel chair. Out of sheer boredom, he learned to play the guitar... and did he ever. His buddies the Vestells backed him on this incredible vintage surf monster. This is the second best track on the CD, and it appears nowhere else. It may be from vinyl, but it's totally killer. His whole catalog of recordings is on AVI's Rare Surf Volume 3.

Static (take 2) dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

Like the first take, this is low down note bending, super reverb guitar, slow plundering beat, mean sax... it's all too evil! Not much melody, but a very nasty progression and intense surf noodleage. The texture of the tack is quite different, with less guitar growl and more balance. This is better, I think.

The Wedge dotdotdotdot
Surf (Instrumental)

Johny Barakat totally shreds on Dick Dale's "The Wedge,' recorded live as they opened for Dick. many added notes fill in the spaces. The shear energy of this track is overwhelming. They intentionally pummeled it to try to upstage Dick. They must have been some band live when they wanted to be.