When veteran guitarist Bob Summers hits the stage at Pasadena jazz joint Red White & Bluezz next Saturday, it'll be much more than a hometown hoedown. The 74-year-old Pasadena-born musician's family helped pioneer the Los Angeles music scene, performing gospel, country, pop and rock 'n' roll, almost from the ground up.
Summers' parents were singing spirituals on KPCC in the 1930s and his older sister Iris regularly performed with Singing Cowboy star Jimmy Wakely as part of western vocal trio the Sunshine Girls. By the late 1940s, Iris was far better known as Mary Ford, the singer whose luminous pipes launched some 10 singles, recorded with her husband, guitar legend Les Paul, to the top of the charts.
"Les was living in Beverly Hills," Summers said. "And Mary, who was a very good guitar player herself, was a fan of his and already had quite a few of the Les Paul Trio records. He had heard her singing and playing on the radio, gotten our phone number and called the house. She answered it, and when he said 'Hello, this is Les Paul,' she said, 'Oh yeah? This is Duke Ellington!' and hung up on him!"
Of course, Paul immediately called back, initiating one of American music's most fertile and influential partnerships. It soon would also directly inspire Summers. "Mary had a little Martin guitar," he said. "When I was about 7, I had picked it up and started. Never took lessons, I learned by ear — just like Mary and all of us in the family had.
"At 12 or 13, I set up a little studio in the garage and started recording. I had two mono tape machines and began doing background tracks for friends who sang and wrote songs. And I started recording the way Les and Mary did, sound on sound, adding bass, drums and piano, for a fuller sound."
After graduating high school, Summers, by now a guitarist of formidable prowess, opened his own professional studio. "First thing I knew, I produced a record on a singer named Larry Hall and the song, 'Sandy,' became a hit — in a few months he was lip-synching to it on American Bandstand."
Summers' talent and career did not go unnoticed in Hollywood. "At 21, I signed to Capitol Records to do a few singles, what they called teen music. It was just guitar stuff and it all developed from there."
All of Summers' "guitar stuff" snapped, crackled and rocked. Classic tracks like R&B infused raver "Scramble" and surf smasher "It's a Bikini World" are vibrant, vintage examples of swinging 1960s fretwork. With more atmospheric discs like the midtempo mood piece "Space Walkin'," he was crafting a singular, rich original sound, and his style benefitted significantly from friendships and jam sessions with such famed pickers as Jimmy Bryant and Glen Campbell.
But in 1966, after (the now divorced from Paul) Mary Ford got a call from her old friend, the bandleader Foy Willing, everything changed. "Foy wanted to manage Mary and contacted her about performances and recording, and she said 'Yes, but I want Bob as my guitarist and my sisters to sing with me.'"
"So we were in Reno, Las Vegas, doing all sorts of TV shows. I played the Les Paul parts and our sisters sang the harmonies so it sounded just like the records," he said. "And we went into the Crescendo Club on the Sunset Strip, very high class spot — I'll never forget, Henny Youngman was our opener the first night, and all these movie stars were coming in. [Radio and newspaper commentator] Walter Winchell was a big fan; he came almost every night. It was really something."
Summers kept busy in his own right, recording and forming an alliance with Mike Curb, the noted producer and, later, California lieutenant governor. "I met Mike and started working with him and it just progressed from there. I was the producer arranger and musical director for his (popular vocal group) Mike Curb Congregation.
"After Mike went into politics, I started composing for films and television. It was great, I'd have 40-piece orchestras playing in the studio. That kept me very busy for quite a few years."
Summers stacked up plenty of credits but never lost his love for guitar. At Red White & Bluezz, Summers routinely excels. "We'll be playing a lot of jazz, a little rock," he said. "It's just me and another guitarist, Jo Cuseo, keys and drums and a great singer, Ariel Deem."
What: Bob Summers
Where: Red White & Bluezz, 37 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena.
When: Saturday, Feb. 8, 7 p.m.
More info: (626) 792-4441, redwhitebluezz.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."