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Mechanics of Survival : Cascades Bassist Saw Top; Now It’s Underside of Cars

In the 1960s, the San Diego pop scene produced a handful of musicians and singers who made it to the top of the charts, breathed in the rarefied air of national fame, then descended as quickly as they had risen.

So where are they now? Whatever became of the members of such local flashes-in-the-pan as the Cascades and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap when the hits stopped coming, the fans stopped screaming and the agents stopped calling?

Of the local pop scene’s famous alumni, a few still live in San Diego. Some continue to play music in bars and nightclubs; others are working as mechanics, waiters and schoolteachers.

While fame and fortune may have been fleeting, memories die hard--and talk of the present invariably drifts to nostalgic recollections of the past.

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This is the first in a three-part series on San Diego’s once and, who knows, possibly future pop stars.

He no longer goes to work wearing lacy shirts and tight pants and instead dons yellowed T-shirts and greasy overalls. Instead of plucking bass strings, his fingers tighten wrenches. Instead of riding around in limousines and fancy sports cars, he fixes them.

Twenty-five years after his San Diego rock band, the Cascades, topped the national pop charts with “Rhythm of the Rain,” Tony Grasso is the service manager of the Horsman Chevron station at Mission Gorge Road and Magnolia Avenue in Santee.

Grasso, now 47, took the job a couple of years ago, he said, after struggling for more than a decade to make a living as a professional musician after the Cascades’ 1974 breakup.

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“It’s not the most money in the world, but I live good, I’m home and I’m basically doing what I want to do,” Grasso said. “I miss music horribly, but to go out there and have to dicker with somebody for $50 a night, it’s just not worth it, it’s not worth the frustration.

“In San Diego, it’s very, very difficult for a musician to sustain himself playing clubs. On the road is where you make your money, but, after spending so many years on the road, I just didn’t want to do that anymore. I met somebody very special, and I wanted to stay home, in one spot, for a change.

“And, since I couldn’t stay in San Diego and support myself playing music, I pretty much had to get into something else.”

Grasso was born in Syracuse, N.Y., and raised in Tucson, Ariz. He took up the accordion at age 8.

“My father taught me how to play guitar, and, as time went on, I earned my way through high school and college, playing music with various rock bands,” he said.

Grasso said that, shortly after he moved to San Diego in 1962, he was hired to play bass with the Cascades, then a popular local bar band. In the fall of that year, the group signed with Valiant Records, a Warner Bros. subsidiary. One of the first songs it cut was “Rhythm of the Rain,” which propelled the group to instant stardom.

“The whole thing caught me by surprise,” Grasso recalled. “One day we were working dumpy nightclubs in town; the next day, all these large agencies wanted to book us (on national tours), and everybody was saying, ‘Hit record, hit record, hit record.’

“We had no concept of what all this entailed,” he said. “We had been told that this was going to happen and that was going to happen, but the reality of it is never really there until you’re in the middle of it. So, when success came, it was so alien to us that we didn’t know what to do with it. We made a fortune, but we also spent a fortune; we were young and stupid, and a lot of money sifted through that was never accounted for.”

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The rest of the 1960s, Grasso said, was a “very frustrating time” for the Cascades. While the success of “Rhythm of the Rain” kept “the jobs readily available, and the money high, for a long, long time,” there were no further hits, he said. And, eventually, the Cascades found themselves reduced to plying the oldies circuit, performing in tiny nightclubs and Las Vegas lounges before a steadily diminishing legion of fans.

In 1974, the group--which by then had become the house band at the Red Coat Inn in East San Diego--broke up.

“We finally realized we were getting older,” Grasso said, “and that we could no longer compete in the rock ‘n’ roll

department with all these guys who were 20, 22 years old. Still, I never felt (playing music) was a dead horse--just that there were other avenues we should pursue.”

In Grasso’s case, this meant putting together a Las Vegas-style show band called Sweet Seasons, which he toured with in the Western United States for the next six years.

“Conceptually, we were what I would have liked to have seen the Cascades evolve into,” Grasso said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have the name, and we didn’t have the hit, so, instead of doing the kind of music I wanted to do, we had to play whatever happened to be ‘in’ at the time.

“And what was in during the late 1970s was disco,” he said. “I loathed it, but, in order to survive, I had to play it.”

By 1980, Grasso had had enough. He returned to San Diego, got married, and spent the next six years playing country music in local nightclubs, mostly in the East County.

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“I’ve always loved country music, since that’s what I was raised on,” he said. “But the local market just isn’t big enough, and, while I had a lot of work, the money just wasn’t there. So eventually, I got tired of beating my brains out against the wall for less than $500 a week and decided the time had come to either go back out on the road or stay home and drop out of music entirely.”

Grasso chose the latter--and today, he said, he has no regrets.

“I would hate to say that I would never return to music, but it would have to be a situation that’s as financially lucrative, and as musically satisfying, as the Cascades once were,” he said. “Anything short of that, I’d much rather continue working as a mechanic.

“When I was very young, I had worked in the automotive business; I liked it then, and I like it now.”


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