Ethan James, 56; Played Music From Heavy Metal to Medieval

Times Staff Writer

Ethan James, a member of the ‘60s heavy metal band Blue Cheer who shifted in the 1980s to a behind-the-scenes role as producer and engineer on dozens of recordings, has died. He was 56.

James died June 19 in San Francisco after an eight-month battle with liver cancer, said a longtime friend, Lisa Mitchell Silverman. “Very few people knew he was ill,” she said. “He didn’t want people to worry.”

After leaving Blue Cheer, James became a trusted mentor of a younger generation of emerging punk, alternative and roots-rock bands before changing careers yet again in the late 1980s to focus on playing and promoting medieval music.


James was born Ralph Burns Kellogg in 1946 in Pasadena and moved with his family in 1957 to Sacramento, where he taught himself to play piano, guitar, bass and drums. To pursue a life in music, he moved to San Francisco after high school and became a member of the band Mint Tattoo. He later joined pioneering heavy metal band Blue Cheer just after the group charted its biggest hit, a remake of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues.”

James toured and recorded with Blue Cheer into the ‘70s, then decided to build a recording studio of his own in Los Angeles, creating Radio Tokyo Studio in Venice. James’ studio quickly became a popular hangout for such bands as the Bangs (later the Bangles), Black Flag, the Minutemen, Jane’s Addiction and numerous others.

“He was very interested in hearing different bands and seeing what people came up with, rather than trying to mold something,” Greg Ginn, guitarist with Black Flag and founder of SST Records, home to various acts that worked with James, said recently.

The Plimsouls’ Eddie Munoz said James “stood tall in a scene that needed focus.”

Former Minutemen bassist Mike Watt said James was the person who recorded and mixed the Minutemen’s “Double Nickels on the Dime” album.

“He mixed all 45 songs in one night,” said Watt, who also worked with James in post - Minutemen bands Firehose and Dos. “Ethan had much respect for another’s music and was never dominating or controlling.”

During this period, James assumed his new name because, according to Silverman, “He never liked the name Ralph, and after he researched it, he said he found that the most successful people had two first names.”


James sold the Radio Tokyo studio in 1989 to concentrate on a newfound infatuation with the hurdy-gurdy, a medieval instrument that sounds like a cross between a violin and bagpipes. He spent much of the 1990s playing and recording medieval music and released a series of albums of hurdy-gurdy music.

“He became the hurdy-gurdy guy in L.A. for a while,” Ginn said. James also performed a piece Mozart composed for the instrument with the San Francisco Mozart Festival Orchestra.

“He was really dedicated to the instrument,” said multi-instrumentalist David Lindley, who played with James a number of times in recent years in concerts in San Francisco. “It’s a wonderful, disturbing instrument, but can be really beautiful too. He could do anything with it. It just blew us away the sound he got out of that thing.”

James later took up the Swedish nyckelharpa, a multi-stringed instrument played with a bow, and traveled to Sweden to further study the instrument.

James is survived by a brother and a sister.