Two vastly different generations of surf rock fans might know the sound of Eddie Bertrand’s guitar licks: those who dig his band the Bel-Airs, whose classic early ‘60s Southern California surf instrumentals are some of the earliest examples of the form; and followers of Orange County surf-punk band Sublime, who incorporated Bertrand solo into its song “Seed.”
Bertrand, who died on Saturday after a fight with cancer, was a key figure in the birth of a Southern California rock sound. His work out of the South Bay with both the Bel-Airs, best known for their hit “Mr. Moto,” and, after that, as the leader of Eddie & the Showmen, helped solidify the clean but heavily reverbed sound of the Fender Mustang guitar as the tone of the Southern California beach.
Other musicians, including the Ventures, Dick Dale and Link Wray, were recording what was coming to be known as “surf music,” but it was Bel-Airs’ “Mr. Moto” that made its way onto the radio when KRLA DJ Sam Riddle started playing it. Among those who heard it was the Beach Boys’ David Marks, who wrote in his autobiography that Bertrand’s sound was an inspiration.
Eddie and the Showmen’s biggest hit was a rerecording of a Bel-Airs song called “Squad Car.” A frantic instrumental that sounds recorded in a grain silo, the single tears through its two minutes as if it’s running from the cops, with a siren edited into the song as though rounding corners in order to keep up with Bertrand’s nimble guitar lines.
In its prime, the group performed on bills alongside Sonny & Cher, the Righteous Brothers and Jackie DeShannon, among others. When Betrand spoke to the Orange County Register in 2007, one particular concert stood out.
“My biggest thrill of all is when Eddie and the Showmen did a concert at the Hollywood Bowl in front of more than 10,000 people and shared the stage with my all-time hero and mentor, Duane Eddy,” he told the Register’s Corky Carroll. “It just so happened that when we were trying to leave, the police had to surround us in a circle to get us past the screaming fans."
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