documenting the optical sounds of '60s pop, Acid Punk & Psychedelia

The Yankee Dollar: An interview with Greg Likins

The following interview was conducted by email during October 2010 with Yankee Dollar members Liza Gonzales (lead vocals) and Greg Likins (lead guitar)

How long did you stay with The Avengers? Did you play on any of the 45s they recorded. If so which ones?

GREG: I performed on all of The Avengers 45’s starting with the first, which was a record directly to vinyl, “Cervaza” (Beer in Spanish)… a favourite surf song featuring our saxophonist, Jim Robesky (RIP).

I played guitar on all songs, but some backup singing and one solo singing – “It’s Hard To Hide”, where the refrain was sung by Gerry Blake (which was the best singing on the entire song). I believe I was 13 or 14 when we recorded the first record.

What are your memories with playing in The Avengers? Any gigs you can recall?

GREG: My recollection is not as good as Gerry Blake’s or Gary Bernard’s, which you already have interviews with. Not much to add as far as that, but for me it was the experience of my live since I was the shy and conservative one of the group.

My parents were terrified of the influences of the band, but it turned out to be my door to letting go and not being so up tight. These guys were the craziest, funniest and most fun people I have ever known.

I needed them to balance my otherwise boring life. My nickname was “Mr. Clean” because I didn’t smoke or drink.

The only thing I think I can add is that I was entrusted with the Super 8mm film of our band trying to cover the movie “Hard Day’s Night”. We were all things Beatles in the ’60s.

We dressed like them, some of us cut our hair like them, we wrote songs like them – and then we did a silly film entitled, “When It’s Over” which was backed by the song of the same name.

The idea was this – what did the boys do after the gigs, when it was over. Over the years I forgot I had it. I then transferred it to video tape. Later I transferred it to DVD.

For the sound track I just took all of the 45s I had (some scratched) and played them behind the video. It is so silly yet so representative of who we were and what we did.

I had just turned 16 (and able to drive) when we started filming, so I used my Dad’s El Camino to drive all of us around. There is one scene in the movie where we are going over a bridge with all of the guys waving from the back.

About 30 minutes later I ended up almost totally in the truck coming back over the same bridge while rear ending my dentist’s wife in her Cadillac. She committed suicide 2 weeks later. My dad always made me feel like I was responsible (joking).

GREG: Yes. I was on the last record. It was so very, very hard for me to leave the band. It was more than a gig. These guys were my best friends. They were family to me.

I tried to keep coming back each weekend for rehearsals and gigs for a while, but it wasn’t working for the guys. Broke my heart when I was replaced but it was the right thing for them to do.

In a short time I was forming bands with guys I met a Cal Poly San Luis Obispo (SLO) with another Aero Engineering student, Mike Percy. We did a few gigs, The first group was The Eleventh Commandment but it didn’t go anywhere. Mike stayed in the business too and we had rivalry in other bands later.

I also came home one summer to Bakersfield and started a group called Colonel Salt’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the first Tribute Band that I ever heard of. We learned all of the Sgt Pepper’s songs and performed that summer and then disbanded. It was cool.

Around this same time (1967ish) Dave Riordan (singer, 12 string guitar – San Francisco, CA) was forming a band at Cal Poly. He got Bill Masuda (keyboards – Bay Area, CA), Bill Reynolds (bass and van – Richmond, CA), Liza Gonzalez (lead singer – SLO, CA), myself (lead guitar and singer – Bakersfield, CA) and Garth Redfield (drums)

Garth graduated right after the album was cut and was replaced by Nick Alexander. By the way, the reason I said Bill Reynolds was “bass and van” is because Kenny Zigoures (The Avengers) was also selected because he had “wheels”… not a van, but a station wagon to haul the gear. I guess it is a bass guy thing.

The birth of The Yankee Dollar

I’m sure I’ve read somewhere in the past that The Yankee Dollar were called something like Pacific Grass. Is this correct?

GREG: Yes. In order to be able to record our first album, our name was changed to The Yankee Dollar

If you did change band name, what were the reasons behind it?

GREG: We spent some time coming up with the perfect name, because that is one of the most fun things about starting a band. One of our early rehearsal places was a barn outside of town.

There was a large sign on a poll as we drove into the driveway. The utilities company in that part of California was run by Pacific Gas and Electric. It seemed like a sign from God.

So we became Pacific Grass and Electric. Being a college town in the 60s, this was THE most perfect name a group in central California could have. Later, when got a record producer who was trying to push our stuff through a conservative radio syndicate he said our name was too suggestive (duhhh?) and we would have to clean it up.

I can’t remember who (it was none of the band members), but the name The Yankee Dollar was selected. We wanted to have a record, so we caved in.

Are you both aware that The Yankee Dollar LP is held in such high regard by collectors of psychedelic music?

GREG: This was one of the most amazing things that I found out about quite accidentally. A friend of mine at work heard me talking about the group and he just started googling it and found all of these reviews and such in Europe. What a trip. I had no idea.

That is when we found out about Akarma records buying the rights to the album. MCA first bought the rights from Dot Records and then Akarma bought them. I was so surprised about the interest in the group.

LIZA: I had no idea. And it is a great honour. At the time what success we had seemed so insignificant in the music business that it is a big happy surprise to me now. I thought we were just a local phenom.

GREG: We grew up in the age of rock and roll gods – we never thought we would be recognized as anything special.

Which studio was used to record the songs for the album? How did the record deal with Dot come about?

LIZA: Art Laboe’s Original Sound on Sunset was the studio. Our producer was Frank Slay (produced Bobby Rydell, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Del Shannon and more).

Dave Riordan got us an audition with Frank in 1967 on campus at Cal Poly and Frank was impressed enough to get us to work with a number of writers connected with him like Tim Gilbert. Frank then shopped us with Paramount / Dot Records.

What are your memories of the recording sessions? How old would you have both been around this time?

GREG: I remember how the recording shaped us and changed us forever. We became a much tighter band and were able to go on stage and effortlessly pump out the songs that we normally would have struggled to get just right. The studio made us a much more professional group.

I was so impressed on my session where the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s lead guitar player was showing me all of his guitars – a few of which were guitars previously owned by Eric Clapton, this was like looking on gold in Fort Knox to me. Actually one of his guitars did have gold pickups.

LIZA: My voice was overworked from singing at live gigs, and I didn’t have any vocal technique then so my voice is very hoarse on the record. I wasn’t prepared for how tedious it was. I just liked to sing. But I do remember drinking lots of cough syrup to deal with my sore throat.

“Live And Let Live” was another Yankee Dollar arrangement of a Carter-Gilbert song. It’s a cool fuzzy Sunset Strip blast. Would have made a great single follow up to “Sanctuary”.

I really dig the swingin’ organ sound on many of the tracks. Was this a Vox Continental or a Farfisa? Which bands (if any) were you all influenced by?

GREG: That was a Farfisa. We all wished he had a Hammond, people in Hell want ice water, but that don’t mean they get it (Stole that from Liza). Bill Masuda was a church organist prior to joining the band.

He was fundamental to keeping the sounds of the California groups like The Doors and The Jefferson Airplane. We covered a number of the Doors songs and Bill could cover Ray Manzarek so well. He seemed to be in his groove at all times.

I would say that we were most influenced by the Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, Janis Joplin, Crosby Stills and Nash, Buffalo Springfield, etc. Some of the sound was manufactured by Frank Slay in that he was trying to make a more sell-able sound for us.

Prior to the studio, our sound was more raw and folk rock. Much of the artists of that period were turned off by a commercial sound, but we all caved to get the record out.

I forgot to mention this, but there is another connection between The Avengers and the Yankee Dollar. When our drummer graduated and we were searching for a drummer, we asked and got Gary Bernard to come over and play a gig with us.

He was so good that he picked up all of our songs immediately and everyone thought he’d been in the band all of his life. He was THAT good. I was proud to have him as an ex band member / friend.

Literally, more bang per pound (or inch) than any drummer of the time except for Ginger Baker (my humble opinion).

Where were the photos taken that adorn the album cover?

GREG: The cover and back photos were taken at the Paramount Ranch where a number of movies and TVs shows were filmed like Little House on the Prairie and M.A.S.H. It was a lot of fun.

There is also a mountain on the ranch that it is rumoured to be the mountain in the Paramount logo. Looks exactly like it too.

Did The Yankee Dollar appear on any TV Shows?

GREG: No TV shows – just live concerts.

As a set the album is very strong. The sound is a mix of San Francisco hippie vibe and Sunset Strip groove. I hear a strong Jefferson Airplane influence? But maybe that’s just Liza’s vocal delivery. What kind of sound were the band going for? Or did it just come out this way?

LIZA: My roots were in folk music and I was strongly influenced by We Five, Buffy Saint Marie, Judy Collins, Janis Joplin and Grace Slick. The latter two artists were part of what I call the “Sorrow.”

I never had the vibrato of Grace nor the grit of Janis but I loved to do their work. When I listen to my voice back then I think of it like seeing baby fat on your face – like sonic baby fat.

There are several folk rock standards psychedelicalized such as “Let’s Get Together” and “The Times Are A-Changin’, they sound great by the way. I really dig all of those songs written by the Gilbert-Carter songwriting team. “Sanctuary” is particularly strong and should have been a hit. How did The Yankee Dollar get to record so many of their songs?

GREG: “Let’s Get Together”was one of three iconic songs for our group. “White Rabbit”,”Light My Fire” and “Let’s Get Together”. For me “Together” spoke to a message our group was trying to get out.

We really related to it – I know I did. I was the weirdo re-arranger of the group and wanted to send another message by dramatizing Dylan’s great song, “Times”. Over half the song was cut because it was too long for the album (this really pissed me off), but this was another thing I thought our generation was trying to say.

We loved the Gilbert-Carter songwriting team. I loved Tim Gilbert’s “Yellow Glasses” so much that I bought a prescription pair for myself that can be seen on the album back cover. Personally, “Sanctuary” was one of two songs that I loved from the album. The other was “City Sidewalks”

LIZA: To answer the question about Gilbert-Carter, Frank Slay had had much success with them for several of his artists. They could tailor make songs to the groups that were recording. We had written several songs too, but the deals in Hollywood always had a hitch, and other writer’s materials was part of that deal.

At that point in my life I had never written a song – I had not developed that aspect of my musical creativity yet. Greg and Dave, however had. And Dave was later to write the song, “Green Eyed Woman” with the lead singer from Sugarloaf.

Are you aware that a group based in CA called Hardwater also recorded these songs? They used to be called The Astronauts.

GREG: When I got hooked up with folks from Italy and England that were collectors of the album, one fellow sent me a cassette of Hardwater, so yes, I am aware of them. I can’t find the cassette now (who listens to cassettes any more), but as I remember, they were a respectable group and the version was not at all bad. Good really.

Where did The Yankee Dollar typically play? Venues etc.

GREG: Mostly we played in San Luis Obispo. We played a Cal Poly a lot. We even “took over” the Entertainment Committee at Cal Poly. Dave was President and Greg was the Treasurer – we ALWAYS got paid first and fast!

We brought in the groups WE wanted to see, like Janis Joplin, The Doors, The Moody Blues.

We also organized a lot of dances at the Grange Hall on Broad Street. Our bass player, Bill Reynolds was an Architecture student and was VERY talented in creating posters like those for the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco.
They were incredible. And the sad news (to my knowledge) is that no one saved any of them. Beautiful psychedelic colours on silk screen. Maybe you can get Bill to talk about these.

Name some bands that you either supported or played on the same Bill with.

LIZA:We had an Entertainment Agent, I think it was Howard Rose. He got us as opening acts for the likes of Santana, Moby Grape and Country Joe and the Fish.

The album got a couple of mentions in Billboard trade magazine in 1968 but apart from this not a great deal of promotion or push seems to have taken place. Were you a bit disappointed with this?

LIZA: I didn’t know anything about promotion or trade. I had no ideas about the recording industry. I just wanted to sing. Bill Reynolds, however, has an incredible back story that I will not spoil by talking about it here. It’s really good.

You mentioned that the band started recording a second album. I take it that this was never finished? Any unreleased recordings exist or was the final Dot 45 “Reflections Of A Shattered Mind” / “Mucky Trucky River” all that came out of these sessions?

GREG: The back story on the second album is something of a bad memory. Unfortunately, by the time the second album was getting started, our group had growing pains in that three of us had one vision and the other three had another vision.

Looking back today it is another horrible reminder of how childish I was and filled with myself. It is something I have had many regrets about since. I love each and every one of the members, but it was ugly at that time.

Liza and I refused to do the studio work without getting paid. And although Frank had brought in orchestral instruments that gave us a completely grown up sound, I for one was not grown up enough to hang in with the group.

Sad but true. To my knowledge, and again Bill Reynolds has more of the back story on this, there are no tapes from the session and only the 45 is proof we did anything.

I can’t even remember the other songs now. I figure if the Beatles can have personal issues, it’s OK for us to have them too. Still, we ended on the wrong note, metaphorically speaking. Since then I have tried to reconnect with everyone and make some amends, but it’s old news now.

Soon after the breakout, Liza, Bill Masuda and I went to Pismo Beach to join a group that we named Rainforest. This was for me the most talented group I had ever been in.

The lead guitar player was a high school kid (President of the Senior Class) by the name of Harv House. I walked in all puffy and I asked to hear him play, figuring I would change his mind about lead. He proceeded to blow my socks, my pants and my shirt off with a Clapton riff. I said, “I’ll play bass.”

We had 4 part harmonies and a mix of genres unheard of from jazz, to folk, to rock to fusion. I was blessed to be on stage with these guys. Harv House (Now Bill House) went on to become a fabulous producer of Michael Nesmith, Little Richard, Spanky and Our Gang. We have him play on one of Liza’s CDs.

DAVE RIORDAN: It is a true mystery to me how The Yankee Dollar has emerged again in the retro interest of that time in the music biz. I’ve had a couple of conversations over the years with a variety of people like Jerry Corbetta (co-writer with me on “Green Eyed Lady”) about the in’s and out’s of Frank Slay and how close “Sanctuary” came to being a hit.

I think Greg surfaced this story as well, but through no fault of our own, Bill Gavin (Radio Mogul) did not place the record on his “recommended” list as he should have because of a previous problem with another song written by Tim Gilbert and John Carter, “Acapulco Gold”. Frank, Tim and John knew that “Acapulco Gold” was a trade name for a certain quality weed and they were hoping they could slide it by the “establishment.”

Being a Bible Belt kind of guy, Gavin did not like promoting marijuana / drugs and approved the song only to be embarrassed that he had recommended the record.

John Carter told me a version of this story as well when he was involved in producing my album for Capitol Records. Kids these days have no idea how sensitive the culture was to the “devil weed” in those days.

One thing I have learned about my own work over the years is that you need to be lucky as well as good sometimes for things to happen.

If “Sanctuary” had made its way through the political mills like “Green Eyed Lady” did later on, who knows how our (Yankee Dollar) lives might have been different. Fun stuff to ponder every now and then.

Liza… tell me a little about your musical roots and career?

LIZA: I taught myself to play guitar after seeing Peter, Paul and Mary in concert when I was 13. Then I discovered Judy Collins and Buffy Saint Marie and Joan Baez.

When I moved to Los Angeles, it was like starting all over again with no credits.

I worked in clothing boutiques from 1969 through 1981 before I got another big break singing backgrounds with Linda Ronstadt. I sang backups for Linda, Stevie Nicks, Bret Michaels and Clint Black before recording my first solo CD with Warner Reprise in Nashville… later an Indie Release. Musically speaking, singing country music was natural for me since I started with folk music and I was born a country girl.

Liza is a successful artist in her own right and continues to perform and make music today. Her website can be found here Cosmic Liza Jane. (the link is no longer active!!)

Wonderful reading this – brought back many memories. I was a student at Cal Poly and a friend of David Riordan during the time he put together “Pacific Grass and Electric” and through the time it became ”Yankee Dollar”.

I was their ”Manager” for about the first year (1967) but had no idea what I was doing (fortunately I found a career in Biotech). I had the privilege of being at the recording of their album with Frank Slay – very interesting time. It is nice that Liza and Greg’s’ memories are so good – brought back many for me.

** Since writing this article I have been made aware that Greg Likins died a few years ago.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: