A half-generation or more too old to go the way of full-on love beads, kaftans and impulsively imbibing Owsley Stanley’s fine-tuned lysergic acid diethylamide, the trio of Doug Cox, Denny Hardesty, and Steve Waltner nevertheless cut a swathe of sterling quality soft-psych, sunshine pop, garage-psych, frat rock, teener pop, and more, for their Southern California-based Corby Records across the late ‘60s. Performing together in various configurations since the dawn of the decade, the trio were immensely gifted musicians with a near psychic connection from their many years of collaboration: from folk duos passing the hat at coffeehouses, to pop-rockabilly combos, and chameleonically morphing with the sea changes of popular culture.
In February 1960, Steve Waltner was en route to Double Dubuque. “I just got the entertainment bug, and Wichita, Kansas, is probably not the place to try to get something to happen, especially in 1960. I hate cold weather, and at that point, New York and L.A. was really the only two major areas for this sorta stuff. So, I went west where it was gonna be warmer,” Waltner said. “I didn’t know a soul in California, I was just going out there to become the next Ricky Nelson!”
To appease his parents, Waltner enrolled at Pasadena City College, where he made some valuable connections and friendships during his time in the City Of Roses. “When I first got out to California I met Denny Hardesty. He was a guitar player, so he and I started working on songs that I was writing in his parents’ garage,” Waltner recalled. “He had a little tape recorder, and I had a little tape recorder. We’d go back and forth and put things together all the time. Y’know, trying to write a hit song, basically.” Hardesty also knew another two duck-tailed, greaser musicians, a rhythm guitarist and drummer, who further added to the madness, and soon the quartet—with Hardesty on lead guitar and Waltner on bass and lead vocals—were sketching out ideas for songs under the name The Altecs. Two custom singles, recorded at S&L Recorders in San Gabriel, circa 1961, were to come from this gestational period, with backing by The Altecs on both: Randy Robbins’ “Alarm Clock Blues” on Wilhelmina Records and Steve Wilson’s “Oh-De-Dum” on Pamela Records—both pseudonyms for Waltner.
A few short months after The Altecs formed, the third piece of the Corby puzzle came into view when Waltner pulled a card off the college bulletin board that said, “Looking For Guitar Player Who Sings.” Doug Cox was on the other end of the line and they quickly begin performing together as a Simon & Garfunkel-style folk duo under the name The Silverwoods. Waltner’s music career was about to take off, but so too was the situation in Vietnam. Hoping to avoid the PFC bodybag shuffle afforded draftees, Waltner enlisted in the Air Force and was stationed at Adair Air Force Station, outside Corvallis, Oregon. With neither the teen rockers, hit-seeking balladry, nor raw rockabilly from Waltner’s pen striking the consciousness of the public he began pondering an alternate attack.
“When this thing with the Air Force came up I continued working on [music]. It's when I was up [in Oregon] that I decided to just start doing our own thing. [Let’s quit] going to other record companies, start our own.” With some of his prior releases produced by his own dollar—despite being issued under supposed label names—Waltner (and his forever friends Cox and Hardesty) had little to lose, choosing to form Corby Records and Zulu Publishing as a three-way partnership, with Waltner as the linchpin.
But, why Corby? “[Cox] had a singing group when I first met him, [with] his sister and two other girls, and they called [themselves] Doug Corby & The Junior Misses,” Waltner said. “I’ve no idea where he came up with it, but I liked the name Corby. It just had a ring [to] me.” Upon proposing utilizing the name to Cox, he enthusiastically obliged. “We didn't have any formal agreement, but we were three best friends and there was a handshake-type thing.”
While based in Oregon, in addition to his own musical pursuits, Waltner began scouting regional talent. Corby’s first release by The Chancellor‘s (CR-200), was a duo of killer frat rock instros, pulled from the Pacific Northwest soil, a legendary breeding ground for frat, and the forthcoming wave of teenbeat and ’60s garage punk. KRKT jock Jim Hunter, based out of Albany, OR, waxed a novelty record originally penned as a poem by KFWB Hollywood radio DJ Bill Balance—which Waltner provided musical backing for—reflecting on ‘the teenage experience’ through somber recitation, “Just Being Young,” and paired it with a frat-bubblegum flip in “Sweet Lovin’” for their second release. Elsewhere Corby issued J. Michael & The Bushmen’s garage stomper “I Need Love,” and the sportcoat rock of “Moses” by future San Francisco psych combo Neighb'rhood Childr'n, when they were still going under the name The Navarros and based out of Medford, OR.
Steve Wilson—aka Steve Waltner—also cut a few early Corby sides, with a rollicking slice of surf-pop in “Out L.A. Way” and the folk-pop-rock of “Pretty Little Angel” (backed by The Bushmen on the latter, when Waltner was managing the Ben-Hur leather sandal’d and Fred Flintstone-inspired leopard print toga garb’d combo). During the three years Waltner was stationed in Oregon, “We pressed records at [Columbia Records Custom Pressing Dept. in Hollywood] and I promoted them all over the Northwest. I was up there, so I drove all over Washington, Idaho, and Northern California.”
After concluding his time with the Air Force, Waltner was primed and ready to return to The Big Orange and resume full-time work with his label partners. “When I moved back to California, that's when we actually got a studio,” Waltner said. San Gabriel’s S&L Recorders was owned by Harold Shock (the S of S&L) who, over Thanksgiving weekend of 1964, passed away after a tumble in his carport. Shock’s widow contacted Hardesty to inform them of the dire news, flecked with a bright silver lining for the future of the Corby label. “She told [Hardesty], ‘I know he would want you guys to have the studio,’” Waltner recalled.
“Our biggest drawback was, we felt we had talent to create stuff, but we didn't have the money to promote it. That's why most of our things we recorded with the idea of trying to get them leased to a major label, and we shopped them around,” Waltner recalled. And, on a few occasions, that idea marked bullseye well, despite not leading to tremendous sales. Waltner and Cox continued as writing partners into the later ’60s, issuing titles on different labels and under different names. In 1966, under the Deuces Wild they issued the instro “Keep On,” as Corby CR-211—today a modest Northern soul dancer—which was picked up by Vault Records stateside, Columbia in Canada, and garnered enough attention for the group to be selected to play alongside The Knickerbockers, James Brown, and Don Grady (aka Don Agrati, future Yellow Balloon bandmember) during a June of ’66 broadcast of Where The Action Is, filmed at the Newport Dunes on Newport Beach.
The following year, 1967, found the duo issuing a largely acoustic folk-rock ballad with Everly Brothers-influenced harmonies called “Soft Summer Breeze”—which this set cribs its name from—as two identical B-sides issued by two separate names, The Giant Crab and The Love’s Me Petal (for Corby and Roulette, respectively). On the Roulette release, interestingly, the A-Side, “Summer’s End,” is additionally a Corby re-cut of sorts, utilizing the backing track and melody from Ralph Geddes’ “Give Me Peace” (CR-209) from two years prior, with revised lyrics.
The original version of Geddes’ lonesome, E-Z surf, proto-psych masterclass with echoed guitar lines and bare, emotional openness closes Soft Summer Breezes: Corby’s Living Sound. Ralph Geddes, and his brother Paul, had long been around the revolving Corby-related studios, contributing to sessions, songwriting, and the like, after having both been members of actor/musician Aki Aleong’s instrumental surf outfit, Aki Aleong & The Nobles. (For those following the breadcrumbs, Aleong also went by the name Akim, of “Voodoo Drums” infamy, immortalized on N065, Technicolor Paradise: Rhum Rhapsodies & Other Exotic Delights.)
And of The Giant Crab? The name was initially one of the many for assorted Waltner/Cox compositions and releases, though having landed on KRLA with their first single “Listen Girl” b/w “Soft Summer Breeze,” Corby believed the group to have more legs than initially expected. So, after the first single was issued, Cox approached a Santa Barbara-based band he was acquainted with, Ernie & The Emperors, and asked if they would be keen to carry on with the name, to which they happily agreed. The Giant Crab quintet, comprised of two sets of Hispanic brothers, issued two further singles on Corby of fuzz-filled and horn-accented sunshine pop/psych-pop, led by the three Oroscos (Ernie, Raymond, and Ruben) and two Fricias (Dennis and Kenny) rounding out the lineup. Across a two-year span, after signing with UNI in 1968, the group released a further four singles and two full-length albums (which some of the Corby sides were re-recorded for), before some members evolved into the heavier combo Big Brother Ernie Joseph.
At the renamed Living Sound Recorders, Waltner’s prior emphasis on scouting local talent receded. Many of the releases issued simply originated via studio bookings, the golden-eared trio of Cox, Hardesty and Waltner being in the right place at the right time and proposing partnership after familiarizing themselves with a given band’s skills. And, to that end, the trio’s searching ears sought out lyrically complex, longing, frenetic, melodic and mellow compositions in equal measure, across folk-rock/soft psych (Bob Belche, The Morning Sun); the balladic, dreamy psychedelia primed for Swedish uber-collector Jorgen Johansson’s Fading Yellow series by J.C. Horton, and Alice (who later evolved into UNI act D.C. Hawk, and held in its ranks future Yankee Rose bassist Pete Currier); dark, Los Angeles garage-psych (Midnight Snack, Bedpost Oracle); tambourine-shakin’ soft garage-bubble-psych replete with cheap organ and elegiac jazz guitar lines (Leafy Wilson, backed by Bedpost Oracle); proto- power pop, Ronnie McFarlin’s ragged teen-pop and prescient country-rock more melodious than his latter-day, “Real People”-centric sides, and still had time to construct the lush, heartbroken, sunshine vibrations of Waltner’s “Can’t Make It Without You.”
After incorporating an additional partner which didn’t work out, and time generally taking its toll, Waltner sold his interest in Living Sound in 1970, moved to Santa Ana, and continued writing and recording, including mail-order demos for other artists done in his home studio. He’d later join the Scene III lounge trio, performing at local restaurants and bars when time allowed. Cox played with the KRLA Roadshow, produced and did arrangements for a variety of artists, started several labels each with a handful of releases including his own—Calico, Daisy, Sunbird, Utopia, etc.—and formed a new publishing company called Early Bird Music. Near the end of his initial music career of two-and-a-half decades starting in 1960, he also played for a few years backing up folk-pop almost-was Tim Morgon, whom he’d met when producing a session on him for Kapp Records ages back at Living Sound. But, once the constant sound of pounding drums lightly began fading from his consciousness, he realized he craved silence, not even peeking into the FM signal for a few years, focused purely on AM talk radio after decades into a raucous career. Today, the three partners in Corby Records remain close friends, and once again play music, but on a more hobbyist or personal edification basis.
Akin to the hand-like ‘C’ and ‘Y’ in the final Corby label logo grasping the ‘orb’—designed by his own hand, like the two before it—Waltner has held tight onto files, paperwork, tapes, and ephemera from this era throughout the decades, amassing an archive without which this compilation would not exist. Across a hard-won half-decade, Corby Records issued more than two dozen releases, quite notable for a ’60s indie upstart. They created a strong, impressive catalog, orbiting the fringe, only cracking the thin, brittle, outside edge of superstardom. With Soft Summer Breezes: Corby’s Living Sound, it’s now in your hands to grasp and cherish.
– Jeremy Cargill, July 2021