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Skinny Jimmy’s Picks: 5 underappreciated surf bands of the first wave

Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of special features on instro surf music by Skinny Jimmy Stingray, a guitarist and longtime fan of vintage instrumental rock. His past and future columns can be found here on The Atomic Grog.

Guests at the special Retro Rekindled event at The Mai-Kai on Dec. 15 not only caught a great set of tunes by Skinny Jimmy and his band [See all the videos here], they also enjoyed The Atomic Grog’s in-depth interview with the guitarist, titled “From punk rocker to surf guitarist: Skinny Jimmy Stingray’s musical journey.” You can check out the full presentation here:

Among the many topics discussed were Jimmy’s favorite bands of the first wave of instrumental surf (late ’50s through mid-’60s) that may not have achieved the fame of some of the genre’s more widely known artists. Before the live set, we treated the attendees to vintage recordings of songs from these artists, whose achievements are no less influential and memorable than their more popular peers.

Here’s the list along with some select YouTube audio. We urge to you find more vintage recordings by these overlooked artists.

Skinny Jimmy’s Picks: 5 underappreciated surf bands of the first wave

Skinny Jimmy Stingray and his band perform at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale in November 2019
Skinny Jimmy Stingray and his band perform at The Mai-Kai in Fort Lauderdale in November 2019. (Atomic Grog photo)

By Skinny Jimmy Stingray

My love of instrumental surf music has made me something of an archaeologist, searching for the next obscurity from the vintage surf era that I haven’t yet heard. I couldn’t begin to count just how many bands released instrumental rock ‘n’ roll guitar singles between 1958 and 1964 that are still worth seeking out, if not worth owning in one’s collection.

During this era, there was a vast amount of serious bands producing music – both professionally and as D.I.Y. artists. Many of these bands were important and vital to the scene during their day. However, over the years, they have remained under the radar and lack the notoriety they deserve.

Their names are spoken only in small, hardcore surf music geek circles consisting of people like me. And so, I bring you five of the most underappreciated surf bands of the first wave:

1. The Original Surfaris

They had to change their name when another California band called The Surfaris gained fame with Wipe Out, but The Original Surfaris from Fullerton, Calif., (circa 1962-1965) were arguably one of the best surf bands of the first wave. They had a powerful sound and made a lasting impact with their original songs, many of which were later covered by bands from every succeeding wave.

2. Avengers VI

Formed in 1964 in Anaheim, Calif., this very young, but very professional, six-piece band released several memorable songs. Time Bomb is still a favorite cover by surf bands today. They disbanded in 1968 after releasing just one album, Real Cool Hits, via the Good Humor ice cream company. That’s no joke, and neither was this cool band.

3. Jan Davis

Not a band, per se, but a studio guitarist with several memorable solo singles in the mid-’60s. Davis had a cool, raw guts sound with a crazy “devil may care” style of playing. He’s also a footnote as the guy who contributed the yelling vocals to Dick Dale’s Miserlou. Davis later switched styles, but his surf guitar songs still resonate all these years later.

4. The Revels

Known for their lean and mean Jazzmaster Jaguar guitar sound, The Revels were very influential and actually pre-dated the first wave’s peak. Many of their songs were later covered by better known surf bands. They came together in San Luis Obispo, Calif., in 1959, but disbanded by late ’62 when several members were drafted into the military.

5. The Challengers

This very prolific group, consisting of members of The Bel-Airs, formed in 1962 in Los Angeles and produced a staggering amount of recordings. Surfbeat (1963) was one of the genre’s most influential records, and the band even had their own TV show. But they faded into obscurity by the late ’60s, only to be discovered by later generations of surf music archaeologists.

The Challengers reunited in 1995 to record an album, and legendary guitarist Paul Johnson (who wrote the classic Mr. Moto with The Bel-Airs) was active in the surf music scene until leukemia slowed him down in recent years. Contribute and get updates from Paul on this GoFundMe page.

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