Coronavirus

Love's Johnny Echols on Playing With Little Richard vs. Chuck Berry

Johnny Echols
Mike Windle/WireImage

Johnny Echols attends Gibson GuitarTown III celebrating the 2013 Sunset Strip Music Festival on July 17, 2013 in West Hollywood, Calif.

Johnny Echols made his rock n' roll name with Love, serving as lead guitarist and a writer on the iconic Los Angeles group's first three albums -- and now leading the current incarnation of the band. Before that, however, Echols had an association with the late Little Richard, in the studio and even touring with him in Europe. The relationship actually dates back to the Memphis-born Echols' childhood in California, and on the same day Richard was laid to rest in Alabama, Echols -- one of the artists featured in Epix's upcoming Laurel Canyon docuseries, premiering May 31 -- recalled his experiences with rock's indelible Quasar.

I met Richard the first time through my uncle. He used to manage the California Club, which was what they used to call part of the Chitlin' Circuit, and I met Richard there. But then Richard also used to come through the neighborhood when I was a kid growing up; I think he had a relative that lived in our neighborhood, and he used to come and hand out dollar bills to the kids. I knew him from that long before I met him musically.

Richard was very easy to play with, I'll put it that way. He had a specific way of doing things. He was quite different.... Like, Chuck Berry expected everybody to know his stuff, and if you missed one note he would be all over you. Richard was different than that; He would give people the space to kind of experiment within the stuff, and after he heard it he'd say, 'I like that' or 'Could you do something a little bit different?' or whatever, whereas if you played with Chuck and you didn't play his stuff exactly the way it was, he's liable to come over and slap you or something.

He was an absolutely different person than the rock n' roll persona he developed and husbanded. He was a very intelligent man, a very well-spoken, soft-spoken man. And it was really strange, almost like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He would be just regular Richard and he's talking in a deeper voice and he's articulate, and all of a sudden he goes into that character where he's this wild, flamboyant, sexually ambiguous persona -- and it was definitely kind of disconcerting, especially 'cause I was still a kid and it was kind of hard to get next to the reasoning, why he was doing that. It didn't seem contrived; It seemed like that was who he was, but it was totally contrived. That's not the way he was at all.

He called it campaigning. He loved wrestling and people like Gorgeous George and those wrestlers who would do that kind of thing. They were always self-promoting. And Muhammad Ali. Well, Richard did the same thing, and I think (Love frontman) Arthur Lee got that from Richard, 'cause he was always self-promoting and taking credit for stuff he never had anything to do with. I guess he learned that from Richard.

Richard gave us the best advice anyone could have given us, about owning the publishing of our songs because we owned Grass Roots Music, and the lion's share of money is made through publishing, licensing your works to someone else or people covering it or whatever. It was always, 'Johnny, you better own your stuff! Don't ever let them take your stuff from you!' -- that's how he talked. So that was something we took to heart, and we signed with Elektra because of that. We had been offered nice sums of money to sign with Capitol and Columbia and Decca, but we went with Elektra because they were the only ones that would allow us to own the publishing, and that came directly from talking to Little Richard.

So I will forever be grateful to Richard for doing that, because it's allowed me to play music as my only job my entire life, and to live comfortably. And I'm so sorry I didn't get to talk to him before he died. I tried to reach him through several people I knew, but I never spoke to him before he passed. But I'm so grateful I had the time with him that I did.

THE BILLBOARD BIZ
SUBSCRIBER EXPERIENCE

The Biz premium subscriber content has moved to Billboard.com/business.


To simplify subscriber access, we have temporarily disabled the password requirement.