Thursday, June 29, 2006

The Mike Deasy Story

[The following is an article I wrote for Mojo magazine in August 2001 that never made it to print. I'm sorry they didn't use it, because Deasy was so gracious in telling me his story. I haven't been in touch with him since then, and hope he is still active. He was still an amazingly powerful guitarist in 2001; I saw him perform before Pentecostalist churchgoers and he really slayed them. If you'd like to reprint this story, please e-mail me, dawneden -at-]

When imagining the prototypical Sixties session musician, one generally pictures a clean-cut gent in shirtsleeves, not a bearded hipster bearing incense and a goatskin rug. Then again, there weren’t many studio musicians like Mike Deasy, a powerhouse guitarist who cut a wide swath through Los Angeles studios. Even as he juggled sessions with Phil Spector, Brian Wilson, and Elvis Presley, he found time to record acid-drenched psychedelic albums under names like the Ceyleib People and Friar Tuck.

Deasy, now a successful Christian musician, has never before spoken to the press about his Sixties exploits. Reached by phone while on tour in Lexington, Kentucky, he says that he started playing rock and roll while attending high school in an L.A. suburb. Upon graduation in 1959, he joined Eddie Cochran's band, the Kelly Four, playing both baritone sax (you can hear him on Cochran's "Hallelujah I Love Her So") and guitar.

After Cochran's untimely death in April 1960, Deasy toured with the leaderless group for a time before returning to L.A. There, he quickly developed a reputation as an astonishingly dextrous--yet disciplined--guitarist, equally comfortable reading music charts or improvising fiery riffs. By the end of 1965, he was doing 15 sessions a week including ones for the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds, which he remembers fondly. "Brian Wilson couldn't write out the musicians’ parts, and he didn't hire an arranger to do it. Instead, he would say to each musician, 'Now, you play this,' and he would hum out a part. He could describe sounds to you, too. If you just listened to one part of it without hearing all the others, it almost didn't make sense. But we all knew that we were going somewhere with this music."

Although Deasy only did a few sessions with Phil Spector, he is often named as a member of Spector's legendary Wrecking Crew, because he recorded frequently with Crew members such as drummer Hal Blaine, bass player Joe Osborne, and keyboardist Larry Knechtel. Together, Deasy says, this elite group had a chemistry that belied their studio origins. "We played with each other twelve, fourteen hours a day. A person could walk in with a song, and, without any rehearsal, we would record the song and sound like we had been playing it all our lives."

In 1967, Deasy contributed psychedelic guitar stylings to recordings by producer Curt Boettcher's groups the Ballroom and the Millennium. (He says Boettcher and friends would jokingly put microphones on incense to pick up the "good vibes".) He also produced several trippy recordings of his own, most notably Tanyet, a mystical concept album by a studio act called the Ceyleib People. The players included Deasy himself (under the pseudonym Lybuk Hyd), Ry Cooder, and future Derek & The Dominos drummer Jim Gordon.

Although Tanyet (available on CD from Drop Out/Demon) failed to chart, it increased Deasy's reputation as one of rock's finest sitar players. When he was hired to play sitar, he would charge double his usual rate, but he gave added value. "I would take a goatskin rug and burn incense."

One night in 1967, Deasy crossed paths with rock's other great sitar player. "I was working with [The Mamas & The Papas'] John Phillips at Western Studio B, when this entourage of people in drapey clothes came walking down the hall. One of them came in and sat down with me in the studio, just hanging out.

"I had this guitar that didn't have any frets, and it could make some really interesting sliding sounds. This guy was interested, so I handed it to him, and he was a good guitar player. We played guitars for about 45 minutes. It turned out he was George Harrison! I had no idea."

In 1968, producer Bones Howe tapped Deasy and James Burton to play guitar in Elvis Presley's comeback TV special. When Elvis played the guitar at the beginning of the special, he was actually miming to Deasy’s playing. "Elvis was at his best when he was with other musicians. He was most relaxed then, because he could be himself. What he really loved was things like when we were sitting around in a circle, playing guitars and singing."

In June 1969, six months after the wildly successful Elvis special, Mike Deasy was on the verge of losing both his health and his sanity. It started when Terry Melcher, who was then employing him as a guitarist, producer, and engineer, innocently suggested he visit a group of hippies at the Spahn Ranch. "Terry said, 'Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson found this singer up in the hills.'"

The singer was Charles Manson. "I had a trailer with a four-track unit that I was going to use to record the Hopi Indians. Manson and the Family lived like a bunch of Indians, so Terry said, 'Why don't you go check it out?' So a friend of mine and I went up there to record their songs."

Deasy won't go into detail about his three-day encounter with the Family (only two months before the Tate-LaBianca murders), calling it a descent into hell. "I felt this great fear of the evil that was there." Overwhelmed, he overdosed on LSD. "I took so much acid, I couldn't get down. I was having so much difficulty with my own mind. Here I am, working with Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys, I'm at the height of everything I've dreamed of doing, I've got a wife and beautiful kids, and all of a sudden I've wrecked it. It all crashed down, and I couldn't put it back together."

When Deasy made it home, still in a state of drug-fueled paranoia, he knew he had to get help. "I tried everything I could. I went to Jungian analysis, I went through transcendental meditation, and nothing was working."

After facing hell, he was ready for heaven. "I went to a Billy Graham crusade where I heard the gospel of Jesus Christ, and I ran to Jesus to set me free from all the terror of drugs."

During the early Seventies, in between playing on albums by Billy Joel and Frank Sinatra, as well as the soundtracks for "Dirty Harry" and "Play Misty for Me," Deasy entered the Christian recording world. By mid-decade, he had produced and written songs for several hit Christian albums, often working with his wife, Kathie (the sister of saxophonist Jim Horn). Today, while he continues to record his own music (available from his Web site,, he concentrates his efforts on "Yes to Life," an antidrug musical presentation that he performs in schools.

Listening to Deasy's fuzz guitar on the Association's "Along Comes Mary" or his acoustic fingerpicking on Scott McKenzie's "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair)," one senses a level of genuine feeling that was rare for studio musicians of his time. "Once, I was talking with Tommy Tedesco and Dennis Budimir, who were both fine studio guitarists, and we agreed that the difference between me and them was that I liked what we were doing. They really loved jazz. I'd worked with jazz groups, and I liked that too. But I actually liked playing rock and roll."

Visit Mike Deasy on MySpace.