For many years, Nevada Supreme Court candidate John Mason told a tale about how he once played guitar with the Surfaris, the 1960s two-hit-wonder rock ‘n’ roll band.
In more recent years, Mason, an Incline Village attorney and former Republican state chairman, has been plagued by charges—most spectacularly in a front-page Wall Street Journal story in 2001—that he made it all up.
For a long time, Mason’s original story was taken at face value, so much so that U.S. Rep. James Gibbons was once quoted saying, “I knew of John Mason when he was a rock star. But I didn’t put it together until he or somebody else said, ‘This is the John Mason that is the guitarist with the Surfaris.’ “
Well, Mason was never a rock star, and it’s unlikely Gibbons remembers any John Mason being a guitarist with the Surfaris. Mason was never that big. But a RN&R inquiry strongly suggests that Mason was a Surfari for a time, and he was telling the truth all along.
His account is that he was hired to go on tour as a member of the band after it scored its monster hit, “Wipe Out.” But Mason was never able to produce anything like proof, such as a pay stub or stage pass. And skepticism, particularly after the Wall Street Journal piece, became so widespread that it cost Mason credibility, so he stopped making the claim and finally withdrew it entirely.
“It became a burden, and I decided I had to get out from under it,” Mason says.
When he announced his candidacy for the Nevada Supreme Court on Nov. 18, Brendan Riley of the Associated Press’s Carson City bureau wrote in his story, “His clients aren’t his only tie to entertainment. A Southern California native, Mason played guitar during the 1960s in the Surfaris, best known for its song ‘Wipe Out.’ ”
Mason responded with a letter to Riley backing away from the claim. That opened the floodgates. A Las Vegas columnist ran a piece saying she knew it all along, the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a story flatly calling Mason a liar, bloggers posted items about the matter, it was discussed on a Reno television show.
Through all of this, what no one seemed to do was check out Mason’s story.
The story is that record producer Donnie Brooks hired Mason and several other young musicians to go out on tour as the Surfaris. In the course of the tour, something happened that caused it to be cancelled midway (there are conflicting accounts over what that was—unpaid bills, licensing problems).
When the Wall Street Journal called Brooks in 2001 to confirm Mason’s story, Brooks was uncertain: “Mr. Brooks says he doesn’t remember doing that but allows that ‘it could have happened.’ ”
Apparently, when the conflict over Mason’s claims was revived this year, no one in Nevada ever bothered to contact Brooks, who now says that, a few days after he spoke with the Wall Street Journal in 2001, he talked to his associate, record producer John Marascalco.
Brooks says Marascalco, a widely known songwriter (“Rip It Up,” “Good Golly, Miss Molly”) for Little Richard, Fats Domino and Harry Nilsson, listened to his account of the conversation with the Journal reporter and said, “Don’t you remember? I told you to do that.”
Marascalco, who held the early rights to some of the Surfaris songs (including “Wipe Out,” which he licensed to Dot Records), assigned Brooks to organize a Surfaris tour and hire new members of the group to promote the Wipe Out album because the original Surfaris, a classic garage band, was composed of high school students who could not go on the road.
Once Marascalco jogged his memory, Brooks says it all came flooding back to him in detail. He even remembered Mason—”This guy Mason was ticked off at me [because of the premature end to the tour]. … I hear he’s a lawyer now.”
Brooks is himself a former teen singer (“Mission Bell,” 1960) who has three gold records, made a couple of albums and three movies—he appeared at Reno’s Mapes Hotel in March 1962—before turning to record producing and concert promotion. He is now a Burbank producer and an inductee in the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. His recollection of the details of the Surfaris tour closely matches the story Mason told all along.
He says of that troubled tour, “I was a young, new booker at that time.” But he says the use of the Surfaris name was properly licensed, and the tour was a genuine Surfaris tour: “Oh, no, I never had a [legal] problem with the use of the name.”
Brooks says when he first pointed out to Marascalco the problem with the Surfaris being in high school, Marascalco said, “Just get another group.”
While it may seem odd to hire new performers to be members of bands, it is in fact a common practice. Glen Campbell, for instance, is a genuine Beach Boy; he was hired to fill in for a missing member of the band in 1964 and ‘65. Some officially licensed tours of groups feature no original members at all.
Whatever other faults the 1963 Surfaris tour may have had, every indication is that Mason signed on as a member of the group with a reputable producer who had the legal right to the Surfaris name, toured as a Surfari in good faith and has every right to assert the claim.