Joel Larson is a respected drummer in two major epicenters of change in the rock and roll world. As a member of several well known rock groups, he was in the heat of the action in popular music during the turbulent 60’s and 70’s. He learned and practiced his artistry in two key cities in California, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Joel was born in San Francisco at St. Francis Hospital on April 29, 1947. He was raised in the Richmond district until he was twelve years old. He lived in the area across from Lincoln Park where the Palace Of Fine Arts is located. He attended Alamo Grade School and Presidio Junior High. His family then moved to Avalon Park and he attended Parkway Junior High where his interest in music peaked. In his music class, he wanted to play drums right away but the section was already full so his teacher gave him a trombone. He could be seen playing his trombone while looking over his shoulder at the drum section with intense desire in his eyes. He kept telling his teacher he would play a tambourine or wood blocks but he was always told the section was full. He finally got his wish at home one day when he received a snare drum from his parents. He was always after them about it. He added a hi-hat and soon after a bass drum and he was on his way. It all started there. He then formed a band with Gene Karate & Don Verett called The Intruders Four. They played gigs at the Starlight Hoffbrau, where they jammed for five 45 minute sets a night. They covered many top 40 songs of the day. The group did this for several years and Joel learned and practiced, honing his drumming skills and style.
He went on to attend South San Francisco High School. One night, Joel made his way down the El Camino Real to the YMCA Rec Center and saw a group called The Bedouins on stage playing. They were wearing white Levi’s and plaid Pendleton shirts. They would rock back and forth and do steps in sync. The Bedouins were doing surf music popular at the time and Joel immediately wanted to be in the band. Joel tracked down the group to a place where he had learned they did rehearsals. It was Tanforan race track and The Bedouins were using a barracks building to rehearse so they could turn their amps all the way up! He joined the band shortly after.
Willie Fulton played lead guitar and sang, Denny Ellis played rhythm guitar and Dave Stensen played bass. During this time, Joel really started getting familiar with the music scene around San Francisco. He would make trips to Searsville Lake where he watched The Beau Brummels playing. They were a few years older than him and he would wait patiently for their drummer John Peterson to take a break and he would jump right in and do the drumming until he returned. It was a thrill for him to experience playing with an established well known band. If he wasn’t playing with The Bedouins, working or going to school, Joel could be found standing outside the San Francisco clubs. He would see groups like Sly & The Family Stone (he was called Sylvester Stewart then) and other professionals coming and going. He would listen to the bands from outside and was very interested in the whole music scene. He continued to learn and expand his playing style with The Bedouins. They won a Battle Of The Bands at the Teenage Fair in San Mateo and word began to spread about the band.
The first time Joel heard about a group called The Grass Roots was when Arthur Lee would perform by that name. Lee also has a publishing company called Grass Roots Music. In the early days, Lee would randomly perform as Love, The Grass Roots or December’s Children. Early in 1966, Dunhill Records ran a newspaper ad in San Francisco looking for bands to audition at the Whisky A Go Go on Grant Street. The Bedouins manager named Lou Alexander got the group together for the audition. Producer Lou Adler and Whisky owner Elmer Valentine were there. They told The Bedouins that they were exactly what they were looking for.
Within a couple of weeks the group was on their way to Los Angeles to record. They went to the legendary Western Studio 3 and crossed paths with The Mamas & The Papas, The Beach Boys, The Turtles, Johnny Rivers and even Ann Margaret. Now as The Grass Roots, the group recorded for two days and produced 10-12 tracks. Joel was using Hal Blaine’s drums because they were far superior to his own. Arthur Lee never released a song on a record label as The Grass Roots, so the name was open for use by any group that wanted to claim it by releasing a record. Sloan & Barri and Dunhill Records did exactly that with their first Grass Roots release Mr. Jones (Ballad Of A Thin Man). The Grass Roots immediately started playing live around Hollywood beginning with appearances at The Trip on Sunset Boulevard as the house band and occasionally as warm up band for Johnny Rivers at the LA Whisky A Go Go. They were not allowed in the house except to play their set because they were too young. They were escorted outside right after their sets.
Joel really liked the music scene in LA and got to know group members with performers like James Brown, The Four Tops, The Beau Brummels and The Byrds. Joel handled the drums for Michael Clark when he was sick. After a period of a several weeks, The Grass Roots returned to San Francisco and were then called by the president of Dunhill Records. He told them that Mr. Jones (Ballad Of A Thin Man) was taking off as a regional hit and he wanted the group back in LA. The Grass Roots loaded up their 1956 Chevy with all their gear and headed for LA. Joel and two others sat up front and the fourth member was lying on top of the equipment in the back. As they were driving into Los Angeles, what else but Mr. Jones (Ballad Of A Thin Man) came on the radio! The group went wild with joy. They were shouting and banging on the roof of the vehicle as their song played. It was really a big moment in Joel’s life hearing their music playing as they came into town. The record company also flew all the group’s mothers to LA because The Grass Roots were all too young to sign contracts!
The record company immediately kept them busy by using them as TV back-up band for The Mamas & The Papas and Barry McGuire. The Grass Roots flew to New York and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show at Studio 54 and took part in the first color broadcast of the show. Joel’s father had never been too excited about him getting involved with rock and roll but after he saw him on Ed Sullivan, he was proud of Joel’s accomplishments. Joel went from “That son of mine” to “My Boy!”
When the group settled back into LA, they got an apartment together at the Tropicana in the heart of the Hollywood action. Joel rubbed elbows with the likes of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and members of Buffalo Springfield. One time he jammed with Jimi Hendrix when Buddy Miles got too drunk and fell off the drum stool. The Grass Roots continued playing gigs around LA for about a year until members Fulton, Ellis and Stensen decided to form a group called The Unquenchable Thirst and returned to San Francisco. The president of Dunhill Records, Jay Lasker offered Joel the opportunity to get new members and continue as The Grass Roots but he decided to play with Gene Clark & The Band in its first incarnation. Gene and Joel were also short time members of The Flying Burrito Bros.
He later met Emitt Rhodes and formed The Merry-Go-Round which was very popular with its brand of Beatle influenced melodies. They had a hit with the song “Live” and appeared on TV to promote it. The Merry-Go-Round material has been recently re-issued on Rev-Ola Records and Joel has been asked to get the band back together for a Japanese tour. He is currently tracking down all the members to see if he can make it happen. After his time with The Merry-Go-Round, he played with The Turtles. He then had an opportunity to play with Lee Michaels, a major artist in the California scene. He played four songs on Michaels’ Barrell LP and then went on to support him throughout Michaels’ famous 5th LP that contains the huge multi national hit “Do You Know What I Mean”.
During this time, Joel became friends with first Warren Entner, then Rob Grill, Rick Coonce, Dennis Provisor and Terry Furlong. They were busy carrying on the name of The Grass Roots. He was always available to sit in on drums at rehearsals or any time he was needed. When an opening occurred in the band, it was natural for him to have an interest in returning to the group that he helped start. He rejoined the group in 1971 and was a group member on the Move Along and Alotta’ Mileage albums with two other new members, Virgil Weber and Reed Kailing. In 1975 Entner, Weber and Kailing left the group. He played again with Dennis Provisor and new member Reggie Knighton on the self titled Grass Roots LP, which featured the song Mamacita. After this time, whenever Rob Grill was not using the group name, he recruited other band members and toured as The Grass Roots in late 70’s to the early 80’s, throughout the US.
When Rob began using The Grass Roots name again, Joel started getting active in the night club business promoting dance nights with John Dunn at clubs that he was so familiar with over the years. It was the new wave era in rock and he worked with a DJ named Riki Rachtman who went on to fame as VJ for MTV on Headbangers Ball. Joel partnered with local radio stations like KROC which helped promote the events with live broadcasts. He did this for over four years. Joel then had an opportunity to work with his wife in property management and oversaw several large complexes in the San Fernando Valley until an earthquake damaged the property, about four years later. Liking this work, Joel and his wife did the same job for several hi-rise complexes in the Hollywood Hills and began making investments in real estate over a ten year period.
In 2000, his brother-in-law told him about an opportunity to work as a teamster in the movie and TV entertainment field. Again Joel started making good use of his experience touring the country as a musician for all those years. Driving, setting up and tearing down equipment was a mainstay of his life on the road. Joel loves his continued involvement in the entertainment industry. He now works as a driver & coordinator for movie productions like the recent film Starsky & Hutch. He drives very large vehicles and is involved in setting up equipment in the production department at different shooting locations. With all his years of experience, he can handle anything on wheels and enjoys helping to coordinate a smooth production. He has recently worked on the Mission Impossible and Iron Man movies and a TV commercial starring Mariah Carey. His past credits include movies such as Sideways, Holes, Starsky & Hutch and TV shows E-Ring. Heist, Two & One Half Men and Big Bang Theory. He gets to travel to many locations in the US. He has built a long list of credits which include major motion pictures such as Mission: Impossible III (2006), The Bucket List (2007), Iron Man (2008), I Love You, Man (2009), Iron Man 2 (2010) and Thor (2011).
On May 29, 2010, Joel took part in the US Premiere screening for "Emitt Rhodes - The One Man Beatles" film at the Rhino Records Pop Up Store in Westwood, California.
On April 29, 2011, Joel’s 64th birthday, he took part in the High Moon Records label launch party at the Roxy in Los Angeles with his former Gene Clark Group members Chip Douglas and Bill Rinehart. They celebrated the release of Gene Clark's "Two Sides To Every Story" and Love's "Black Beauty". There was a musical tribute to Gene Clark and Arthur Lee.
Since the 80’s, Joel has been active in music as well, playing with group members from Paul Revere & The Raiders and The Buckinghams. He continues with his Grass Roots connections by playing gigs with Brian Naughton who appeared with The Grass Roots in the early 70’s. Brian is on the back cover photo of 16 Greatest Hits as the mysterious 5th group member. Joel continues to foster good friendship and contact with all other members of The Grass Roots, as well. He is proud to call himself one of the original “Roots”. In 2009, Joel was playing and recording with The Merry-Go-Round co-founder and solo artist Emitt Rhodes and Counting Crows co-founder Matt Malley.
Joel has a solid foundation as one of California’s top drummers and he has left a musical legacy to prove it. As the years pass, his work with The Grass Roots, Gene Clark, The Merry-Go-Round and Lee Michaels will continue to be enjoyed by listeners around the world.