My three brothers and I were raised by an ambitious father and an attractive mother in the entertainment section of Southern California. I had the chance to see show business from various angles in Los Angeles. A musician from age seven, a show-biz kid, a gofer, a film editor's apprentice, and later a broadcast executive. As a child of The Sixties, I was informed by rock and roll to "go where you want to go and do what you want to do." During rock and roll's classic age, I went inside places others dreamt about.
I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and they blew my mind. In the mid '60s, my father Don Sterling worked as an accountant with VeeJay Records, a rhythm and blues and rock and roll label. Wikipedia> VeeJay's biggest successes occurred in 1962-1964, with the rise of the Four Seasons and the distribution of early Beatles material: "Please Please Me", "From Me to You", "Love Me Do", "Twist and Shout", and "Do You Want to Know a Secret?", because EMI's United States company Capitol initially refused to release Beatles records.<
With Capitol Records asleep at the wheel, VeeJay seized the opportunity and released the Beatles' first album in the United States: "Introducing the Beatles." Suddenly my dad was bringing home Beatles records. His involvement in rock and roll made a deep impression on my young life.
The Beatles propelled several careers. Dad's friends from VeeJay, Jay Lasker, Lou Adler and Bobby Roberts, went on to form Dunhill Records and took dad with them. One day in Dad's car the Mamas and Papas' "California Dreamin'" came on the radio. "Kids, what do you think of this song?" he asked my brothers and me, turning up the volume. "It's really groovy!" we said. "Well, this group is my new client." We were thrilled. Dad took over as business manager for the Mamas and Papas, and several other Dunhill acts, bringing home some great albums and a few golden tickets.
Summer of 1966 Dad got us all tickets to see the Beatles at Dodger Stadium, their second-to-last stage concert. We sat in front row next to Beatle friend Peter Asher of Peter and Gordon, who went back and forth onstage bringing on the opening acts. The stage was out in the middle of the baseball diamond, with a huge space between it and the front row. Our view was partially obscured by link fences there to protect the Beatles from frenzied fans. And when the Beatles started singing, high-decibel screaming drowned out much of the sound. But "Day Tripper" and "Nowhere Man" sounded sublime live. with John, Paul and George's harmonies ringing out clearly above the din at Dodger Stadium, amid excitement more joyful than anything I've ever seen.
In an interview with the Beatles prior to the Dodger Stadium show, a reporter asks Lennon: "John, did you ever meet Cass of the Mamas and Papas?" He answers, "Yes and she's great, and I'm seein' her tonight."
The original Mamas and Papas played live just a few times and we saw most of their shows in L.A. At Melodyland Theater across from Disneyland, the opening act was Simon and Garfunkel. We hadn't heard of them, but they did a number called "The Pee Wee Song" that cracked us up. A woman sitting next to our mom pointed to Art Garfunkel. "That's my son," she said proudly. "They are wonderful!" our mom exclaimed. "Yeah, they're great!" we nodded.
In April 1967 my parents took me (for some reason without my brothers) to Laurel Canyon to visit Mama Cass Elliot, who had just given birth to daughter Owen Vanessa. I was nervous when they told me that I was the first person after the doctor and Cass to hold the baby. When the nurse handed her to me my smile grew wide as I rocked the tiny newborn of The Sixties' biggest Mama.
Our whole family visited Bobby Roberts of Dunhill Records and his wife Lynn at their Bel Air home for young daughter Brooke's birthday party. We met fitness giant Jack Lalaine. The Mamas and Papas' producer Lou Adler was with wife Shelly Fabres (who had a hit with "Johnny Angel" and later was a regular on the TV series "Coach"). We sat in the backyard chit-chatting when my parents told Mama Cass Elliot that I was a singer and guitar player. "Randy wants to be a rock star!" She was delighted. "Take voice lessons," Cass advised me. "Every professional singer has a trained voice." She was very nurturing. Those were days to remember; glad I still can. Cass died tragically in 1974 of a heart attack. (Contrary to popular belief, nothing to do with a sandwich.)
On Easter Sunday in 1966 we all went to Michelle and John Phillips' mansion in Bel Air for an Easter egg hunt. My brothers and I searched the expansive yard for hidden eggs with other kids (MacKenzie Phillips may have been there. Chynna, later of of Wilson Phillips, was born the following year). The hunt was probably a ploy to keep the kids occupied outside so the adults could do inside what adults did in The Sixties.
Bel Air was stodgier than Laurel Canyon, not many flower children were in the streets. But behind the iron gates of the Phillips' Bel Air house lay a den of iniquity. The previous resident was Jimi Hendrix who had stashed drugs around the place. Tales of mayhem in the Bel Air house are in Phillips' 1986 autobiography Papa John, which details the rise of the Mamas and Papas and the depths to which Phillips fell. Our mom told us they were disgusting, that Michelle threw used chicken bones on the floor. More likely it was the wild partying as described in John Phillip's book that our mother disapproved of. Mamas and Papas indeed! Say what you want about John Phillips, they recorded some great songs.
Jimi Hendrix opened for the Monkees at the Hollywood Bowl, Summer of Love 1967. My brother Bobby and I sat in a box-seat with Jan Berry of Jan and Dean, who was on crutches due to a wipe-out near Dead Man's Curve.
Hendrix played an ear-piercing set, his guitar was out of tune, he poured lighter fluid on it, set it on fire and gyrated around like a maniac. Afterward, a woman with a big natural walked through the aisles shouting, "He is fantatstic! Out of sight, far out!" We looked at each other like she was out of her mind. At the time I was a huge Monkees fan and their show was great! I got into Hendrix a couple of years later. Wish I'd appreciated him live.
Another great concert at the Hollywood Bowl was in 1968 with the Chambers Brothers, Steppenwolf and The Doors. "Light My Fire" was a huge hit then, though the Doors came off as strange to nine-year-old me. Jim Morrison sang with his eyes closed and leaned on his mic stand like a crutch. "This is the end" sounded very intense. The Chambers Brothers played a scary "Time Has Come Today." Steppenwolf put on a great show as usual.
In the book Papa John, Phillips notes that my dad Don Sterling was the accountant for the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. My dad's other music business clients included Steppenwolf, Mama Cass Elliot, Spirit, Boyce & Hart, Three Dog Night, Buffy Saint-Marie, Trini Lopez, David Crosby, Black Oak Arkansas, Johnny Rivers, Five Man Electrical Band and Black Sabbath.
Being in the proximity of musicians made me want to do that, although my dad didn't approve of my rock star ambitions. He saw first-hand the ups and downs of a rock musician's life. Fame was for most a flash of lightning, then poof, living in the past. From my dad's perspective, success in the music business was fleeting--with an exception: write a hit song, then hold on to the publishing rights. He did approve of my songwriting.
Steppenwolf and Boyce & Hart were guests at my Bar Mitzvah, where the band was led by well-know jazz guitarist Joe Pass. My own trio got up and played a few songs, "I'm A Man", "Ride Captain Ride" and a version of "You've Got A Friend" with lyrics changed to fit the occasion. After our set Bobby Roberts from Dunhill came over and whispered in my ear something that put a huge grin on my face. "I want to put you in the studio, make a record of that song and give it to your dad for Christmas." My heart lit up. This is it, I thought. It's coming. Bobby made good on his promise. One evening the next week, a limo containing three attractive black females picked me up and whisked us to a small recording studio somewhere in Hollywood. They were three very talented singers. We sang a few takes, and a couple hours later I had in my hand that most cherished possession: a vinyl record, with me on guitar, singing with the ladies' soulful voices behind mine. What a rush.
The family sat quietly during a session of Cass Elliot rehearsing with Dave Mason for their upcoming album together. Don occasionally took me to recording sessions, where I watched with rapt attention as Richie Podolor and Bill Cooper at American Recorders produced classic albums for Steppenwolf, Three Dog Night, Iron Butterfly, and Souther Hillman Furray Band. Richie had our family aboard his schooner at Marina Del Rey to watch the 1969 moon landing, on a small black and white TV.
The dark side of the era affected us. In the early days Don enjoyed handling the Mamas and Papas and other groups. They were successful, it was profitable. But calls started coming at home from clients who needed more money after going through their budget. One night, I picked up the phone and the caller said, "It's John Phillips. I need to speak to your dad." He didn't sound quite right. It frustrated my dad when his clients went through money like sand through their fingers.
One of my dad's clients was comedian Richard Pryor, a comic genius who was also crazy. One day in his office my dad got a call from Pryor's wife, frantic. "Richard just sped off with a loaded pistol; he said he's going to kill his lawyer, his accountant and then me!" My dad went out and bought his first gun that day.
At Beverly Hills High School, I sang and played guitar in a band called Something New Every Day. The bassist was Lucas Reiner, son of Carl and brother of Rob; drummer was David Heller, son of Liberace's manager; organist Steve's dad was post production supervisor for the MTM TV shows, and our band was managed by Jeff Smith, son of Warner Brothers Records president Joe Smith. We practiced at the Reiner's house and the Smith's. One night we played a show in the Smoking Room, a home-theater off the Smith's mansion. It filled with smoke as we played "Stairway to Heaven" and "Can't Get Enough" to a room suddenly packed with Beverly Hills High kids, high on life, rock and roll, and everything else.
My parents divorced, my dad remarried, and I went to live with him and my stepmother in Malibu, changing high schools from Beverly Hills High to Santa Monica High.
I became adept at dealing with the snobbiest of kids. I discovered there were privileges to being a mystery and advantages in meeting a new cast of characters. The Malibu crowd who snubbed me at first for wearing cut-offs to the beach, soon accepted me into their Ocean Pacifica wearing group, because I could jam. Playing guitar was my sport since I was seven. Putting bands together, leading jam sessions and sing-alongs. Music helped me to express myself better than I could alone. Music is rhythmic and poetic, seductive and spiritual. If feeling awkward at a party, I'd pull out an acoustic, sing a Led Zeppelin or Cat Stevens song, and get others to feel the emotion of their favorite songs. I made friends by strumming my six string and singing my heart out.
After high school, I worked for Premiere Market in Beverly Hills, going to stars' homes to deliver groceries and fresh produce. Often the star wasn't home but sometimes they were and I'd catch a glimpse or have a quick chat with folks like Burt Reynolds and Sally Field, Rod Stewart and Britt Eckland, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, Farrah Fawcett and Lee Majors, Burt Bacharach and Angie Dickensen, Cheryl Ladd, Dick Van Dyke, Peter Frampton, Candace Bergen, Ali McGraw, Charles Bronson, Bob Newhart, Tom Jones, Robert Redford. Went to Smokey Robinson's house almost daily and became friendly with his family. Jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald was very warm although I was in awe. I accidentally knocked over Mary Tyler Moore's little brick fence in her driveway with my delivery van. I felt bad, but she was very nice about it.
I'd see vendors on the streets selling "maps to stars homes." Most of the addresses in the maps were wrong. So... I made a little on the side updating the maps, you know, for the tourists. It was neither my first entrepreneurial venture nor my last.
Of his rocker clients dad was closest to Steppenwolf's founding members singer John Kay and drummer Jerry Edmonton. They'd come to dinner and have lively political discussions. Dad and I rode with Steppenwolf on their tour bus to a concert in Bakersfield, where they put on a great show. John Kay wrote an autobiography titled Magic Carpet Ride; in the chapter "Hippies with Money" he credits Don with advising him and his wife Jutta to buy a house in L.A. with their newly-acquired wealth. Dad later became Steppenwolf's personal manager. In the liner notes of their album "Slow Flux" it reads: "Special thanks to Don Sterling, without whom this album would not have been possible." I was pretty proud of my dad for that.
He arranged for me to audition my original songs for John Kay who was looking for new material. So, one day at his home studio on Nichols Canyon, I played for him "State of Stone," a song written in similar vein to Steppenwolf anthems "Magic Carpet Ride," "The Pusher" and "Don't Step On The Grass, Sam." Kay told me he didn't do drug songs anymore. "It's not a drug song, necessarily," I protested. He interrupted. "You're good," he said. "Stay with it."
I auditioned some of my tunes for David Cassidy, with the help of artist Chuck Levin, the brother-in-law of a friend, who acted as my agent and set up the audition. I played my songs for Cassidy in his bedroom with a group of groupies as an audience. He had charasma out the yin-yang. But I was more impressed than he. "Your stuff is good," he said. "Like I told my brother Shaun, keep at it." Ultimately Shaun had better luck. He also had better hair.
My band Mirage practiced in the drummer's garage on Broad Beach Road in Malibu, a few houses up from Neil Young's. We were practicing Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same" when Keith Moon, drummer for The Who, suddenly bounced into the garage. "Sounds good lads!" he exclaimed. Then he dashed off, came back moments later and handed each one of us an album called "The Story of the Who." He chatted us up awhile then left again. We saw him one more time, driving slowly up the street in a luxury Excalibur with a beautiful brunette by his side, grinning at us and waving. Keith Moon: Very cool neighbor. Moon died tragically the following year in 1978 of a drug overdose.
Worked as an apprentice film editor, syncing dailies and driving around Hollywood to film labs and studios such as Lions Gate, Paramount, Fox, Disney, Warner Brothers, Lorimar, Deluxe, and Technicolor. I was at Wildwood Films when a friend, film editor Jeff Wishengrad, asked me to write music for "Jazz Man" a movie he was producing and directing. I composed the song "Riding Time" that we recorded overnight at Warner Brothers Recording Studios in Burbank. I provided guitar and vocals on the track, and appeared in the film as a guitarist. At night, Mirage played gigs at Joan Rivers' Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills.
In 1984, I graduated from UC Santa Barbara just as my father completed construction on a new TV station in Ventura, Ca, KTIE-TV. He built a great property and ran it as owner-operator. My career in media began there, working side-by-side with Don.
Four years later my dad asked me, "Do you want to meet a billionaire?" He introduced me to the inventor of junk bonds and leveraged buyouts, the grandfatherly husband of young actress Pia Zadora, Meshulum Riklis. They bought the station and immediately changed the call letters to "KADY-TV" after their daughter Kady, but it took Don ten years to collect on the sale of that TV station. Riklis transferred ownership to other "entities" to avoid paying for it. Don battled and sued which became as challenging as building the station in the first place. He finally won in court, and collected payment on a sale that was made ten years earlier.
I returned to Los Angeles in 1989 to work for a TV rep firm. It was cool to be back on Wilshire Boulevard. But L.A. had started to decay. Traffic was maddening. Wildfires, floods and landslides were daily occurrences. Then came the riots. When I was offered a promotion to leave L.A. to manage our rep firm's Houston office, I jumped at the chance: it was time to go. I was 30, single, and up for adventure.
I liked Texas right away and found it easier to live there. Before long I met and fell in love with Yvonne Lopez. We married and settled in San Antonio, and 19 years later our priorities are raising four kids to be as un-messed up as possible, by avoiding the mistakes of our parents.
Meeting famous people and going backstage was a great part of growing up. But my family wasn't happy. We were six people going six separate ways. It's a striking contrast between then and now, from my psychedelic upbringing in L.A. to our children being raised supported by a large, loving family in San Antonio. Almost idyllic, I'm amazed at the stablility of their childhoods.
Playing in the TV-Radio-Advertising-Media game for nearly 25 years, I've promoted a plethora of products, persuaded plenty of purchasers, and counciled countless companies. One lesson learned is to not take professional jokesters too seriously. Seacrest, Stern, Limbaugh, Beck. They're entertaining but it's mind-boggling how powerful some DJs become. Which is fine. Just don't confuse them with people who actually changed the world, like the Beatles. My world in particular.
What I got: Money can't buy me love. Get your motor running. Let the sound take you away. Be a simple kind of man. Your time is gonna come. Everybody is a star. Don't spit in the wind. Don't eat yellow snow. Love the one you're with. If there's a bustle in your hedgerow don't be alarmed. Let it be. Give peace a chance. You can't hurry love. Come down from your fences, open the gate. Don't follow leaders and watch your parking meters. Take a sad song and make it better. Give a little bit. Respect yourself. Go where you wanna go and do what you wanna do.