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Laguna Beach


Headliner James Clay Garrison will rock the stage at the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center on February 5

By MARRIE STONE

In the great debate about whether musicians are born or made, James Clay Garrison might be a bit of both. The virtuoso guitarist and vocalist calls himself the “walking iPod.” Ray Charles once referred to him as music’s “utility man.” Name a song and, regardless of sound or style, Garrison can probably play it. For someone entirely self-taught, his ability and range are remarkable. Nothing feels off limits.

How does that kind of prodigy happen? How can one man straddle so many genres and styles while remaining successful in a cut-throat industry for more than 50 years? According to Garrison, it’s a combination of authenticity and adaptation. It’s also lots of time at task and inherent talent. Some of it may even have been his early exposure to the music scene. 

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Courtesy of James Clay Garrison

James Clay Garrison has been performing since the 70s with legends like Eddie Van Halen, Ray Charles, Stephen Stills and Brian Wilson. His lifelong passion for music and instinct for perfectionism have made him a force in the industry for almost 50 years.

As a kid, Garrison sat in Spain’s nightclubs with his father, absorbing the flamenco guitar. As an adult, he shared a stage with some of the most iconic musicians of the late 20th century, including Eddie Van Halen, Brian Wilson and Stephen Stills. The local legend began touring at age 14 and recorded his first album the following year. Now nearing retirement, Garrison has never stopped performing. He’s toured the world on stage, recorded albums, played for television shows, commercials, movie soundtracks, video games and voiceovers. 

On Saturday night, Feb. 5, 2022, he’ll bring his six decades of musical talent and experience – and a few old friends – to the Laguna Beach Cultural Arts Center (LBCAC) stage. But first Garrison shares his unbelievable backstory and the secrets behind his self-made success.

The unexpected benefits of growing up in the military

Garrison grew up in a military family. His father served as an Air Force colonel. “The last thing he wanted was for his son to become a musician,” Garrison said. But the transient lifestyle exposed young James to a variety of cultural influences. When he was only 18 months old, the family moved to Madrid, where Garrison began speaking Spanish alongside English. He also started training his tongue on a universal language – music. 

This was the early 1960s, when Franco still controlled Spain, but the intoxicating music scene was spreading across the globe. Garrison’s father, an audio/visual geek, began recording his 4-year-old singing Spanish songs. When Garrison turned six, his father introduced him to the live music scene. “My dad took me out to the Madrid clubs at 3 a.m.,” he said. “We’d listen to flamenco all night long.” Time functions differently in Spain. Spanish hours, with their siestas and midnight meals, mean something else. 

Garrison’s early exposure to that heady witching hour lifestyle may have helped establish both his love of music and his internal clock. “The rhythms and sounds of Spain were really influential. I don’t play flamenco, but my solo style is definitely influenced by those sounds and rhythms,” Garrison said. 

By the time Garrison turned 8, the family transferred to Texas, a place with its own musical style. “The first stop was the Air Force Base in Dallas Fort Worth. That was a culture shock,” Garrison said. “But I started digging the Texas swing.” 

Two years later, they were living in Shreveport, Louisiana where the sounds were completely different. “There was dancehall music and Zydeco (a blend of rhythm and blues that originated in southwest Louisiana within the French Creole culture). Most bands were playing that style,” he said. 

Meanwhile, Garrison’s sister introduced him to classic rock like Jan & Dean, the Beach Boys and the Beatles. By the 1970s, Garrison was obsessed with British bands, listening to Queen and Yes, becoming infatuated with the long-haired rock scene.

“I love music,” said Garrison. “The genre doesn’t matter. There are only a couple genres I don’t enjoy playing. Beyond that, I try to be as authentic as possible, whatever the genre is. That’s what connects with people – when you’re genuine. There’s raw, natural ability and there’s being genuine. That’s when you’re winning with an audience.” 

Striking out on his own

By the time Garrison turned 14, his father bought him a beat-up Gibson electric guitar. His parents tried finding instructors, but no one could teach their son anything he hadn’t already taught himself. “There were a lot of great musicians in Louisiana, but not a lot of great teachers,” he said. “It deprived me of the more technical, educated side of music.” 

Garrison never formally practiced the guitar. Instead, he’d constantly play along with television commercials and TV theme songs. Whenever he got a new record, he’d try to emulate the tune, playing entirely from ear and improvising. “We didn’t have the luxury of YouTube back then,” he said. “But I could play a whole side of a Yes record.”

That same year, Garrison was offered a spot in a Christian recording band and began touring Europe and the U.S. The group recorded two albums together. “I was very lucky,” said Garrison. “I got chosen out of a bunch of kids mainly because I both sang and played the guitar. I was the youngest one in the group at age 14.”

No one in Garrison’s family played music professionally. He didn’t know how to plan a career as a musician. Instead, he began studying broadcast journalism at Louisiana State University. “I came home for my summer break after freshman year and got a phone call asking me to try out for a group that was passing through town. It was with some Italian crooner from Long Island. Tom Jones meets Tony Bennett – that kind of style.” Back then, hotels had big showrooms and brought bands in to play every night. He began playing five shows a night, five nights a week. By the age of 19, Garrison’s career had officially launched.

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Courtesy of James Clay Garrison

Garrison (center) passed along his love of music to his son, Cory (right), who’s also a professional musician

He spent the next few years playing those kinds of gigs around the U.S. before forming his own band – Room Service – three years later. “I met this amazing girl from a little town in Texas,” he said. “I couldn’t believe her voice and she played really good keyboards.” 

The two toured for five years, becoming well known from Jamaica to Texas. “She was 19 and I was 22. We were two youngsters going out on our own with only a station wagon,” Garrison said. “Within a year, we had a truck following us. We were flying to Jamaica and Cayman and playing Miami.” The Room Service duo eventually broke up when Garrison’s partner succumbed to the escalating drug culture around them, but it remained one of the most successful bands of his career. 

Meeting Eddie Van Halen

In the early 1980s, one month after getting married, Garrison was playing a gig in Shreveport when Eddie Van Halen walked in and saw him. “He fell in love with us,” Garrison said. “He told us to come to California and he’d give us a record deal.” With no place to live in Southern California, Garrison and his wife took up residence in the Van Halen home. Valerie Bertinelli, Eddie’s wife, taught Garrison her makeup tricks. “I watched her turn herself into this cute little America sweetheart,” Garrison said. 

“We started writing songs. The first gig I did was with Brian Wilson, Stephen Stills and Eddie Van Halen.”

Eventually, the direction in the band changed as one faction moved toward pop and the other wanted a heavy metal sound. They parted ways. “We remained friends with those guys,” Garrison said. “If I saw Eddie or Valerie, especially during those next few years, it was very cordial.”

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Courtesy of James Clay Garrison

Garrison’s sound and style fit right in with 1980s rock legends like Van Halen

How Garrison became Ray Charles’ “Utility Man”

Around 1988, Garrison got a gig to play with an African American woman – Sheila Raye – who claimed to be Ray Charles’ daughter. Garrison was skeptical. But he started writing songs for her and worked with her as music director. One day Raye suggested they visit her dad at his office.

“We drove to this horrible part of downtown Los Angeles,” recalled Garrison. “We walked in and sat in this old waiting room that looked like a doctor’s office with crappy chairs. I was thinking, ‘Oh yeah. This belongs to Ray Charles.’” 

Garrison watched Raye’s silhouette talking to someone behind an opaque glass wall. When she finally called for Garrison to join her, they walked down a hall and into Ray Charles’ studio. “It was a massive studio with a grand piano and huge boom mic. This was old school, serious heavy duty recording studio equipment. Then Ray Charles walked in. My jaw dropped.”

Charles loved Garrison’s sound. The two became friends and spoke often. “Every time I played a new song for him, he’d say, ‘That’s gotta be Jimmy!’” 

Charles called Garrison his “utility man” because Garrison could play everything in the studio. “I played the congas, the bass, the guitar and the background vocals on the records,” Garrison said. “I hate being called Jimmy, but that’s what Ray called me. He said, ‘Jimmy, I love you man. I love you because you think musically just like I do.’” Garrison tears up telling the story. “I don’t want to namedrop,” he said, “but I’ve never told the full story before.” 

The art of adaptation

Back on his own, Garrison kept doing what he did best. He dropped the guitar in favor of vocals for almost eight years because there were plenty of guitarists around. “I was just singing in bands,” he said. “There were so many great guitar players then. They needed new singers.”

Eventually, though, Garrison picked up his guitar again and people noticed. “I started writing my own material and getting some songs in 21 Jump Street and other TV shows. I was doing music for commercials throughout the 1990s. Then the whole industry changed. Suddenly anybody could do music at home. It took all those jobs away.” 

Garrison was well equipped for adaptation. Whether it was all that moving around as a kid, or choosing an industry where nothing was stable, he knew how to quickly pivot. “I did voice overs, soundtrack music and sound FX design for some of the biggest video games in late 1990s and early 2000s, including Redneck Rampage, Quake III and Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The soundtrack song 'Trash Can,' written by myself and game producer Drew Markham, still gets massive numbers of streams, especially for a song now 25 years old.” Garrison also did the guitar work for the 1999 film Digimon

But Garrison missed having his own band. In 2009, he founded the group The Giant Peach (a perfect name for James) and moved to Laguna Beach the following year. 

“We started playing every Tuesday at Harvelle’s in Long Beach, where I was living at the time,” said Garrison. “We found a good sound and had some great sit-in players including blues guitarist Kirk Fletcher, Grammy nominee Josh Smith and Matt Rohde (the keyboardist for Jane’s Addiction and American Idol’s musical director). It was earthy and bluesy, but with a little sophistication. It was a fun band.” 

Since 2010, Garrison has regularly played gigs around Southern California and routinely in Laguna Beach. “Rick Conkey, founder of the LBCAC, was instrumental in getting us noticed in town,” Garrison said. “He knew how good we were, but the bands around Laguna have played here forever and were already well established.” 

Despite being newcomers in town, Garrison’s band took off. Soon they were offered regular gigs at Mozambique, the Cliff, the Marine Room and regularly headlined at the Sawdust Festival. They’ve also been a frequent fixture at the LBCAC, where they’ll play again in early February.

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Courtesy of James Clay Garrison

Garrison (center) plays guitar alongside his son, Cory James on drums, Matt Rohde from “American Idol” on the keyboard, Mick Linden on bass and Jesse Olema playing the fiddle at the Blue Water Festival in Laguna Beach

1000 Million Miracles

If you miss Garrison’s February performance, you can still enjoy his recorded songs. In 2014, Garrison released his album, 1000 Million Miracles. The follow-up album, The Other Side of Miracles, is forthcoming soon. 

Much of the music on both albums was produced with musicians Garrison met in Manhattan Beach, playing with a band called Day of Days. “That’s where I met Tod Sucherman from STYX, the drummer from Foreigner, the drummer for Alanis Morissette and Mick Fleetwood, the drummer from AC/DC and Lighthouse,” he said. “A lot of these drummers are on my new record. I kept those friendships. They volunteered to play for me.” 

The industry is small and good players recognize each other’s talents. That’s a benefit for the audience, who’s treated not only to Garrison’s wide-ranging talent, but the talents of many of the musicians he knows and brings along.   

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Courtesy of James Clay Garrison

Garrison has resided in Laguna Beach since 2010 and regularly plays in local clubs like the Marine Room, Mozambique, the Cliff and the Sawdust Festival

Garrison and his friends will rock the LBCAC stage this February

Garrison plans to bring a few old friends from a band he used to play in called the VooDudes. “We played at Studio Cafe in Newport Beach every Sunday for 10 years. That’s where I developed my repertoire of cover songs and guitar playing. People in this area know me from that gig more than anywhere else.” Ironic, given Garrison’s extraordinary resume. Most folks aren’t aware of the record contracts, the touring, the iconic stars with whom he’s shared a stage and all the screen appearances. “People want to remember you for their own experiences watching you,” he said. 

The secret to Garrison’s enduring success stems from a lot of innate talent. Few musicians make it this far without any formal training and entirely on their own. But what underlies his accomplishments is pure passion and a commitment to the craft. His standards are high and the talent surrounding him must be equally committed. “Legitimacy is important to me,” Garrison said. “I just love music, and I try to be authentic and genuine in every genre I play. That’s how to connect with the audience.” 

For tickets and additional information about the LBCAC, visit their website at https://www.lbculturalartscenter.org/. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. The show will run from 8-11 p.m.

James Clay Garrison and his band perform Bill Withers “Use Me Up” in 2018 at Laguna’s Mozambique for a farewell show

 

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