My Rock and Roll Soul

By Mia Yamamoto. Posted September 27, 2022.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t immersed in music, classical, big band jazz, Hawaiian (my mother was a Hawaiian musician and hula teacher) and pop music from the radio, when I was growing up in ELA (East Los Angeles).  Outside, you could hear mariachi, and Mexican pop, while inside my sister would be practicing her piano and my mom would be playing ukulele or guitar and singing Hawaiian songs, often while she was teaching hula in the front room.  I remember my parents used to watch the Harry Owens television show (with Hilo Hattie), which showcased Hawaiian music and dancing.  However, just listening to music around the house, it was clear my parents loved big band jazz.  They played records by the Glenn Miller Band, Benny Goodman, and Tommy Dorsey, as well as records by Bing Crosby and other popular singers.

Japanese American swing band rehearsal at Heart Mountain Concentration Camp, Dec. 9, 1942. Photo from Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

My three older brothers brought rock and roll music into our home and into my heart.  The first, in a succession of their songs, was “Black Denim Trousers and Motorcycle Boots”

            “He rode a hopped-up cycle that took off like a gun,

              That fool was the terror of Highway 101.”

                                                Lieber and Stoller 1955

My brothers would walk around the house singing these songs.  I would listen while they played their records and listened to their favorite disc jockeys.  It’s where I first heard the term “rock and roll”, striking a chord in me that never stopped resonating.  Like most people, especially Asian Americans, I leaned towards music by Black people.  It was the best music and definitely the best rock and roll.  I always loved sad songs.  They were the ones that really got to me.  I loved the ache in the voices of Johnny Ray and Frankie Laine on pop radio, but I learned there were so many Black singers who were defining the blues as an art form, and I loved the gospel music I heard coming from the churches I would pass.

My first locker partner and friend in high school was a Black kid, who was an amazing scholar/athlete, which I was not. He took me under his wing, took me home and we hung out on 12th and Central, the location of his grandmother’s store.  I got an education in music history while hanging out with his family.  They had recordings that were mind-blowing, gospel, jazz, orchestral, even classical music, all by Black artists.

When I first heard “Heartbreak Hotel” on the radio, in 1956, I couldn’t believe Elvis was White.  I became obsessed with the song.  It was the saddest song and the greatest voice.  He steered my ears in a new direction, after being brought up on The Channels, the Five Satins, and the Chantels.  I started listening to Eddie Cochran, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash.  I would get together with my friends to play our records; I would play mine, and my friends would fall over laughing.  They used to say, “Yama likes hillbilly music”.   I guess I did.  I still do.

When I was in high school, I ran with the small group of Black students at my high school, which was majority Mexican American.  We used to copy the doo wop harmonies we would hear on the radio, along with typical lunchtime banter.  Sometimes, we would sing in the bathroom to add the hard-surface bounce to our harmonies.  Our sources, in those days, was radio station KGFJ and the great DJ, Hunter Hancock (and Margie), and on late night television, was Johnny Otis and his revue, including Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson, “Handsome” Mel, and the Three Tons of Joy.  Moreover, I was one of those kids who would rush home after school to turn on American Bandstand, and watch the kids dance to the great songs of the day, many times lip-synched by the guest performers who recorded them.

The movies were another place where we could experience the power of rock and roll.  I still remember the opening of “Blackboard Jungle” to Bill Haley and the Comets playing “Rock Round the Clock” and movies with guest spots by great artists, like those in “The Girl Can’t Help It”, featuring performances by Little Richard, Fats Domino, Eddie Cochran, and The Platters.

The local movie theatres used to set aside select Sunday afternoons for local artists to perform.  I saw James Brown and the Famous Flames, the Coasters, The Drifters, Little Sonny Warner and Big Jay McNeely at the Paramount Theatre.  Another show was Vernon Green and the Medallions, Jackie Wilson, and others at the Los Angeles Theatre.  These venues were where I first fell in love with live entertainment, especially live music.

While I was busy flunking out of LA City College, I was hearing “Your Heart Belongs to Me” by a girl group called the Supremes.  This was the first of many hits, including “My Girl” by the Temptations, “Bad Girl” by the Miracles, “Fingertips” by Stevie Wonder, “Stubborn Kinda Fella” by Marvin Gaye, and “Bye Bye, Baby” by Mary Wells, all on the Motown label.  These groups were on the rise while I was spending a few semesters working in the grocery store and applying to be re-admitted to LA City College.  Back on campus, on academic probation trying to overcome the 30 units of “F” that got me kicked out, I first started hearing the Beatles, and my ears started pricking up to the sound of the “British Invasion”, and the Rolling Stones, the first band I went to go see live at the Long Beach State (today Cal State University, Long Beach) on folding chairs for some ridiculously small admission price which I can’t remember.  I just remember being mesmerized by Keith Richard’s guitar on “Satisfaction”.   It was the richest period of my musical life, with pop music exploding with great new talent on both sides of the Atlantic, and a cultural revolution that would encompass every facet of the arts, overtake the media, and put a spotlight on the aspirations of a new generation.

I went in the army in 1966, and in the barracks, we used to sing the pop songs of the day, the Spinners, The Four Tops, along with the Doors, the Buffalo Springfield, and the Byrds.  When I went to Vietnam, the transistor radio was ubiquitous and AFVN radio played all the hits from back home.  We even formed bands to play covers (and originals) in our base camps.  The brass tried to encourage any activity that would boost morale in a war that lacked a moral purpose.

I came back home and started law school against the backdrop of an evolving musical scene which mixed R&B, soul, and gospel, led by Motown, Stax-Volt, and the beginnings of disco, along with S.F. Bay area groups like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Santana and Creedence Clearwater Revival.  They, along with the British bands, including Beatles and Stones, joined by Led Zeppelin, Cream, The Who, and the Kinks, were re-drawing the musical landscape of the world.  I remember hearing “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin and listening to the lead guitar riff over and over.  I thought it was so perfect!

I got out of law school and started working as a lawyer at the start of the 1970’s, a period of musical insanity that I began by following the live concerts of the Grateful Dead up and down California.  My best friend taught me my first chords on the guitar.  Playing guitar helped deepen my appreciation for music and started my musical journey towards my first band.

By the 1970’s, I was a certifiable rock and roll nut!  I had to buy every album and hear every concert by every musician who caught my ear, an obsession which still drives me.  I saw every act from everywhere.  A second wave of British bands brought Squeeze, Elvis Costello, U2, Cream, Queen, and the Police.  Locally, I followed Bob Dylan, The Band, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne and Los Lobos whenever they played, especially if they played the Santa Monica Civic or the Forum.  The punk revolution brought The Clash into the forefront.  Their music, their performance was so intense.  They were exhilarating!

Everything changed in 1973, when I heard “For You” by Bruce Springsteen on the radio, drove straight to the record store and bought his first album.  I was enthralled.  Bought his second album and was a fan, but I heard a song on his 3rd album called, “Meeting Across the River”, which was a dialogue between two petty criminals about to pull a job.  That song resonated so deeply with me because I had started working as a public defender and I could feel the desperation and sorrow in their story. (Note: you can check out the song at this link on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rbirnz5LAk0).

I didn’t get a chance to see him live until August 1978, at the Forum, when he played an unforgettable show, more intense, more furious and more fiery than anything I had ever experienced.  I remember we came out of that show, covered with sweat after dancing all night, wondering what the hell just hit us.  It was a rock and roll epiphany.  I started following the band, along with a group of similarly insane public defenders, and we followed the band through every tour, up and down California, across the nation, even across the Atlantic.  We never really stopped.

Like many Japanese American young people, I used to attend the dances that were thrown by the local sororities, at places like the Rodger Young Auditorium and other venues; and they had live bands playing, but, at the time, I couldn’t identify a single musician in any band I heard.  At the time, I had been playing guitar and singing in local bars on open mic nights and jamming with friends.  I had been following a country rock band called “Prairie Fire” which broke up on a national tour.  The bass player and violin player from that band approached me about joining them in forming a new band, to sing lead.  I had been singing solo in bars, so I doubted whether I could bring it off.  We added a lead guitar and his wife (on vocals and rhythm guitar), a drummer with a great voice and the wife of the violinist, adding her voice to the mix.  We tried on a series of names, until we settled on “Use a Guitar, Go to Prison”.  (Don’t ask.)

Topanga Canyon gig, 1977. Jeff on violin, his wife, Sandi, in front of him. Next to her is Deb; Her husband, Chuck, on lead guitar, is on the far right, Rich, on drums, is behind us; and my band co-leader, Don, is next to me on bass.

We played birthday and graduation parties, quinceañeras, bar mitvahs, weddings, anniversaries and every possible excuse for a celebration, providing dance music, almost nothing but fast rock and roll.  It wasn’t until we started playing bar association parties, that we would get requests for slow songs, “so I can dance with my wife.”  Lawyers and Judges seem to have trouble loosening up, but the worst are the prosecutors, most of whom either can’t or won’t dance.  We played both installation parties for Steve Cooley when he was elected District Attorney of Los Angeles, and I used to taunt them from the stage, accusing them of being cowardly or uncoordinated.

My band played every possible venue, from 1977 to 2005, from the Palomino Club to the Palladium and the Orpheum Theatre, as well as the Purple Onion in San Francisco, and lesser-known bars, pubs, and ballrooms all over Southern California.  I would work with my lead guitarist most weeknights after work, held harmony practices on Friday night and a full day of rehearsal on Saturdays.  We would sometimes gig four times a week, play until 1:00 in the morning, break down, go home, sleep and have to get to work by 8:30, then work all day, and sometimes into the night before getting to a gig or a practice.  It was a grind, but I was in love with the music.  I had never before experienced walking into a bar, starting to play, having the audience jump up dancing, then giving us nothing but love for the rest of the evening. It was such a rush!  It deepened my appreciation for my fellow musicians, for the music and for the audience.

J-Town Rebels at Tanabata Festival, LA Little Tokyo. Photo courtesy of Mia Yamamoto.

Like most bands, when they break up, the members go on to other groups, projects, and pursuits, and that’s what we did.  I’m still jamming with other musicians, singing with my doo wop harmonizers (whom I’ve known since we were teenagers), sitting in with my former bandmates, and playing music with my nephews.  We played every year for the Tanabata Festival, opening Nisei Week (until the pandemic) under the name “J-Town Rebels”, with my nephews, Brian Yamamoto on rhythm guitar and lead vocals, Kurt Yamamoto on lead guitar, Tony Yamamoto on piano, Frank Rocco on drums and Shannon Wong on bass.   Hopefully, we’ll be able to regroup now that Nisei Week is going back to live events.  I even got to write and record a song with that group for Visual Communications on their 50th Anniversary, in an exhibition called “At First Light” which was held at the Japanese American National Museum.  It was a musical memorial to the late Steve Tatsukawa, and we called it “Yellow Pearl”.

I have never outgrown my obsession with the music of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, having followed them all over the country and across the Atlantic to London for the past 40 years.  We’ll be in Portland in February 2023, for the new tour.  And I also still follow every band I love whenever I can.  However, playing in a classic rock (cover) band required me to mine a very narrow vein of music, relentlessly practicing and rehearsing the same songs, trying to achieve a perfect recreation, undistinguishable from the original.  My only regret, if any, is that this focus probably obliterated any interest I might have had in the great new music that, I am sure, is out there today.

Mia Yamamoto sings at Tanabata Festival with J-Town Rebels.

Rock and Roll   has been my lifeblood.  I spent most of my life wishing it would all just end.  I was very depressed and unhappy for a very long time, but the music always kept me afloat.  There was always another gig, another jam, another collaboration, another reason to keep going.  Rock and roll woke me up, and I realized after I heard the music, I had to see the music, and, ultimately, I had to be the music.  Music saved me, and I know I’ll keep rocking to the day I die.

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Author’s bio:  Mia Yamamoto was born in a WWII concentration camp for Japanese Americans.  She is a criminal defense and civil rights attorney, as well as a community activist.  She has been playing music semi-professionally since 1977.

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