It’s one of my favorite stories from the history of pop music. As the story goes, in 1964 Frank Sinatra was frustrated. Having formed his own label, Reprise Records, he realized that rock n’ roll was the sound of the day, and he felt pressure to sign a pop act. However, the Chairman of the Board, never being a fan of rock music, didn’t know anything about it. Heading over to Dean Martin’s place for a drink, he heard the sound of rock n’ roll being played in an upstairs bedroom (some sources site a garage) and going to investigate he found Martin’s son Dino Martin, his best friend Billy Hinsche and Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz’s son, Desi Arnaz Jr. had formed their own group. Without knowing anything about the music, he offered them a record deal on the spot and the trio of Dino, Desi and Billy were born. Teaming them up with some of the best producers and musicians in Los Angeles, the boys – still barely teenagers – were appearing on national TV shows, playing at venues across America, on the covers of teen publication 16 Magazine and had a hit, I’m a Fool, on the Billboard charts. Dino, Desi and Billy were pop idols….or so the story goes.
It’s a great story, and one that has always fascinated me since I first heard it. As a result, Dino, Desi and Billy, or as the teen magazines called them D,D & B, have always been a guilty pleasure of mine and a band I’ve always been curious about…and, yes, I proudly own all of their albums on vinyl. So, it was a great thrill to me when Billy Hinsche responded to a message I sent him recently and agreed to do an interview with me about his music career, as well as his newest project, Live at Billy’s Place – a weekly livestream series presented over social media.
Billy Hinsche was only thirteen years old when he signed on to Reprise records and has spent a lifetime in music ever since. But while he found fame as part of Dino, Desi and Billy, the majority of Billy’s career has been spent as a part of the extended Beach Boy family. First meeting the legendary surf group at the Hollywood Bowl in 1965., Billy began his association with the Beach Boys when D,D & B toured with the group as an opening act. By the end of the decade Billy was working with them as a session musician and wrote D,D & B’s final hit, Lady Love, with Brian Wilson. He officially joined the family when Carl Wilson married his sister Anna in 1966, and in 1969, after he and Dino and Desi disbanded to pursue other projects, he became a member of The Beach Boys touring group, which he continued with until the mid-1990’s.
During the COVID pandemic, Billy brought a new project to fruition when he started a weekly livestream show, Live from Billy’s Place, on Facebook Live. Coming each week from his living room Billy tells stories from his life in music and performs songs from his own musical catalogue and beyond. As the show grew and continued, Billy began bringing in special guests via phone, and at the time of our interview, has produced over seventy shows over seventy consecutive weekends. A fantastic storyteller and musician, Live From Billy’s Place is a show full of musical surprises, filled with conversation and memories and is a pure joy to watch whether you are a captive audience, or not.
But remember that story I started at the top with? Well, when I got the chance to talk to Billy about it, it was clear that maybe that’s not just how it happened. But the real story, as Billy remembers it, is just as interesting.
Sam Tweedle: I’ve really been enjoying your YouTube shows, although I’ll admit I haven’t worked through all of them. But I do watch a few episodes a week.
Billy Hinsche: What? You haven’t set aside seventy plus hours to work through all of my shows?
Sam: Well, the fact that you’ve done over seventy shows now is extremely impressive.
Billy: Yes, I gotta say sometimes I barely believe it myself honestly. I guess I’m shooting for a hundred here.
Sam: I noticed your first show was filmed in early March of 2020. This was so early in the COVID pandemic that it predates when live streaming concerts and live video talks even became a trend. What was going through your mind to start this process?
Billy: I think I was ahead of the curve, and there is a reason for that. I had been planning a one man show for years. Most recently I’ve actually had interest from two venues – one in New York City called The Cutting Room, which is a very hip place. They said “Billy, we’d love to have you any time.” So we were trying to work out a date and then there was some interest from a club in LA called The Write-Off Room which has become popular lately. So I was already gearing up in my head to do this show. I had rehearsed it and had done little shows for friends in Vegas and Beverly Hills and Palm Springs, and I had got a really great reaction. Granted, they were friends of mine, but still, my stories and my jokes and my songs really appealed to all my friends. So when the COVID hit I saw a few of my Vegas contemporaries doing this concept of a livestream from their home and I said to myself, “You know, I have nothing to lose here.”
Sam: Even with the world starting to slowly reopen, do you find that you’re on a roll that you still have a not so captive audience still tuning in?
Billy: I have built a little following and its really heart warming. I have folks who keep the show going. It’s a free show and I don’t have to do it, but it helps me stay sharp and helps me refine my show. But, as you can see, they are all different shows which leads me to a predicament of wondering what my show is if I were to go out into the world. Which stories from these seventy shows, and which songs from these seventy shows do I do? So I still have a bit of a quandary, but it’s a quality problem.
Sam: One thing I like about the show is I never know what the next song is going to be. I never know what next story is going to be. Its such a mixed bag, which keeps it entertaining.
Billy: I don’t put my set list up in advance, I don’t tell who my special callers might be and there is an element of surprise. The show has evolved over time. Its gotten better. I’ve polished it up. It started being a thirty-minute show and it was technically below standard. I thought I’d use my i-pad as my screen, but the quality was not as good as what I’m using now, which is my i-phone 12. I also didn’t know how to flip the image around, so it didn’t look like I was a left-handed guitarist but I figured that all out with the help of some friends who knew what they were doing. Now, when I did the first show I figured I had to give it my best shot. I didn’t know I’d be doing another show for the next seventy consecutive weeks. I had to make an impression. So I was kicking out all my best Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra and Beach Boys stories. I tried to really smash everything into that first thirty minutes to keep it interesting. Now I’m up to an hour, seventy-five, ninety minutes. One show I did was over a hundred minutes. So the shows grown as I’ve gotten better at it.
Sam: So sitting in front of me I have a copy of Dino, Desi and Billy’s Our Time’s Coming LP.
Billy: That was our second album.
Sam: Right. Now on the back of the cover Lee Hazelwood, who is a favorite of mine, writes “Billy – we call him Mr. Fashion ’65, is the quiet one. He’s very talented, plays good guitar and piano and always knows his songs and is always on time. He’s very dependable, but maybe he should be because he is the oldest.” Did they really call you Mr. Fashion ’65?
Billy: Well maybe behind my back. (Laughs)
Sam: Well I know this story has been told before, but over the years I’ve heard so many different versions of it in different sources that its become nearly a Paul Bunyan type story. I don’t think I’ve read the same story twice. What were the true origins of Dino, Desi and Billy? What is your version of being signed to Reprise Records? How do you remember it?
Billy: I like the Paul Bunyan comparison. I’ve never heard it called that before. But yeah, I’ve read so many different wacky versions of it too. Right on the back of our first album it’s wrong. Whoever wrote the notes at Reprise didn’t get it right. It’s like a journalist just making stuff up. It’s like the old line of “Let’s not let truth get in the way of a good story.” The truth of it is we had started rehearsing at Lucille Ball’s house, and then we had moved to Dean Martin’s to rehearse. We were getting bigger and better and louder. We were very diligent and we were practicing after school and most weekends. It was fun for us. We loved to play music and learn songs just for the joy of it. It’s an important part of our story because we were just having fun. We didn’t think about making a lot of money or doing this or doing that.
Sam: You sound like you were just kids in a garage band, much like the kids with the garage bands in my town when I was growing up.
Billy: Yeah, well we were a garage band like so many others. The only difference was we were rehearsing in Lucille Ball’s garage. So in 1964 I’m thirteen years old, and we are all living at home. Well I get a call from Dino, who had been my best friend since we were seven years old, when we met at grammar school. That’s another story that gets all twisted. Some sources say we met on the little league diamond. No, we were just friends. Well Dino calls me and says “Come over to the house tomorrow. Frank Sinatra is going to be here and we’re going to audition for his label.” Well I say “Okay. Great.” Things are looking up here. So I go over to the house and we set up in a different place than where we’d usually rehearse. We set up next to this sunken living room that had a bar, and there they were – Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Ol’ Blue Eyes and Ol’ Red Eyes. They were super nice, and Mr. Sinatra was super gracious. We set up and we played a little short set of three songs. After we were done we set our gear down and Mr. Sinatra and Mr. Martin walked over to us and Mr. Sinatra said, “How would you like a contract with my label?” We said “Sure, Mr. Sinatra. Yeah! Great!” That was the crux of it.
Sam: That’s not a version of this story of I’ve heard before.
Billy: Yeah, I’ve heard the version where they say we were practicing in the garage and Frank heard us and offered us a contract. That’s not really true. Well, let me tell you something I didn’t find out until many many years later. I’m talking forty years later. I’m at Palm Springs with Dino’s younger brother Ricci Martin, and his mother Jeanne Martin, who was Dean’s wife. We were kicking back and I said “Jeanne, I never really knew how that whole audition came about where we auditioned for Frank Sinatra.” Without hesitation, she said “Well, I called him and said ‘You better come over here and hear the kids. They’re really good.’” So that, my friend, is how it really happened. I owe a debt to Jeanne Martin for calling Frank Sinatra. When Jeanne Martin called, you said “How high.”
Sam: You’ve mentioned Desi’s mother and Dino’s parents. I’m a huge fan of Desi’s father, Desi Arnaz Senior. Did you ever meet his Dad? Was he involved much when you guys were doing music?
Billy: Did I ever meet Desi Sr? Of course I met him. He was incredible. I loved Big Desi. We’d do breakfast with him on the beach at Del Mar. He’d go “Hey Billy! I think I see a whale out there in the water! Take a look!” and he’d steal the bacon right off of my plate.
Sam: Were you guys the first pop act to be on Reprise?
Billy: Yes. The other acts on Reprise at the time were Dean, Frank, Sammy, Don Ho, The Kinks and us. Maybe Trini Lopez.
Sam: Now I go through the liner notes of these albums and you guys had a superstar production team. You were working with Jimmy Bowen and Lee Hazelwood and Billy Strange. You also had the Wrecking Crew on the albums.
Billy: Yes we were, and it was a beautiful thing. When the time came for us to record our record, Jimmy Bowen came over to the house with a bunch of demos and asked us “What do you think sounds good to you guys? What would you like to do?” He played a bunch of demos and we didn’t think anything was that great. But then he played one called We Know and said, “The Beatles took a pass on that one” and we said, “We’ll do that one!” We wanted it just knowing that the Beatles had heard it, and I don’t even know if it was true! But we loved The Beatles so much that anything that had came close to them, we wanted it to rub off on us too. But I have always had a good ear. I’ve always been naturally musically inclined and I have a talent and I picked the A side which was a song I heard on The Searchers album called Since You Broke My Heart. I think its safe to say that I was more steeped in the music of the era, or even cared more, than Dino or Desi. Well when you’re young you don’t pay attention to who the writer or the producer of the songs are, but years later I found out that the song was written by Phil Everly. It was the two-part harmony of the song, and Dino and I would sing that harmony. When we did lead vocals we’d split it up. Dino would take a verse and than I would take a verse. Desi didn’t sing much. So next thing that happened is that I got a call saying, “We are recording the session, and you are invited to the session.” I say “What do you mean I’m invited to the session? We’re playing on the session, right?” They say “Oh no, no. We have professional musicians to play on the session.” We thought “Wait a minute? What do you mean?” We were taken aback. We were kind of insulted. We did not know how the business really worked. Well, we played Since You Broke My Heart on The Hollywood Palace. Tony Martin was the host. I don’t think we even played We Know. Well, the record went nowhere. What I’m getting at is this. Just because the last names are Martin and Arnaz and everybody knew Dean Martin and Lucille Ball and we were considered ‘the rich kids from Beverly Hills who had everything handed to them,’ it didn’t matter. People buy records they like, and they didn’t like that record. So all the cache we had going in didn’t matter. I always like to say that, because we didn’t get everything handed to us and we had to go in and record something new, which was I’m a Fool, and that clicked with the public.
Sam: So if you weren’t playing your music on the albums, who was playing the music on the TV appearances? I know that some shows, like American Bandstand, Hullabaloo and Where the Action Is allowed bands to lip-sync the songs, but other shows like Hollywood Palace and Ed Sullivan made you do it live. I posted your appearance on Sullivan on social media recently and you guys sound album quality when you do I’m a Fool.
Billy: Well, on Sullivan it was called ‘live to track.’ We were playing along to the track and the studio audience was getting a blend of the live and the track. For the purpose of the broadcast they wanted it to be the best. But you can see and hear, at the end, as the music fades out Desi does a little drum roll and you can hear me scratch out some guitar chords.
Sam: One of my heroes and inspirations as a writer is Gloria Stavers, who published 16 Magazine. She is a bit of a mystery to me, but stories about her have had a huge influence on my professional work. I know she was very interested in Dino, Desi and Billy and gave you guys a lot of coverage and worked closely with you. Can you share any memories about Gloria and what sort of impact her publication and writing had on your career?
Billy: Well let me start by saying that everyone wants to come over to Dean Martin’s house, so a lot of people wanted to meet us, and on those terms. But Gloria liked us a lot and gave us a lot of coverage. She was a real New Yorker and a former model. She was tall and slender and all business pretty much. But I remember one time I did a one-on-one interview with her, and she was asking me simple questions. I don’t remember what she asked, but I answered her “Yeah, I’m the one from the other side of the track.” What I meant was that I’m the one from the other side of Sunset Boulevard because I lived South of Sunset, and Dino and Desi lived North of Sunset. Well she totally cracked up at that. But you know, she had a camera and took photos and gave us a lot of publicity. Some of the things that were written she wrote, like letters that we had supposedly written. She also made up all the questions, like what’s your favorite color, and all the dumb stuff like that. But I liked her, and I thank her for all that she did for us.
Sam: Although you’ll always be famous for Dino, Desi and Billy, your association with The Beach Boys goes longer and deeper. When did you first meet the Beach Boys?
Billy: It was July 3rd, 1965 when we met.
Sam: Wow, you know exactly when it was.
Billy: We met them at sound check at the Hollywood Bowl. That was the beginning of a long-lasting friendship and a professional relationship. They liked us and brought us on tour as their opener to Bakersfield, Fresno and Hawaii. The line up was Barbara Lewis, Dino Desi and Billy and The Beach Boys. But at that Hollywood Bowl show, the line up was Ian Whitcomb, Donna Loren, Sir Douglas, Sam the Sham, The Righteous Brothers, Sonny and Cher, The Byrds, The Kinks, Dino, Desi and Billy and The Beach Boys. Not a bad show for two dollars. We ended up touring with Sam the Sham and Paul Revere and the Raiders as well.
Sam: I know you still have that contact with the Martin family. Do you hear much from Desi these days?
Billy: Well, he lives up the hill from where I live now, and he calls me after every episode of my on-line show. How about that? We chat. He lives in Boulder City and owns a beautiful theatre there.
Sam: How did Dino, Desi and Billy end? I mean, you released Lady Love as a single, and it didn’t even appear on a whole LP.
Billy: Well, we only had a four-album contract with Reprise and they didn’t renew it. We went to CBS for a year and recorded half a dozen tracks with full orchestration, and its still in the can somewhere. They were pretty good songs. We started to write and produce our own material. But it was time to do bigger and better things. Dino wanted to do all kinds of stuff. Desi wanted to go into acting. I started to go on with The Beach Boys. I was asked to join the Beach Boys as a full member when they were trying to figure out who they were and what direction they were going in. They were trying everything to bring the group into the public in a different way. But, as much as I wanted to join the group, my folks wanted me to stay in school and get a college degree and I have a film and television production degree from UCLA. I juggled touring with the Beach Boys with my schooling and I did a lot of film projects based on my travels with the band. So after twenty years I had all this footage and I said to myself “Well, if you call yourself a filmmaker, you better start making films.” So I made one film a year for seven years. You can see all the trailers on my website. I started with a film for Dennis called Dennis Wilson Forever. Then I did one called 1974: On the Road with The Beach Boys. Then I did one for Carl called Carl Wilson: Here and Now. I did one called 24 Hours on the Road with The Beach Boys. I did one called Home Movies which is just the Wilson/Hinsche home movies. I did a lounge and cheek one called Travel Tips. You go check those out at my website. Anybody can see the trailers.
Sam: When you joined up with The Beach Boys you primarily played keyboards, right?
Billy: Primarily, but there was plenty of times I played guitar and sometimes when I played bass. I also sang on everything.
Sam: On a recent episode of At Billy’s Place, I got goosebumps hearing the story that you talked about Carl Wilson bringing acetates from early Pet Sounds sessions to listen to on your stereo.
Billy: Yeah. He’d bring over different tracks. When I first hear the intro to You Still Believe in Me it was like “Whoa.” Or the track from God Only Knows. They were still works in progress. He liked to listen to them on my stereo because I had a great system.
Sam: Carl Wilson was married to your sister. Were you closer to Carl than the other Wilson brothers?
Billy: Probably, because I spent more time with him. But I loved Brian and Dennis too, and spent time with them as well, but nothing in the order of Carl.
Sam: When you toured with The Beach Boys, did your fans from your Dino, Desi and Billy days still come out to see you?
Billy: Yeah, sometimes. I mean it was very shortly thereafter and I had just sort of melded into the group. To this day I have lots of folks who remember me a lot more for Dino, Desi and Billy than the Beach Boys.
Sam: It’; s amazing that you’ve been able to stay in the music business as long as you have. Most people can’t say they’ve been doing this since they were thirteen years old. Its incredible.
Billy: Thank you. This whole thing with my live stream is just a whole new level of my life that I never knew would happen. How can I have predicted that?
Live From Billy’ Place is a wonderful and unique on-line music show filled with memories, conversation, music and a taste of nostalgia. Billy Hinsche is a wonderful storyteller, and each episode I’ve seen has both entertained me and gave me all the feels. Live From Billy’s Place airs live every Saturday Night at 7 pm ptd and can be watched via Billy’s profile on Facebook. However, you can access all of Billy’s past shows, and so much more, at his web-site at http://www.billyhinsche.com/.