Ernie and the Emperors outside of the box office at Earl Warren Showgrounds | Credit: Courtesy

Q: Who was the first Santa Barbara County rock band to sign a major label recording contract?

A: In 1965, Ernie & the Emperors inked a deal with Reprise Records, the label founded by Frank Sinatra. Reprise believed the Emperor’s 1964 original song, “Meet Me At The Corner,” had the makings of a hit.

When Ernie and the Emperors signed their record contract, none of the band members could drive and they were all still in high school. Their dad ferried them to early gigs in the family station wagon. The band featured three Orosco brothers — Ernie, Cory, and Brian — along with their friend Randy Busby. Electric guitar riffs were shaped by Ernie and Cory, with Brian and Randy playing both bass and drums. With their animated performance style and high energy, the Emperors were a local phenomenon. They moved from playing dances and noontime shows at local high schools in 1961, to winning Battle of the Bands competitions. On New Year’s Eve in 1962 they shared the stage with the Isley Brothers (“Shout”) at Earl Warren Showgrounds and soon became the venue’s house band. They were the first local group to have a Fan Club Newsletter and signed autographs after their shows. 

Ernie and the Emperors pose with a Halkirk Street sign in Goleta. | Credit: Courtesy

The Emperors’ concerts stretched from Thousand Oaks to San Luis Obispo. They played four sets in each show. The first two featured surf music covers of  The Ventures’ instrumentals and The Beach Boys’ layered harmonies.” They had three brothers in their band too, and their dad was also their manager,” said Brian Orosco of their connection to The Beach Boys. When the British musical invasion hit the U.S. in 1964, the Emperors played the smash hits from Liverpool and London. “We changed outfits and guitars for our last two sets. Dad took us down to Los Angeles to get the jackets The Beatles wore on the Ed Sullivan Show and we bought Rickenbacker guitars and amplifiers on credit,” recalled Brian.

“Meet Me At The Corner” was an ode Ernie wrote to his high school sweetheart. “The response we got at our shows was magical. Cory played the12-string electric solo, Ernie sang lead, and I added the high harmony,” Brian said. 

The Emperors repeated L.A. trips to shop their original song, finally paid off. “We played it live for a Hollywood producer and he signed us to Reprise Records. We recorded the song in about five takes at Western United Studios, the same place where the Beach Boys did their recording,” Brian said. “Meet Me At The Corner” was released in the Fall of 1965 as a 45-rpm single. That October, Cashbox Record Reviews said the Emperors’ cheerful, upbeat record “is a happy rock number with enough originality to become a chart success. Watch for spins and sales.”

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Everything was going the Emperors’s way, or so it seemed. After the song’s release, the band was offered the opportunity to promote the single by touring for a month with The Kinks, who were also on Reprise Records. “That idea didn’t go over well, Brian said. “Our dad said it was out of the question and wouldn’t let us leave high school. So, we couldn’t do the tour and the record’s momentum faded.” Reprise Records was soon promoting its other new acts, including Dino, Desi & Billy and Nancy Sinatra.

While “Meet Me At The Corner” didn’t become a national hit, the Orosco brothers evolved into several successful bands, including Big Brother Ernie Joseph, The Giant Crab, and The Brian Faith Band. In the 1970s they recorded for Casablanca Records, whose artists included Kiss and Donna Summer. They also played in concert with the Allman Brothers Band and Bruce Springsteen’s Steel Mill. 

After returning to Goleta in the early 1980s, the three brothers opened a successful recording studio attached to their family home. With Ernie and Cory at the recording console they captured early tracks from singer-songwriters Katy Perry, Jewel, and many others. The studio is still located just across the street from the “corner” that Ernie and the Emperors sang about in their remarkable 1965 debut record. 

Give the song a second spin. Here’s the video — its vibrations will make you smile!

Mark Brickley is the author of Postcards From Liverpool: Beatles Moments & Memories.

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