Jim Burgett remembers the day when a door-to-door salesman dropped by their Ceres home to sell steel guitar lessons. His mother, herself a singer in church, decided to go for it and the 12-year-old's musical interests took off.
"Ceres was the beginning of everything for me," said Burgett, who was a big name in Lake Tahoe music circles in the 1950s and 1960s.
When he and his band first brought rockabilly tunes to the South Shore American Legion Hall at South Lake Tahoe in 1957 and packed in audiences of young people, it was the start of a life in music. Columbia Records would later take notice. In 1961 he recorded the spooky minor-key ballad, "The Living Dead" and "Let's Investigate." Later he would meet up and marry his second wife, Marlene Ricci, now 61, who toured with Frank Sinatra.
Many of Jim Burgett's fans probably have no idea that he is a product of Ceres and a 1953 Ceres High School graduate.
Burgett's songs - recorded between 1960 and 1964 - never reached the top of the charts, but his fans were convinced that they were every bit as good as Ricky Nelson's or Jerry Lee Lewis's. After performing at Harrah's Tahoe casino he later became a concert promoter at the Fun House, bringing to Tahoe groups like Santana, Tower Of Power, Cold Blood, Grateful Dead, Steppenwolf, It's A Beautiful Day and Chuck Berry.
To this day, many in California and Nevada remember Burgett, the performer.
"People remember that time and remember coming to my dances," said Burgett, now 80 and living in Las Vegas. "It's amazing to me never being a huge name and never having a big hit record."
Tahoe couldn't have been farther removed than Ceres, which was a sleepy town of 2,400 in the early 1950s. Born in Carlsbad, N.M., in 1935, Burgett came to Ceres as a third-grader. His parents, Ralph and Rachel Burgett, followed Jim's grandfather's move to California. The Burgetts first lived in a house at Sixth Street and Roeding Road.
"Mom, my sister and I were there while he was gone for almost three years (in the Army)," said Jim. After his service, Ralph built his family a home in the early 1940s on Moore Road between Roeding Road and Whitmore Avenue. They lived there at the time Jim attended Ceres High where Jim played on the Bulldogs football team. He didn't become really interested in music until his junior and senior years.
"I took steel guitar lessons when I was in grade school. A guy came walking down door to door just knocking on doors and my Mom says, ‘Yeah, let's try that.' And I played in a little band when I was about 12 but nobody knows it. I had an interest for a while but it just took me over in 1952, 1953."
He was involved in high school chorus but laughs as he reads the choir director's inscription in his Cereal yearbook reading, "Jim, you may not be the best singer in this group but you're a lot of fun to have around."
Jim said he appreciates what Ceres offered him now although he didn't at the time. He remembers fellow classmates itching to get out of sleepy Ceres upon graduation.
"I didn't appreciate Ceres, maybe for its simplicity," said Burgett. "It was really a great quiet place. I enjoyed every day there. I got along with everybody there but I wasn't a great student."
Married to classmate Sara Moore before graduation day, Jim immediately went to work after earning his diploma. Jim had learned employable skills, like as plumbing, working alongside his dad in home construction. Jim went to work with Adam's Plumbing in Modesto. He also found work loading up cans into rail cars for Continental Can Company, and then worked at Century Buick Garage in Modesto. His dad remarked how Jim couldn't seem to hold down any job for long but he answered that he didn't like them.
Music was calling instead.
By that time, Ralph Burgett had established a plumbing shop in Tahoe City and agreed to take Jim's family in for a six-week period to see if Jim could make money in the music concert business in Modesto. Because Jim had never as much been to any dances while in high school, he cozied up to those already in the business, including Chester Smith, a local music legend and later TV station magnate. At that time Smith and Glenn Stepp were popular performers at local dance venues.
"I started going to those dances and getting to know the musicians and ‘how do you do this?' and ‘what do you need?' "
Ultra-shy, he formed a band but since he couldn't find any gigs he decided to put dances together himself. He rented Yori's Grove southwest of Ceres and sold tickets.
"I had my first dance out there and hoped that nobody I knew came. I was scared to death. I never stood on a stage or anything like that."
After a few months of playing for dances in rural Ceres, Smith offered for Jim to take over his dances at the American Legion Hall in Walnut Creek. Jim and the band worked Yori's Grove on Friday nights and Walnut Creek on Saturday nights. Within a month the crowd grew from six girls to a couple of hundred teens within a short time. The gig ended when Smith decided to come back to the venue. Jim was fuming but struck out to rent another hall and literally stole the show away from Smith.
Eventually Jim made his way to Tahoe where his wife and girls were living and searched for a hall. The South Shore American Legion Hall at South Lake Tahoe (still standing) was available but was told that the Red Clark Orchestra big band had weekends booked solid. Burgett was offered the hall on weeknights but was discouraged with predictions that he couldn't draw a crowd.
He rented the Tahoe hall for dances on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, played in Ceres on Fridays and the Bay Area on Saturdays.
"I did that through the entire summer and the dances at Tahoe just took off."
He eventually took the hall in Tahoe all week long.
Burgett said his band was a "really good rock band" that included CHS classmates, including drummer Robert Fox and Clark Hensley.
"I had the time of my life. It was a little struggle working days and spending the money on dance halls at night and often times not even breaking even."
Walnut Creek crowds grew so large Burgett had to move the venue to the National Guard Armory which held 1,000. At one time famous Bay Area concert promoter Bill Graham came by to check out the scene. Jim lost the permit when the city complained about too much traffic congestion from out-of-town travelers inundating the small police force.
Concerts in Tahoe were growing to 1,000 to 1,200 at night by 1962 and 1963 but he wasn't impressed with playing in a virtual "barn." Eventually he approached Harrah's miles up the strip because he was dazzled by the lights and sounds and billboards. Harrah's told him that bookings were solid for two years out but he persisted. He was offered the only available slot from 6 a.m. to noon but naysayers promised him that nobody would come that early to hear music, especially in the lounge. Harrah's gave him two weeks to prove himself. Being that Tahoe was a 24-hour town with young employees, cops and dealers coming off their shifts around at that time with nothing to do between work and home, Burgett had no trouble drawing audiences.
"We did six shows back to back in there every day six days a week. The band hated me but they loved the money. Seven days a week at the hall, four hours at night, and then going down there (to Harrah's) and doing six shows back to back. I had the time of my life."
He performed at Harrah's 16 to 20 weeks per summer for about 13 years.
As he worked at Harrah's, Burgett embarked on promoting concerts for about seven years. He booked acts into The Sanctuary, the former Safeway store in South Lake Tahoe. Later named the Fun House, the venue booked headliners including Steppenwolf, whose "Born to Be Wild" number 1 hit broke in 1968 just as the group came to town. Others he booked were The Grateful Dead, Santana (1969), Tower of Power, the Guess Who, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, Buddy Miles Express, Cold Blood, Elvin Bishop, the Chambers Brothers, Wayne Cochran and the CC Riders, none of whom had yet tasted major recording successes. Concert promoting became as interesting to Jim as performing.
"It was fun working with stars. I loved that.
"I had the Grateful Dead at the American Legion Hall. All they were was a group that played the park in San Francisco at the time. The kids started asking me for them and I was working myself seven nights. I didn't want to hire anyone else but I started doing it."
He remembers being unimpressed with the Dead during the August 1967 Lake Tahoe tour.
"They went on stage and I thought, they're doing all the songs that we do. This is stupid. We were doing the rhythm and blues stuff every night. I was surprised. I expected more originals or something."
Jerry Garcia, he said, didn't care about anything other than two twin amplifiers for his guitar.
Jim rented a decent motel behind the hall for the band. He expected the rooms to be torn up and when Burgett went to check out any damages to his wallet, he was told they didn't show up. Their agent explained that they spent the night camping in the woods.
The Wilder Brothers took interest in Burgett's show and through their contacts Jim cut a recording for both Columbia and MGM record labels. The records weren't big hits but sent him on a tour of 40 towns in California.
"Every school prom, senior prom, graduation party - I had probably done a hundred of them. It was a local success story."
Burgett built a recording studio in the basement of friend's house in Modesto. Jim wrote his own songs, recorded them on the Oro Records label, produced demos and tried to hustle them to Los Angeles record producers.
"That was a real tough thing to do, sitting there with 30 other people waiting and answering ‘Why should I look at you?"
Jim Burgett and His Make-Believers' very first Oro label recording of "Live It Up" and "I Believe in You" still finds interest.
"That record still actually sells today. It's amazing. It was my first really professional thing I did. It was really something trying to get some radio time. It was a time when you could actually - and I did - go from radio station to radio station trying to get them to play them and in some cases it would work."
Air time was nothing more than a tool to drive more attendance at local dances, he explained.
Burgett's makeshift basement studio was visited by Gary Grubb of Ceres, who later changed his name to Gary Duncan, who was 15 at the time and interested in music. Jim help Grubb assemble and promote The RATZ, which opened for the Rolling Stones and the Byrds in San Jose. Duncan later formed the San Francisco psychedelic band Quicksilver Messenger Service which sold millions of records.
Jim's second recording was made in the Bakersfield studio where Merle Haggard and Buck Owens recorded music.
Later he signed with a record company owned by Wayne Newton, the legendary Vegas singer who became friends with Burgett.
"He got me an MGM thing."
His one release with MGM, in 1969, was a 45 record featuring "Now I Taste the Tears" on one side and "Innocence is To Blame" on the other.
By 1972 Burgett dropped the American Legion Hall in Tahoe after his father passed away and he couldn't keep his band working. An agent took him on the road through 28 states and Canada, which helped to seal the end of his marriage to Sara who gave birth to their three daughters.
"I was on the road all the time and I think maybe it just wore a little bit thin," said Jim.
Besides, he said, Tahoe seemed to belong to his Dad and he was now gone.
He resisted his agent's persistent call for a girl in the band because a guy in his band would invariably get into a relationship with her and that caused problems. But during a performance at the Airport Ramada Inn in Romulus, Mich., he was introduced to Marlene Ricci, a sexy and talented aspiring 19-year-old singer from Buffalo, N.Y. After she auditioned the entire band - Jim included - wanted her to join them on the tour.
After 18 months on the road with Marlene, Jim grew tired of life on the road and decided to settle in Nevada. He put together a band just for Marlene, whom he would later marry.
Marlene's career received a lucky break when performing at Harrah's and she and Burgett bumped into Sinatra aide Joey Rizzo. Jim asked Joey to invite Frank to catch her act. Sinatra finally came around to it and immediately took to her and invited her to go on the road with him. Marlene opened for his act for his worldwide concerts during two and a half years in the 1970s. Ricci also guest appeared on the Tonight Show (interviewed by Johnny Carson fill-in host George Carlin), and appeared on shows hosted by Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas and Dinah Shore.
"He (Sinatra) was so supportive of her," said Burgett. "It was rewarding to me to see somebody get that break that early. I spent 20 years trying to meet somebody with a name."
Burgett stopped performing in 1976 and supported Marlene for a while in Europe where she had success with two Top 40 hits.
Marlene also starred in the CBS-TV special in 1978 "Cinderella At The Palace." The TV show was modeled after Marlene's story of leaving a small town in upstate New York, coming to Las Vegas, being discovered by a big star and becoming his opening act. Tom Jones sang to her in a segment that can be seen on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cM_GcTYZy9U).
"It came out once and got her some work and it was good. But two years later they released it again and this time we got calls from agents in Finland, Czechoslovakia, we went to the Philippines, all because they had seen this Cinderella girl and it was built around Marlene."
Marlene still performs at corporate events. Jim's performance of a reunion show at Harrah's in 2010 garnered a lot of media attention.
Burgett says he is not retired but manages property and vacation homes in Las Vegas.
"Mostly we are happy to be still for a while."
Their son James just turned 25 and recently graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno.
Jim still keeps in touch with classmate Marge Derby of Ceres, who updates her on the passing of fellow classmates. He jokes about the time Marge approached his ex-wife to express shock about Jim dying in a car crash, only to be told Jim was fine and living in Las Vegas.
"Maybe that's why she didn't invite me to the reunions all these years," he laughed.