Cincinnati native and acclaimed musician Gary Griffin received some unfortunate news in March of this year. His international tour backing Beach Boys singer Brian Wilson was cancelled. Sitting in a gazebo in Lebanon, Griffin speaks longingly of the places he would be if not for the sudden, world-changing effects of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I would have just gotten back from Japan. I would have been in LA rehearsing to play the Royal Albert Hall in London, then staying on in Europe for a couple months. Seemed like such a great tour,” laments Griffin.
Originally from the west side of town (Bridgetown, specifically), Griffin graduated from Oak Hills high school in 1969. He went on to attend CCM for a few years studying music theory, but he never completed his degree. Regardless, he says he is grateful for the many applicable skills he acquired in the program.
Griffin’s musicianship began quite early in his life. His love of piano was not instant, but once he realized the opportunities playing keyboard could provide him, his fingers took flight.
“My Aunt Fran gave me a year’s worth of piano lessons for my 5th birthday. I remember being such a little brat. I wanted a toy,” says Griffin. His brother encouraged him to try the lessons and Griffin is glad he did. He says he doesn’t know where he’d be today without them.
“I started really enjoying it when I started listening to rock and roll radio in the early 60s. At that point I realized that the knowledge I was getting from learning piano — I could actually utilize that, and play some of these songs that I thought were so cool. I thought, ‘Whoa! This could work out!’ So then I was totally on board,” says Griffin.
In the late 60s, he further flexed his finger muscles by playing keyboards with several bands around town, most regularly with a group known as Chillingsworth. While playing shows in the heyday of Cincinnati’s hippie music scene was a great experience, Griffin had higher aspirations from the start.
“I had a mission. I always wanted to play with the Beach Boys,” says Griffin. “Seemed like an impossible dream, but I was pushy. Anytime they came to this part of the country I would be there — one of these pests backstage. ‘Hey guys look at me! I’ve got a demo tape! I play keyboard!’” says Griffin, playfully mocking his younger self.
All jest aside, Griffin’s pushiness paid off. In 1973, Beach Boys member Mike Love took interest in Griffin’s demos and invited him and Chillingsworth bassist Larry Hamby out to his Santa Barbara home to work on some recordings.
“It had this beautiful view of the Pacific Ocean. I’d never even been to the ocean before in my life. Now I’m sitting on a cliff overlooking the ocean at one of the Beach Boys’ houses thinking, ‘Wow, this is kinda cool,’” says Griffin, chuckling at his understatement.
The musicians kept in touch for a few years until one day Griffin received the call he’d been waiting for.
“Out of the blue in ‘77, I got a call from Mike Love. He said, ‘We have an opening in the group. We need a keyboard player. Do you think you’d be interested?’ I said, ‘Absostinkinglutely!’” recalls Griffin. “It was fantastic.”
Griffin proceeded to record several albums and side projects with the Beach Boys. He says they had four or five albums in process at that time and it was a wonderful experience — other than dealing with the infamous personality clashes within the group, which were at their peak. Due to the original band members' perception that a creative imbalance was being caused by too many musicians from different factions, they decided to let several of them go — Griffin included.
At this point, Griffin had permanently relocated to California. He continued working on side projects with Mike Love, and soon was picked up by surf-style duo Jan and Dean.
“They toured a lot. I stayed on with them for years. It was one of my regular gigs,” he says.
His various gigs afforded Griffin the opportunity to become acquainted with many show business personalities — most notably, at least in retrospect, an 18-year-old aspiring actor by the then-unknown name of John Stamos. When Griffin met Stamos in 1983, the young actor had an important audition lined up for the popular soap opera General Hospital. Stamos got the part.
“He got a guest spot, and the reaction was so great that they offered him a permanent job on the show. He was a teen sensation,” says Griffin. “And then he says, ‘They want to write a storyline about my character being a rock ‘n roll musician in a band. Would you want to be in it?’” Griffin recalls delightedly. “I said, ‘Yeah, ok... national TV? Ok!’”
The television show band, which was called Blackie and the Riffraff, made appearances on the show about three days a week. It consisted of Stamos, Griffin, and other musicians that they had each worked with previously.
When the show’s producers began assigning him speaking parts, Griffin, who had no acting experience whatsoever, sheepishly asked, “Are you sure you want me to do this?” He pulled it off well enough that they regularly gave him lines. The band continued to appear on General Hospital for a year and a half.
A Jesse and the Rippers reunion during "Fuller House."After Stamos was written off the show, he quickly received an invite to act in a new sitcom called Full House. The show played upon his previous role, casting him as heartthrob musician Jesse Katsopolis. Again, Stamos brought Griffin along for the ride and he became a member of TV band Jesse and the Rippers. They played a mix of 60’s pop songs, including, of course, some Beach Boys covers. The show aired from 1987 to 1995 and achieved cult status.
“That lasted for eight years — eight years on a top ten TV show! And there, again, they kept giving me speaking lines. I had a tendency to say everything really fast. I had to keep telling myself, ‘Breathe, breathe. Say everything like you would normally say it,” recalls Griffin. “But anyway, it was really, really fun.”
Griffin lived on his own in a beautiful house in Panorama City. He had a nice, in-house studio there where he did a lot of his work. He’d had a few romantic relationships over the years but had never married. On New Years Eve 2007, Griffin was playing with a couple of the Beach Boys at a special event in South Carolina. There, he met a woman named Elizabeth who had won backstage passes as part of a radio promotion and they hit it off. The two kept in touch and decided a relationship was worth pursuing. Luckily, Griffin’s tour schedule brought him back to that part of the country frequently.
“I thought, ‘Look at this! Another good fortune just popped into my lap!’ So we decided to give it a shot, and finally it seemed like we could make it work. So we got married in 2011 back here, over on the west side,” says Griffin. “My dad was my best man. It was fantastic and it’s been great.”
Griffin and Elizabeth lived in California for eight years and returned to Ohio just one year ago. She wanted to be closer to her family, and Griffin realized he was at the point in his life where he didn’t need to be in California for work. He sold his home for what he calls an obscene amount of money, and spent about a fourth of the proceeds securing an even larger home in Lebanon.
“The thing about living in California — it was great, I have no regrets – but it got to be really difficult living there in recent years because the traffic is just so bad, you just don’t want to go anywhere,” says Griffin.
In 2013, Jesse and the Rippers reunited for an appearance on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Griffin has also appeared on episodes of Full House sequel Fuller House over the past few years.
“It was really fun seeing everybody again,” he says of his time on Fuller House. “It’s just a great bunch of people and we’d all had so much fun doing (Full House). The guys, (Bob) Saget and Dave Coulier — they are hilarious. They had me in stitches.”
Griffin reports that the cast of Full House remains friends to this day and regularly keeps in touch. He speaks with Stamos often.
Lately, Griffin spends his time working on his personal musical pursuits as well as collaborating with other musicians. He recently worked on a recording for children with Full House’s Dave Coulier. Even with juggling his current projects, life for Griffin today has a much slower pace than it did during his 40 years in California. And while a certain amount of settling down was desired, he still feels deflated about missing out on his scheduled concert tour with Brian Wilson. Griffin truly loves touring and performing. Regardless of current setbacks, he counts himself as lucky for being able to do so professionally.
Unfortunately, immediately following Griffin’s interview for this piece, the pandemic hit closer to home. He received word that his beloved childhood friend, Mike Herron, had lost his battle with COVID-19.
When reached for comment, Griffin had this to say:
“He lived in my neighborhood when I was a kid. He worked for the band Chillingsworth as a road manager — he was a very important part of it. I’ve known him forever. Mike worked at the NBC studio in New York as a cameraman. Both the local channel in New York and NBC Nightly News did a tribute to him at the end of their broadcast. He was really well loved. If I needed any reinforcement about whether to take this whole thing seriously, that did it. It’s a no-brainer to me now.”
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