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POP BEAT

Guitarist John Jorgenson Sings the Praises of His Orange County Background

December 10, 1987|Duncan Strauss

Orange County isn't generally thought of as a great base from which to launch a pop music career, but don't tell that to John Jorgenson.

Earlier this week, for instance, the Anaheim guitarist and mandolinist appeared on "The Tonight Show" backing rock legend Roy Orbison.

Last month, he helped round out a nifty pick-up band, that also included pianist Van Dyke Parks, to play behind singer Syd Straw when she landed a last-minute spot opening for Warren Zevon at the Wiltern Theatre.

And in October, Jorgenson performed at Carnegie Hall as a member of the Desert Rose Band, the country combo led by ex-Byrd Chris Hillman, which plays the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana on Monday(.

Handling mandolin and guitar duties for Desert Rose is ostensibly Jorgenson's full-time job. However, before the sextet came together about two years ago and ever since, he has usually juggled several projects--and he has never thought that living in Orange County hindered his musical career.

"I've never felt it was a drawback," Jorgenson, 31, said recently in the living room of his condo. "We have a lot of talent here," he said, ticking off several disparate bands--from techno-pop purveyors Berlin to the roots-rocking James Harman Band--that have emerged from behind the Orange Curtain.

The distance-from-L.A. factor obviously didn't prevent artists as dissimilar as relative newcomer Straw or rock vet Orbison from tapping Jorgenson for their bands. The raft of other projects on Jorgenson's resume on those still ahead, both as sideman and featured performer, are further indication that if you are a gifted and versatile musician (he is also a classically trained clarinetist), it hardly matters if your phone number starts with 714.

All in all, Jorgenson is more a propagandist than an apologist for all things musical in Orange County. When the conversation drifted to two albums Jorgenson has in the works--a solo jazz foray, "After You've Gone," and a collection of duets with country music pioneer Rose Maddox, "Johnny and Rose"--he mostly plugged the Westminster studio where the Maddox collaboration was recorded.

Similarly, he pointed out that this area is home base for such prominent guitar-making firms as Fender and Rickenbacker. "In the '60s, they were so popular because the Beatles and Pete Townshend played Rickenbackers, and everyone assumed the guitars were from England. But they're made in Santa Ana ," Jorgenson said with a laugh.

He signed an agreement earlier this year to endorse Rickenbacker guitars, and it turns out he also has an endorsement deal with G & L Musical Instruments, the Fullerton guitar manufacturer run by electric guitar innovator Leo Fender (of Fender Guitar fame).

The story of Jorgenson's Orange Pride also has its Goofy side: from 1979 through June of this year, he worked full time as a member of the Bluegrass and jazz bands at that most Orange Countian of institutions, Disneyland.

"Disneyland is actually where I learned all about Bluegrass music and how to play it," he recalled, smiling at the idea of mastering such a sub-genre in an amusement park.

While developing his chops and meeting musicians at Disneyland, he was moonlighting in assorted bands, which ultimately led to his participation in Desert Rose (which also includes singer-guitarist Herb Pedersen, bassist Bill Bryson, pedal-steel guitarist Jay Dee Maness and drummer Steve Duncan).

Among those side projects was the Cheating Hearts, a group Jorgenson formed that featured Bryson and Duncan. "We kept that together for about a year and a half, till about December, '84," he recalled, getting ready to cite yet another local link to Desert Rose. "Then in January of '85 I met Chris (Hillman) at the NAMM show," he said, referring to the National Assn. of Music Merchants' annual convention in Anaheim.

He and Hillman immediately hit it off, playing together in a variety of formats, among them a trio with Pedersen that served both as Dan Fogelberg's backing band on his "High Country Snows Tour" and as the show's opening act.

"Desert Rose was kind of getting started on that tour with Dan Fogelberg," Jorgenson said. As the band took shape, it initially played with a different drummer and steel guitar player, both of whom lasted exactly two shows.

"Then we got Jay Dee and Steve in there, and that worked out great. We did our first (official) performance as the Desert Rose Band at the Palomino in January of 1986."

After extensive gigging, both locally and at Bluegrass festivals and other shows across the country, the group landed a recording contract with MCA/Curb Records. The Desert Rose Band released its major label debut album last April, along with the first single, "Ashes of Love," which cracked the Top 30.

In June came the follow-up, "Love Reunited." "It did real well; it got to No. 6," Jorgenson said. "So on the success of that, MCA got a little more behind us and right away put out the current single, 'One Step Forward.' And it's doing really well."

Same goes for John Jorgenson.

The Desert Rose Band will play the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana , on Monday at 7 and 10 p.m. Admission: $25. Information: (714) 549-1512.

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