Monday, December 12, 2016

The Strange Case of the Royal Chessmen and the Manson Murder Connection

Ugly Things Magazine - Issue #42 - Summer 2016
In early 1969 a group o Latino teenagers from El Monte visited Custom Fidelity's studio in Pasadena to record a 45rpm: ”You Must Believe Me"  b/w "Beggin' You”, issued in February 1969 as CF-742. The flipside, composed by lead singer David and guitarist Gilbert Zabele, went on to become an East LA cult classic, demand being so great that it was bootlegged not once but twice by a notorious Chicano record dealer nicknamed Bootin' Bernie on his illicit labels, Riot and Angle. Original copies on Custom Fidelity, though, are extremely hard to come by, so much so that the single has built up a mythical status among collectors of the East LA sound. In their book 45RPM: The History, Heroes & Villains of a Pop Music Revolution, Jim Dawson and Steve Propes listed it as one of "The 50 Most Expensive 45s," outlining a story that has contributed immensely to the single's reputation and desirability. "The only known copy," they wrote, "ended up with Steven Parent, the son of the people who owned the studio, who was carrying it with him in his car to play for a couple of labels around Hollywood. While visiting a friend who lived in the guest house at Roman Polanski's sprawling estate, Parent was murdered, along with Sharon Tate and others, by members of the Charles Manson family. According to the vocal group members, the LAPD impounded the car in which Parent was killed, and the original 45 might still be in the evidence locker, because they were never able to get it back."

It's a compelling story, but does it stand up to scrutiny? Actually… it sort of does.

While, Parent, 18, was definitely not "the son of the people who owned the studio" (for one thing, Dave Berkus was only 10 years older than him at the time), Berkus confirms that Steve did occasionally hang around at Custom Fidelity. Steve was a music lover, a guitar player, and an audio and electronics enthusiast who was keen to learn more about the recording process. "Steve seemed all about the engineering and sessions as I recall," says Berkus.

Like the Royal Chessmen, Steve lived in El Monte and attended Arroyo High School, so it's quite likely that he was friends with them, as they claim. It was probably Steve who told them all about Custom Fidelity and encouraged them to make their record there. After graduating high school in June 1969, Steve worked two part-time jobs, as a delivery boy for a plumbing company, and as a salesman for a stereo store on Wilshire Boulevard. He was saving money to attend college that fall. Parent may have told the Royal Chessmen that he'd take their single around some Hollywood record companies, exaggerating the music business connections he'd made through his job at the stereo store. Steve had gone to the Polanski house on that fateful night in August 1969 to visit his friend Bill Garretson, who worked as a caretaker there. Parent had brought along a clock radio he hoped to sell to Garretson. Perhaps he also brought along the record his friends had made, maybe even naively thinking that Garretson would tell his Hollywood employers about it. It's a stretch, but not outside the realm of possibility. Tragically, Parent was in the wrong place at the wrong time. As he was leaving, he was slashed with a buck knife then shot four times by Tex Watson, becoming the Manson Family's first victim in that night's killing spree. In the media his death was somewhat overshadowed by that of the more famous victims, but his friends and family naturally were devastated. "When we all heard of the murders, we were in shock for our personal friendship with one of the victims," remembers Dave. Does a copy of the Royal Chessmen single still reside in an LAPD evidence locker? Probably not. But it's a myth that has enhanced the value of the 45 tremendously. What's for certain is that Steven Parent's Royal Chessmen record - if indeed he had one - was not "the only known copy." Others have since surfaced. They change hands for anywhere from $500 to $1,300, depend-ing on condition. Without its connection to one of Los Angeles' most notorious crime scenes, it would likely be worth a lot less. • (Mike Stax)

Thank you, Arrak!