July 10, 2003 by

Ethan James


Categories: Musicians

Ethan James, a 1960s rocker who later became a master of a medieval instrument, died on June 19 of liver cancer. He was 56.
James taught himself to play bass, drums, guitar and piano. He joined the heavy-metal band Blue Cheer in the 1960s, just after their song, “Summertime Blues,” became a hit.
In the ’70s, James became a music producer and built the Radio Tokyo Studio in Los Angeles. There he worked with many alternative and pop artists such as The Bangles, Jane’s Addiction, Black Flag and Sonic Youth.
James returned to performing in 1989 when he discovered a passion for playing the hurdy-gurdy, a medieval instrument that looks like an ancient fiddle with a wheel. When its strings are caressed by a bow, it makes a sound similar to a violin and a set of bagpipes.
“This is not some museum piece. It has been through cycles of popularity and obscurity for the last 1,000 years. I think it is becoming more popular again, which is somehow appropriate in the new millennium,” James once said.
After he became a master of the hurdy-gurdy, James toured the U.S. and Europe, often playing at Renaissance faires. He performed with the San Francisco Mozart Festival Orchestra and appeared at the Ashland Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

21 Responses to Ethan James

  1. Jason Baker

    *sniff* I didn’t hear about Ethan’s death until after I had written him a letter thanking him for his warm response and a tape of his music that reached me three years after it was sent. I missed so many opportunities to meet him and now… I’ll have la Ghironda by the end of the year and will play a tribute while drinking absinthe in his memory.

  2. David Armstrong

    Ethan James IS The Hurdy-Gurdy Man, here, now, and wherever. They must be tired of harps in heaven, I guess, so you got the big curtain call. Your playing was just so over the top that it took you to the highest levels of art, literally. Whatever inner or outer Satsang or concert to which you are lending such depth and lightness of Spirit, Ethan, it must be humming right along, carrying that message of Love that always shined through your eyes and heart. Baraka Bashad forever.
    P.S. And yes, I still have those two Hurdy-Gurdy tapes I bought years ago to remind me of The Ineffable Music, the Sound Current within the Sound Current.
    Most Gratefully,
    David Armstrong

  3. amrit

    I will always remember the first time i met ethan
    he told me about radio tokyo studios and i could
    feel the dreamer that all real artists have with in.i told him about my studio contour and we
    both decided to work together using both studios
    as needed.we never had to discuss what to do if the session ran over or if the client was a little short on funds.alot of great music was
    made at that time and a lot of bad also but the main thing was a lot of real artists were able
    to live their dream.
    That is why we got along so great
    I can say that i loved this guys soul and had some
    incredible times .
    when you ask a true artist what they are working on painter musican sculpter they may take a while
    to respond because they might be laying down a
    guitar track for their present project but there
    thinking about the next project because
    a true artist lives in their dreams.
    that was ETHAN a true artist.

  4. Gi Menicucci

    I moved to Hollywood in 1983 and my band broke up. I put together a new band, Pleasure Mask, (dubbed post-punk-funk/art rhythm rock). I had heard about Ethan from my former guitar player who knew a bandmate from the band Choir Invisible that had a track on the Radio Tokyo Tapes Vol 1 compilation. We went by the Radio Tokyo Studio, met Ethan, played him a few of our live tracks, he dug the music, and within a few weeks he was engineering/co-producing Pleaure Mask’s first EP. He asked us to appear on his next compilation, Radio Tokyo Tapes Vol 2, and we recorded our song “The Touch”. We got rave reviews…Craig Lee became a huge Pleasure Mask fan (lucky us!). Ethan was brilliant to work with…anything you could think of…he was willing to try it…backwards guitar solos, dialog from TV shows (for our song “TV Shuffle”) street noise that I had recorded on Hollywood Blvd., for the song “Gang of Boys”…a madman with the 16trk…master splicer…one of the best engineers I have had the pleasure to work with. I am still a singer/songwriter/guitarist fronting my new band Gi in the SF bay area, (I married the drummer from Pleasure Mask). We have a website gi-music.com and I will at some point make available some of the tracks I recorded with Ethan James…the one who taught me to love the art of recording.

  5. El Gaitero Vato

    Rest in peace, Ethan. You were a well-known figure out here in the faire circuit of Southern California. I unfortunately never had the fortune to meet you, but I’ve heard your recordings. Many of my friends who had befriended you had wondered where you’d gone off to. I’ve just written them to let them know.
    Again, rest in peace. You brought the magic of the hurdy gurdy to many Californians who had otherwise never heard of such an instrument.

  6. Adeeba de Qabra

    OMG! I just heard that Ethan had died! I’m stunned and saddened. My husband and I knew Ethan from the Ren faire circuit. We had the pleasure of jamming with him and Catherine (when he was playing with her) on more than one occassion. I have some wonderful pics of him from faire, looking like he stepped out of a Bruegel painting; he was amazing like that.
    Ethan, you will be missed

  7. scott shafer

    To; Ethan(Ralph Burns Kellog)- Just found this web site, was a very good friend of mine and I am saddened on thanksgiving morning 2004. Apprapoe? I moved back to Dallas,Tx. 1989. I was there in 1979 when he was putting sand in the walls of that little house in Venice,Ca. that later became “Radio Tokyo”. My friend helped him work on the place some, and Ethan gave him a key to the studio and taught him some engineering. We were 19. That’s the kind of person we’re talkin’ about. We recorded late nite a couple of years when there was just a Teak 80/8, 1/2″ eight track there. The Jane Bond LP was recorded on the machine, and it sounds great, I know, I still have one. So here’s to you, my brother, God Bless, see you soon. We’ll party with Darwin!!!
    P.S. Trebor, Rory or Marque- 817.656.4547

  8. Judith

    Ethan was my first hurdy gurdy teacher…I loved him
    for his attention to detail, his supportiveness, and
    his patience. He was very quiet, introspective, and
    self-contained, and yet his presence was vibrant and
    strong. We exchanged emails occasionally afterwards
    and once I sent him a photo of an instrument he was having
    built for him in Europe. He couldn’t believe I was there,
    had found the luthier he had commissioned, and had forwarded
    him a progress report (it was in the days before internet
    photos were the norm). We laughed over his surprise
    many times after that.
    I miss Ethan: each time I pick up my instrument I hear
    him instructing me, telling me to rosin and tune, and
    not be discouraged.

  9. Mary Jean Valente

    I am stunned. Ethan has been on my mind but we lost touch some time ago and for some reason today I decided to google. I am sad and shocked. I first met Ethan in the early 70’s at a seminar on the spiritual path we shared. For those who didn’t know Ethan held strong and beloved spiritual beliefs and he had a beautiful heart. We became very close and formed a duet performing in local clubs. Our first gig was at a place in Venice, known at the time as F Scotts, don’t know what it is called now. We even got a review in the paper which was at that time the rival to the LA Times..If I recall correctly it was The Herald. This was before he took up the Hurdy Gurdy. He created Radio Tokyo productions where we did some early recording. Ethan was so incredibly talented. We recorded some of his original music and I wrote some lyrics and he easily put them to music as well. My favorite song we recorded, for which I wrote the lyric and he the music, was Southern Girl. He created a piano intro that amazed anyone who heard it. And then there was his song Hitchhike. FOr those who didn’t know, Ethan partnered with a man named Mike in a T Shirt business based in Venice as was Radio Tokyo. I have very fond memories of the times we spent together and the times we rehearsed and worked out at the studio. We lost touch and later ran into one another..by that time he was playing Hurdy Gurdy and had recorded with Erin. I remember going to see him at a club on Fairfax. He lived close by so we would see each other on occasion and I remember he liked the restaurant Toi on Sunset..he was an ecclectic surprising man with great talent, depth and strenght of character. I know the Varaigi Masters have greeted him and the Silent Ones have taken him home. Baraka Bashad Ethan! mary jean

  10. marvin etzioni

    i just got a call from a producer/engineer friend of mine who was looking for a hurday gurday player. i couldn’t find ethan’s number, so i went on line.
    i am shocked, to say the least.
    ethan helped me record a song i wrote with richard thompson, for a rt tribute. ethan also played on other recordings of mine, some still unreleased.
    he was a one of a kind. and still is.
    marvin etzioni

  11. Mary

    I am sitting here, listening to Ethan James play Christmas music on the hurdy-gurdy. I don’t know what prompted me to pick up this CD last year. I do know that it has added great depth to my life.
    Anyway, on a whim, I came “looking” for him online, and found this tribute. How sad that such a great talent was taken from us so young! Reading the little details that you have all shared, I find myself wondering what his next reincarnation will be like! Wow!
    To all of you who knew him personally, my deepest sympathies. To all of the rest of us, let’s see that his life doesn’t go unnoticed!

  12. Carvin Knowles

    I met Ethan when I was out gigging with an early-music ensemble. I blew off my gig to hang out with him and hear him play. Then I kept finding excuses to just sit and let that loud crazy sound take me to another world. I can still see his “grim reaper” puppet bobbing to the rhythm of his “rue.”
    After several years of this (and many discussions of ancient heresies and the “Danse Macabre” and the evils of the music business), he agreed to record a session with me for an album I was working on. He was AMAZING. It rained the whole time we recorded and he had to retune his Hurdy Gurdy after each take. But his dry-dark humor kept things rolling…and each time he played, it just transported the whole room. I miss that sound. Even though there are many recordings of him, the sound of his hurdy-gurdy right next to you is amazing and unreal! The sound seems to come from everywhere, like a musical haze that fills the air around you.
    I found out about his death when he hadn’t replied to my emails for a long time. I just assumed he was out touring (as usual). Then I decided to look him up online ’cause I REALLY wanted his opinion and then I got the bad news. I still can’t believe that he is gone!
    I had hoped he would be here to finally see the release of the album “In Elven Lands.” As a punk-rocker, he would have laughed to hear his “duets” with Jon Anderson. And I’m sure he would have had something to say about how long the album took to release. His attitude was the kind that lets you know that others have fought the good fight before you.
    Thanks for fighting the good fight, Ethan. We all miss you.

  13. Art

    Ethan greatly enriched my life as well. He was a towering presence in all he did, as well as a member of that increasingly rare species — a true gentleman. Rest in peace, EJ.

  14. Luke J

    I cannot believe Ethan is no longer with us. He has left a legacy, however, that will survive for the ages. His music expanded my mind; I listened to it for hours in my Rocky Mountain cabin as I sought a more transcendent connection with the real and eternal.

  15. Melanie Temmer

    I often thought about you throughout the years. I read your bio tonite. You were eternal, enchanting and mystical. All my love to you.

  16. eric kenyon

    i met ethan in the civic center bart station in sanfrancisco. i used to see him there playing the hurdy-gurdy quite often and i would stop to listen. we would usually have a conversation on a variety of subjects, such as music, building instruments, theatre, metalwork, (i was always covered in soot from my day job as a welder) he sold me a cd of his hurdy-gurdy music at a discount as it had a cracked case. it is still one of my favorites. i can’t place the time when i met him, it must have been between 1998 and 2003. he impressed me as a very intelligent, interesting and down-to-earth person. i am very sorry to hear he is gone. my best to ethan’s loved ones. – e.k. oakland ca

  17. Randy Guynn

    Ethan was like a son to me __ the kind of son you have great expectations for and who nonetheless surpasses them in everything he does: his sensitivity, his concern for others, his extraordinary work ethic, his utter inability to offend, and above all his personal and professional judgment.He filled a real gap in my life that grows wider and emptier by the day.

  18. Jeff H

    I lived across the street from Radio Tokyo Studios in 1984 and my first meeting with Ethan James was shortly after I had fired up my ham radio gear.
    Seems my transmitter was leading to disastrous consequences with his audio gear, but surprisingly he was very nice about it. That inspired me to go to great lengths to shield his mixing board and other kit and to take steps to make sure that I was fully grounded and shielded too.
    I knew that this was a meticulous artist who cared about his craft.
    My next meeting with Ethan was when he asked me to put together a series of dailies for a movie he was scoring the music on. He paid me on time with a bonus for getting it done so quickly.
    I don’t think he remembered me as the guy across the street though.
    He seemed like a calm spirit, and he was a down to earth and likeable guy. Sorry to hear of his passing at such a young age!

  19. bobby cuff

    i’m blown away that ethan james is dead…i have so many great records that he engineered and/or produced…what a loss for all music…so here’s to the man that was involved with to damascus, bangles and countless others that i loved and still love to listen to…what a sad moment…i will record some music in his honor this weekend.
    bobby cuff, “grievous angels”

  20. Dean

    Went to school with Ethan (Ralph), I thought he was the coolest and nicest guy I met. An owner used to let us in a girly bar before opening and (then) Ralph (Ethan) would get on the keyboard and play and sing…so sorry about his passing, he left an important mark in music history.

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