Surfari’s Guitarist Jim Fuller on the Birth and Long, Happy Life of Wipe Out!

Backstage at the James Brown Revue. Hollywood Bowl, September of 2003. From left: John Dordero, Randy Hunt, The Godfather of Soul, Dennis Dooley and Surfari’s guitarist Jim Fuller - the man behind the legendary  Wipe Out  riff..Photo: Ben Marcus.

Backstage at the James Brown Revue. Hollywood Bowl, September of 2003. From left: John Dordero, Randy Hunt, The Godfather of Soul, Dennis Dooley and Surfari’s guitarist Jim Fuller - the man behind the legendary Wipe Out riff..Photo: Ben Marcus.

I was surprised. The band was surprised. My mom was surprised. I was still living with my mom and she was mind-blown. I paid off her house.

  •        Jim Fuller in 2003, on the success of The Surfari’s Wipe Out.

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On the last Saturday in September of 2003, a black limo rolled through LA traffic heading for the James Brown Revue at the Hollywood Bowl. On board were members of a San Marino Posse including John Dordero who runs the Orange Inn in Laguna and the cafeteria at Quiksilver.. Randy Hunt was one of the founders of Quiksilver who now runs several Quiksilver Boardriders stores in Orange County. The ringleader was Dennis Dooley, a surfer, musician and record producer who has worked with everyone from Paul Revere and the Raiders to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Sam McWhorter was in the limo as well, a record producer who has worked with Prince and ELO and Sonny and Cher and has at least one fine feather in his producer’s cap: Put a Little Love in Your Heart by Jackie De Shannon. And then there was kind of a little guy in a suit who didn’t say much but smiled quietly to himself. This was Jim Fuller, the original guitarist for The Surfaris and the guy who co-wrote Wipe Out.  This crew sat backstage at the Bowl and watched James Brown and his 29-piece band rock a packed house. On the ride back, Jim Fuller opened up about the simple song he wrote, way back in 1962.


Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday to you. Happy Birthday to you and your hit song Wipe Out….

Thank you. Forty years. Eight million broadcasts.


That is what I have been saying for 40 years.

It wasn’t planned this way?

Not even close. It was a fluke. We needed a B side.

A B Side to what?

Surfer Joe. It was a song that came to Ron Wilson in his sleep. We recorded it and it came out pretty good. We were so young and naïve we didn’t know we needed a B Side.

Who were “we” and how young were “you?”

We were The Surfaris. I was 15 and the others were around there: Ron Wilson, Bob Berryhill and Ron Connolly. We were all from the Glendale area and we were still in high school. Our parents were driving us to gigs.

What kind of gigs?

Skating rinks. Teen clubs. We were lucky if we’d earn $10 to $15 a night, each.


It was fun. It was 1963. We were a surf band.

Did you guys surf?

Sure. We were all from Glendale but we spent as much time at the beach as possible.

Where did Wipe Out come from?

We had a manager named Ron Smallen and he thought if we recorded a song we could buy a van for the band and some new instruments.

And maybe some new surfboards.

And some new surfboards. We all went to a recording studio in Cucamonga in December of 1962 and recorded Surfer Joe. It came out okay and then someone noted that we needed a song for the other side of the 45.

Traditionally, yes.  Where did it come from?

Well Ron Wilson was in the high school marching band and he had this drum cadence that he speeded up.

Where do the sound effects at the start come from?

That was our manager Ron Smallen. He broke a board covered with plaster and then cackled “Wipe out!” into the mic.

Where did your guitar riff come from?

It was just something I had in my head. Something I had been working on for a couple of weeks.

Did you rip off Batman? Because the guitar riff for Wipe Out sounds like the guitar riff from Batman played backward.

Nope, Wipe Out came first.





Okay then, you sold me. And it all gelled there in the recording studio?

It came together rather nicely

What was your axe?

I had  a ¾ neck Fender DuoSonic with a lot of reverb that night. I really liked that guitar and I wish I had held onto it, but who was to know what was coming? When Wipe Out became a hit the Surfaris cut a deal with Fender. We did some ads in music magazines and they gave us a lot of equipment. I got a brand-new red Dakota Stratocaster. I’ve been playing Strats ever since, but I do wish I still had that DuoSonic.

So you got your new equipment?

That and a lot more.

Wipe Out has to be the simplest song ever written.

Simple, but effective. We rehearsed it in six takes and then we nailed it.

And that was that. When did you know you had a hit?

We knew it was a hit when we turned on the radio and they were playing it non-stop. But that didn’t happen right away. After we recorded in December, Ron Smallen hit the pavement and went all around Hollywood shoving it under people’s noses. We were still doing gigs and driving to the middle of nowhere to play it for disc jockeys. But it paid off. By the third or fourth month it was getting some play and by June of 1963 it went to Number Two.


I was surprised. The band was surprised. My mom was surprised. I was still living with my mom and she was mind-blown. I paid off her house.

Such a good son. What did you do for yourself?

I was 16. It was the early 60s. I bought a hot car. We all bought hot cars.  I went from a 1951 Willy’s panel truck to a brand new, fire engine red GTO. Bob Berryhill upgraded his rodded, ’56 Ford F 100 for a ’64 Ford Galaxy 500 with a 427 that he raced at the drags. Pat Connolly bought a ram-inducted Dodge and Ron Wilson bought a Ford Fairlane.

Surfing and hot rods. The 60s. You were completely styling.

We were.

And you could drive yourself to gigs at the Skating Rink and the Teen Center.

Well that got an upgrade too. We started doing TV shows. Shin Dig. Shiveree. Shebang. Ninth Street West. Hullabaloo.

Tonight Show? Ed Sullivan?

Rock bands weren’t doing those TV shows yet, but that was changed soon after by the Beatles and the British Invasion. And we weren’t just driving to gigs, we were flying to them.


Our first tour was Hawaii with Bobby Vinton and the Crystals and the second big tour was through Australia and the South Pacific with the Beach Boys and Roy Orbison and Paul and Paula.


Yeah. I will always remember that Australia tour. And then we played Japan in front of a hundred thousand people.

Crazy, man. How long did it last?

The Surfaris were touring through 1964 and 1965 and Wipe Out somehow went to #16 again in 1965. Then the British Invasion swept into America and started to knock a lot of California bands off the charts.

Did you get rich off Wipe Out?

Well not rich. If you have a hit song like that these days you’re living in the Malibu Colony. But Wipe Out has been a solid income over the last 40 years.

You kept all the rights?

Yes. The Surfaris retained all the publishing and copyright licenses.

Smart lads.

Yes. If you go to the BMI website and plug in Wipe Out you will see all the bands who have recorded it.

The Beach Boys, Camp California, The Challengers, Davie Allan and the Arrows, Fat Boys, Harlow Wilcox and the Oakies, Lively Ones, The Lucy Show, The Muppets, the Psychotic Frogs, The Tempos, Terry Gordon, Thunders Johnnny, Tony Lane and the Fabulous Spades and the Ventures.

I’ve heard the song used commercially for In ‘n Out, Wendy’s, some scrub cloths, Burger King. Wipe Out has been used in movie soundtracks for Meet the Parents and Back to the Beach and Dirty Dancing. We were on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack so I got a triple platinum plaque.

And you get a residual from all those uses?

Comes in quarterly.

That is just about the coolest thing I have ever heard. Are you still playing?

I play quite a bit with the Surfaris, mostly from spring through fall and in the winter we do corporate parties. And then Dennis Dooley and I play around our schedule with the Beatniks. We’ve got 8 pieces and that includes two backup singers who did some time with Boz Scaggs and J Lo.

You wrote a simple song.

We wrote and recorded a simple song and it is still going.

And now BMI is saying it has been played 8 million times on the radio.

Eight million times in 40 years. That is 200,000 times a year.

And that probably doesn’t include high school marching bands.

Who would have thought?