the Studio With Larry
Helping a Legend Make His Final Recording
my way through the mini-maze that is the basement of the
old Creative Arts building, in search of CA 43 and the recording studios
where I'd soon be producing a CD with a legendary local crooner, I couldn't
help feeling how right this was.
After all, I'd been a student at San Francisco State some 40 years ago,
and spent many hours upstairs, attending broadcasting classes and playing
DJ on the campus station. I shuttled between Creative Arts and the Journalism
Department, where I edited and wrote for the Daily Gater. There -- at
the radio station and the newspaper office -- I took what turned out to
be the first steps toward a career in rock journalism, beginning, in 1968,
at a new newspaper in the South of Market. It was called Rolling Stone.
By then, I'd graduated with a major in Radio-TV-Film, a minor in journalism,
and a passion for chronicling the scene I'd observed on (and off) campus.
The scene, of course, was the '60s.
At Rolling Stone, I worked alongside John Burks, who'd preceded
me by a couple of years as an editor at the Gater. Today, Burks is chair
of the Journalism Department, and he's cajoled me into several stints
as a fill-in instructor, bringing me back to campus on a regular basis.
But it was serendipity that SF State would be where I'd produce my first
CD ever. The album is called "Till the End of Time," and it
is anything but rock. The artist was Larry Ching, who'd been a star back
in the '40s and '50s at Forbidden City, an all-Asian nightclub on the
outskirts of San Francisco's Chinatown. He was billed as "the Chinese
Sinatra," although, unlike the Chairman, Ching had a sweet tenor
voice, imported from his native Hawaii.
By 1961, Forbidden City was closed, and Ching gave up on singing as a
profession. Outside of the Asian clubs, there wasn't exactly a demand
for Chinese crooners.
In 1989, he and many of his fellow performers were featured in alumnus
Arthur Dong's documentary, "Forbidden City, USA," and when I
co-emceed the film's premiere, I met Larry and heard him sing. Intrigued
by his voice, which transported me back to the pop music I'd enjoyed before
rock rolled along, and by his history as a pioneer entertainer, I began
thinking about getting him on record. Larry, who'd cut only a few demos,
readily agreed. But, owing to jobs and other distractions, I never got
around to it.
Then, last November, we met again, at an event at SF State celebrating
the DVD edition of "Forbidden City, USA." Once again,I was emceeing;
once again, Larry sang. At 82, he was still sounding fine. Encouraged
by members of his family, I became determined to get him into a studio.
That's when serendipity stepped in. I've long known John Barsotti, professor
in Broadcast and Electronic Communication Arts and a veteran record producer,
and when I mentioned my idea, he volunteered his studios and his services.
Suddenly, "Till the End of Time's" time had come.
weekend afternoon in February, in CA 43, the team gathered: Larry, his
friend and pianist George Yamasaki, and two ace session players, standup
bassist Dean Reilly and drummer Jim Zimmerman. One of Barsotti's students
served as assistant engineer. Later in the day, other students dropped
by to watch, listen and learn.
Up in the control room, I mostly pretended to be a producer. Writing for
Rolling Stone, I'd watched some of the best at work -- from artists like
Ray Charles and Paul Simon to producers who made albums with Crosby, Stills
& Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Jefferson Starship, and Diana Ross.
But, faced with a huge audio mixing board and an array of microphones
and other equipment, I was just grateful for Barsotti's presence. With
his knowledge of every element of record-making, I could relax and simply
chip in thoughts, here and there, about how a particular song sounded.
Most of them sounded great, and Larry and company nailed several tunes
in one take. Within about three hours of recording, we completed the dozen
tracks Yamasaki and I had selected, from a swinging "All of Me"
to a plaintive "Prisoner of Love" to a gorgeous "Hawaiian
That almost wasn't fast enough. Because the building had to be shut down
by 8:30 p.m., I had to push to get all 12 songs in. When Ching began to
tire, and to make mistakes, I had to confer with Barsotti to see if we
could use technology to fix or mask the errors, rather than put Larry
and the band through additional takes. Just often enough, we could, and
we wrapped the session just in time.
"Wow, that's the hardest work I've ever done," Ching said afterwards.
But he did it, and after several sessions at Barsotti's home studios,
where we reviewed, tweaked and mixed every track of every tune, we had
It came out in June, which, unbeknownst to anybody, would be Larry's last
month of life. But what a month. He drew attention from radio and television
stations and from newspapers and Web sites. Surrounded by family, fans
and fellow Forbidden City alumni, he celebrated the CD at a party at the
Chinese Historical Society of America in Chinatown. Mayor Willie Brown
proclaimed that day, June 25, as "Larry Ching Day" in San Francisco.
And then, a week later, he died of a brain aneurysm. The timing was nothing
short of stunning. Newscaster Emerald Yeh, who co-emceed "The Forbidden
City" premiere with me in 1989, wrote to me shortly after Larry's
death: "The timing could not have been more ideal. You let him soar
from the world with joy and a sense of being appreciated, as well as a
chance to relive the height of his career."
I'd like to think that he said "Aloha" with a song in his heart,
sung with a tender tenor voice that, thanks to a short session in a basement
studio at San Francisco State, will last … till the end of time.
Ben Fong-Torres (B.A., '66) was SFSU Alumnus
of the Year for 2003 and was recently inducted into the Alumni Hall of
Fame. For more information on the CD Fong-Torres produced, visit www.larryching.com.