Hidden Gems: Los Angeles Music History Edition

Capitol Records Hollywood Walk of Fame Star
Capitol Records' star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame  |  Photo:  Yuri Hasegawa

This special edition of Hidden Gems will focus on Los Angeles locations, venues and events that are tied to the city’s impressive musical history. Like the GRAMMY Awards themselves, our list covers a wide selection of genres—whatever your musical tastes and inclinations, Los Angeles will surprise you with its hidden connections to the past, present and future of music.

Pop: United Recording Studios

Like many buildings and structures on the this list, the recording studio compound on 6000/6050 Sunset Blvd. has seen many changes of names, and owners. Currently refurbished as United Recording Studios, offering a vintage recording experience to new acts, this is the historic venue where Frank Sinatra made his 60s-era Reprise recordings back when it was known by its iconic name: United Western Recorders. The building is also a California pop music shrine: Brian Wilson crafted a lot of Pet Sounds and Smile between these walls, as amazingly recreated for the 2014 film Love & Mercy.

Capitol Records Building
Capitol Records Building  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

Pop: Capitol Records Building

Not much of a “hidden” gem, most visitors to the hub of Hollywood can pretty much spot the unmistakable shape of the Capitol Records Building just by looking up. Still, this is ground zero for Los Angeles music history and offers a must-see backdrop for the musically-inclined tourist. An enormous amount of pop music has been recorded and masterminded at Capitol Studios since 1956, from Nat King Cole’s cooler-than-cool sides to Bob Dylan’s Sinatra-influenced collections, to Muse and Imagine Dragons.

Booth at Dan Tana's in West Hollywood
Photo: Dan Tana's

Pop: Dan Tana's

If you want to end your evening like the legends used to do, head to Dan Tana’s, offering a real-deal classic dining experience since 1964. Dan Tana’s is the perfect place to imbibe the by-gone atmosphere of the (non-counterculture) 1960s music scene, where dapper men and formidable dames got their ring-a-ding-ding on.

Lemmy statue at the Rainbow Bar & Grill in West Hollywood
Lemmy statue at the Rainbow Bar & Grill | Photo: @prinunes73, Instagram

Rock: Rainbow Bar & Grill

Step into the Rainbow Bar & Grill and you’re not only stepping into rock ’n’ roll history—you’re entering a warped reality where kids who hadn't even been conceived when Axl and Slash first started not talking to each other are strutting around in Hanoi Rocks regalia like it’s still the Sunset Strip of 1984. Not so long ago, you could go to the outside bar and see Lemmy drinking his Jack and playing a videogame. The physical Lemmy might be gone, but you can pay your respects at the perfectly appropriate, Russian mobster-style mausoleum that has been built in his memory.

Canter's Delicatessen Sign
Canter's Delicatessen  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

Rock: Canter's Deli

Speaking of Guns N' Roses, step into L.A.'s most iconic, still-going-strong Jewish deli, Canter’s on Fairfax and get a copy of the owner’s memoir of the early days of GnR (advertised literally all around the restaurant). Or better yet, dress up like a glam rocker and reenact the most sublime homage to the unusual hair metal/matzo ball soup alliance that could only happen in Los Angeles: the Kroll Show’s immortal “LA Deli.”

Rock: Highland Gardens Hotel

The 2013 documentary Supermensch: the Legend of Shep Gordon has all the stories you need to know about the Highland Gardens Hotel, back when it was the Landmark Hotel, the ultimate down-and-out and up-and-coming rock and roller hangout. Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Alice Cooper and an array of scantily clad hippie chicks could be seen around the pool, smoking industrial amounts of weed. And of course, Janis Joplin tragically never made it out alive from room 105.

The Doors at the Morrison Hotel in December 1969
The Doors at the Morrison Hotel, December 1969 | Photo by Henry Diltz, courtesy of The Doors, Facebook

Rock: Morrison Hotel

Once a residential property for people on the hard side of life, the Morrison Hotel (1246 S. Hope St) offered the backdrop for The Doors classic album cover. The hotel is shuttered, but fans can check out the building in the South Park neighborhood near L.A. LIVE. In the nearby Toy District, you'll find the site of the original Hard Rock Cafe dive bar featured on the back cover (and inspired the global music-themed restaurant chain) at 300 E. 5th St. Bob Egan’s Pop Spots has all the information you need to replicate the iconic Henry Diltz photo sessions.

DJ booth at 333 Live in Downtown LA
Photo: 333 Live, Facebook

Dance/Electronic: 333 Live

The 55,000 square-foot private event venue at 333 S. Boylston St is now known as 333 Live. But back in the early 1990s, none other than Prince had taken over and redesigned it as his own nightclub, Glam Slam. This 2016 KPCC piece on the club takes you back to the time when the late, great Purple One and his traveling party held court near Downtown L.A. Bonus: spot the mural by street artist POSE that's nearby.

Casablanca Records Label
Casablanca Records Label Art | Photo: Casablanca Records

Dance/Electronic: Casablanca Records

Most of the participants in the now-closed Fox in a Box Escape Room at 8255 Sunset Blvd. probably had no idea they were roaming one of the most hallowed grounds of disco music history. This was the site of the legendarily debauched offices of Casablanca Records, outfitted in the 1970s by Neil Bogart as a North African fantasy for that notorious decade of excess. From Giorgio Moroder to KISS and the Village People, this is where the music that redefined hedonism for several generations was conceived and marketed to the world.

R&B: Sunset and Vine

Los Angeles has always been a soul city. The Entertainment Capital of the World has attracted the best talent in all genres for generations, so it's no surprise that the iconic intersection of Sunset and Vine was home to the West Coast headquarters of Motown. Back in the 1970s, most of the Motown operation relocated to Hollywood, where Berry Gordy was trying his hand at filmmaking and the music itself became more cinematic. Check out Our Lives Are Shaped by What We Love, the compilation of lush tunes from Motown’s LA-based offshoot Mowest, released by Light in the Attic.

Rap: LA Hood Life Tours

No music-inclined visitor to Los Angeles should leave without experiencing the city’s crucial role in the evolution of rap. If you want to go beyond the Straight Outta Compton biopic, book a spot with LA Hood Life Tours. Founded in 2010 by Hodari Sababu (The Game's stepfather), this guided tour of the South Los Angeles landmarks of local hip hop history has found a thriving market with rap-obsessed tourists from around the world.

Kris Kristofferson at The Troubadour
Kris Kristofferson at The Troubadour | Photo: PBS

Country: The Troubadour

Though the Troubadour has been associated with folk and rock much more than with country music, it has to be included here because when the 1960s turned into the '70s, it was the place where rock and country (and Hollywood hipsters) came together, especially around the groundbreaking residency by Kris Kristofferson and his band. Kristofferson made country soulful, sexy and literate, without losing any of Hank Williams’ “three chords and the truth” simplicity. And he showed his innovations to the world from the stage of this landmark West Hollywood venue.

Melody Room on the Sunset Strip in 1956
Melody Room in 1956 | Photo: Private Los Angeles Tours

Jazz: The Viper Room

Yes, it's been called The Viper Room since the 1990s (and you have already heard all the Johnny Depp and River Phoenix stories), but that intimate venue on the Sunset Strip has a much longer history. In the 1950s and '60s it was the Melody Room, a jazz club that was popular with some very heavy characters who had relocated from the East Coast. This is where mobsters (real, actual mobsters) would mingle with the likes of Bobby Troupe and the sublime Julie London. There’s a great account of the Melody Room in the fantastic blog run by Alison Martino, one of LA's most knowledgeable experts on local nightlife lore.

Herb Alpert on stage with Lani Hall at Vibrato Grill in Bel-Air
Herb Alpert on stage with Lani Hall | Photo: Vibrato Grill

Jazz: Vibrato Grill

For a contemporary jazz venue, head to the Bel-Air strip mall that houses Vibrato Grill, conceived by revered musician and philanthropist Herb Alpert. What makes this restaurant unique is that, unlike other repurposed dinner-and-a-show venues, it was designed first and foremost with sound and live performance in mind by one of the best ears in the business. Vibrato also serves as home base for Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s second career as a jazz singer.

Gospel: West Angeles

If you want to experience that old time religion through music in its proper setting, the West Angeles Church of God In Christ conducts services with a full gospel choir. The gospel tradition is continually evolving, so don’t expect a Sister Rosetta Tharpe or Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers-type experience here. Instead, you’ll bear witness to a living musical form with some of the oldest roots in American life.

Mariachi Divas at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights
Mariachi Divas | Photo: Mariachi Plaza Festival Foundation, Facebook

Latin: Mariachi Plaza

You can’t say you've experienced L.A.'s music history if you don’t pay a visit to Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. The Chicano cultural traditions east of the Los Angeles River are always thriving and Mariachi Plaza has served as a musical hub for decades, one that started with musicians you could hire for parties and serenades, but that has expanded to a rich tapestry of Latin rock and soul, 1950s-inspired rockabilly and fashion, proud style subcultures of dandyism and even hip hop.

Al Hirschfeld's famous mural of celebrity caricatures inside the Frolic Room
Al Hirschfeld's famous mural inside the Frolic Room  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

Musical Theatre: Frolic Room

The Hollywood Pantages Theatre is renowned as L.A.’s premier venue for blockbuster Broadway productions. Before or after a show, don’t miss the hidden gem next door: the Frolic Room. This bar has served musical theater patrons and assorted imbibers since time immemorial. It’s a time-capsule of a time long gone-by, and every year that passes we should be thankful for its survival.

McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica
Photo: McCabe's Guitar Shop, Facebook

American Roots: McCabe's

Where can you see folk and Americana legends like Janis Ian, Loudon Wainwright III and Tom Rush? The answer, always, is Santa Monica’s McCabe’s Guitar Shop, the little shop that could. McCabe’s is a must for anyone interested in American acoustic music in the grounded tradition of folk. Go any night to see whomever is playing—you’ll feel a sense of communion with a tradition that’s at the root of a lot of later music. Tickets to concerts in the intimate 150-seat back room are on sale at the McCabe's website.

Lee "Scratch" Perry at Dub Club in The Echoplex
Lee "Scratch" Perry | Photo: Dub Club

Reggae: Dub Club

Wednesdays at The Echoplex means Dub Club, the famed weekly event for reggae lovers. It’s hard to summarize its importance - every single Jamaican musician of note who can be convinced to tour has performed at Dub Club over the years. The DJ sets by residents Tom Chasteen and Boss Harmony (the great David Orlando) are world-class, and legends like Lee “Scratch” Perry have been known to drop by and bless the crowd when they're in town.

Comedy: Baby Wants Candy

Everyone knows Upright Citizens Brigade showcases the smartest comedy in town, particularly of the improv variety, but some people are shocked when they learn that a few of their shows are fully improvised musicals - music, lyrics and choreography are made up on the spot. Of these, the best is Baby Wants Candy, performing every Friday at UCB Sunset. If you’re an improv fan, this is a perfect show to take people who don’t know much about improv and blow their minds with the sheer talent of these outstanding performers.

Pipe organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall
Pipe organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall  |  Photo: Gustavo Turner

Classical: Walt Disney Concert Hall

The curvy, metallic exterior of the architectural wonder known as Walt Disney Concert Hall is known worldwide. But in a venue designed for the enjoyment of some of the highest forms of musical art, it is really the interior that matters. And within it, the real hidden gem is the majestic, thoroughly contemporary pipe organ. Frank Gehry and organ builders Manuel Rosales and Caspar Von Glatter-Gotz created a one-of-a-kind instrument that elicits an entirely modern spiritual response.

Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine
Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine  |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

New Age: Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine

There’s a very long spiritual tradition in Los Angeles, which translates into all kinds of meditative sounds. A great location to absorb this important esoteric aspect of the city is the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades. Founded by guru Paramahansa Yogananda in 1950, the shrine has also attracted legendary musicians and artists: it was a favorite meditation spot for Elvis Presley for years; and was the site of memorial services for George Harrison and the Cramps’ frontman, Lux Interior.

Timeline of the GRAMMY Awards at the GRAMMY Museum
GRAMMY Museum | Photo: L.A. LIVE

And the Grammy goes to…

Downtown L.A. is home to the GRAMMY Museum, one of the city’s greatest cultural resources. Featuring exhibits on everything from punk rock to Motown, the museum takes advantage of L.A.’s central status in the music industry to offer unique collections of artifacts and treasures that provide illuminating context to the sounds of our lives.