Hidden Gems: Los Angeles Music History Edition

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 shrine: Brian Wilson crafted a lot of Pet Sounds and Smile between these walls, as recently (and amazingly) recreated for the film Love and 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 an unavoidable backdrop for the musically-inclined tourist. An enormous amount of Los Angeles-produced pop has been recorded and masterminded there since 1956, from Nat King Cole’s cooler-than-cool sides to, most recently, Bob Dylan’s Sinatra-influenced collections.

Dan Tana's Interior Bag

Dan Tana's

 |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

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.

Rainbow Bar Grill Megadeth Dave Mustaine

Megadeth's Dave Mustaine at the Rainbow Bar & Grill | Photo: Megadeth

Rock: Rainbow Bar & Grill

Step into the Rainbow Bar & Grill and you’re not only stepping into rock’n’roll history—you’re stepping into a warped reality where kids who had not 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. A few years ago, you could go to the outside bar and see Lemmy drinking his Jack and playing a videogame. Now the physical Lemmy might be gone, but you can still go see 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

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 recent 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 ultimate down-and-out and up-and-coming rock and roller hangout, the Landmark Hotel. 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 never made it out alive from room 105.

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

Rock: Morrison Hotel

A very different kind of hotel, one of Downtown L.A.’s characteristic residential properties for people on the hard side of life, offered the backdrop for The Doors classic album cover. The Morrison Hotel is not in business anymore, but you can find the building (and the nearby Hard Rock Cafe dive bar that was featured on the back cover and inspired the corporate franchise) in the South Park neighborhood, near STAPLES center. Bob Egan’s Pop Spots has all the information you need to replicate the iconic Henry Diltz photo sessions.

For more of The Doors sites in L.A. - and there are many - here’s a useful tour.

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Lady Gaga | Photo courtesy of The Satellite, Facebook

Alternative: The Satellite

The owners of Silver Lake venue The Satellite have left the club’s original sign undisturbed, so it still reads “Dreams of LA,” which was a gay club that functioned there in the 1980s. However, many locals don’t call that space by either name, because from 1995 to 2011, the venue was Spaceland, the local mecca of alternative/indie music in the Golden Age of the CD, when Beck, Elliott Smith and many, many others redefined L.A. cool beyond the territory of metal and grunge. (Having left the space in 2011, Spaceland Productions continues to operate several of the best venues for alternative music in L.A.).

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Photo courtesy of 333 Live, Facebook

Dance/Electronic: 333 Live

The large event venue at 333 S. Boylston St is now called 333 Live and it’s sporadically rented out for dance events. But back in the early 1990s, none other than Prince had taken it over and redesigned 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: RoomEscape

Many of those who participate in the RoomEscape interactive game experiences held at 8255 Sunset Blvd, probably have no idea they’re trampling on 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. Of course the entertainment hub of the world has attracted the best talent in all genres, and that’s why it shouldn’t be surprising that the most iconic crossroads in Hollywood, Sunset and Vine, were home to the Western headquarters of Motown. Back in the 1970s, most of the Motown operation relocated to the hub of 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 Los Angeles-based offshoot Mowest, released by Light in the Attic.

Rap: 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 somewhat sanitized version of the recent Straight Outta Compton biopic, try to book a seat on Hood Life Tours. Led by Hodari Sababu (rapper the Game's stepfather), this guided tour of the Compton and South Central landmarks of local hip hop history has found a thriving market with rap-obsessed tourists of all nations.

Nine Inch Nails Troubadour

Nine Inch Nails at the Troubadour, 2013 | Photo: Rob Sheridan/The Troubadour

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 60's turned into the 70's, 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 the Hank Williams’ “three chords and the truth” simplicity. And he showed his innovations to the world from the stage of the now venerable West Hollywood venue.

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Melody Room in 1956 | Photo courtesy of Private Los Angeles Tours

Jazz: The Viper Room

Sure, it has been called The Viper Room since the 1990s (and you have already heard all the Johnny Depp and River Phoenix stories), but that small venue on the strip has a much longer history. In the 1950s and 60's 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, who is by far the most knowledgeable expert on the history of local nightlife lore.

Vibrato Grill Jazz

Vibrato Grill & Jazz | Photo: Vibrato Grill & Jazz

Jazz: Vibrato

For a more contemporary jazz venue conceived by revered musician and philanthropist Herb Alpert, head to the Bel-Air strip mall that houses Vibrato. 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 wanna 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. A little further afield, the acclaimed Selah Gospel Choir is active in Pasadena. 

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Mariachi Divas | Photo courtesy of 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.

Hirschfeld's celebrated mural of celebrity caricatures inside the Frolic Room

Hirschfeld's celebrated mural of celebrity caricatures inside the Frolic Room

 |  Photo: Yuri Hasegawa

Musical Theatre: Frolic Room

Sure, the Pantages Theatre is L.A.’s one-stop Broadway venue in Hollywood. But don’t miss the tiny jewel next to it: the Frolic Room. This bar has served musical theater patrons (and assorted other lushes) 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

Photo: McCabe's Guitar Shop, Facebook

American Roots: McCabe's

Where can you see real-deal folk and Americana legends like Tom Paxton in 2017? The answer, always, is Santa Monica’s McCabe’s Guitar Shop, the little shop that could. McCabe’s is an unavoidable stop 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 a the root of a lot of later music.

Lee Scratch Perry Dub Club Echoplex

Lee "Scratch" Perry at Dub Club | Photo: Dub Club

Reggae: Dub Club

Wednesdays at The Echo means Dub Club, the obligatory 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 in the past few years. The DJ sets by Tom Chasteen and Boss Harmony (the great David Orlando) are world-class. Lee “Scratch” Perry might drop by to bless the crowd if he’s 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 (made up on the spot, music, lyrics and choreography) musicals. 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 by the sheer talent of these outstanding performers.

Organ Walt Disney Concert Hall

Organ, 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 world-wide. 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 managed to create a one-of-a-kind instrument that elicits an entirely modern spiritual response. Find out more about the building’s hidden treasures with our guide.

Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine

Mahatma Gandhi World Peace Memorial at the Lake Shrine | Photo: ellenm1, Flickr

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 several musicians and artists: it was a favorite meditation spot for Elvis Presley for years, and more recently it was the site of memorial services for George Harrison and for the Cramps’ legendary frontman, Lux Interior.

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GRAMMY Museum | Photo courtesy of L.A. LIVE

And the Grammy goes to…

Downtown L.A. is home to the Grammy Museum itself, 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.