Ken Leighton 12:30 p.m., Feb. 21
Big Boy Groves
RIYL: Ervin Big Daddy Rucker, Ike Turner, Johnny Otis, Dinah Washington
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- "Was Big Boy Groves another rap daddy?" · Aug. 16, 2017
Influences: Johnny Otis, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Al Hibbler, Sam Cooke, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Otis Rush, Ike Turner, Count Basie, Cab Calloway
Pianist, arranger, and composer Ervin Groves Jr., aka Big Boy Groves, was born January 20, 1927 in Oklahoma. After playing in the Army band, he became a bandleader and songwriter, appearing on labels like Money Records, Spark, Vita, and Dolphin in the 1950s, with songs like "Big Boy's Bounce," "You Can't Beat the Horses," and more.
Growing up in La Jolla, Groves was interested in both music and art. He attended both the La Jolla Art Institute and San Diego City College, studying music at the latter before moving on to Westlake College of Music in Hollywood. After enlisting in the Army in the mid-1940s, he served in Japan, where he organized a special service band, playing both piano and trombone.
He spent several years gigging in Guam and Hawaii, leading the house band at venues like the Royal Lahaina Hotel in Kaanapali, Maui, where he held residencies at Moby Dick's and at Coconut Willie. At the same time, he still pursued his muse as an illustrator, producing a cartoon book called The Funny Side of Hawaii. That was later followed by The Funny Side of Las Vegas, said to have been inspired by a visit to his friend, comedian Redd Foxx, in that city. His cartoons were so good that he drew for a local newspaper, and is said to have also invented several educational games.
While in Hawaii, Groves wrote and arranged an album called Composer in Paradise. During this period, Groves also wrote "Welcome to Paradise," which was recorded by his daughter Lani and appeared on the album. Featured players on Composer in Paradise include Garnett Scott, Viola Wills, Dede Copeland, Mary Staten, and Yvonne Butler.
Groves became known as Big Boy when he scored a hit record in 1955 with "I Gotta New Car" b/w "Midnight Special" on the Spark label, for which he was backed up by fellow Spark signees the Robins. It was as Big Boy Groves that he scored again in 1956 with "You Can't Beat The Horses," on the Vita label.
In the '60s, he started his own Musette label, as well as GME (Groves Music Enterprises) Records, with both based in the Groves' home at 4675 Logan Avenue, where recording sessions took place in a back room.
His songs were also recorded by other artists, including Little Margie ("Another Ticket") and fellow San Diegan Ervin Big Daddy Rucker (with whom Ervin Groves is sometimes mistaken, having also recorded on Groves' local labels). The San Diego Marauders with Ervin "Big Daddy" Rucker recorded "Baby Can't You feel It," written by both Groves and Rucker, for Compose Records, and Rucker also recorded singles featuring Groves tracks on both sides like "She's Alright" b/w "Kids Together" (Musette) and "Just Do Your Thing" b/w "Bad Misunderstanding" (GME). Ervin Rucker also recorded Groves' holiday song "Christmas in the Ghetto" (GME).
Groves' daughter Lani (sometimes billed as Lennie or Lenni Groves) was among the artists signed to GME. Father and daughter recorded together for the A-side of the 1962 GME single "Teenage Party" b/w "Bucket O' Blood," the latter track one of Groves' partly spoken-word songs that some feel constitute early rap efforts.
Lani also recorded under her own name, singing her dad's music and/or backed by the Ervin Groves Trio, including "I Feel Pretty" b/w "You're Nobody 'Til Somebody Loves You" (on her dad's GME label). Her single "Sweet Sixteen" b/w "Fool For a Day" (as Lenni Groves) features both songs written by her dad. Lani Groves later sang in Stevie Wonder's band Wonderlove and can be heard singing the intro to 1972's "You Are the Sunshine of my Life." Groves' wife Lei and another daughter, Kim, sometimes sang on recordings as well.
Groves also toured as an accompanist for late jazz vocalist Dinah Washington, and artists like Young Dean recorded for Groves' labels, backed by the Grovettes and Lennie Groves for singles like "The Story of a Fool" b/w "Just to Be With You" (GME).
Groves later sold the Musette label to three local doctors. He died of leukemia on July 21, 1982, at the age of 55, and is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery. In 2017, local musician and archivist "Action" Andy Rasmussen (whose research into Groves provided data for this bio) reissued "Bucket O' Blood" on a local music compilation.
“When he had a hit with ‘Gotta New Car,’" says Rasmussen, "Spark Records actually bought him a new car. Ervin was also a painter by trade and did artwork, doing the logo for both GME and Musette, drawing the globe and the arrow.”