*This post has been updated, see correction below
On Martin Luther King Day, John Carrillo, a longtime fixture on the OC singer-songwriter circuit, asked a friend if he wanted to go to the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Carrillo, a huge fan of the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, the Who, and a myriad of other artists, had never been. But his friend was busy, so Carrillo would have to wait another day.
That day never came.
Five days later, the 48-year-old suffered a massive heart attack and, after languishing in a coma for two weeks, passed away Feb. 9.
It was a startlingly abrupt end to the life of someone who was a constant presence at open mics and anywhere musicians gathered in Orange County the past 25 years. Carrillo, who recorded with such luminaries as legendary bass player Carol Kaye and appeared at bars and clubs and hosted open mics from the Gypsy Den and Alta Coffee to the Pint House and
(the now defunct) Pepperland Music, leaves behind three recorded albums, a wife (BJ Carrillo,) and a flood of memories for those who knew him well, and for those who just made his acquaintance.
A memorial will be held for Carrillo Thursday, Feb. 16 from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Shannon Funeral Home in Orange. In the best possible tribute for the man, it will be set up like an open mic. People are invited to bring their guitars and play and sing. And, as the flyer states, those who know open mics know the drill: “two songs or eight minutes!”
“All these people were saying they wanted to do a tribute here or there, and they wanted me to come, but I just couldn’t make them all. It would have been heartbreaking,” said Carrillo’s wife, BJ. “But when I was at the funeral home planning the viewing, which is always so somber, they said ‘you should do something fun’ They had just done superhero and beach party viewings, and when I saw they had a piano and mic, I asked if we could have an open mic. And they said, yes. It just seemed perfect.”
Carrillo was a songwriter with some 60 songs recorded on multiple albums and EP’s, and whose latest was produced by Mike Viola, a Grammy-nominated producer, musician, songwriter and singer. But he was also someone who relished the opportunity to bring other songwriters together, giving many of them the support and encouragement they needed to take to a stage for the very first time in front of audiences that couldn’t be more supportive—and critical: fellow songwriters. There are few people in Orange County and the Los Angeles area who appeared at an open mic who hadn’t run across him at some point.
Bob Boulding, guitarist of the Young Dubliners, posted this on Carrillo’s Facebook tribute page:
“I am very sorry to see you go so young, John. I really enjoyed your company, your vibe, and your musical endeavors. Rest In Peace, and much love to your family & friends.”
Tom Folden, someone who knew Carrillo for 20 years, also weighed in on his tribute page:
“John made it possible for local artists and musicians to perform their songs, poems and more,” he said. “He was devoted to local music in that respect…(I) had the privilege and honor to take part in many, many open mics he hosted from The Winged Heart in Fullerton where I met him, to the Gypsy Den in Santa Ana (for about 10 years) and so many others. He was truly Orange County’s premiere open mic host. He will be missed.”
Kaye, a legendary bassist who worked with just about everybody in her illustrious career, from Ray Charles and the Beach Boys, to Henry Mancini and Frank Zappa, also had high praise for Carrillo’s talent and professionalism.
“I’ve recorded for some of the heaviest in the business and so I’m particular with who I record for these
days,” Kaye said, in a quote posted on Carrillo’s website. and confirmed Monday. “I loved his material, loved his singing, his style is simply right in tune with someone’s emotions, and feelings for today…(I) was very impressed with John, his ideas, his complete professionalism and the way he sings. Takes a lot to knock me out, but he did it—was fun to record for him. He should do well with his fine recordings.”
Carrillo, who was born in the Philippines, grew up in Walnut and moved to OC when he began attending UC Irvine, was a die-hard Dodgers fan and avid tennis player, who played recreationally and followed the professional tour extensively. He was also an accomplished photographer and had recently began pursuing something he hadn’t done much since graduating as a film studies major: acting.
But more than anything else, it was his gift for writing and playing music, and his encyclopedic knowledge of it, that so many will remember him for.
“He was like a savant,” his wife said. “Name the genre and he seemed to know everything about it. His parents were (close to 50) when he was born, so he grew up with Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, and they were also classical music fans, so he knew all that, but he also kept up with the most current music and everything in between. Lately, he and I had joined a trivia team and sometimes when he’d answer a question I was like ‘how do you know that?'”
[Update: It was incorrectly stated that Pepperland Music is closed. It is in fact still open and fully operational. The Weekly regrets this error.]
Memorial for John Carrillo Thursday, Feb. 16 from 4 to 8 p.m. at the Shannon Funeral Home in Orange. For more information, click here.