Poncho Sanchez Played the Weekend Wedding Circuit, Until a Gringo Changed His Luck
[Editor's note: Weekly scribe Jeff Weiss's column, "Bizarre Ride," appears on West Coast Sound every Wednesday. His archives are available here.]
"I'd rather be lucky than good." --Lefty Gomez, Hall of Fame pitcher and inventor of the revolving goldfish bowl
Poncho Sanchez's life is testament to what can happen when both serendipity and skill are in rare form. Tomorrow night, the 60-year-old Whittier resident will soulfully fuse the songs of Chano Pozo and Dizzy Gillespie at Walt Disney Concert Hall. The performance marks yet another milestone for Sanchez, the Grammy Award-winning conguero, congo-playing ambassador of Latin jazz and heir to the throne of Cal Tjader, Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria. But right now, the burly, white-bearded conga king in the Dodgers cap is telling me how it almost didn't happen.
In late 1974, a 23-year-old Sanchez was gigging as the singer and percussionist of Sabor, a Tower of Power-inspired Latin-funk outfit. Raised in the "One Ways" neighborhood of Norwalk (so named because of its one-way streets), Sanchez, the youngest of 11, was exposed to Latin jazz via his siblings. They had weekly dance parties to the radio broadcasts of East L.A.'s Chico Sesma, the bilingual KWOL-AM DJ who brought mambo and cha-cha-cha to 1950s Southern California.
Sanchez taught himself to sing by watching James Brown on Johnny Otis' show. He learned the timbales and conga from studying the backs of old records. The Mexican-American eventually earned a spot in Sabor, a veteran club band that made most of its dough from the weekend wedding circuit. There wasn't much hope beyond local recognition, until one mid-December night, when a man named Ernie Steele stumbled into Sanchez's set at the Latin Press Club in Pico Rivera.
"In walks this cigar-smoking white guy with a funny feathered hat. He stuck out like a sore thumb," says Sanchez, who tells stories like he plays the congas: rapidly, with impeccable timing and improvisational flourishes. "I take a break and [Steele] is at the bar next to me, saying, 'Man, you can really play.' He asks if I want a drink and I say, 'Yeah, if you're buying.' Then over Harvey Wallbangers, he starts telling me how he's a personal friend of Cal Tjader."
Convinced that Steele was bullshitting, Sanchez cracked that he should be sure to mention his conga work to Tjader, who was Sanchez's idol. Later, he and his band laughed at the absurdity of the flamboyant gringo being buddies with the Bay Area master of mambo. Except that the next week Tjader happened to be performing at Concerts by the Sea in Redondo Beach, and none other than Steele was sitting in the front row. During a set break, the mysterious Steele corralled Tjader and waved Sanchez down from the balcony, where he and his wife had paid to sit.
"I hear you play good congas," Tjader said to Sanchez, who was practically speechless.
"Thank you, sir."
"You wanna sit in?"
Midway through Tjader's second set, he summoned Sanchez to the stage. But before he took the stage, Michael Smith, Tjader's massive conguero, who was known for rigging microphones in his congas, whispered to the rookie, "Don't worry. I turned up the mics extraloud for you."
"Turn that shit off," said the young, brash Sanchez, who instantly realized that his only option was to go for broke.
Sanchez's obvious gifts elicited an invitation to perform with Tjader on New Year's Eve, 1975. After that show, Tjader put his hand on the shoulder of the kid from Norwalk and told him he had won a dream job he hadn't even known he was auditioning for.
Until Tjader's sudden 1982 death in Manila, Sanchez was his chief protégé and conguero. Tjader even helped Sanchez get a label deal at Concord Blue Note, where he still records today. And he's played with all his boyhood heroes, including the late Puente and Santamaria, and other luminaries like Freddie Hubbard and Ray Charles.
"Funny thing is, Cal Tjader told me much later that he didn't even know Ernie Steele very well. He just remembered him from their time in the Navy during World War II," Sanchez says, laughing at this peculiar hiccup of fate.
Even the legendary need a little luck.
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