He was born Ezequiel Christopher Montanez and everyone who knew him called him Zeke. However, the producers who discovered the young singer in the early 1960s didn't think his name worked for a future rock & roll sensation.
Rechristened Chris Montez, the Hawthorne-raised musician who grew up playing ranchera with his brothers scored a hit in 1962 with "Let's Dance." The song's thunderous beat and dance craze–referencing lyrics ("We'll do the twist, the stomp, the mashed potato, too") immediately conjured images of the sock-hops Montez attended and later headlined. It was all the energy of '60s teen life crammed into less than 2½ minutes, and it made Chris Montez a star.
It took $25 to catapult Montez from South Bay parties to international tours. He saved up the money to buy a half-hour block in a studio and knock out a few songs. He was proud of the recordings, Montez says, but didn't think anything would come of them. Then his mom gave him the phone number of producers who had been calling the family home trying to reach him.
Over a recent phone call, Montez is immediately friendly and seemingly eager to share tidbits from his life of rock & roll adventure. He recalls a time well before fame hit, when he was just a teenager who wanted to catch Ritchie Valens playing a local hop. The show was sold out and Montez was stuck in the back of the venue, which he didn't mind so long as he could hear the teen star play. But when Montez turned to the side, Valens was standing right next to him.
Montez was incredibly excited to meet the famed singer, and impressed by how nice he was. "I said, one of these days, if I ever become an artist, I'm going to treat people the way he treated me," he recalls.
At Hawthorne High School, Montez was classmates with Brian Wilson — yes, that Brian Wilson — and would sometimes jam with the future Pet Sounds mastermind and his brothers. Montez recalls when Wilson told him that his group would be called The Beach Boys, which he thought was funny at the time. Out of their circle of friends, Montez was the surfer.
"That was my thing — Redondo, Hermosa, all those places," he says. "I was always in the water." And when he wasn't surfing, he was cruising Hawthorne Boulevard or playing backyard parties that could end with him jumping over a wall when the cops showed.
Life changed quickly after Montez scored a hit record. He went from watching Dick Clark on television to flying to Philadelphia for his own appearance on American Bandstand. After that, he hit the road. Touring life was strange for a young guy who hadn't left Los Angeles before his recording career. He traveled with the likes of Smokey Robinson and Jerry Butler, playing as many as five shows a day in venues like the Apollo in Harlem and the Howard in Washington, D.C.
Sam Cooke brought him on tour, too. That was the first time Montez saw the segregated world of the South, where bathrooms and restaurants were still designated by race. "I'm from Los Angeles, I never even considered thinking about this," he recalls. Montez, who is Mexican-American, says he got "strange looks" when he entered both black areas and white areas. He remembers traveling by bus during the era of Freedom Riders and being told to duck as crowds looked on, for fear that someone might throw firebombs at the mixed group of travelers.
And then Montez headed to the United Kingdom, where "Let's Dance" was a massive hit. Opening for him was a new but already wildly popular band called The Beatles.
"I couldn't go anywhere," Montez says of the U.K. tour. "They were screaming and tearing at my clothes." Montez remembers looking out hotel windows with the opening band as girls screamed and waved down below. "It was like a movie," he says.
Indeed, every anecdote Montez shares sounds as though it were a scene from a biopic. Take, for example, his recollection of the last day of his U.K. tour, in Liverpool, when Paul McCartney and John Lennon took the American singer to their tailor because they wanted to have suits made to resemble Montez's collarless jacket. He had picked up the jacket in the States, where he was told it was the latest style from England. It was not, but soon that became the case.
As in any good movie, the hero suffered a setback before once again rising to success. After his return to the States, Montez had a falling out with his label over royalties that he wasn't receiving for "Let's Dance." Frustrated, he left the business and went to El Camino College to take some music classes.
When Herb Alpert of Tijuana Brass called to offer Montez a recording contract on his A&M label, the singer declined. "I was so disillusioned with the whole realm of music and royalties and all that," he says. "I worked so hard and then [ended] up with hardly anything."
But eventually, Montez relented and, upon Alpert's insistence, recorded pop songs. Montez wasn't keen on the idea at first. "To me, it was like singing standards, like a Sinatra kind of thing, which I wanted to record later, in my later life," he says.
But Alpert's idea led to a string of hits, both in the United States and elsewhere, starting with "Call Me" in 1966. Montez had heard that his music was doing well in Brazil, but it wasn't until he saw the crowds waiting outside his plane that he realized how big the hits were. Bodyguards were enlisted to keep the fans at bay. "It was ridiculous, overdone in my eyes," he says, adding, "I even had to tell the guards, don't push the people away like that." Montez wanted to connect with the fans the way Ritchie Valens did with him years earlier.
In the 1970s, Montez had another career evolution, although it was one that many in the United States didn't observe. He started recording bilingual Spanish/English songs. "Aye No Digas" was a hit in Europe. "Amor y Paz" did well in Japan. None of the tunes were promoted in the United States. This often-overlooked era of Montez's career is prime for rediscovery — check out "When Your Heart Is Full of Love," a beautiful slice of psychedelic AM pop released a decade after "Let's Dance."
A perennial student of music, Montez has been inspired by everything from the melancholy rancheras of José Alfredo Jiménez to jazz music. Recently he recorded a Tex-Mex album, but he hasn't released it yet. "I don't feel comfortable with it," he says, but he plans to go back into the studio to do some more work on the songs.
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Meanwhile, Montez continues to tour. He recently completed a stretch of European dates. On June 6, he'll perform his greatest hits as part of Dick Fox's Doo-Wop Extravaganza at Arcadia Performing Arts Center. Though he's now in his 70s, for Montez, the hops haven't stopped.