Vintage photos courtesy ofRampart Records
Mention Mexican-Americans and music, and most people conjure
up stereotypical images of a sombrero-wearing mariachi singing rancheras
or maybe accordion-laden corridos. They don’t think of the sounds of Ludwig
drums, Farfisa and vox organs, Fender bass and guitars. In other words, not rock
& roll. But Mexican-Americans have historically rocked out with the best of them.
There were Sunny and the Sunglows, the Sir Douglas Quintet, Trini Lopez — who
was so popular in 1964 that Gibson designed two different custom guitars for him.
Would you be surprised to find out that Sam of Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs (“Wooly
Bully”) was a Mexican-American named Domingo Samudio, or that the members of ?
and the Mysterians of “96 Tears” fame were also Mexican-American? Chris Montez,
who went to Hawthorne High School with the Beach Boys, had the 1962 dance hit
“Let’s Dance” (later featured in the film Animal House). In 1963, he toured
England and had this band called the Beatles open for him. Despite the
prominent role played by Mexican-Americans in pioneering rock & roll, there are
officially only two of them in the Hall of Fame: Jalisco-born and Tijuana-raised
Carlos Santana was inducted with his band in 1998, and San Fernando Valley–born
and –raised Ritchie “La Bamba” Valens (née Valenzuela) was inducted in 2001.
Many of these Chicano rockers came out of Texas, but a great number flourished here too, specifically in the barrios of East Los Angeles. When Ritchie Valens was busy becoming the first Mexican-American rock & roll star by the age of 17, Del-Fi Records owner and legendary record producer Bob Keane allowed another 17-year-old Mexican-American teen, Billy Cardenas from East Los Angeles, to sit in on the sessions. Cardenas, by his own admission, was just a “street kid,” but observing Keane’s work with Valens inspired him to go on and develop, record and promote Mexican-Americans from Los Angeles.Cardenas would eventually hook up with restaurateur-turned-record-producer Eddie Davis, who was once quoted as saying, “If anybody thinks I got rich over my East Los Angeles music, they’re wrong. I cooked a lot of hamburgers to make those records.” Together they developed a deep Eastside rock & roll roster, including bands like the Romancers, the Premiers, the Blendells, and Cannibal & the Headhunters — the vocal group from the East L.A. projects who took New Orleans R&B singer Chris Kenner’s version of “Land of 1000 Dances” and ad-libbed the immortal “naa na na na naa” line, creating one of the most famous and most recorded phrases in rock & roll history. They also took Cannibal & the Headhunters to American Bandstand and then booked them to open for the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965. The names of these bands might not be familiar to the average music fan, but that’s the point. Like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, these groups are integral to the history of American rock.
The Jaguars, featuring the Salas
Brothers, were the first Eastside
band to record for Rampart
founder Eddie Davis, a restaurateur
with a vision: “I was very naive,
and I never knew anything
On a sunny July Fourth weekend this past summer, I was invited by Billy Cardenas to his 67th-birthday celebration at the American Legion Hall in Pico Rivera (Cardenas is a Vietnam vet). When I got to the party, the first thing I heard was the blaring sound of rock & roll. Cardenas wore cool black shades and was drinking Budweiser long necks. He introduced me to family and friends, and dudes with big ol’ brochas — the Viking-style mustaches some veteranos wear. A live band that included Richard Provencio of the Romancers and members of the Heartbreakers, another Eastside band, played, and Cardenas began breaking down musicians and bands, most of whom I had never heard of. Talking to Cardenas was like unearthing a piece of history.Just as the story of the beginnings of the L.A. punk scene, with bands like the Germs, has been told and retold, and just as the origins of L.A. gangsta rap, with N.W.A, have been well-documented, Mexican-Americans from East Los Angeles have their own stories to tell. Many of these stories would have remained untold if not for Emmy-winning television sound engineer Hector Gonzalez. Gonzalez (more on him later) has compiled a wealth of history from interviews he conducted with Davis and others, and from the legacy Davis left to him when he died of cancer in 1994, including the Rampart Records label, master recordings from the era, press clippings, memorabilia — in essence, the Rosetta stone of the West Coast Eastside sound.From those sources, and from recent interviews with Cardenas and surviving musicians and personalities from the era’s heyday, comes this look at some of the men who helped create the West Coast Eastside sound, and changed American rock & roll in the process.
Billy Cardenas was born in 1938 in a house near Gleason and Dacotah streets in Boyle Heights. While in kindergarten, he met Bobby Ray, a friend who would become a successful musician with a hit record in the ’50s as a member of the Mask Phantoms. Ray lived around the corner, on Dacotah and First streets, and he introduced Cardenas to music.“I was poor, and Bobby’s father was financially better off than a lot of us in the neighborhood, so he bought his son all the instruments and schooled him in music. I listened to Bobby and another black family, who lived next to us. In that time blacks and Mexicans were mixed together, and that is how I got the music going,” says Cardenas, who would back up Ray at wedding dances by playing instruments like the cowbell.Growing up on the streets of Boyle Heights, Cardenas started boxing “for survival” when he was just 8 years old. During his high school years, he met one of the greatest Mexican-American fighters of all time, Enrique Bolaños, who was managed by the legendary George Parnassus. Cardenas would later use his fighting skills to become the Army’s 1957 Junior Golden Gloves champion in Hollywood and win the national 1959 Golden Gloves championship in Chicago.It was just before Cardenas joined the Army that he met Del-Fi Records owner and producer Bob Keane and got invited to the Ritchie Valens session. “I guess because Ritchie was Mexican and I was Mexican. [Bob] would say, ‘Hey, what do you think of this rhythm, does it sound traditional?’ and I’d say, ‘Well, that’s what my grandmother used to play on her Rocola,’ ” he says. At that session Cardenas remembers Valens singing early versions of songs like “Bluebirds Over the Mountain.” Cardenas was inspired by the music, but he would not be around to enjoy Ritchie’s success.In 1960, Cardenas went to Vietnam as part of the 101st Airborne Division, in which he was an expert in firearms and took part in many covert actions. “I was in places I shouldn’t have been,” he says. “Get caught, and you don’t belong to the U.S.”
Blendells, from Lincoln
Heights, were distributed by
Frank Sinatra's label (Reprise)
after the release of their party
hit “La La La La La.” Its
mastermind, Rampart co-founder
Billy Cardenas, says he never
saw a dime.
He never got caught, and after his tour of duty, he returned to East L.A. and music. Cardenas met a playground director at Lincoln Heights Park known to the kids as Mr. Rodriguez. Rodriguez introduced Cardenas to the local Lincoln Heights band the Romancers, which included the talented singer and songwriter Max Uballez and guitar god Andy Tesso.“He wanted me to help them out,” says Cardenas. “I had no status. He felt they were talented and I should go see them. Then I heard the band and really liked them.”Cardenas didn’t have much to help them with, until a friend in the film industry introduced him to Robert “Bumps” Blackwell, the producer of Little Richard and Sam Cooke. Cardenas and Blackwell produced a minor record by teenage South L.A. talent Yolanda Lea. With some experience under his belt, Cardenas turned his attention back to the Romancers.“Max Uballez, I felt, was another Ritchie Valens. So that was the motivation for me,” says Cardenas. “I shopped them with Del-Fi Records, and they gave us a record called ‘Come On Little Darling.’ Ritchie was at Del-Fi and he was Mexican-American, so I figured they’d be open to another Mexican, and they released that.”They would later record the local hit “The Slauson Shuffle.”“Andy Tesso was 15 years old on that, and kicked ass,” recalls Cardenas. “He was one of the best guitarists — everyone copied his style.”Cardenas began to amass an array of Eastside artists: first the Romancers, then the Jaguars with the Salas Brothers, Rudy and Steve (who later formed the popular Latin funk band Tierra and recorded the Eastside classic “Together”), then the Heartbreakers, with the duet of brothers Benny and Joe Rodriguez from Roosevelt High.“When the Romancers played at wedding dances, they couldn’t play Mexican music, because Max couldn’t sing in Spanish,” says Cardenas. “So we connected the Romancers with Benny and Joe and made them the Heartbreakers so they could sing all the Spanish stuff at weddings.”He also managed the Blendells, the Premiers, the Rhythm Playboys (with Frankie “Cannibal” Garcia, who would go on to lead Cannibal & the Headhunters), and a South L.A. duo known as Robert and Ray. The crazy part of all this was that unlike most A&R execs, who go out and look for new talent, all the Eastside bands were coming to Cardenas. In fact, the Premiers were discovered when the mother of one of the band members called Cardenas.Cardenas had a roster of bands in place; now he needed to hone his craft. He began producing for Cadet Records. “I did about 300 records for Cadet Records, in West L.A., run by Jules Bihari. It was Chicano, mariachi music, veteranos that hung out in bars, whoever I could find. I had studio time, that’s how I recorded Robert and Ray [on his onetime label Magic Music]. It was all a learning process. I was 22 years old. I was working with engineer Bill Lazareth at Cadet, and he’d guide me. That’s how I learned,” says Cardenas.Cardenas was managing, promoting and producing, but he needed to take it to the next level. In 1963, he was watching a local TV show called Parade of Hits on Channel 13, with the house band the Mixtures. The show was produced by Eddie Davis. Cardenas got an idea. “I put a call in to [Eddie],” he says, “and asked him if I could get the Romancers in there.” Neither Davis nor Cardenas realized then how important that call would be.
Eddie Davis was born in 1926 and, like Cardenas, grew up around First and Boyle streets in Boyle Heights. Davis was half-Jewish and raised Catholic, and his childhood was much different from Cardenas’. He started out as a child actor/singer, appearing in several major motion pictures with the Robert Mitchell Boys Choir in the late 1930s and early ’40s, including Boys Town with Mickey Rooney and Spencer Tracy, Angels With Dirty Faces with James Cagney, and Going My Way with Bing Crosby. Davis’ first girlfriend was Darla Hood of the Little Rascals. After graduating from Fairfax High School, Davis joined the Navy during WWII, and was awarded the Victory medal. He then attended the University of the Pacific, where he studied music. After coming back to Los Angeles, he went into the restaurant business. He owned and operated seven restaurants during his life, including his first, the Pancake Twins, at First Street and La Brea Avenue.Davis parlayed his restaurant money into music. He bought a club, which later became known as the Continental Crush Bar, at Cahuenga and Hollywood boulevards. His first recording session was in 1956 at the Capitol Records building with Tony Butala and a girl named Concetta Ingolia, who was then part of the group the Lettermen. She would later gain recognition as Connie Stevens. In that first session, Butala and Davis recorded a song Davis had written called “I Was a Teenage Brain Surgeon for the FBI.”“I realized that I wasn’t destined to be much of a singer, but I thought, ‘Shit, I’ll just start my own record company.’ I loved producing,” said Davis in a 1992 interview with Lee Joseph, founder of the garage-rock archivist Dionysus Records.One day, at his restaurant the Highland Grill, Davis met actor Kenny Miller, who had just finished making I Was a Teen-age Werewolf with Michael Landon. They got to talking, and Davis decided Miller would be his first recording act. In 1958, he started his first record label, Faro Records. Davis would later own Linda Records, established in 1960; Rampart Records, 1961; Boomerang Records, 1962; Prospect and Valhalla Records, 1966; and Gordo Records, 1968. He made connections with an Oxnard DJ named Dick Moreland, who would go on to become KRLA’s program director. Moreland introduced Davis to Steve Mendoza and his band, the Mixtures. The Mixtures were racially mixed, with Asian, Puerto Rican, Mexican and black members. “In those days, blacks and whites did not mix, period,” Davis said. “But I was very naive, and I never knew anything about prejudice.”
In 1962, Davis bought and began operating the Rainbow Gardens in Pomona, and
later the Rhythm Room in Fullerton. (At the time, Los Angeles had a law prohibiting
dances for people under 18 unless the profits went to charity.) Davis and Moreland
started the KRLA/Friday Night Dance at Rainbow Gardens, with Bob Eubanks (The
Newlywed Game) as the MC and featuring the Mixtures as the house band. In
1962, Davis put out the Mixtures’ “Rainbow Stomp” and became the first producer
to release a record with a racially mixed group. He tried to promote the Mixtures
on his local TV show, Parade of Hits, but was unable to get any national
Until, that is, he got a call from all-around hustler Billy Cardenas, who wanted
to put his band the Romancers on Davis’ TV show. Davis said no, but invited
the Romancers to perform at the Rainbow Gardens.
“The Romancers went out there and kicked ass!” says Cardenas.
“I was impressed with the feeling they had in their music. That was my first
experience with a Mexican-American group playing soul and R&B,” Davis told Hector
Gonzalez in a 1989 interview.
“Eddie never had a hit record in 10 years. He saw the potential,” says Cardenas.
“He saw I was a hustler.” The two connected, and the West Coast Eastside sound
Although the Romancers were really the beginning of the West Coast Eastside
sound, Davis couldn’t record them because they had a contract with Del-Fi. So
the Jaguars, featuring the Salas brothers, became the first Eastside act to
be recorded by Davis, doing the Phil and Harv (lead singers for the Mixtures)
hit “Darling (Please Bring Your Love).” The Jaguars would later record the killer
instrumental “Where Lovers Go” (the money dance song for quinceañeras
But it wasn’t until 1964 that the producing duo had their first national hit,
the Premiers’ remake of Don and Dewey’s “Farmer John,” which reached No. 19
on the pop charts. The Premiers were a San Gabriel–based band co-led by brothers
Lawrence (lead guitar) and John Perez (drums/vocals), with Frank Zuniga on bass,
George Delgado on rhythm guitar and vocals, and Phil Ruiz on sax. Davis loved
the upswinging groove, but felt the vocals needed camouflaging.
“The Premiers were the greatest groove band in the world. All their music they
played with a groove, but they couldn’t sing for shit!” Davis said in the Lee
Joseph interview. So the Chevelles, a cholita car club who idolized the
Premiers, were brought to the studio to party with the band. As they wilded
out, Davis played back “Farmer John” and recorded the festivities over them.
He then plastered “Recorded Live at the Rhythm Room” across the label and made
a hit out of the single.
“While the Premiers were doing a teenage fair, I took a couple of records to
KFWB program director Don Anti,” says Cardenas. “I walked in there and said,
‘Hey, who puts records on the air, who’s the dude?’ Anti said he did. ‘Is there
a chance you could hear this record?’ I said. And he says, ‘It will be on right
“The first week we sold 40,000 records. Eddie made a deal with Warner Bros.,
’cause he wasn’t big enough to [distribute] it. I never even had a contract
when ‘Farmer John’ hit,” recollects Cardenas.
Then, a few months later, came the second national hit, the Blendells’ “La,
La, La, La, La,” which climbed to No. 62 on the pop charts. The Blendells were
another of Cardenas’ bands from Lincoln Heights. The group was started by bassist
Mike Rincon and included guitarist Rudy Valona, lead singer Sal Murillo and
drummer Ronnie Chipres. Stevie Wonder performed the song at a show at the Paramount
Ballroom that Cardenas promoted. Cardenas, who wrote the opening lyrics (“I’m
gonna do a little song for you now that will make you clap your hands, kick
your feet, and as a matter of fact, it will tear you up”), decided to put it
together with the Blendells. The song was recorded at Stereo Masters in Hollywood,
although the label claimed it was recorded “Live at the Rhythm Room.” As with
“Farmer John,” they had recording engineer Bruce Morgan add an extra track of
partying, and it too became a hit.
“Then, that took off, it was sold to Frank Sinatra’s label Reprise, and they
distributed,” says Cardenas. “I wasn’t making a thing. I never got any money,
even at that time.”
The classic love/hate relationship between Cardenas and Davis started to wear
thin. “Billy Cardenas and I were having problems because records were starting
to happen and Billy didn’t understand money,” Davis told Joseph. “He knew it
was coming in, but he didn’t understand that it also had to go out.”
Davis and Cardenas would connect one last time on the biggest Eastside act yet,
Cannibal & the Headhunters, and their national hit “Land of 1000 Dances.”
Richard “Scar” Lopez & Bobby “Rabbit” Jaramillo
Davis (top) left the entire
Rampart Records legacy to Hector
Gonzalez (below), who has licensed
Rampart songs to the
Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill.
Photo by Gregory Bojorquez
Richard “Scar” Lopez was born to Italian and Mexican-American parents at County-USC
Medical Center. He grew up in the Ramona Gardens Housing Project, known as “Hazard,”
after the resident gang. When he was 13, and doing gymnastics on the mat at
the Boys Club, someone jumped on the rings above him. The rings snapped and
came down on Lopez’s head. He needed stitches, and from then on was known as
“Scar.” Bobby “Rabbit” Jaramillo, also raised in East L.A., was known as “Rabbit”
because of his buck teeth. In 1963, the two teenagers would meet in Mrs. Meade’s
choir class at Lincoln High School. “I lived on Murchison Street, half a block
from the projects,” says Rabbit Jaramillo over the phone from his home in Trinidad,
Colorado. “The Showcases [a black doo-wop group] would pass my house to get
to the projects from school, so they would be singing a cappella and they’d
have an entourage. I met Scar following the Showcases to the projects.”
“We checked out the Showcases and we got inspired. I told Bobby, let’s start
our own group,” says Scar Lopez, a dead ringer for Joe Pesci, during a visit
to his spartan apartment in Whittier. The original group consisted of Rabbit,
Scar, Scar’s brother Pete (until he went to juvenile hall), and then another
friend, Ernie Lona.
There were 13 kids in Rabbit’s family, and the group had no room to practice
in the house. “My dad used to raise fighting cocks, and we had chickens in the
back until the health department made us get rid of them. So we converted the
chicken coop into a room. And that is where we would practice,” Rabbit says.
“We were practicing ‘On Lovers Island’ by the Five Satins. Ernie was bass, Scar
was baritone, and I was the tenor. My mom told my brother Joe [she couldn’t
properly say Joe, so it became Yo Yo] to take the trash out. We
were singing ‘On Lovers Island,’ and then, from the outside of the coop, we
hear weeeeeoooouuu. I opened the door and it was my brother,” Rabbit
says. With Yo Yo in the group, they became Bobby and the Classics.
The Showcases taught Bobby and the Classics how to harmonize, doo-wop and move.
One of the Showcases, Tommy Keys, had a falling-out with his band. When Ernie
Lona left Bobby and the Classics, Keys became the group’s singer. Bobby and
the Classics hung out and harmonized at a hamburger joint called the Cup in
El Sereno. Soon people were telling Keys he was too good for the group. He decided
to move on, but before he left, he introduced the group to Frankie Garcia, who
was with the Billy Cardenas–managed Rhythm Playboys. Garcia had a rough childhood
— he was a foster kid whose aunt and uncle eventually raised him. Garcia’s older
brother was known as “Big Cannibal,” so he became “Li’l Cannibal.” Garcia attended
Jackson High School, known as “The Prison” because of the large fence surrounding
the school. His outlet was music and singing, and he played the piano and the
“I remember the first time we went to go meet him. He lived near Primera Flats
[an Eastside neighborhood near First Street]. When we got to his house, he came
down and had orange hair. We looked at each other and said, ‘What the fuck,’
” says Rabbit. They would later find out that Garcia was gay, but it was more
immediately apparent that he could sing. He could sing, but he couldn’t harmonize,
so the group decided to make “Li’l Cannibal” Garcia (soon to be shortened to
just “Cannibal”) the lead singer. Bobby and the Classics now comprised Frankie
“Cannibal” Garcia, Joe “Yo Yo” Jaramillo, Bobby “Rabbit” Jaramillo and Richard
Bobby and the Classics were doing gigs, but they wanted to go bigtime. They
ended up auditioning for Cardenas. “We auditioned for him three times and we
weren’t good enough,” says Rabbit. “He wanted bands to do two-hour sets for
his show,” says Scar. The group ended up auditioning for Eddie Davis, with one
mike and a little speaker, at Rabbit’s house on Murchison, with his brothers
and sisters running around.
“Frankie knew Eddie, so finally we auditioned for Eddie. He liked what he saw,
and he had to get our parents’ approval to sign us ’cause we were underage,”
says Rabbit. The group was now signed, but it needed a new name.
“I had a Chevy that we called the ‘blob.’ I used to have a shrunken head I had
hanging on the rearview mirror, instead of dice. We went down to Billy’s house
to practice, and Billy saw it and named us Cannibal & the Headhunters,” says
Rabbit. During their shows, the group would throw fuzzy Headhunter dolls with
an attached miniature photo of the group into the crowd.
One of the seminal moments in rock & roll began, like a lot of them, with a
mistake. Cannibal & the Headhunters were at the Rhythm Room performing “Land
of 1000 Dances,” when Cannibal forgot the lyrics and started singing “naa na
na na naa” on the hook.
“We looked at each other like ‘What’s he doing?’ But being that we were so tight,
bam, we were on harmony. Eddie jumps up and says, ‘That’s a hit!’ ” says Rabbit.
“Cannibal was doing this ‘naa na na na naa’ thing. It was getting very popular,
and it caught on so much that all the East L.A. bands started doing it. Thee
Midniters [another popular Eastside band] were doing it, and Cannibal wanted
to record it. I said I couldn’t do it at the time because I didn’t have the
money. Billy Cardenas and I were fighting, but I promised Cannibal that before
anybody else records that song, we will go to the studio,” Davis told Lee Joseph.
were among Billy
Cardenas' first bands.
“On the night of the recording session for ‘Land of 1000 Dances’ by Cannibal
& the Headhunters, the word got out that we were going to record this song,
and everybody showed up, including the girl car clubs who were the fan base
for many of these groups,” recalled recording engineer Bruce Morgan in a 1995
interview with Gonzalez. “The studio was packed with people, and Frankie [Cannibal]
kept running back and forth to the musicians giving them instructions on the
arrangement. As an engineer, it was hard for me because I couldn’t get Frankie
to stand still in front of the microphone for more than a few seconds. . . .
So I put some microphones in front of the girls to capture the ‘naa na na na
naa’s as background vocals. I then put Frankie in a vocal booth, where I surrounded
him with microphones so that no matter how much he moved around, he wouldn’t
sound off-mike. . . . But we knew we had a hit record. You could smell it and
you could taste it.”
Davis, who had released the two previous hit singles to the Warner and Reprise
labels, kept Cannibal & the Headhunters’ “Land of 1000 Dances” for his own Rampart
label, and with the advice of Flash Records employee and friend Rudy Benavides,
he edited the song’s long intro to fade into the “naa na na na naa.” Cannibal
& the Headhunters had their biggest hit, peaking at No. 30 for a 14-week run
on Billboard’s Top 100.
“I remember we were cruising Whittier Boulevard in Bobby’s ’49 Chevy and Huggy
Boy [Dick ‘Huggy Boy’ Hugg, one of the first radio DJs to support the Chicano
community] plays our song,” says Scar. “And we’re going crazy, going ballistic
on Whittier telling everyone to put their radio on.”
On February 21, 1965, at the Shrine Auditorium, Cannibal & the Headhunters were
part of the historic West Coast Eastside Revue Concert that included the Atlantics,
the Blendells, the Blue Satins, Mark and the Escorts, the Heartbreakers, Lil’
Ray, Thee Midniters, the Pagents, the Romancers, the Premiers, Thee Medallions,
and the Jaguars with the Salas Brothers.
1965 would be a good year for Cannibal & the Headhunters: They would go on to
open for such acts as the Rolling Stones, the Righteous Brothers, and Paul Revere
and the Raiders, and perform on TV shows, including the musical-variety Hullabaloo
with Michael Landon, Dick Clark’s new show, Shebang, and American
Bandstand. They also played Murray the K’s CBS-TV special It’s What’s
Happening, Baby, where Herman Munster himself danced to “Land of 1000 Dances.”
Pioneering New York rock & roll radio DJ Murray the K (Murray Kaufman) was one
of the first DJs to have his radio show syndicated. He was responsible for introducing
the U.S. to bands like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. He brought Cannibal
& the Headhunters to New York to do a series of shows at the Brooklyn Fox Theater,
the first being “The Big Holiday Show,” featuring the Motown Revue: Marvin Gaye,
the Miracles, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Marvelettes, Martha and the
Vandellas, along with the Righteous Brothers, and Little Anthony and the Imperials.
Cannibal & the Headhunters would be the first vocal group or band from East
Los Angeles to perform in New York.
“When we arrived in New York for the first time to perform at the Brooklyn Fox
Theater for the Motown Revue, we were rehearsing at a studio for the show. We
were in the middle of ‘Mickey’s Monkey’ when Smokey Robinson & the Miracles
entered the room and watched us in amazement, singing and doing our dance routines,”
Joe “Yo Yo” Jaramillo told Gonzalez in a 1999 interview. (Jaramillo died of
cirrhosis of the liver in 2000.) “When we finished the song, they started applauding,
and Frankie absolutely freaked out because his all-time idol was Smokey Robinson.
I think Frankie even started crying, so Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations took
Cannibal over to introduce him to Smokey Robinson. Smokey came over to Frankie
and said, ‘You guys are great. Welcome to New York. We love your song “Land
of 1000 Dances,” ’ and started singing, ‘Naa na na na naa.’ ”
The Motown Revue show sold out 10 consecutive nights and broke the theater’s
all-time attendance record. The New York police had to call out officers on
horseback to control the crowds.
At the “Murray the K Summer Spectacular,” with Tom Jones, Ben E. King and Ruby
& the Romantics — who had the hit single “Our Day Will Come” — Ruby invited
the band to Small’s Paradise in Harlem, owned by basketball legend Wilt Chamberlain.
Kathy Young (“A Thousand Stars”),Billy Cardenas and Chris Montez
(“Let's Dance”), 1964
“When we arrived at the club, we were nervous because . . . the blacks were
staring us down,” says Scar Lopez. “Ruby invited us to come onstage and perform.
She wanted to show us off to everybody in the club. . . . So, we went up onstage
and did our version of ‘Out of Sight’ by James Brown, which we had already recorded
on our album. Anyway, they loved us and wanted more, more! So, for our second
song, we performed ‘Land of 1000 Dances,’ which was on the charts at the time.
Well, when the audience realized that we were the group who had recorded that
song, we brought the house down. Everybody in the club was singing, ‘Naa na
na na naa.’ Nobody was staring us down anymore. It was incredible. It was East
L.A. meets Harlem. I don’t think that anyone in Harlem had ever experienced
Chicanos from East L.A. . . . They kept asking us, ‘What are you guys? Where
you from?’ And I proudly said to them, ‘We’re Chicanos from Hazard in East L.A.’
Cannibal & the Headhunters put East L.A. on the map!”
At that same Summer Spectacular, an agent from General Artists approached Eddie
Davis and asked if he had any interest in having the group open up for the Beatles
on their second U.S. tour. “Inside I was bubbling like a volcano,” said Davis.
“We were in our hotel room, and Eddie walks in and says, ‘I got something to
tell you. Have you ever heard of the Beatles? Well, they offered us to be the
opening act for an 18-day tour,’ ” recalls Scar.
On August 15, 1965, at the biggest rock & roll concert yet, Cannibal & the Headhunters,
backed by the King Curtis Rhythm and Blues Band, opened up for the Beatles at
Shea Stadium in front of 55,600 hysterical fans. While Beatlemania and the British
Invasion were taking hold of the U.S., four young Mexican-Americans from East
L.A. put on a great show.
“After we played, Mick [Jagger] and Keith [Richards] came backstage to tell
us how good we were,” says Scar.
The Beatles’ tour traveled from coast to coast on a chartered, four-propeller
American Flyer DC-8 plane. “They would gamble in the back of the plane. Eddie
would come by and say, ‘Hey, I don’t want you back there gambling,’ ” says Rabbit.
“As we were flying into L.A. for the last leg of the tour, Eddie was taking
a nap during the flight. After being on tour for so long, we had all become
friends, and I was determined to get in that game,” remembers Scar. “The temptation
for me was too great, so I snuck to the back of the plane and started playing
cards with the Beatles. When Eddie woke up from his nap, he looked around and
noticed that I was missing. It didn’t take long for him to realize where I was,
and he stormed back there and started yelling at me in front of everyone. I’m
from East L.A. And I don’t take that from nobody. So we never spoke to each
other ever again. I was so angry at him for embarrassing me in front of the
Beatles that I made up my mind right then and there that I would not continue
on the tour.”
Cannibal & the Headhunters(here with Ringo Starr) openedfor the Beatles at Shea Stadiumin 1965. Frankie “Cannibal” Garcia(left,top) died of AIDS in 1996.
They arrived in Los Angeles to an eerie scene. “As we were flying into Los Angeles,
we could see the city blackened from the fires of the Watts Riots. It was a
spooky feeling. Remember, this was August of ’65,” says Scar. Soon after they
touched ground, Scar disappeared and never did the West Coast shows, which included
the Hollywood Bowl.
“The biggest high that I ever experienced in my life was at the Hollywood Bowl
during the Beatles tour when Casey Kasem introduced us. The people went so crazy,
I saw nothing but lights coming at me. There were so many cameras and lights
and screams, the energy just shot up so high. . . . I must have been in heaven,”
Cannibal told the Los Angeles Times in a 1984 interview with Don Snowden.
Heaven didn’t last long. In 1966, Cannibal & the Headhunters were sold to Seymour
Stein and Date Records. They never had another hit. Frankie “Cannibal” Garcia
quit music in 1967 to attend college. He eventually became a nurse at County-USC
Medical Center and went on to assist in AIDS research. He died of the disease
The Vietnam War and the advent of hippie-fueled psychedelic music would destroy
the West Coast Eastside sound. Eddie Davis’ last hurrah was in 1970 when El
Chicano’s “Viva Tirado” was the No. 1 record in the country. MCA imprint KAPP
Records approached Davis about a potentially lucrative licensing deal, but the
band never liked the song and distanced themselves from it and Davis. Then his
mother died, and Davis became unhinged, basically turning his back on the recording
industry and his legacy.
That is, until Hector Gonzalez brought Davis out of retirement to record a 1977
album with his Latin funk band the Eastside Connection. Soon, Davis proved he
still had it, introducing the revolutionary 12-inch vinyl single and scoring
a disco hit with “You’re So Right for Me” by the Eastside Connection’s main
songwriter, Harry Scorzo Jr. The Eastside Connection and Davis followed that
with the hit record “Frisco Disco,” a song that would later be sampled by Slick
Rick in “Mona Lisa” and Onyx in “React.” It was recently performed as part of
a DJ tribute with Grand Master Flash on VH1’s 2005 Hip Hop Honors. When
Eddie Davis died on October 1994 from cancer, he left Gonzalez all of the record
company’s master tapes, archives and contracts, as well as the publishing catalogs
from which Gonzalez currently licenses the vast Rampart Records group catalog
to many artists, including hip-hop stars like Frost, the Beastie Boys and Cypress
Hill. The legacy of the West Coast Eastside sound survives.
Photo by Gregory Bojorquez
In fact, it’s experiencing a bit of a revival. Moctezuma Esparza and Edward
James Olmos’ upcoming HBO film WalkOut will feature the West Coast Eastside
sound on its score. Gonzalez is also working on a documentary called The
West Coast Eastside Sound Story, which is being directed by 10-time Emmy
winner Jimmy Velarde. The film will tell the story of Davis and the Eastside
bands that played such an important and underappreciated role in the development
of rock & roll.
Gonzalez sold his house to finance the doc and moved into a house near the Golden
Gate Theater on Whittier Boulevard leased to him by Adrian “Ace” Campos (ex-drummer
of Aztlán Underground), who runs Bluespade75 Productions. With rehearsal and
recording-studio space on the property for Eastside bands like Inner City Soul,
Orchestra Clandestina and Quinto Sol, the two have created “the musical epicenter
on the Eastside.” They’ve just recorded “Take the Power Back” by Inner City
Soul for the Spanish-language Tributo a Rage Against the Machine, mixed
by former Oingo Boingo member John Avila. The two have the place jumping and
are making it feel like Rampart Records back in 1965.
“The driving force in me is that I sincerely believe that Mexican-American musicians
have never been properly credited for their participation in the development
of American rock & roll,” says Gonzalez.
On May 18, 1996, Cannibal & the Headhunters were inducted into the Chicano Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame at the Eighth Annual Chicano Music Awards. Surviving members
Rabbit Jaramillo and Scar Lopez continued to perform until Rabbit moved to Colorado
with his family. Scar is the only original member still performing.
“We were four Mexican kids from East L.A., coming from the projects,” says Scar.
“Your dreams can be fulfilled if you work at it.”
Billy Cardenas continues to produce music with Bob Keane and Del-Fi Records.
“We changed the whole system. We made it so that Mexican-Americans could participate
in the music market; that was my fight,” says Cardenas. “Record companies were
saying, ‘We don’t hire mariachis,’ and I had to say, ‘No, you’re wrong. These
are rock & roll bands!’”
To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the birth of the West Coast
Eastside sound, Varèse Sarabande/Rampart has released Cannibal & the Headhunters’
Land of 1000 Dances: The Complete Original Album Plus Six Bonus Tracks
and East L.A. Rockin’ the Barrio: Eighteen Hits From the ’60s.