Richard “Scar” Lopez, founding member of pioneering East LA Chicano rock group Cannibal and the Headhunters died last July 30 of lung cancer, the LA Times reports.
Most obituaries about Lopez's life and career (and the band's monster hit “Land of 1,000 Dances”) are drawing from a great 2005 article about the origins of Chicano rock, including interviews with Lopez and others, published by LA Weekly.
The piece, written by Ben Quiñones, is worth reading in its entirety, but here are the excerpts about Lopez and Cannibal and the Headhunters:
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 saxophone.
“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 “Scar” Lopez.
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. The Rhythm Playboys 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.
“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.”
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 in 1996. 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.
In fact, [in 2005] 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!'”