Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara
A few months after Who Are the People? closed, I ran into keyboardist Bob Harris as I was leaving a phone booth that doubled as my office on Fountain in Silver Lake. I knew him from the days when we hung out with John Beck, lead singer with the Leaves, while he was in a relationship with folk singer/songwriter Judee Sill. We talked about what we were doing and I told him about the musical I’d just staged. He had just returned from touring with Zappa, I think it was the Billy the Mountain tour. I told him I’d met Frank a few years earlier, and he suggested we pay him a visit, since Frank and I both seemed to be on a rock theater kick.
As we drove up Laurel Canyon I had flashbacks of working at Chicken Delight back in ’66. We passed the notorious Log Cabin where Zappa and his clan once lived along with the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously, about whom I’ll say more later). I don’t know how I survived speeding around those curves, stoned and in the rain, delivering boxes of chicken. But hey, it meant at least a couple bucks tip if you got the chicken there hot. So now, just a few years later, I’m on my way to see the wild wizard of rock. Life’s a stone trip, all right.
We got to his tree-shrouded home, and surprisingly he answered the door himself. “We met a few years ago at the Shrine for the Cruising with Ruben & the Jets album release show,” I said. “Yeah, I remember you. You’re Rubén.” “Right. Sorry I never took you up on your offer to drop off some demos, but I went back to college. I wanna write music for films.” He didn’t say anything, just “Come on in.” We walked into his studio, which burst with guitars and sound equipment.
“So, you used to sing a little R & B, huh?” “Yeah in high school in the ’50s, then I put together a trio, the Apollo Brothers. We cut a single in ’61, sang around town, and did a little TV. We played the Legion once.” “The El Monte American Legion Stadium?” “Yeah, with Richard Berry, and the Olympics too.”
That led to an all-night session of listening to his collection of R & B oldies. Here we were, a couple of grown men tripping on old records like we were teenagers. That was the beginning of our bond: our love of L.A. rhythm and blues.
Then we talked about my discovering modern music composers at LACC, Bartók and Stravinsky in particular. We talked about how they weaved ethnic folk music into new musical and theatrical forms, which was how I interpreted his Ruben & the Jets garage doo-wop band. I saw it as Mexican American rock-theater, though in a very primitive form, which was cool with me.
I took a copy of Billboard with me that had reviews of Who Are the People? and his recent collaboration with the L.A. Philharmonic at UCLA next to it. That got his attention. As the sun was coming up he made a proposal: “How would you like to stage a real Ruben & the Jets? I’ll produce the album, and you can tour with the Mothers as an opening band to promote it.” I told him, “Thanks, man, that’s a damn groovy offer, but I’m not interested in going back to rock ’n’ roll. I don’t want to move backwards, and besides, too many detours.” He stared at me for a few long seconds with those dark eyes, then said, “Take what you know and build your own roads.”
I said I’d think about it and get back to him. It sounded cool, but still, the question kept coming up: could I trust rock musicians to pull off this great opportunity? Could I even work with flaky rockers again after working with serious classical cats? Then again, it wasn’t like I’d be starting from scratch. There was already an audience for Zappa’s Ruben & the Jets. To have an album produced by him and a spot on a tour sounded too good to resist. And I’d be creating a rock-theater piece right in line with my new direction. However, another burning question kept coming up: Was I honoring my sister’s memory with this project? Was I keeping my word to create art as a spiritually educating experience? Could I use it as a launching pad that would take me closer to my promises? My conclusion: Fuck, yeah! Give it a try.
I called m’ man “Flash,” who had just returned from Vietnam. “Hey, man, get your boogie-woogie fingers warmed up. We’re gonna audition for a once-in-a-lifetime shot!” We went into his bedroom at his parents’ home and rehearsed on the old upright piano that we’d used when we started the Apollo Brothers in high school.
The session with Frank started out a little bumpy. At one point “Flash” stopped playing, and Frank said, “Come on, Flash, this ain’t Carnegie Hall.” “It is for me,” he replied, then nodded that he was ready to play again. That time, we got into it and nailed it. Frank smiled, nodding his head up and down. He asked me to put a band together. I said, “I can have a band together in a few weeks.”
So I called bass player and vocalist Bill Wild of the Du-Vals, who had backed up the Apollo Brothers at Pandora’s Box and my Shindig! audition. I was reluctant to hire him, what with his history of drugs and booze, but he could play a funky bass and had a soulful voice that I needed for the harmonies. For the sax section I contacted former LACC classmate Clarence Matsui, a Japanese American alto sax cat from Boyle Heights. I also recruited another classmate, tenor sax player Bob “Buffalo” Roberts, and Frank suggested Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood, a former Mother, for the baritone sax parts.
Clarence had been playing with a band from East L.A. that he highly recommended, so I went to hear them play. I was impressed and invited them to come to the audition. They included vocalist and Hammond B-3 player John Martinez, probably the best all-around singer ever to come out of East L.A. Not only could he sing bass and falsetto parts, but he was also a killer lead singer. Then there was vocalist–rhythm guitarist–songwriter Robert “Frog” Camarena and vocalist–lead guitarist–songwriter Tony Duran, formerly of East L.A. ’60s greats the Premiers (“Farmer John”). Drummer Bobby Zamora was called in at the last minute. The band sounded great, and Frank dug it.
Zappa was in a wheelchair during this time with a broken leg and other injuries from being pushed off the stage at a concert in London by a jealous fan. This gave him plenty of time to work with the band.
It was my understanding that the members of the band would be signed as “sidemen” and that I would be the leader, sole composer, and lead singer on all material. The band members could be replaced at my discretion. It was also agreed that the project would be a collaboration between Frank and me that would feature original L.A.-style rhythm and blues/doo-wop, jump blues, along with straight-ahead rock ’n’ roll and blues—a kind of musical history and repository of Black and Brown L.A. music all wrapped in Mexican American rock-theater. The band didn’t get the theater part, though, as I would later discover.
I modeled the Jets’ harmonies on those of the Jaguars, a classic L.A. doo-wop group from Fremont High School. The multiracial vocal group of Blacks, an Italian, and a Mexican American epitomized the L.A. doo-wop style for me. Their recording of “Just the Way You Look Tonight” was the template I used to build on.
My recent composition experience writing gospel parts for Who Are the People? and my early work with the Apollo Brothers gave me the chops to arrange the vocal harmonies for the Jets. Since there were songwriters and great singers in the band, I decided to utilize their talents as much as possible, as both a democratic and a practical musical move. I didn’t realize I was also relinquishing my power. Frank wrote two songs for the band, the up-tempo doo-wopper “If I Could Only Be Your Love Again” (with George Duke sitting in on piano for the recording) and a crazy doo-woppish rocker, “The Weenie-Back Wino Walk,” which unfortunately didn’t make it to vinyl.
We rehearsed the material for the album for several months, then tested it out playing at Louis Stevenson Junior High in Boyle Heights, Garfield High School in East L.A., and at the Montebello Bowl. My plan was to create a buzz in East L.A. first, then bring the new fans to the Whisky in Hollywood for the debut.
Notes: Excerpt taken from Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer (UC Press, 2018) by Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara
Copyright: © 2018 Rubén Funkahuatl Guevara; used with permission by University of California Press. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.