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The Romancers:  The Father of 60s East L.A. Bands

by Mark Guerrero

     Before the Premiers, Cannibal & the Headhunters, and The Blendells, there was The Romancers.  The Romancers were the first East L.A. Chicano band to record an album and were the main influence of the mid-sixties East L.A. sound.  They were also the first East L.A. band to work with Billy Cardenas and Eddie Davis, who went on to record many other Eastside bands throughout the 1960s.  The Romancers made two albums on the Del-Fi record label and many other singles for Eddie Davis’ Linda label. The main figure in the Romancers' story is Max Uballez, the leader, chief songwriter, and rhythm guitarist.  Max was involved in the production and/or wrote songs for many recordings by The Romancers, as well as other top Eastside bands.

     The Romancers got their name from flyers and posters promoting East L.A. dances which read “Dance and Romance” this Saturday night, etc.  They thought “Dance and Romance to The Romancers” would sound good, and it did.  The name came about after they were involved with their manager, Billy Cardenas.  According to Max, the first Romancers were: David Brill, drums; Andy Tesso and Richard Provincio, lead guitar; Joe Whiteman, sax; Manuel “Magoo” Rodriguez, bass; and Max Uballez, rhythm guitar.  They lived in the Lincoln Heights district of East Los Angeles and attended Lincoln High School.  Max Uballez looked and sounded a lot like Ritchie Valens, whom he admired.  Once Max was playing a gig in Pocoima, California, where Ritchie had grown up, shortly after Ritchie’s passing and caused a near riot when he sang Valens' song “Donna.”  A guy who was supposedly related to Ritchie became enraged because Max sounded like Valens.  I can only guess that the irate party guest thought Max was trying to steal Ritchie Valens' act.  Max and his band had to pack up immediately and get out of town for their safety.  Billy Cardenas called Bob Keane, owner of Ritchie’s former record label, and told him about the incident and requested an audition for Max.  The story piqued Bob's interest so he said to Billy "okay, bring the kid in."  When Bob heard and saw Max, he noticed the similarity as well and agreed to record him.  The song recorded was one which Max had heard on the radio and reworked, adding some lyrics and changing the arrangement.  Keane decided not to release it, or perhaps took too long, and Billy Cardenas went to another label, Magic Circle, and re-recorded it.  Members of the Romancers were the backing group, along with some studio horn players.  The promotion man at Magic Circle thought Max should change his name because “it sounded too ethnic,” so he became Maximillian on the record without his knowledge or consent.  “You’d Better” was added to the play list of L.A.’s biggest rock station, KFWB, the first day it was released.  The release of “You’d Better” launched The Romancers success on the dance circuit.  Sometimes they were billed as Max Uballez or Maximillian and his Romancers band.  They were so busy they added more musicians to the mix, sometimes splitting up into two bands to play two venues at the same time.  The additional musicians were: Jimmy Pasqual, lead guitar; Chris Pasqual, bass; Manuel Mosqueda, drums; Armando Mora, David Bojorquez, Louie Davila and Bobby Marty, sax.  At this point, Bob Keane wanted to keep Max with his label so Billy and Max went back to Del Fi, where they wanted to be anyway.  They recorded and released a song called “Rock Little Darling,” which had previously been recorded by Ritchie Valens on his “Live at Pocoima Jr. High" album.  The new version, released on Bob Keane’s Donna label, had Max’s name slightly altered to “Max Uballes.”  Bob Keane used the “s” instead of a “z”, as he had done with Ritchie Valens.  Max changing labels again created legal problems with Magic Circle records.  As a result, “You’d Better” vanished from the radio airwaves and Max found out he couldn’t record as a vocalist for five years according to the contract with Magic Circle his mother had signed.  It was a horrible situation, but it had a silver lining.  If it hadn’t been for the fact Max couldn’t sing on a record, the classic instrumental album “Do The Slauson” by The Romancers would have never happened. 

     In 1963, The Romancers (Max Uballez, rhythm guitar; Andy Tesso, lead guitar; Chris Pasqual, bass; Armando Mora, tenor sax; and Manuel Mosqueda, drums) showed up to record for Del-Fi Records with two songs written by Max, “Slauson Shuffle” and “All Aboard.”  After recording the two songs, Bob Keane asked “do you have any more?.”  They hurriedly wrote seven songs, added three covers, and finished their first album in five hours total.  The album called “Do the Slauson” still sounds good today.  I remember buying the album when it came out.  I was 14 years old.  I loved it and heard it until it practically wore out.  The Romancers, though teenagers at the time, sounded very mature as musicians.  Their sound consisted of a strong and steady rhythm section, an excellent tenor sax soloist, a solid “chunka chunka” rhythm guitar, and an innovative lead guitarist on a trebly, poppy Fender Telecaster.  Their sound had a definite influence on The Premiers, The Blendells, my band (Mark & the Escorts), and many others.  Andy Tesso's lead guitar style influenced a generation of East L.A. guitar players, myself included.  Andy modestly says that he was influenced by his cousin Lolly Vegas (born Vasquez), later to front the hit band Redbone.  The album featured a great cover of “Patricia” by Perez Prado, and the classic East L.A. favorite, “Huggie’s Bunnies,” written by Tesso.  “Huggie’s Bunnies,” which was named after Eastside DJ Huggy Boy, was later recorded by The Blendells and another popular Eastside band, The Ambertones.  “Slauson Shuffle” was my favorite track, whose chord structure and groove provided the template for the Premier's hit record "Farmer John."  “Do the Slauson” sold well and the Romancers had no shortage of gigs.  The Slauson, by the way, was an extremely popular dance in East L.A. in the early 60s.  It was a line dance similar to the Stroll.  I remember doing it first to “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen when I was in Jr. High School.  The success of “Do the Slauson” prompted Del-Fi to follow it up with another Romancers instrumental album entitled, “Let’s Do the Swim.”  The Swim was another 60s dance craze, which really wasn’t as popular on the Eastside as some other dances. However, it served as another good hook for a new album.  “Let’s Do the Swim” sounded a lot like the previous album and was released on Del-Fi’s Selma label.  Although the "Slauson" album had better songs and a special magic, the "Swim" collection sounds as if the band is playing with a bit more confidence, particularly Andy, probably because they had the experience of the first album under their belts.

     As a result of The Romancers’ success at Del-Fi, other Chicano artists recorded for the label such as, The Heartbreakers, Ronnie & the Pomona Casuals, and The Sisters.  Max Uballez and Billy Cardenas helped create and record these artists for the label.  The Romancers began to develop vocal groups as part of their live show, including the aforementioned Heartbreakers and Sisters, The Slauson Brothers (George & John Ochoa), Yolanda Lea, Robert and Rey, and Sal and Margie.  (Sal Murillo, of Sal & Margie, was later to be lead singer of The Blendells.)  (George Ochoa of the Slauson Brothers would become lead singer of my band, the Men from S.O.U.N.D. in 1966, and subsequently a member of the 70s band, Yaqui.)  On one memorable Del-Fi session, when The Heartbreakers recorded the Frank Zappa song “Every Time I See You,” the Romancers backed them up with Zappa on lead guitar.  Max was a major figure in East L.A. rock in the mid to late 60s, writing songs for The Romancers, The Premiers, Cannibal & the Headhunters, and The Atlantics.  He also co-produced The Romancers’ Linda singles with Eddie Davis, and recordings by Little Ray, Cannibal & the Headhunters, and others, with Billy Cardenas.  Max didn't receive any written production credit on the original releases in the 60s, but has been rightly recognized on CD reissues in the 90s.  His biggest hit was “Land of a Thousand Dances” by Cannibal & the Headhunters, co-produced with Eddie Davis.  This was the national hit record that got Cannibal & the Headhunters on the Beatle tour in 1965. 

     The Romancers began to work as the house band at the legendary El Monte Legion Stadium and had a falling out with their manager, Billy Cardenas, over the band's working with a certain promoter.  As a result of this situation, Max and Billy split and Max continued with The Romancers.  After the split, two band members left with Billy and the rest stayed with Max and continued their engagement, where they backed up such artists as Little Stevie Wonder, Chuck Berry, The Coasters, The Shirelles, and Don Julian & the Meadowlarks.  While doing a gig at Rainbow Gardens in Pomona, The Romancers were seen by Eddie Davis who really liked their sound.  He thought there was a distinct Latin feel to their rock & roll, which led him to work with Chicano bands for the rest of his career, almost exclusively.  Recording for one of Eddie Davis’ labels called Linda was the next phase of The Romancers career.  These records featured The Romancers with vocals and had a new version of the band.  Andy Tesso had moved on and was playing with The Mixtures, a multi-racial group from Oxnard, and other groups.  He also did a tour with The Blendells and sang background on The Premiers' hit record, “Farmer John.”  His replacement on lead guitar in the Romancers was Albert “Bobby” Hernandez.  Bobby was a talented musician who had been in other Eastside groups, including the Vesuvians.  ( I remember seeing Bobby with The Vesuvians, a surf rock group with Beach Boys-styled black and white striped shirts, at a rock & roll show at East L.A. College and being impressed.)  Other additions were Johnny Diaz on guitar, Cesar Valverde on sax, and Ralph Ventura on trumpet, who later sang lead on The Blendells’ recording of “Dance with Me”.  The Romancers recorded and released six singles for the Linda label, the best and most successful of which was “My Heart Cries.”  “My Heart Cries” had been previously recorded by the great Etta James, but The Romancers did a different arrangement, adding beautiful, soaring harmony vocals similar to the Four Freshman or the Beach Boys.  It remains one of the classic recordings by an East L.A. band. 

     My band at the time, Mark & the Escorts, played on the same bill with The Romancers on several occasions.  I particularly remember playing right before them at Rainbow Gardens in Pomona, California on a Sunday afternoon in 1964.  At 14 and 15 years old, we were several years younger than the Romancers and thought we’d played a pretty good set.  They came on sounding powerful and highly professional, which made me realize we had some work to do.  This was right after Andy Tesso had left The Romancers, so I never got to see Andy play live in the 60s.  We also shared the bill with them at the “West Coast East Side Revue” at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1965.  I got to know Max Uballez in the early 80s and Andy in the late 90s. I had the pleasure of playing with Andy at a party for Joe “Yo Yo” Jaramillo of Cannibal & the Headhunters at the home of John Perez of The Premiers in 1999.

     Andy Tesso’s musical career was cut short when he was drafted and went to Viet Nam in 1965.  At the time, he was playing with Cannibal & the Headhunters. He was drafted six weeks before Cannibal & the Headhunters did The Beatles' U.S. tour.  When Andy returned from his hitch in the army, he got married and became a California state plumbing contractor.  He didn't play music, and rarely touched his guitar, for a period of 30 years. In 1995, Andy got a call from “Yo Yo” Jaramillo, who asked him to play with the re-formed Cannibal & the Headhunters.  The three surviving Headhunters were getting back together and needed a back up band.  Andy agreed
and the band was christened the Tribal Rockers.  They started to do gigs around Southern California with Cannibal & the Headhunters, most notably an engagement at the House of Blues in Hollywood.  After a brief parting of the ways in 2001, Andy is once again playing with Cannibal & the Headhunters in 2002.

     Max Uballez, went on to form a band in the early 70s called Macondo that made an album of the same name for Atlantic Records.  It featured mostly original material written or co-written by Max and was, for the most part, Latin-flavored rock.  He subsequently began to work with younger Chicano artists such as Quetzal, Lysa Flores, and most recently, La Banda Skalavera.  Max is currently president of XELACOMEDIA, a full service music promotion and production company. He lives in Martinez, California, and commutes to L.A. frequently to work on his musical projects.

     Most of The Romancers' music is still available today.  You can find most of their singles included on Varese Sarabande’s 1999 four volume CD set, “East Side Sound,” Volumes 1 thru 4.  The Romancers have eight songs on this collection, which also includes many of the recordings co-produced by Max Uballez for other Eastside bands.  “The Eastside Sound” CD on Dionysus Records (1996) has two Romancers tracks, which are also on the Varese Sarabande set.  Thankfully, also available on CD is “The Slauson Shuffle” by The Romancers on Del-Fi Records, with cuts from the “Do the Slauson” and “Let’s Do the Swim” albums.  This collection was released in 1995 and I highly recommend it.  You can purchase this album and CD compilations that include songs by The Romancer from the amazon.com links below.

This article is based on audio taped telephone interviews by Mark Guerrero with Max Uballez on December 23, 2001 and Andy Tesso on January 5, 2002.

mp3 Sound Bytes

Slauson Shuffle - The Romancers 1963

My Heart Cries - The Romancers 1965

 

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