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 Ronnie & the Casuals:  60s Eastside Band From Pomona

by Mark Guerrero

     Ronnie & the Casuals, a.k.a. Ronnie & the Pomona Casuals, were one of the best bands on the East L.A. circuit during the golden age of the "Eastside Sound" in the mid-sixties.  With their seven-piece lineup, comprised of a lead vocalist, tenor and baritone sax, bass, drums, keyboard, and the lead guitar playing of leader Ronnie Duran, they typified the "Eastside Sound" to the max.  Unlike most Eastside lead guitarists, Ronnie played a Gretch "Chet Atkins" model guitar, instead of the more prevalent Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster.  They also featured the strong lead vocals of Charles Lett, a 16 year old African American with the voice of a seasoned adult r&b singer.  These elements combined to create a powerful sounding band with its own unique brand of the "Eastside Sound."  Like many of the best Eastside bands, they were managed by Billy Cardenas and performed extensively around the greater Los Angeles area.  In 1964, Ronnie & the Casuals recorded an album, produced by Billy Cardenas, called "Everybody Jerk" for Bob Keane's Donna Record label, a subsidiary of his DelFi Records.  (DelFi had previously released recordings by Chicano artists Ritchie Valens, Chan Romero, and The Romancers.)  The Jerk was an extremely popular dance in '64, hence the title and style of the music on the album.  "Everybody Jerk" was very popular, particularly on the east side of Los Angeles, and featured the great single "I Wanna Do the Jerk."  It also had a few original songs, along with covers of r&b songs such as "High Heel Sneakers," "Out of Sight," "Ya Ya," and "Land of a Thousand Dances."  In fact, Ronnie & the Casuals covered Chris Kenner's "Land of a Thousand Dances" before Cannibal & the Headhunters and Thee Midniters.

     Ronnie Duran, founder and leader of the Ronnie & the Casuals, grew up in Pomona and showed his first interest in music by taking up the accordion.  At the age of thirteen he changed to guitar, influenced by a paternal uncle who played the instrument professionally.  Ronnie remembers his uncle showing him some chords and getting him started.  He later bought a guitar instruction book and taught himself, spending hours a day practicing after school.  Ronnie formed his first band at age 14 and played local dances and weddings.  Shortly thereafter, at Damien High School in San Dimas, The Casuals were put together with original members Ronnie Duran on guitar, his brother Jimmy Duran on tenor sax, Bob Foley on baritone sax, Phillip Duran (no relation) on drums, Ryan O'brien on bass, and Robert Arroyo on organ.  (Sometime after the recording of their DelFi album Robert Arroyo was replaced by Les Kalil on Wurlitzer electric piano).  They met their lead singer, Charles Lett, when he walked across the street from a friend's house to watch The Casuals rehearse.  Ronnie asked him if he could sing.  Charles proceeded to demonstrate that he could and instantly became a member of the band.  The Casuals became Ronnie and the Casuals when it was brought to their attention that Brenda Lee had a band called The Casuals.

     Ronnie recalls that his father had heard about manager/producer Billy Cardenas and gave him a call to tell him about Ronnie & the Casuals.  After hearing the band, Billy began to book them at various Eastside venues.  When Cardenas felt they were ready, he took them to Bob Keane at DelFi Records.  Bob liked what he heard and scheduled the sessions for the recording of what became the "Everybody Jerk" album.  Amazingly, when Ronnie & the Casuals recorded the album they were between the ages of 14 and 17.  Ronnie recalls doing the music tracks for side one in a single night.  It took a few weeks to complete the tracks for side two and the vocals.  According to Ronnie, "I Wanna Do the Jerk" was written by Arthur Lee of the legendary L.A. psychedelic band, Love.  Ronnie and one of the other members of Love assisted with the writing of the song, which was not credited on the album.  Ronnie also worked with The Sisters, a Chicana vocal r&b trio, in the studio on their DelFi recordings.  Ronnie & the Casuals backed up The Sisters on several DelFi singles and Ronnie also helped with musical arrangements and production.  (Ronnie later married one of The Sisters, Rosella Arvisu, and had two daughters, who are now excellent singers in their own right.  One of the other "Sisters" was Ersi Arvisu, who later would be lead vocalist for El Chicano.

     After the release of Ronnie & the Casuals' DelFi album, the gigs became better and more frequent.  On one memorable show, they were on the bill with Little Stevie Wonder at the Paramount Ballroom in East L.A.  Ronnie remembers being astounded by the 12 year old Stevie's talent.  Aside from his phenomenal singing, he played drums, guitar, sax, keyboard, and harmonica that night.  They also played with The Byrds at DeAnza Park in Ontario, CA, where Ronnie says The Byrds played an extremely loud version of "Turn Turn Turn."  So loud he could scarcely hear the vocals.  In addition, they played with legendary r&b artists Ike & Tina Turner and Ray Charles.  Ronnie & the Casuals also played often at Casey Kasem's club in Thousand Oaks, CA, which also featured other East L.A. bands such as Thee Midniters, The Blendells, and The Premiers.  Another great gig was at the Hollywood Palladium, promoted by Huggy Boy, with Thee Midniters also on the bill.  They were also scheduled to play the Shrine Exposition Hall in Los Angeles, where they were to back up the Righteous Brothers.  Before the show, Ronnie & the Casuals and the Righteous Brothers had discussed what songs they would do and the keys in which they would be played.  Ronnie & the Casuals were ready to go on when a big fight broke out in the audience.  It was of sufficient size and ferocity that the concert was cancelled before it began.  Another gig that stands out in Ronnie's memory is an all night show at the Golden Gate Theater in East L.A., where they backed up saxophone legend Joe Houston, Don & Dewey, and many others.  It turns out the supposed other back up band never showed so Ronnie & the Casuals played their own show and backed up other artists for six hours.  He was thrilled to meet and play with the great r&b artists, but was not happy about being overworked and, to make matters worse, doesn't recall getting paid.

     Ronnie & the Casuals stayed together into the late 70s.  The most interesting gig during that period were frequent performances at a combined concert/dance hall in Montebello, CA.  It had been converted from a bowling alley into an impressive and popular venue.  They would back up the guest artists and then play in the dance hall after the concert.  Some of the artists they backed up included The Spinners, Don Julian & the Meadowlarks, and Freddy Fender.  Freddy Fender, who was at the height of his success, came into the dance hall after his show and sat in with Ronnie & the Casuals and had a great time.  (On a sad note, original Ronnie & the Casuals lead singer, Charles Lett, who Ronnie says "got in with the wrong crowd," was shot to death over 20 years ago.)  Ronnie stopped playing through the 80s, but in the 90s put another band together and called it The Casuals (returning to the original name before "Ronnie" was added) and has been playing ever since.  The Casuals mainly play in the Riverside/San Bernardino area and occasionally do gigs in East L.A., like at the popular Quiet Cannon in Montebello.  His daughters, Yvonne and Melanie, are regular featured vocalists with the band.  Ronnie says they are phenomenal singers.  I haven't heard them yet, but with their pedigree, I wouldn't doubt it.  This year (2004), The Casuals played a concert at Gent's Hall in San Bernardino on the bill with Malo and Tierra.  It was a benefit for scholarships for young Latinos in the area.

     My 60s band, Mark & the Escorts, shared the same manager/producer, Billy Cardenas, with Ronnie & the Casuals so we played with them on many occasions on the Eastside circuit.  In 1965, we played with Ronnie & the Casuals at the CYO Hall, Big Union Hall (twice), the Shrine Auditorium (at the "West Coast Eastside Revue" concert), Belvedere Park Auditorium, the Boulevard Theater, and at a daytime outdoor concert in the Jonson's Market parking lot.  (You can see the flyers from all the above shows on my "60s Eastside Flyers" page.)  There may have been other times our bands shared the bill, but the aforementioned venues are documented by the flyers.  Ronnie & the Casuals were one of my band's favorite groups.  We liked their sound and style and enjoyed playing with them.  One time, Billy Cardenas organized a rehearsal for Mark & the Escorts and Ronnie & the Casuals at a church hall in Pomona.  I think it was in preparation for the West Coast Eastside Revue concert at the Shrine Auditorium.  I remember rehearsing our set and feeling pretty good about it.  Ronnie & the Casuals set up and started their rehearsal with "I Wanna Do the Jerk."  It sounded so powerful, with Charles Lett's big strong voice, the baritone and tenor saxes, and the seven piece band rockin' in the small empty hall, I remember it being a somewhat humbling experience.  I recently asked Ronnie about it and he doesn't remember the rehearsal at all.  Because of the power of that moment, I never forgot it.

     Ronnie & the Casuals' "Everybody Jerk," DelFi Records on CD (DFCD-72112-2), is available around the net.  You can also order it from the amazon.com link below.  The album still sounds good today.

This article is based on an audio taped telephone interview by Mark Guerrero with Ronnie Duran on March 20, 2004.

mp3 Sound Byte

  I Wanna Do the Jerk

Ronnie & the Casuals 1964

 

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Mark Guerrero
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