East L.A. Manager and Record Producer of the 60s
by Mark Guerrero
In the 1960s in East L.A., Billy Cardenas, along with Eddie
Davis, accomplished some miraculous things for Eastside musicians.
Separately and together, they transformed teenage barrio musicians
into artists with national hit records. This story is
about Billy Cardenas, based on my interview with him.
Billy and Eddie had several falling outs and there is some
controversy as to who did what. I've taken on the challenge
to tell both sides of the story in this and a future
article about Eddie Davis. Unfortunately, Eddie Davis
is no longer with us so I'll get his story from other sources.
article is Billy’s story from his perspective.
Billy Cardenas managed and/or produced many East L.A. bands
including, Cannibal & the Headhunters, The Premiers, and
The Blendells. All three groups had national Top 40
Billy Cardenas was born and grew up in East Los
Angeles. He first became interested in music through
the influence of a friend who lived down the street by the
name of Bobby Rey. The same Bobby Rey who would later
play growling tenor sax solos on such classics as “Corrido
Rock” by The Masked Phantom Band and “Alley Oop”
by the Hollywood Argyles. When he was a kid in the 40s
he would listen to records by Count Basie and Lionel Hampton
at the home of an African-American neighbor. Billy Cardenas
preferred black music from the beginning. In the 50s,
it was rhythm & blues that interested him most.
Around 1962, when he was 23 years of age, Billy first heard
The Romancers. Coming off the Ritchie Valens era, and
the success of Lalo Guerrero’s hit song “Pancho
Lopez,” Billy realized Chicanos could be recording
artists, not just musicians playing weddings, parties, and
dances. He had heard my dad, Lalo Guerrero, perform
with his band at the Paramount Ballroom in East Los Angeles
and seen other shows put on by local promoters. One
of the promoters was known to hire young bands and pay them
next to nothing for the privilege of having a venue in which
to play. So Billy decided to promote his own dances.
He started with The Romancers and added a vocal duo, who could
sing in English and Spanish, called The Heartbreakers.
The Romancers already had the singing talents of Max Uballez,
who was leader of the band. Billy booked The Romancers
at various venues around East L.A. and as their popularity
grew, he added more bands to his roster. Within a year
or two, he managed The Romancers, The Jaguars with the Salas
Brothers, The Royal Jesters (who later became The Rhythm Playboys),
Sal & Marge (Sal later to become lead singer with The
Blendells), Cannibal & the Headhunters, The Premiers,
The Blendells, Ronnie & the Casuals, The Sisters, The
Blue Notes, The Heartbreakers, The Little Heartbreakers, Sal
& Marge, Robert & Ray, Yolanda Lea, The Four Queens
(an all female band), and my teenage band Mark & the Escorts.
Billy made sure all his artists were well-dressed (the male
groups in matching sharp suits) and presented themselves in
a professional manner. He knew that would enable them
to get better bookings and demand more money and respect.
This is exactly what Brian Epstein was doing with his bands,
including the scruffy young Beatles, around the same time
in Liverpool, England.
At this point, Billy knew it was time to start approaching
record companies. His first success was getting The
Romancers a chance to record with Bob Keane’s DelFi
Records. Ritchie Valens had recorded his hits with the
same label a few years before. The Romancers recorded
a song called “You’d Better,” with Max Uballez
on lead vocals. Max had heard the song on the radio
and re-arranged it. Bob Keane decided not to release
it, or took too long to do so, so Billy took The Romancers
to Magic Circle Records and cut the song again.
Billy’s co-producer on this version was Joe Van Winkle,
who had produced the hit “Hey Mr. Custer.”
The promotion man at Magic Circle thought Max Uballez
should change his name because “it sounded too ethnic,”
so he became Maximillian on the record without his knowledge
or consent. The record started to get some airplay on
L.A.’s top radio station KFWB. With this exposure
Max and The Romancers became more popular than ever on the
dance circuit. With all this activity Bob Keane wanted
The Romancers back on DelFi. Knowing DelFi was a bigger
company, Billy took them back to Keane’s label, but
due to contractual conflicts with Magic Circle Records, Max
couldn’t sing for DelFi. The problem was solved
with The Romancers recording their classic instrumental album
“Do the Slauson.” When the album was released,
Tony Valdez of the Record Rack in East L.A. put up a big display
of the album in the record store window. Mike Carcano
at the Record Inn down the street also promoted it in his
store. As a result, the album started selling like tortillas.
The lead guitarist for The Romancers on “Do the Slauson
was Andy Tesso. Billy points out that he believes Andy
laid the groundwork for the “Eastside Sound” guitar
sound and style. I agree with that. Although Andy
admits that he was influenced by his cousin Lolly Vegas of
Redbone. However, Andy took what he learned from Lolly
and came up with his own style, which went on to influence
many other East L.A. guitar players, including Rudy
Valona of The Blendells, Lawrence Perez of The Premiers, and
myself. It’s a style I still use on occasion and
is part of what I do today. Another early band that
Billy worked with was The Jaguars with The Salas Brothers.
They recorded many songs, most notably the Eastside classic
instrumental "Where Lovers Go" by The Jaguars and
"Darling (Please Bring Your Love)" by The Salas
Brothers. In the early 70s, The Salas Brothers founded
their own band called Tierra, who had a top 20 hit with "Together"
in 1980. Tierra is still together, playing significant
venues and making great records.
Billy’s next step was to record The Premiers,
guys from San Gabriel who went from khakis and Sir Guy shirts
to matching suits. By now Billy had met Eddie Davis,
who owned several record companies. Eddie had a television
show on KCOP in Los Angeles called "Parade of Hits."
The house band for the show was one of Eddie's bands, The
Mixtures, who were a great multi-racial r&b band from
Oxnard, California. Billy called the show because he
wanted to get his band, The Romancers, on the bill at Rainbow
Gardens in Pomona, a venue promoted on Eddie's television
show. Billy was so enthusiastic about it, Eddie booked
The Romancers at Rainbow Gardens sight unseen. Once
Davis heard them, he was glad he did. That's how the
relationship between Eddie and Billy began. Getting
back to The Premiers, their first single would be released
on Eddie's Faro label. The song recorded for the "A"
side was a remake of a Don & Dewey song called “Farmer
John.” Billy had brought the song to the Premiers
and said he wanted to make it into a record with the kind
of feel and excitement of "Louie Louie" by The Kingsman,
which was extremely popular in East L.A. at the time.
"Farmer John" was reworked with a faster tempo and
given the Eastside Sound treatment, replete with chunking
Fender guitars and baritone and tenor saxophones. Billy
decided to add a live audience sound to the record, so he
recruited friends, relatives, and people off the street to
come into the studio and scream and yell. This was a
technique he used on many of his future releases, including
my first record, “Get Your Baby” by Mark &
the Escorts. I didn’t know until I did this interview
with Billy, some 40 years later, that he got the idea of the
live sound from Trini Lopez’ “Live at PJs”
album. You might recall Trini's mega-hit single “If
I Had a Hammer,” with the crowd going wild in the background.
However, in Trini’s case it was an actual live recording
done at PJs. Billy’s idea worked because the live
sound, even though it was done artificially on his productions,
still added a lot of emotion and excitement to the recordings.
Billy first recorded “Farmer John” at Cadet
Records, but decided to re-record it so he could own the master.
He went to Stereo Masters in Hollywood, where he made all
his future records with engineer Bruce Morgan. The 45
rpm single of "Farmer John" by the Premiers had
photos of the faces of the individual Premiers on the label.
I don't think this had ever been done before. Billy
says it was Eddie Davis' idea to put the faces on the label.
The same innovation was used on future Faro records
by artists such as The Salas Brothers and Little Ray.
The flip side of "Farmer John" by The Premiers was
an instrumental, featuring a tenor sax, called "Duffy's
Blues." Duffy was Billy's daughter's name.
What happened next is remarkable. Billy Cardenas walked
into L.A.'s top rock radio station at the time, KFWB, with
The Premiers "Farmer John" in hand. He had
no appointment. Imagine a dark-skinned Chicano, who
admits he looked like a street hood, walking into a radio
station in Hollywood unannounced. He asked the secretary
who the man responsible for deciding what records get airplay.
By a twist of fate, the program director was in the lobby
within earshot of Billy. He said, "I'm the program
director." Billy asked him if he would listen to
his record and consider it for airplay. The man was
named Don Anti and he agreed to listen to it. He loved
it and put it on the air that day. It sold 30,000 copies
the first week. Don Anti should be put into the Chicano
rock & roll hall of fame, if there were such a place,
for doing what he did to get that first "Eastside Sound"
mega-hit off the ground. In today's cold corporate climate,
Billy would've been thrown out of the building, if he could
get in the door at all. The local success of "Farmer
John" resulted in Eddie Davis making a deal with Warner
Brothers Records so they could take the record farther with
their distribution. "Farmer John" by The Premiers
reached number 19 on the national charts in July of 1964.
Warner Brothers then released an album by The Premiers entitled,
"Farmer John." The Premiers toured the country
with Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars, performing on the bill
with artists such as The Supremes, Gene Pitney, and The Crystals.
On their second tour, they opened for The Rolling Stones,
The Kinks, and The Zombies at various venues. Billy
Cardenas accompanied the band on some of the tours.
As a matter of fact, at The Premiers' very first big time
gig in St. Louis, they were afraid to go on and face the thousands
of people. After all, they were still teenagers who
had never played out of town, much less for that kind of audience.
To break the ice, Billy went out on stage with The Premiers
and sang the first song himself, his version of Rufus Thomas'
"Walking the Dog." After that, the band was
fine to continue on their own. After Billy and The Premiers
parted company, The Premiers went on to record a few more
sides with Eddie Davis, but Billy felt the songs no longer
reflected the Eastside Sound. They were influenced by
the psychedelic trend of the later 60s.
Billy's next success was with The Blendells, who recorded
an obscure Stevie Wonder song called "La La La La La," released
on Eddie Davis' Rampart Records. The Blendells added
some lyrics to the song, which was originally mostly instrumental.
A spoken intro was added that was a great hook. "I'm
gonna do a little song for you now, that'll make you clap
your hands, kick your feet, and as a matter of fact, it'll
tear you up." The intro was put together by Billy
Cardenas and executed by lead vocalist Sal Murillo.
It was backed by a Native-American style tom tom pattern.
Billy initially got the idea for the intro from the groove
on the Chris Montez hit record, "Let's Dance."
"La La La La La" also featured a solo by lead guitarist
Rudy Valona behind a muted trumpet solo, a kind of call and
response with the trumpet answering the guitar lines with
the songs melody line. It was a great record and "Eastside
Sound" to the max. It reached number 62 on the
national charts, but was number one in Phoenix, Arizona, Hawaii,
and Los Angeles. Billy accompanied The Blendells
on the Dick Clark "Caravan of Stars" tour with The
Dave Clark 5, Major Lance, The Crystals, and The Shirelles.
By now, Billy Cardenas had an open door at KFWB. Billy
would bring in records by his other artists such as Ronnie
& the Casuals and The Sisters. Both groups would
record with Billy for Bob Keane and his DelFi Records.
Ronnie & the Casuals did many recordings, the most notable
being the "I Wanna Do the Jerk" album, featuring
the funky title track. The sisters did several singles,
including their classic versions of "Gee Baby Gee,"
originally recorded by The Dixie Cups, and "Ooh Pooh
Pah Doo," originally done by Jesse Hill. Billy
had seen Rosella Arvizu sing at a Garfield High School sports
night. He was very impressed and asked her if she had
any sisters. She said she did and soon The Sisters were
born. This illustrates Billy's instincts. Who
would think to ask if a singer had any siblings? Billy
was also involved with Little Ray's great version of "I
Who Have Nothing," which also was released on Bob Keane's
Donna label. Due to the action it was getting, it was
released on Atco label so it could get greater distribution.
Another of Billy's bands was the Royal Jesters, whose lead
vocalist was Frankie Garcia. Frankie later became "Cannibal"
of Cannibal & the Headhunters. Billy was initially
involved with Cannibal & the Headhunters, all the way
up to the session for their biggest hit, "Land of a Thousand
Dances." The night of the session, Billy Cardenas
and Eddie Davis had one of their many falling outs.
The Premiers were scheduled to back up Cannibal & the
Headhunters on the recording. Billy ordered them to
not show up for the session. Eddie Davis called up The
Blendells, who happened to be rehearsing and asked them to
come down to the studio. They did so and wound up providing
the backing for the classic recording.
When "Land of a Thousand Dances" by Cannibal &
the Headhunters took off and made the national top 40, they
were invited on The Beatles' 1965 American tour. They
were put on a plane and found themselves at a sold out Shea
Stadium in New York City. Since Billy had had the falling
out with Eddie Davis, Billy went to the show with a rack jobber
by the name of Larry Nunes. Larry had connections with
The Beatles record company, Capitol Records. At the
concert Billy met The Beatles themselves. He also was
on the plane back from New York to Los Angeles with The Beatles,
Cannibal & the Headhunters, and others. Billy was
also at The Beatles Hollywood Bowl, where Cannibal & the
Headhunters also performed. On another tour with Cannibal
& The Headhunters, The Moody Blues were on the bill.
Billy would call them "bro" and use other Eastside
street terms. In short order The Moody Blues were using
the term as well, of course with an English accent.
Billy also was with Cannibal & the Headhunters when they
played a Murray the K show at the Brooklyn Fox Theater in
New York, on the bill with Wilson Pickett, The McCoys of "Hang
On Sloopy" fame, and The Vibrations. Wilson Pickett
loved Cannibal & the Headhunters' version of "Land
of a Thousand Dances." He asked Billy if he could
record it and Billy told him it was written by Fats Domino.
A year later Wilson recorded the song and had a top ten hit
with it. His version was a lot faster than Cannibal's
version and had that Stax/Volt funk. As great as Wilson
Pickett's version was, I still prefer Cannibal's version.
What makes this significant to the history of the "Eastside
Sound" is that Pickett did the song with the "na
na na na na" intro that Cannibal had created. Another
thing that came out of that Murray the K show was Billy heard
a song by The Vibrations called "Sloop Dance," which
sounds like a sequel to "Hang On Sloopy."
He brought it home and gave it to one of Eddie Davis' bands,
The Atlantics, who recorded it. One of the highlights
for Billy Cardenas on the road was a concert in New Orleans.
The Premiers came in from a show in Birmingham, Alabama, while
Cannibal & the Headhunters arrived from New York City.
It was a show with Herman's Hermit's headlining. Billy
remembers fondly that The Premiers and Cannibal & the
Headhunters had a very happy reunion when they hooked up in
New Orleans. They were all young homeboys out on the
road. The Premiers were slated to back up Cannibal &
the Headhunters in addition to doing their own show.
Billy says they were all so happy and excited to be together
that night that they tore it up and stole the show.
Billy remembers The Premiers doing a high octane version of
"Get Your Baby" to get things rolling. By
the time Cannibal & the Headhunters were done with their
segment backed by a pumped up Premiers, Peter Noone (aka "Herman"),
was reluctant to go on. There's another famous incident
on The Beatle tour where The Beatles manager, Brian Epstein,
told Eddie Davis to have Cannibal & the Headhunters "tone
it down" because they were getting quite a reaction.
Cardenas points out that he credits the late Dick "Huggy
Boy" Hugg for being a major part of his success because
Huggy Boy promoted Billy's dances and records on his popular
radio show. Local disk jockey Godfrey Kerr also played
the records of Billy's bands and other Eastside musicians
and promoted the dances on the air. Eddie Torrez, best
known as the manager of Thee Midniters, also was a great help
to Billy from early on when Billy started with The Romancers.
Eddie booked Billy's bands into his venues and helped with
promotion. Cardenas returned the favor when he took
Eddie to KRLA's Dick Moreland with Eddie's new single, "Whittier
Boulevard" by Thee Midniters. On the way home from
taking the single to KRLA, they heard the record on the radio
and the celebration began. Billy swears that he and
Eddie Torrez were on the 605 freeway just about to exit onto
Whittier Boulevard when the song came on. "Whittier
Boulevard" became a huge hit in Southern California.
Billy sees this period of the early to mid-60s as an awakening
of the Mexican-American in rock & roll, a period which
also produced Sunny & the Sunliners, Sam the Sham &
the Pharoahs, ? & the Mysterians, along with the aforementioned
Trini Lopez and Chris Montez.
Billy Cardenas managed my teenage band, Mark & the Escorts
from late 1964 though 1965. In 1965 we cut two singles,
"Get Your Baby" and "Dance with Me."
The B sides were "Tuff Stuff" and "Silly Putty,"
respectively. They were released on GNP Crescendo Records
in March and October of 1965. Billy brought "Get
You Baby" and "Dance with Me" to the band and
asked us to record them. Interestingly enough, both
had been recorded by The Blendells. The Premiers also
had a version of "Get Your Baby." "Get
Your Baby" had been written by members of The Mixtures,
while "Dance with Me" was written and previously
recorded by another popular East L.A. band, The Fabulous Desires.
I was only 14 or 15 years old at the time as were my other
band mates so we didn't question the material, especially
since we liked the songs anyway. Billy had us record
"Get Your Baby" and "Dance with Me" because
The Blendells had just broken up and were unable to promote
their record, which was "Dance with Me," backed
by "Get Your Baby." It was supposed to be
their follow up to their big hit "La La La La La."
Billy also got us on the bill on many of his dances and shows,
including Rainbow Gardens, the Belair Rollerdrome, St. Alphonsus
Auditorium, and others. In 2000, the four Mark &
the Escorts recordings were reissued by Dionysus Records as
part of an album called "Eastside Sound, Vol. 2."
We're on the cover. Also on the album are tracks by
The Blendells, The Premiers, The Enchantments, The Impalas,
and others. Almost 40 years later, I worked with Billy
again on an album he was producing for Chan Romero of "The
Hippy Hippy Shake" fame. What made it all the more
interesting was that Billy had brought in a couple of classic
Eastside Sound musicians to back Chan. So I had the
pleasure to work with John Perez of The Premiers on drums
and Andy Tesso of The Romancers on guitar. The sessions
were done at an East L.A. studio owned by Little Ray Jimenez.
Little Ray wound up doing background vocals with Chan and
yours truly on several tracks. I've seen Billy a few
times over the decades and what amazes me is that he looks
virtually the same as he did in the 60s. On February
11, 2001, Chan Romero and I organized a tribute show to Billy
Cardenas. It was held in Desert Hot Springs, CA, which
is a town right next to Palm Springs. Performers, who
all played for free, were The Premiers, Cannibal & the
Headhunters (with two original members and Andy Tesso on guitar),
my band, and my dad Lalo Guerrero. My band also
backed up Chan Romero on several songs including his rockin'
classics "The Hippy Hippy Shake" and "My Little
Ruby." It was a great show and reunion. The
camaraderie was fantastic.
Billy Cardenas and Eddie Davis are the most important figures
in the history of the "Eastside Sound." According
to Billy, Eddie was more the administrative person.
He was also an excellent business man, who owned record companies
and was able to negotiate deals with major labels. Billy
was a manager, in the trenches getting gigs for his bands,
and a record producer, often picking songs and coming up with
musical and sometimes gimmicky ideas. He came up with
the phrase "Has anybody seen Kosher Pickle Harry?
If you do tell him Herbert is looking for him."
The Kosher Pickle Harry line found it's way onto several records
and was shouted out in many a dance hall by Billy before he
introduced bands. Harry, who owned a delicatessen that
Billy's would frequent, introduced Billy to the joys of kosher
pickles. Billy started calling him Kosher Pickle Harry.
Nobody knew who Kosher Pickle Harry was at the time except
for Billy, but the phrase became part of the culture of the
Eastside music scene. Herbert was a name he called several
people he liked, most notably Charles Lett, the lead singer
of Ronnie & the Casuals. He also came up with the
nonsense syllables on "Farmer John" by The Premiers,
"Chaka chaka chaka choo, bobble bobble bobble boo."
As previously mentioned, he also came up with the idea for
the intro to "La La La La la" by The Blendells.
These are the little things that can help a recording become
a hit record. Billy simply describes himself and Eddie
Davis as "a cholo and a businessman." Eddie
was tall, bald-headed, and Jewish. Billy was a short,
stocky, and Chicano. This unlikely pair accomplished
a lot. They made it possible for many Eastside musicians
to make records and have careers. It should be noted
that Eddie Davis and Billy Cardenas did not work together
exclusively. Both had successes with other artists and
record companies. However, despite their up and down
and sometimes volatile relationship, their names will forever
be linked for what they were able to accomplish together.
Billy went for many years without getting credit for what
he did. In the early 60s, producers were usually not
even mentioned on the record labels. It wasn't until
many of the records he produced were reissued in compilations
in recent years that he was credited as a producer.
He's also received recognition in books such as "Barrio
Rhythms" by Steven Loza, University of Illinois Press
(1993) and "Land of a Thousand Dances" by David
Reyes and Tom Waldman, University of New Mexico Press (1998).
In 2006, Billy Cardenas was given an award by the City Council
of Los Angeles for his contribution to music. Billy says the success of artists he worked with in
the 60s and the fact that so many of his artists are still
active and successful in the music business to this day is
very satisfying and a source of pride for him. Billy
says that the reason he got into the music business was not
only because of his love for music, but he wanted to give
the kids in the barrio something positive to do to keep them
out of trouble.
He also wanted to bring guys together from different barrios
who otherwise would’ve had nothing to do with one another.
Cardenas certainly accomplished his goals.
For more information on Billy Cardenas
and some of the bands mentioned in this article, read my articles
on Cannibal & the Headhunters, The Premiers, The Blendells,
Ronnie & the Casuals, and The Sisters. All these
articles can be found on my "My Chicano Music Articles"
here to go to the Chicano Music
Articles Index page. To read my article about
the 2001 tribute show for Billy Cardenas, go to my "miscellaneous
7. To see a photo of Billy
Cardenas, go to my "photo gallery,"
is based on an audio taped interview by Mark Guerrero with
Billy Cardenas on January 30, 2006.