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Billy Cardenas:  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.  This 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 hit records.

     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.

     Billy 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.  Billy 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" pages, click 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 writings," page 7To see a photo of Billy Cardenas, go to my "photo gallery," page 17.

This article is based on an audio taped interview by Mark Guerrero with Billy Cardenas on January 30, 2006.
 

 

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