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Mando and the Chili Peppers: Back on road after 46-year intermission- Stomp#4 Artist Feature

Back on road after 46-year intermission

Jim Beal Jr.
San Antonio Express-News

Web Posted: 04/24/2005 12:00 AM CDT

It's not unusual for a band to take a break.

Chucho Perales plays bajo sexto at the recent Conjunto Heritage Taller on South Presa Street during a music session.
So Mando & the Chili Peppers took a break — for 46 years.

The seminal Tex-Mex rock 'n' roll band will come off of that break to do a reunion show on Wednesday in New Orleans as part of the Ponderosa Stomp, a two-day celebration of real-deal roots rock 'n' roll, blues, swamp pop, garage rock, R&B and rockabilly. The gathering, staged at Mid-City Lanes, aka "Rock 'n' Bowl," is produced by serious record collectors and music fanatics known as Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau. It brings together a mind-boggling array of music-making pioneers and veterans.

Mando & the Chili Peppers certainly fits the bill. The band, staffed by young West Siders, grew out of groups such as San Antonio Alegre and Conjunto Mexico, hard-core conjuntos with polka and ranchera repertoires. Then came Mando & the Latineers and Mando & the Chili Peppers, bands that, starting in the early '50s, broke new ground when they rolled together conjunto, R&B, rock 'n' roll and even zydeco.

"You play for the first time what's in your set," said guitarist/bajo sexto player Jesse "Chucho" Perales. "Then you learn what people request. Mando did R&B already. He sang half Spanish and half English. When I met him he could already play 'Flight of the Bumblebee' on the button accordion."

Perales, 67, started playing bajo sexto when he was barely more than a toddler. He's now been strumming and picking for six decades. Accordionist, bassist and singer Armando "Mando" Almendarez (now Mando Cavallero) and Perales were a music-making team for years.

In the '50s the Chili Peppers lineup solidified with Mando, Perales, Rudy Martinez (keyboards), Juventino "Joe" Elizondo (saxophone) and Abel Garcia (drums).

Mando & the Chili Peppers went on to blaze other rocking trails. In 1956 they had their own television show on KCOR, "Rock and Roll," first with Spanish-speaking MC's and then with Scratch Phillips, a black disc jockey from KCOR radio, doing the honors. They hit the road to Las Vegas, Denver, New York and Chicago.

In 1958, New York-based Golden Crest Records released Mando & the Chili Peppers' full-length LP "On the Road with Rock 'N Roll." An appearance on American Bandstand followed. And that 12-inch slab of vinyl, since reissued on CD with a couple of extra tracks on the Ace label, set the rock 'n' roll collectors on their ears.

"On the Road With Rock 'N Roll" included some improbable music: a cover of Guitar Gable's "Congo Mombo"; Ernest Tubb's "I'm Walkin' the Floor Over You"; "I Love to Eat Chili in Chile"; "South of the Border"; "Candy Kisses," a cover of a tune that was a hit for San Antonian Johnny Ollen; "San Antonio Rose"; and originals including "Swingin' Baby." The songs fused country, conjunto, R&B and triplet-powered rock 'n' roll.

The band called it quits in 1959. For the next few decades, Mando & the Chili Peppers were a mystery, part of rock 'n' roll history and a subject of discussion among fanatics. No one knew where they were, or even where they were from.

"One of my friends handed me a CD and said it was the great lost swamp pop band," said Dr. Ike, one of the organizers of Ponderosa Stomp. "I was skeptical, but here was a bunch of Mexican kids and we didn't even know where they were from. We were thrown because we thought they might be from Louisiana, but they were a crazy Mexican rock 'n' roll band. They were a bunch of kids doing Guitar Gable and Clifton Chenier.

"The other thing is I thought the record was recorded later on but it was recorded in '56, '57. Who in their right mind would do that? But the cigar chompers at the labels back then were willing to take a chance."

Turns out, though, that Mando & the Chili Peppers weren't lost — or even hiding, really. Martinez and Elizondo, now deceased, and Garcia settled in Denver. Mando and Chucho landed in Chicago and eventually went in different musical directions. Chucho played rock 'n' roll and R&B and more with the Bossmen and eventually came home to San Antonio, founded a trucking company and played conjunto, R&B and rock 'n' roll.

These days Perales teaches music at the Conjunto Heritage Taller, the Carver Community Cultural Center, San Antonio Academy and Palo Alto College. He also plays bajo sexto with Eva Ybarra's conjunto and bass with Santiago Jimenez Jr.

Armando Almendarez changed his name to Mando Cavallero and hit the road to Las Vegas with the Jimmy Nuzzo Revue.

"Almendarez was hard to remember and it wasn't sexy," Cavallero said with a laugh. "So I had my name changed to my mother's maiden name and I've been Cavallero for 45 years."

That had to throw searchers off the scent. So did the fact that, though he played music occasionally, Cavallero worked for the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense. He is indeed surprised that the legend of Mando & the Chili Peppers lives on and the impact of "On the Road With Rock 'N Roll" remains.

"I really didn't make that much of it because it didn't really go anywhere," he said. "I don't even have a copy of the album, but I do have the CD. From rock 'n' roll I became a serious ballad singer.

"I wasn't aware that people were looking for me. I remember one Sunday I was working at the test site, what we call the dark side, and my wife called me and told me to call Chucho because the daughter of the guy who produced the Golden Crest album was looking for us."

Cavallero is kind of casual about the Chili Peppers' eclecticism, chalking up the mixture of music to songs he heard around, chalking up the whole trip to just a bunch of young musicians having fun.

"At the time we all had big dreams," Cavallero said. "We thought we might get lucky and have a hit record and go from there. At the time, we did and we went to California. We were there for 18 months and the band broke up."

"An R&B guy up in Chicago always called Mando 'Encyclopedia Head' because it seemed like he knew the words to every song," Perales said, laughing. "If he didn't know a whole song he'd put his own words to it. Hey, we ad-lib every day. It's not how much you play but it's what you project. It's the presentation on the bandstand.

"When we broke up we just broke up. There were no scandals, no misunderstandings."

With two Chili Peppers passed on and drummer Garcia too ill to travel, Mando and Chucho will be accompanied at the Ponderosa Stomp by a trio of San Antonio players, Ray Symczyk (accordion, piano), Pete Lopez (drums) and Arthur D (saxophone).

Though Symczyk has played a world of gigs with True Stories, the Red Flames, the Infidels, Eva Ybarra, Ikon and many other groups, he's still a bit nervous about the New Orleans adventure.

"Absolutely," he said. "But I've known Chucho for so long, and we've talked about this a lot. Plus my brother (Bobby T, a hard-core '50s-style rock 'n' roller who passed away three years ago) would have killed me if I didn't do it. I wish he was here to see it. This wouldn't have happened if I hadn't played piano with the Infidels and put those licks in there."

"Ah, if you don't know it, fake it," Perales said. "Nobody will know unless you tell them."

It turns out Mando & the Chili Peppers will do double duty at Ponderosa Stomp. The band also will back Eddy "The Chief" Clearwater, a flamboyant, Chicago-based blues and roots rock guitarist who has a music history every bit as eclectic as that of the Chili Peppers. Seems Mando and Chucho and Clearwater all worked together in Chicago.

"Yeah, Mando even wrote a song about him," Perales said. "When Eddy found out we were playing he asked if I was coming and that, if I was, he didn't need to bring a band he'd just play with us."

So, in addition to their '50s tunes, Mando & the Chili Peppers will help Clearwater serve up selections such as "A Minor Cha Cha" and "Neck Bones Everyday."

"It should make for a very special night," Dr. Ike said. "From our standpoint there's this great unknown band, an obscure band that still had an influence on music. It's a perfect fit. The Ponderosa Stomp functions as a tribute to the unsung heroes and true trailblazing pioneers of rock 'n' roll in its broad-based sense.

"These guys are still capable of blowing anybody off the stage. It's also the ultimate players' ball. Everybody realizes they'd better be on top of their game. It's like the ultimate jukebox, all killer, no filler."

"We're going to have a lot of fun," Perales said.

"It's going to be hectic but fun," Cavallero added. "I haven't played professionally in 20 years, but once you do it, you don't forget."

After all, the Chili Peppers have only been on break for 46 years.
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