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The Other Chili Peppers: Offbeat Magazine: Stomp #4 Artist FeatureThe Other Chili Peppers
By Michael Hurtt
If there's a singular source of pioneering Pachuco artistry that laid the groundwork for every Latino rock 'n' roll band from Sunny and the Sunglows to Sonny Ace and the Twisters, from Sam the Sham to Santana, from the Sir Douglas Quintet to ? and the Mysterians, from Little Joe and the Latinaires to Los Lobos, it's the one, and most certainly only, Mando and the Chili Peppers. Their music, a border-town facsimile of honking New Orleans R&B, lilting enchilada-flavored swamp pop, and loose, scat vocal-inflected country and rock 'n' roll, is, taken together, most certainly the earliest recorded version of what later came to be called Tex-Mex.
" It seems to me," I tell Chili Peppers guitarist Jesse "Chucho" Perales, "that you were one of the first bands of your kind."
" At the time?" he responds with a smile in his voice, "Or period?"
Now, that's actually a very good question. As you can probably tell from their name alone, Mando and the Chili Peppers are about as one-of-a-kind as it gets. Topping the bill of 2005's upcoming Ponderosa Stomp, it's been over 45 years since San Antonio's first tier rockers have played a gig. That seems just about right for a band whose very existence has at times seemed almost too good to be true, whose righteous grooves and mysterious elusiveness have inspired years of frustrating, dead-end detective work on the parts of Peppers die-hards like ZZ Top's Billy Gibbons, Arhoolie Records' Chris Strachwitz, author John Broven, WWOZ's Billy Delle and, needless to say, yours truly.
For those uninitiated with Mando Mania, a single spin of their sole 1957 long player, On The Road With Rock 'n' Roll (available on CD courtesy of Britain's Ace Records) is all it should take to elicit full conversion, provided you can get past the album's incredible cover, which pictures five young Mexican-Americans strapping Fender amps and guitars to the roof rack of a black Packard limousine under a deep blue sun-kissed sky.
" We put the band together in San Antonio in '54," remembers bass player and vocalist Armando Almendarez, now known as Mando Cavallero. "When I was a kid I started on upright bass and then I went with the accordion. In the early '50s when rock 'n' roll was just starting to come in I was picking up on just about everybody that was coming in and there was a guy out of Louisiana that played the (piano) accordion, Clifton Chenier. And I started playing his songs but I was playing them on a button accordion."
Mando estimates recording up to 50 sides in the conjuto style with his first two bands, Conjuto San Antonio Alegre and Conjuto Mexico--both of which often included Perales on either bajo-sexto or guitar--for small barrio labels like Rio, Corona and Ideal during the early '50s. Three of these recordings are available on San Antonio's Conjutos In The 1950s (Arhoolie), and one of them, 1954's "Mi Dolorcito" is downright mind-boggling in its mixture of insistent jump blues rhythm, sophisticated Western swing melody, electrified flamenco guitar and jive-talking vocals. Texas guitarist Randy Garibay recalled the early Mando experience in an article for the San Antonio Express- News. "I'd go to these house parties with my brother and San Antonio Alegre would be playing. They'd do the standard polkas and boleros and then, all of a sudden, with Mando playing accordion, they'd break into 'Lucille' or 'Just Because' by Lloyd Price. It was amazing. That's when I first heard rock 'n' roll."
Perales: "We played requests. If we didn't know it and you asked for it, we picked the hell out of that damn thing. That's how we got into rock 'n' roll. 'Rock Around The Clock' came out in '54 and we were already doing rhythm and blues. When Elvis came out, the girls said, 'Hey, there's a guy singing; a white dude and he looks like you, Mando!' Mando said, 'What do you mean he looks like me?!'"
In 1955, the two worlds converged on wax when Conjuto Mexico's breakneck renditions of Chenier's "Boppin' The Rock" and Chuck Berry's "Maybellene" were captured on Rio's primitive disc cutter. "We recorded it direct to wax, no EQ or nothing," details Perales. "If you were in tune you were in tune, if you were out of tune you were out of tune. The whole building was about 12 by 16. The drummer was halfway in the door and the slap on the bass was the echo from the rest of the room."
By 1956, the band had their very own television show, fittingly called Rock 'n' Roll. "We were the first conjuto to play rock on TV," remembers Mando.
The group that would become the Chili Peppers was originally christened Mando and the Latineers. Besides Mando on accordion and vocals and Perales on electric guitar, the Latineers comprised Rudy Martinez on piano, Abel Garzia on drums, Joe Elizondo on tenor sax and Aaron Lasater on bass. After conquering San Antonio's West Side, they were booked for an extended engagement at the Dunes Hotel in Las Vegas, where they purchased the Packard that would adorn their album cover. But first, it took them to Denver, as Mando explains.
" While we were in Vegas we met some people from Denver who said it might be good if we tried the waters there because there were no rock bands at the time in Colorado. We got there January 3, 1957, in the middle of the biggest snowstorm they had seen in a while and we didn't know the town. It was dark and we saw this marquee that said 'Saddle Club--Live Music.' So I walked in there and it was an all black club. The owner was an old Jewish guy and I just sat down and started talking to him. I told him we had just come from Vegas and he said, 'Well, I've got the best band here. Why don't you guys come in?' We sat in with the band and did three songs and right then and there he hired us."
A month later, another snowstorm brought more good fortune when Clark Galehouse, a Long Island plastics manufacturer who owned Golden Crest Records, had his plane grounded en route to a music convention in Idaho. The Saddle Club beckoned through the blizzard.
" He walked in out of the snow and heard us," Mando continues. "He told me that he had a recording company in New York, and actually, I dismissed it. And little did I know; about three weeks later he called us and told us to come over. We went all the way to New York and recorded a single; 'South Of The Border' and 'Don't Say Goodnight.' And then he called us back and we recorded the album."
Mando became the band's bass player a month before the session when Aaron Lasater took a job back in San Antonio. "He said, 'I'm gonna leave the bass here and you can play it. Learn how to play it, it'll do you good.' And he left. So actually, when I went and cut that record I hadn't even played the bass for a month!"
Other changes were afoot, as Perales recalls. "We went in as the Latineers and came out as the Chili Peppers!"
" I didn't even know," laughs Mando. "We recorded and when he (Galehouse) sent us the single it was the Chili Peppers! So he's the one that thought up the name."
Their bayou-meets-barrio sound registered immediately along the Gulf Coast and "South Of The Border" received heavy airplay in New Orleans where the Peppers' rocking, triplet-filled back beat led many listeners to assume it was a local record.
The song itself had a history as winding as the band who'd revolutionized it. A hit for Shep Fields in 1939, "South Of The Border" had originally been penned by two Englishmen who could never have imagined that nearly two decades later it would be taken to such heights. Mando's zestful, laid-back vocalizing conjured a musical atmosphere so thick that every word--the mission bells, the candlelight, a beautiful Chiquita kneeling in prayer under a veil of white--sprung into graphic relief in the listener's mind.
Next came the frantic, mambo-charged "I Love To Eat Chili in Chile." Written by Abe Levine, a detective for the Denver Police Department, it was backed by a scat vocal version of George Morgan's recent country hit, "Candy Kisses." The song forecast the future: When On The Road With Rock 'n' Roll hit the racks, Mando-ized country classics like Bob Wills' "San Antonio Rose," Ernest Tubb's "I'm Walkin' The Floor Over You" and Jimmy Davis's "There's A New Moon Over My Shoulder" stood proudly alongside originals like "Why Can It Be," "Swingin' Baby" and "This Is True Love." There were stripped-down, rocked-up pop numbers like "Someday" and "Harbor Lights," even a slow-burning Pachuco anthem in Marvin and Johnny's "Cherry Pie." But the LP's crowning moment was a crazed take of Guitar Gable's "Congo Mombo" that sounded like a swamp summit of Tito Puente and Gatemouth Brown.
Then there was that spectacular album cover. "Wasn't that a dandy?" Mando says of the Packard with the band's name stenciled on the side. "Boy, that thing was great. Galehouse took us out in front of a potato field on the side of the highway. He had a photographer out there and he directed it, he said 'OK, you guys get up there like you're rearranging the instruments and you're lost, get out the road map!' We almost got killed because of the traffic!"
LPs were a rare commodity for rock 'n' roll bands in 1957 but Galehouse was a man of rare vision; within two years his catalog also featured twelve-inchers by both New Orleans guitarist/ jazz historian Doc Souchon and Tacoma, Washington R&B proto-punks the Fabulous Wailers, but the Chili Peppers were his first foray into rock 'n' roll. (Norton Records' Wolf Call collection rounds up two dozen further blasts of Golden Crest rock 'n' rhythm glory.)
Returning to Denver, they played all over Colorado before being booked into Southern California, where they gigged frequently at El Monte Legion stadium alongside Johnny Otis, Chuck Higgins, Don and Dewey (Mando: "Now, they were crazy!"), Joe Houston and too many others to mention. In Colorado they'd backed Larry Williams and Ray Charles and upon arrival in the Golden State, their natural chemistry found them stoking the flames behind the likes of the Big Bopper, the Shields and Ritchie Valens.
" The first two gigs in California," laughs Chucho, "it would take me about three weeks to tell you about it. The first one was at El Monte and the second one, in Anaheim, was when we first backed up Ritchie Valens. The announcer says, 'Introducing Mando and the Chili Peppers, the band that made the Rocky Mountains rock!!' The audience starts yelling, we strike and boom! both amps blow out, they're smoking on both sides. Mando didn't know what the heck he was playing, I didn't know what I was playing...the piano was going, the drums were going, the sax was on the mike, Mando was on the mike singing, but he was too far away from the amp to know that it blew. They didn't miss me, you could hardly hear what the hell was going on with all the kids yelling. They say Texas is wild country but damn, they didn't act that way down there!"
The Chili Peppers dissolved at the turn of the decade when most of the band returned to San Antonio, but Mando and Chucho opened the next chapter of their musical careers by relocating to Chicago where they befriended blues guitarist Eddy Clearwater, whose 1958 "Hill Billy Blues" defied description in much the same way their discs had.
Mando: "We picked up a drummer, another Mexican guy from Texas, and then we picked up Chuck Smith, a black saxophone player; this guy was a honker. He was friends with Eddy Clearwater, so Eddy started coming over and sitting in with us and then we started going over and sitting in with him. Then Chucho left and we picked up another guitar player."
While Chucho joined the Bossmen, who waxed several 45s of their own, Mando wound up playing bass on several of Clearwater's early '60s singles and through him met polka king pin Eddie Blazonczyk, who also cut rock 'n' roll with Clearwater under the name Eddie Bell and the Bel-Aires.
" Let me tell you, we were inseparable," says Mando of his Windy City pals, "Eddie Bell, Eddy Clearwater, myself and Chuck Smith. Eddie plays guitar and drums and he's a singer; a heck of a front man. That son-of-a-gun had a Polish band that wouldn't quit. He taught me how to sing in Polish on a couple of songs and we used to do duets.
" I was there about five years, then I started traveling with the Jimmy Nuzzo Revue, I was the featured singer. We played Al Hirt's in New Orleans every six months. I love Louisiana. You know, we never went down there with the Peppers and we should have. 'Cause we were very close to Cajun music. I got influenced by a whole bunch of Louisiana artists like Frogman Henry, Fats Domino--I used to write songs and give 'em to him, like a dummy! He cut one of my songs, I can't even remember which one it was, he just paid me right off for it. Every time I'd go to Louisiana I'd look him up. It got to the point where every time I'd go to Louisiana he'd say, 'You got any more songs?'"