East L.A.'s Funky Horn Band of the 70s
by Mark Guerrero
began as a group of friends who got together in elementary
school with the idea of learning instruments and forming a
band to, in the words of guitarist Hank Barrio, "have
fun and be more popular with the opposite sex. From
that humble beginning, they did two albums in the late 60s
under the name Evergreen Blues. The first for Mercury
Records, which included the first recording of the hit song,
"Midnight Confessions." The second for ABC
Records. which included a version of "Try a Little Tenderness"
that may have predated Three Dog Night's hit version.
In the early 70s, as Elijah, they recorded a great album for
United Artists Records and a second for Sounds of the South
Records, produced by the legendary Al Kooper. They toured
extensively and shared the bill with some of the greatest
artists of our time. After Elijah broke up in 1976,
some of the members continued in music and went on to play
with some extraordinary artists. This is a story of
a great band who accomplished some great things, but didn't
get the success and recognition they truly deserved.
The seeds of Elijah were planted at St. Alphonsus Catholic
elementary school in East Los Angeles. It was in the
basement auditorium of this school that some of the greatest
"Eastside Sound" dance and shows occurred in the
60s, featuring all the best bands including Thee Midniters,
Cannibal & the Headhunters, The Premiers, The Blendells,
The Jaguars with the Salas Brothers, The Ambertones, The Blue
Satins, my band, Mark & the Escorts, and many more.
Getting back to the genesis of Elijah, it was in this environment
that Hank Barrio, Joe McSweyn, Sam Lombardo, and Manny Esparza
took their positions on guitar, bass, drums, and vocals respectively.
Manny says he became the vocalist by default because he could
carry a tune better than the others. Manny's vocal influences
were who he calls the "tough r&b singers" such
as James Brown, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, Sam Moore, and
Eddie Floyd, as opposed to the slicker Motown singers.
Manny says he was a Stax/Volt guy. As the band improved,
they started to play local gigs and were called Two Thirds
Majority. On rhythm guitar in the original band was
Tom Merlino, another St. Alphonusus student, who did not stay
in the band very long since he didn't seem to have the musical
ability of the others. They played a lot of r&b,
but also did songs by groups such as The Rascals and The Buckinghams.
Hank, Joe and Manny went on to Cantwell High School (another
parochial school), while Sam Lombardo went to Montebello High
School. There he met Steve Lawrence (no relation to
the singer of the same name), who was added to the band on
organ and saxophone. After high school, fellow Montebello
High alums Tom Bray and Ken Walther were added on trumpet
and trombone. This completed the puzzle. They
played many venues, including some of the storied East L.A.
spots such as Kennedy Hall, the Montebello Ballroom, and aforementioned
St. Alphonsus Auditorium. They shared the stage with
Eastside bands such as Thee Midniters, The Ambertones, The
Emeralds, The Exotics, and Little Ray & the Progressions.
After hooking up with manager Jim King, the band secured a
major record deal with Mercury Records in 1967. Their
name was changed to Evergreen Blues for the record.
It was a time in the music business when money was flowing.
Having just graduated high school, they went on an 18 city
national tour. Musical equipment and clothes were bought
for them by the record label and they found themselves riding
in limos and flying in a private Beechcraft airplane.
Pretty heady stuff for teenagers! They found themselves
playing shows on the bill with artists such as The Righteous
Brothers, Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, and Chuck Berry.
On that first tour Hank and Joe were merely 17 years old.
In fact, the band had to go through court and have their parents
approval with the recording contracts. Despite their
under age status they played some clubs on the tour, including
"The Rooster Tail in Detroit. It had a black clientele,
but Evergreen Blues were accepted and appreciated because
their music was sufficiently good as well as funky.
Manny also had an afro that rivaled American Basketball Association
players of the period like Dr. J. The tour also went
to Florida, New York, and some other states. A non-musical
memory of the tour that stands out in Hank's mind is flying
in their small Beechcraft airplane over the Great Lakes in
the fog during the same period that Otis Redding had gone
down under almost identical circumstances (similar plane,
same area, a month later.) Hank says the band was very
nervous on the flight and were afraid they might suffer the
same fate as one of their musical heroes. Their first
album entitled "Evergreen Blues," included a song
written by their manager, Jim King, under the name L.T. Josie,
called "Midnight Confessions." (Small world
department: My band at the time called Nineteen Eighty
Four recorded an L.T. Josie song called "Three's a Crowd."
Our producer on the record was Tommy Coe, who engineered the
Evergreen Blues second album.) Released as a single,
"Midnight Confessions" received some airplay around
the country, even becoming a hit record in Florida.
Ironically, shortly thereafter The Grass Roots recorded a
virtually identical version of the song and it became a major
hit record. That was a heartbreaking experience for
Evergreen Blues. However, they got up, dusted themselves
off, and did a second album with ABC Records called "Comin'
On." It included mostly original songs written
by various band members. It also had two more L.T. Josie
songs and a cover of Otis Redding's version of "Try a
Little Tenderness." This was likely before Three
Dog Night covered it and had their first mega hit. In
fact, Evergreen Blues opened for Three Dog Night, who's manager
asked Evergreen Blues not to play "Try a Little Tenderness."
They went ahead and played it anyway. Good for them.
Evergreen Blues had learned "Try a Little Tenderness"
from the Otis Redding version. Manny says Three Dog
Night did it in more of a rock style, rather than r&b.
Evergreen Blues did record their second album at American
Studios in Studio City, California and Richard Podolar, who
was Three Dog Night's producer, engineered a couple of tracks.
One can say it's possible that this was the connection that
gave Three Dog Night the idea to record the song, which became
their first hit record. We'll probably never know for
sure. Anyway, their manager Jim King didn't like the
musical direction the band was taking so he and Evergreen
Blues went their separate ways. Hank acknowledges in
retrospect that the band's songwriting wasn't yet quite developed
on that album.
At this juncture, enter Edward James Olmos. Yes, the
actor, who was then an r&b singer. He had played
around Hollywood with his band Eddie James & the Pacific
Ocean. One of the venues they worked a lot was the fabled
Gazzari's on the Sunset Strip. Olmos wound up joining
Evergreen Blues, sharing lead vocal duties with Manny Esparza.
At the time Eddie was known for his flashy showmanship, which
included some wicked splits. Hank and Manny both acknowledge
that the band learned a lot from Eddie. He taught them
about dynamics, helped with arrangements, and turned them
on to a lot of classic r&b records and artists.
Eddie also got them their first regular club gig. It
was a black club called the Citadel du Haiti on Sunset Boulevard,
where the band was paid $50 total and all the soul food they
could eat. In those days the deal wasn't as bad as it
sounds. Through Olmos they met Delaney Bramlett, who
was then performing with his wife as Delaney & Bonnie,
who would later score a major hit with "Never Ending
Song of Love." At one point, Delaney & Bonnie
opened for Blind Faith on a tour. Eric Clapton who was
then a member of Blind Faith took a great liking to Delaney
& Bonnie's style and band. Clapton wound up going
on tour playing with Delaney & Bonnie and eventually brought
along his friends Dave Mason and George Harrison to share
in the fun and musical inspiration. Eric eventually
used Delaney & Bonnie's band to form Derek & the Dominoes.
The result was the classic record "Layla" (the early
70s up tempo version.) Eddie Olmos played with Evergreen
Blues for about a year before they went their separate ways.
Eddie went on to become a successful and excellent actor,
best known for his role as El Pachuco in the play and movie
Zoot Suit, the classic movie Blade Runner, and his role in
the 80s mega hit television series, "Miami Vice."
Evergreen Blues played on into the early 70s, a time when
they became Elijah and recorded two more albums. By
this time, they had added a keyboard player by the name of
Jim Morris. Jim was nicknamed "the reverend,"
not because he was a man of the cloth, but because he seemed
to always win at poker, scrabble, and fusball. The joke
was that he "had to have help from above" to win
so much. The name Elijah was taken out of a Gideon Bible
in a motel room. They saw the name and liked it.
After further investigation, they liked the story of Elijah
coming out of the sky in a flaming chariot to take the righteous
back to heaven. Pretty cool. So Elijah it was.
By this time, Elijah was a mature and fully professional band
who had evolved into a style that was influenced by funky,
edgier bands such as Electric Flag, Sons of Champlin, and
Redbone, rather than the slicker Chicago and Blood, Sweat,
and Tears. Their first album with the new name, released
in 1972 on United Artists Records, was and is phenomenal.
Entitled "Elijah," the album was made up of some
great original songs. The band's songwriting had also
matured by this time. Despite getting his position as
a kid by default, Manny Esparza had also matured and developed
into a very strong and soulful lead vocalist. The right
guy got the job and his voice was the perfect fit for the
band. "Elijah" also included an Otis Redding
cover and two Redbone songs, "Chant 13th Hour" and
"Prehistoric Rhythm." I had the album at the
time and loved it. The album still sounds great today.
However, unfortunately the music business is such that a great
album or artist for that matter, does not guarantee a hit
record. It takes record company backing, timing, luck,
and other factors that have to come together. "Elijah"
was produced by Doug Gilmore and Terry Furlong. The
deal went through Doug Gilmore Productions. According
to Hank, Gilmore had a falling out with the label and the
record was shelved. Elijah also didn't have a manager
to push the label for attention and promotion. It's
a story that happens to many young artists. It's important
to have a manager and lawyer in place to protect your interests
and lobby for you. During this period Elijah also did
a lot of live shows and performed on the bill with such artists
as Canned Heat, Redbone, Dr. Hook, comedians Cheech &
Chong, White Trash (when Butch and Barry Rillera were members),
and Chuck Berry. On the Chuck Berry gig, Elijah was
backing him up when Chuck invited the crowd to come forward
and gather around the stage, but security would not allow
it. Chuck, who had already been paid, got mad and walked
off the stage, got in his limo and left. Elijah remained,
facing an angry booing crowd. Elijah kept playing and
the crowd came around, stayed, and enjoyed the Elijah concert.
All's well that end's well.
Elijah continued to perform and secured a job as the house
band at the legendary Whiskey a Go Go on Sunset Boulevard
in Hollywood. They even had a menu item named after
them at the establishment, "Elijah Fries."
Under the menu item it said "nothing new, but will be
around for a long time." During their run at the
Whiskey, they were seen by Al Kooper, who had been a founding
member of "Blood, Sweat & Tears. He also played
organ on Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" and
The Rolling Stone's "Gimme Shelter, "pretty impressive
credentials indeed. Al took a liking to Elijah and offered
them a record deal with his new label Sounds of the South,
which also had Lynyrd Skynyrd on their roster at the time.
Given Al Kooper's history, Elijah took his offer and found
themselves with Al in Atlanta, Georgia where they recorded
their second album called "Elijah Fanfares."
Two members of Elijah, Steve Lawrence and Tom Bray didn't
make the trip. They opted to join up with Delaney &
Bonnie on a tour. They were replaced on sax and
trumpet by Don Roberts and Stu Blumberg, who were solid studio
musicians. Elijah's experience in Georgia with Al was
mixed. On the negative side, they were not happy that
Al chose to change their arrangements and, according to Hank,
they didn't get all they were promised. They also ran
into some racism. Manny remembers being referred to
as "frito bandido" by a guy from one of the other
bands on the label. On the other hand, Elijah had some
good times recording by day and playing at night in a local
club called Richard's. The album sounds good, but as
a whole Elijah was not very happy with the record. One
highlight for Manny was a cover of a Jackie Wilson song, "Baby
Work Out." Because of Elijah's dissatisfaction
with creative and financial issues, they had a falling
out with Al Kooper and the album fizzled. For Al's side
of the story, according to his autobiography, "Backstage
Passes and Backstabbing Bastards," MCA was making a lot
of money with Lynyrd Skynyrd so they weren't interested in
Sound of the South's other artists, Mose Jones, Blues Project,
or Elijah. Kooper writes, "I was getting tired
of apologizing to these acts for things that weren't my fault,
i.e. plulled ads, no tour support, and invisible promotion.
They had fallen behind Skynyrd and that much was obvious to
everyone in the other acts. But I was virtually powerless."
Elijah went back to Los Angeles, played clubs for a year or
two, and eventually broke up. Manny and Sam chose to
get married and have a family life. Joe eventually became
a doctor of oriental medicine. Hank Barrio became the
guitarist for singer/songwriter Hoyt Axton, who wrote hits
such as Three Dog Night's "Never Been To Spain"
and "Joy To the World." (Hoyt's mother, Mae
Axton, is legendary for writing the music of Elvis Presley's
"Heartbreak Hotel.") Hank played with Hoyt
from 1978 through 1990. He traveled all over the U.S.
and Europe and met and shared the bill with legends such as
Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones, and Jerry Lee Lewis
to name a few. He recalls seeing Jerry Lee Lewis playing
piano in a hotel lounge in Europe with George Jones standing
on the piano singing. Of course, they were fortified
by alcoholic beverages at the time. Another feather
in the cap of Hank Barrio was playing with the legendary blues
man Albert King. He met Albert through Delaney.
Albert King had been one of Hank's idols and inspirations
when he was a teenager. Now he found himself trading
solos with one of the all time greats. When he first
got the job he told Albert that he felt funny about soloing
with Albert because he was bound to play of few of Albert's
licks since they were part of his formative education in the
blues. Albert said, "my licks, your licks, it doesn't
matter as long as it's the blues." Is that cool
or what? The original Elijah horn section, Steve Lawrence,
Tom Bray, and Ken Walther had their own thrill of getting
to play with Buddy Miles' The Electric Flag in the 70s.
The Electric Flag had been one of Elijah's favorite groups
in the 60s. In the late eighties, the Elijah horn section
played on Neil Young's "This Note's For You" album.
They also did some touring with Neil to support the album.
My former bass player, Rick Rosas, was also on the album and
tour. They're also all in the video for the title track.
Rick Rosas and Tom Bray were also both on Neil Young's 2006
CD, "Living with War." Rick and Tom also just
got hired onto the 2006 Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young tour.
On a sad note, Steve Lawrence passed away in 1992 and Ken
Walther died in an automobile accident in 1999.
experience with Elijah goes way back. I first met Steve
Lawrence while still in high school. My band in the
mid-sixties, The Men From S.O.U.N.D., played a job with 2/3
Majority at Cantwell High School in 1966. My band in
the late 60s, called 1984, played on the bill with Evergreen
Blues at the Montebello Armory in 1968. You can see
the latter flyer on my "60s Eastside Flyers" page
on my website. In 1972, I hired the Elijah horn section
to play on two of my songs I was recording during the time
I was with Capitol Records, "Hang On" and "Nobody's
Satisfied." In 1979, I utilized their talents
again to play on two more of my songs, "I'll Take Rock
& Roll Any Ol' Time" and "You Gotta Thank the
Black Man (For Your Rock & Roll)." They did
a great job. All
four songs are available on my "On the Boulevard Anthology"
CD on my "Mark Guerrero Recordings" page.
Tom Bray says that the Elijah horn section always used to
say, "We not only play together, we breath together."
The way they played as a unit was what made them so special.
My best memory of Elijah "live" was a concert we
did at Cal State L.A. in 1972 called "La Feria de La
Raza." It was a great concert featuring El Chicano,
Tierra, Mark Guerrero & the Mudd Brothers, Elijah, and
Carmen Moreno. It was kind of a Chicano mini-Woodstock.
All the artists played great and the festival style audience
loved it. I remember Elijah playing great and being
as tight as a band can be that day.
Elijah was one of those bands you can only get when teenagers
get together for the love of music and stay together for years
into adulthood. What you get is a homegrown organic
blend, a tightness, and a style that can't be achieved when
managers assemble a band though auditions or when "supergroups"
are randomly formed. All in all, Elijah accomplished
a lot and came a long way from those early musical dreams
at St. Alphonsus Elementary School. I asked Manny Esparza
what were the highlights of his Evergreen Blues/Elijah experience.
His answer was "the whole thing." It's not
always the pot at the end of the tunnel, but the journey.
Elijah had quite a journey.
Update: Elijah is back together again, using their earlier
name, Evergreen Blues. The original members are Manny
Esparza, Hank Barrio, Joe McSweyn, and Sam Lombardo.
They are joined by Larry Cronin, who was a member of Yaqui
in the 70s (another band whose story is on my website).
is based on an audio taped telephone interview by Mark Guerrero
with Hank Barrio on May 2, 2006 and Manny Esparza on May 4,
mp3 Sound Bytes
- Elijah 1972
Rhythm - Elijah 1972
Confessions - Evergreen Blues 1967
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