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Cannibal & the Headhunters:  1960s Chicano R&B Hit Makers

by Mark Guerrero

     The story of Cannibal & the Headhunters is nothing short of a Cinderella story.  Four teenage Chicanos from public housing projects form a group and within a year have a national hit record and are touring with the greatest pop group in history, The Beatles.  It all started in 1963 with Robert “Rabbit” Jaramillo and Richard “Scar” Lopez singing together at Rabbit’s house in the Ramona Gardens housing projects.  His brother Joe “Yo Yo” Jaramillo was taking out the trash and spontaneously put on a third harmony.  They became Bobby & the Classics. Meanwhile, Frankie “Cannibal” Garcia, who had been singing around East L.A. with various groups, was looking to form his own group.  He heard about Scar and the Jaramillo brothers and went to see them.  When they first sang together, they knew they had something special.  Cannibal, who got his nickname from his older brother Art’s gang placa (nickname), became the front man because of his flamboyant personality and showmanship.  Their music of choice was R&B and doo wop and their role models were black groups such as, The Temptations and The Olympics.  After passing an audition with Rampart Records' owner Eddie Davis, they changed their name to Cannibal & the Headhunters at Mr. Davis’ suggestion.

     The song that became Cannibal & the Headhunters' ticket to the big time was “Land of a Thousand Dances.”  It was an obscure record by Chris Kenner, who had previously had a national hit with “I Like It Like That.”  “Land of a Thousand Dances,” which was written by Fats Domino and Chris Kenner, was very popular in East L.A. and was performed by many local bands.  The Midniters, perhaps the most popular Eastside group at the time, beat them to the punch by recording it first, but it was Cannibal & the Headhunters who hit the national charts with it.  Their recording of the song is a story in itself. The band that was going to provide the backing tracks was Cannibal’s former band, The Rhythm Playboys, but there was a disagreement between Eddie Davis and the band’s manager, Billy Cardenas.  According to most accounts, Billy left the studio with the band, which left Eddie with his vocal group and running studio time.  He called up The Blendells, who had scored a hit with “La La La La La.” It was eleven o’clock at night and The Blendells were rehearsing for a Dick Clark tour when they got the call.  They packed up and went down to the studio and in four takes cut the track, which was influenced by the beat of Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips.”  “Land of a Thousand Dances” by Cannibal & the Headhunters reached number 30 on the Billboard charts in April of 1965.

     With a hit record under their belt, they hit the road with the Motown Revue, where they performed with the likes of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and The Four Tops.  They performed in "Murray the K" shows in New York with artists such as, The Temptations, Ben E. King, Marvin Gaye, Wilson Pickett, Tom Jones, Gerry & the Pacemakers and Peter & Gordon.  They also went on Dick Clark tours and appeared on national television on the rock & roll variety show , “Hullabaloo.”  Paul McCartney had apparently seen Cannibal & the Headhunters on “Hullabaloo” and wanted them on the tour. Brian Epstein, The Beatles’ manager, called up Eddie Davis and offered the invitation.  The next thing they knew they were flown to New York and soon found themselves in Shea Stadium, filled with 55,000 screaming Beatle fans, Mick Jagger, Marvin Gaye and other major rock celebrities backstage, and a personal welcome from The Beatles themselves.  They proceeded to tour with the Beatles for the whole 1965 tour culminating with the Hollywood Bowl concert. It was special for them because it was a homecoming.  There were many Chicanos from East L.A. present, including myself, to cheer them on.  I was there mainly because I was a great Beatle fan, but I remember being proud of my fellow Eastside musical brothers for how well they performed and the excitement they created with their singing and choreography.  This included their famous “rowboat,” where they sit down one in front of the other and row forward to the beat.  They were the only artists among the opening acts to get the attention of the crowd.  In fact they did so well that Brian Epstein kept telling Eddie Davis to tell his group to tone it down.  Later that year, with my band Mark & the Escorts, I had the privilege of performing on the same bill with Cannibal & the Headhunters at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles at what was called the “West Coast Eastside Revue.”  All the top East L.A. groups also performed such as, The Premiers, The Blendells and Thee Midniters.  An album of the same name was later released, which included all the groups that performed in the show.  Previous to Cannibal’s fame, I remember being on the same bill with The Rhythm Playboys at St. Alphonsus Auditorium in East L.A. when he was their lead singer.

     Cannibal & the Headhunters went on to record a few more singles and an album, but did not hit the charts again.  “Scar” had left the group during the Beatle tour because his girlfriend wanted him home.  The other three continued on and eventually disbanded in 1967.  Cannibal formed a new backup group with Eddie Serrano and George Ochoa and worked out of New York City.  George Ochoa had been lead singer in my band called The Men from S.O.U.N.D. in 1966-67, and I had known Eddie Serrano from his previous band, The Enchantments.  In 1968, I went to New York to visit my brother, Dan, who was living there.  While there, I visited with George and Eddie at the apartment they were living in.  Cannibal wasn’t there that day, but George and I went all over the city that night and had a good time.  It was pretty exciting for two 18 year olds from East L.A. to be hanging out in the Big Apple.

     Earlier this year, I was invited to attend a get together in Pomona, California at the home of Lawrence Perez, lead guitarist of The Premiers, in honor of Headhunter Joe “Yo Yo” Jaramillo.  In attendance were all four original Premiers, the three surviving Headhunters (Cannibal passed away in 1996), Rudy Valona of The Blendells, Andy Tesso of The Romancers, Chan Romero and Billy Cardenas, who was manager of all the aforementioned bands, including Mark & the Escorts.  We brought our instruments and jammed together, ate lunch and reminisced.  The highlights of the afternoon were when the Premiers played their hit “Farmer John” and the Headhunters did a rousing rendition of “Land of a Thousand Dances,” which included the “rowboat” in Lawrence’s small living room.  It was a pretty emotional experience to say the least.

     Cannibal & the Headhunters are an important part of Chicano rock & roll history.  Even though their time in the spotlight was relatively brief, they proved they could perform alongside the greatest artists in popular music and hold their own.  Their accomplishments give hope and inspiration to minorities or anyone whose dreams seem unattainable due to their less than ideal circumstances.  Recently, “Rabbit” Jaramillo and “Scar” Lopez have performed as Cannibal & the Headhunters with a couple of new Headhunters and a great back up band, led by Andy Tesso.  I have a videotape of their 1998 performance at the House of Blues in Hollywood, where they brought the house down.  There is talk of a motion picture about their incredible story, which I truly hope comes to fruition.  After 35 years, their music is still available.  In 1996, Sony Music Special Products released “Cannibal & the Headhunters, A Golden Classics Edition.”  The CD contains 16 songs, including “Land of a Thousand Dances.”  They also appear as part of compilation albums, such as “The East Side Sound, 1959-1968” on Dionysus Records.  You can purchase Cannibal & the Headhunters CDs and compitlation CDs that include recordings by them from the amazon.com links below.

This article is based on three interviews by Mark Guerrero with original Headhunter Joe "Yo Yo" Jaramillo, which took place between November 17, 1999 and February 24, 2000.    

Postscript:  Joe Jaramillo passed away May 24, 2000 due to a liver-related illness.  He was buried May 27, 2000 at a service attended by family, friends and many of his musical family.  The latter group included his brother Robert "Rabbit" Jaramillo of Cannibal & the Headhunters, Lawrence Perez, John Perez and George Delgado of The Premiers, Max Uballez and Andy Tesso of The Romancers, Rudy Salas of Tierra, yours truly, and manager of all the aforementioned musicians in the 1960s, Billy Cardenas.  Joe "Yo Yo" Jaramillo was a man with a great heart and will be missed.

mp3 Sound Byte

Land of a Thousand Dances

Cannibal & the Headhunters 1965

Cannibal & the Headhunters (1964)

(left to right- Richard "Scar" Lopez, Joe "Yo Yo" Jaramillo,
Robert "Rabbit" Jaramillo and Frankie "Cannibal" Garcia)


The Headhunters & Mark Guerrero (1999)

(left to right- Richard "Scar" Lopez, Mark Guerrero,
Robert "Rabbit" Jaramillo, & Joe "Yo Yo" Jaramillo)

Cannibal & the Headhunters You Tube Video

Click here to go to the Cannibal & the Headhunters' store at amazon.com where there are other CDs available


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Mark Guerrero
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Cathedral City, CA 92235

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