Before the Premiers, Cannibal & the Headhunters, and The
Blendells, there was The Romancers. The Romancers were
the first East L.A. Chicano band to record an album and were
the main influence of the mid-sixties East L.A. sound.
They were also the first East L.A. band to work with Billy
Cardenas and Eddie Davis, who went on to record many other
Eastside bands throughout the 1960s. The Romancers made
two albums on the Del-Fi record label and many other singles
for Eddie Davis’ Linda label. The main figure in the
Romancers' story is Max Uballez, the leader, chief songwriter,
and rhythm guitarist. Max was involved in the production
and/or wrote songs for many recordings by The Romancers, as
well as other top Eastside bands.
The Romancers got their name from
flyers and posters promoting East L.A. dances which read “Dance
and Romance” this Saturday night, etc. They thought “Dance
and Romance to The Romancers” would sound good, and it did.
The name came about after they were involved with
their manager, Billy Cardenas. According to Max, the
first Romancers were: David Brill, drums; Andy Tesso and Richard
Provincio, lead guitar; Joe Whiteman, sax; Manuel “Magoo”
Rodriguez, bass; and Max Uballez, rhythm guitar. They
lived in the Lincoln Heights district of East Los Angeles
and attended Lincoln High School. Max Uballez looked
and sounded a lot like Ritchie Valens, whom he admired.
Once Max was playing a gig in Pocoima, California, where Ritchie
had grown up, shortly after Ritchie’s passing and caused
a near riot when he sang Valens' song “Donna.”
A guy who was supposedly related to Ritchie became enraged
because Max sounded like Valens. I can only guess that
the irate party guest thought Max was trying to steal Ritchie
Valens' act. Max and his band had to pack up immediately
and get out of town for their safety. Billy Cardenas
called Bob Keane, owner of Ritchie’s former record label,
and told him about the incident and requested an audition
for Max. The story piqued Bob's interest so he said
to Billy "okay, bring the kid in." When Bob
heard and saw Max, he noticed the similarity as well and agreed
to record him. The song recorded was one which Max had
heard on the radio and reworked, adding some lyrics and changing
the arrangement. Keane decided not to release it, or
perhaps took too long, and Billy Cardenas went to another
label, Magic Circle, and re-recorded it. Members of
the Romancers were the backing group, along with some studio
horn players. The promotion man at Magic Circle thought
Max should change his name because “it sounded too ethnic,”
so he became Maximillian on the record without his knowledge
or consent. “You’d Better” was added
to the play list of L.A.’s biggest rock station, KFWB,
the first day it was released. The release of “You’d
Better” launched The Romancers success on the dance
circuit. Sometimes they were billed as Max Uballez or
Maximillian and his Romancers band. They were so busy
they added more musicians to the mix, sometimes splitting
up into two bands to play two venues at the same time.
The additional musicians were: Jimmy Pasqual, lead guitar;
Chris Pasqual, bass; Manuel Mosqueda, drums; Armando Mora,
David Bojorquez, Louie Davila and Bobby Marty, sax.
At this point, Bob Keane wanted to keep Max with his label
so Billy and Max went back to Del Fi, where they wanted to
be anyway. They recorded and released a song called
“Rock Little Darling,” which had previously been
recorded by Ritchie Valens on his “Live at Pocoima Jr.
High" album. The new version, released on Bob Keane’s
Donna label, had Max’s name slightly altered to “Max
Uballes.” Bob Keane used the “s” instead
of a “z”, as he had done with Ritchie Valens.
Max changing labels again created legal problems with Magic
Circle records. As a result, “You’d Better”
vanished from the radio airwaves and Max found out he couldn’t
record as a vocalist for five years according to the contract
with Magic Circle his mother had signed. It was a horrible
situation, but it had a silver lining. If it hadn’t
been for the fact Max couldn’t sing on a record, the
classic instrumental album “Do The Slauson” by
The Romancers would have never happened.
In 1963, The Romancers (Max Uballez,
rhythm guitar; Andy Tesso, lead guitar; Chris Pasqual, bass;
Armando Mora, tenor sax; and Manuel Mosqueda, drums) showed
up to record for Del-Fi Records with two songs written by
Max, “Slauson Shuffle” and “All Aboard.”
After recording the two songs, Bob Keane asked “do you
have any more?.” They hurriedly wrote seven songs,
added three covers, and finished their first album in five
hours total. The album called “Do the Slauson”
still sounds good today. I remember buying the album
when it came out. I was 14 years old. I loved
it and heard it until it practically wore out. The Romancers,
though teenagers at the time, sounded very mature as musicians.
Their sound consisted of a strong and steady rhythm section,
an excellent tenor sax soloist, a solid “chunka chunka”
rhythm guitar, and an innovative lead guitarist on a trebly,
poppy Fender Telecaster. Their sound had a definite
influence on The Premiers, The Blendells, my band (Mark &
the Escorts), and many others. Andy Tesso's lead guitar
style influenced a generation of East L.A. guitar players,
myself included. Andy modestly says that he was influenced
by his cousin Lolly Vegas (born Vasquez), later to front the
hit band Redbone. The album featured a great cover of
“Patricia” by Perez Prado, and the classic East
L.A. favorite, “Huggie’s Bunnies,” written
by Tesso. “Huggie’s Bunnies,” which
was named after Eastside DJ Huggy Boy, was later recorded
by The Blendells and another popular Eastside band, The Ambertones.
“Slauson Shuffle” was my favorite track, whose
chord structure and groove provided the template for the Premier's
hit record "Farmer John." “Do the Slauson”
sold well and the Romancers had no shortage of gigs.
The Slauson, by the way, was an extremely popular dance in
East L.A. in the early 60s. It was a line dance similar
to the Stroll. I remember doing it first to “Louie
Louie” by the Kingsmen when I was in Jr. High School.
The success of “Do the Slauson” prompted Del-Fi
to follow it up with another Romancers instrumental album
entitled, “Let’s Do the Swim.” The
Swim was another 60s dance craze, which really wasn’t
as popular on the Eastside as some other dances. However,
it served as another good hook for a new album. “Let’s
Do the Swim” sounded a lot like the previous album and
was released on Del-Fi’s Selma label. Although
the "Slauson" album had better songs and a special
magic, the "Swim" collection sounds as if the band
is playing with a bit more confidence, particularly Andy,
probably because they had the experience of the first album
under their belts.
As a result of The Romancers’ success at Del-Fi, other
Chicano artists recorded for the label such as, The Heartbreakers,
Ronnie & the Pomona Casuals, and The Sisters. Max
Uballez and Billy Cardenas helped create and record these
artists for the label. The Romancers began to develop
vocal groups as part of their live show, including the aforementioned
Heartbreakers and Sisters, The Slauson Brothers (George &
John Ochoa), Yolanda Lea, Robert and Rey, and Sal and Margie.
(Sal Murillo, of Sal & Margie, was later to be lead singer
of The Blendells.) (George Ochoa of the Slauson Brothers
would become lead singer of my band, the Men from S.O.U.N.D.
in 1966, and subsequently a member of the 70s band, Yaqui.)
On one memorable Del-Fi session, when The Heartbreakers recorded
the Frank Zappa song “Every Time I See You,” the
Romancers backed them up with Zappa on lead guitar.
Max was a major figure in East L.A. rock in the mid to late
60s, writing songs for The Romancers, The Premiers, Cannibal
& the Headhunters, and The Atlantics. He also co-produced
The Romancers’ Linda singles with Eddie Davis, and recordings
by Little Ray, Cannibal & the Headhunters, and others,
with Billy Cardenas. Max didn't receive any written
production credit on the original releases in the 60s, but
has been rightly recognized on CD reissues in the 90s.
His biggest hit was “Land of a Thousand Dances”
by Cannibal & the Headhunters, co-produced with Eddie
Davis. This was the national hit record that got Cannibal
& the Headhunters on the Beatle tour in 1965.
The Romancers began to work as the
house band at the legendary El Monte Legion Stadium and had
a falling out with their manager, Billy Cardenas, over the
with a certain promoter. As a result of this
situation, Max and Billy split and Max continued with The Romancers.
After the split, two band members left with Billy and the
rest stayed with Max and continued
their engagement, where they backed up such artists as Little
Stevie Wonder, Chuck Berry, The Coasters, The Shirelles, and
Don Julian & the Meadowlarks. While doing a gig
at Rainbow Gardens in Pomona, The Romancers were seen by Eddie
Davis who really liked their sound. He thought there
was a distinct Latin feel to their rock & roll, which
led him to work with Chicano bands for the rest of his career,
almost exclusively. Recording for one of Eddie Davis’
labels called Linda was the next phase of The Romancers career.
These records featured The Romancers with vocals and had a
new version of the band. Andy Tesso had moved on and
was playing with The Mixtures, a multi-racial group from Oxnard,
and other groups. He also did a tour with The Blendells
and sang background on The Premiers' hit record, “Farmer
John.” His replacement on lead guitar in the Romancers
was Albert “Bobby” Hernandez. Bobby was
a talented musician who had been in other Eastside groups,
including the Vesuvians. ( I remember seeing Bobby with
The Vesuvians, a surf rock group with Beach Boys-styled black
and white striped shirts, at a rock & roll show at East
L.A. College and being impressed.) Other additions were
Johnny Diaz on guitar, Cesar Valverde on sax, and Ralph Ventura
on trumpet, who later sang lead on The Blendells’ recording
of “Dance with Me”. The Romancers recorded
and released six singles for the Linda label, the best and
most successful of which was “My Heart Cries.”
“My Heart Cries” had been previously recorded
by the great Etta James, but The Romancers did a different
arrangement, adding beautiful, soaring harmony vocals similar
to the Four Freshman or the Beach Boys. It remains one
of the classic recordings by an East L.A. band.
My band at the time, Mark & the
Escorts, played on the same bill with The Romancers on several
occasions. I particularly remember playing right before
them at Rainbow Gardens in Pomona, California on a Sunday
afternoon in 1964. At 14 and 15 years old, we were several
years younger than the Romancers and thought we’d played
a pretty good set. They came on sounding powerful and
highly professional, which made me realize we had some work
to do. This was right after Andy Tesso had left The
Romancers, so I never got to see Andy play live in the 60s.
We also shared the bill with them at the “West Coast
East Side Revue” at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles
in 1965. I got to know Max Uballez in the early 80s
and Andy in the late 90s. I had the pleasure of playing with
Andy at a party for Joe “Yo Yo” Jaramillo of Cannibal
& the Headhunters at the home of John Perez of The Premiers
Andy Tesso’s musical career
was cut short when he was drafted and went to Viet Nam in
1965. At the time, he was playing with Cannibal &
the Headhunters. He was drafted six weeks before Cannibal
& the Headhunters did The Beatles' U.S. tour. When
Andy returned from his hitch in the army, he got married and
became a California state plumbing contractor. He didn't
play music, and rarely touched his guitar, for a period of
30 years. In 1995, Andy got a call from “Yo Yo”
Jaramillo, who asked him to play with the re-formed Cannibal
& the Headhunters. The three surviving Headhunters
were getting back together and needed a back up band.
Andy agreed and the band
was christened the Tribal Rockers. They started to do
gigs around Southern California with Cannibal & the Headhunters,
most notably an engagement at the House of Blues in Hollywood.
After a brief parting of the ways in 2001, Andy is once again
playing with Cannibal & the Headhunters in 2002.
Max Uballez, went on to form a band in the early 70s called
Macondo that made an album of the same name for Atlantic Records.
It featured mostly original material written or co-written
by Max and was, for the most part, Latin-flavored rock.
He subsequently began to work with younger Chicano artists
such as Quetzal, Lysa Flores, and most recently, La Banda
Skalavera. Max is currently president of XELACOMEDIA,
a full service music promotion and production company. He
lives in Martinez, California, and commutes to L.A. frequently
to work on his musical projects.
Most of The Romancers' music is still
available today. You can find most of their singles
included on Varese Sarabande’s 1999 four volume CD set,
“East Side Sound,” Volumes 1 thru 4. The Romancers have eight songs on this collection, which also
includes many of the recordings co-produced by Max Uballez
for other Eastside bands. “The Eastside Sound”
CD on Dionysus Records (1996) has two Romancers tracks, which
are also on the Varese Sarabande set. Thankfully, also
available on CD is “The Slauson Shuffle” by The
Romancers on Del-Fi Records, with cuts from the “Do
the Slauson” and “Let’s Do the Swim” albums. This
collection was released in 1995 and I highly recommend it.
You can purchase this album and CD compilations that include
songs by The Romancer from the amazon.com links below.
This article is based on audio taped telephone interviews
by Mark Guerrero with Max Uballez on December 23, 2001 and
Andy Tesso on January 5, 2002.