& the Casuals: 60s Eastside Band From Pomona
by Mark Guerrero
Ronnie & the Casuals, a.k.a. Ronnie & the Pomona Casuals,
were one of the best bands on the East L.A. circuit during
the golden age of the "Eastside Sound" in the mid-sixties.
With their seven-piece lineup, comprised of a lead vocalist,
tenor and baritone sax, bass, drums, keyboard, and the lead
guitar playing of leader Ronnie Duran, they typified the "Eastside
Sound" to the max. Unlike most Eastside lead guitarists,
Ronnie played a Gretch "Chet Atkins" model guitar,
instead of the more prevalent Fender Telecaster or Stratocaster.
They also featured the strong lead vocals of Charles Lett,
a 16 year old African American with the voice of a seasoned
adult r&b singer. These elements combined to create
a powerful sounding band with its own unique brand of the
"Eastside Sound." Like many of the best Eastside
bands, they were managed by Billy Cardenas and performed extensively
around the greater Los Angeles area. In 1964, Ronnie
& the Casuals recorded an album, produced by Billy Cardenas,
called "Everybody Jerk" for Bob Keane's Donna Record
label, a subsidiary of his DelFi Records. (DelFi had
previously released recordings by Chicano artists Ritchie
Valens, Chan Romero, and The Romancers.) The Jerk was
an extremely popular dance in '64, hence the title and style
of the music on the album. "Everybody Jerk"
was very popular, particularly on the east side of Los Angeles,
and featured the great single "I Wanna Do the Jerk."
It also had a few original songs, along with covers of r&b
songs such as "High Heel Sneakers," "Out of
Sight," "Ya Ya," and "Land of a Thousand
Dances." In fact, Ronnie & the Casuals covered
Chris Kenner's "Land of a Thousand Dances" before
Cannibal & the Headhunters and Thee Midniters.
Duran, founder and leader of the Ronnie & the Casuals,
grew up in Pomona and showed his first interest in music by
taking up the accordion. At the age of thirteen he changed
to guitar, influenced by a paternal uncle who played the instrument
professionally. Ronnie remembers his uncle showing him
some chords and getting him started. He later bought
a guitar instruction book and taught himself, spending hours
a day practicing after school. Ronnie formed his first
band at age 14 and played local dances and weddings.
Shortly thereafter, at Damien High School in San Dimas, The
Casuals were put together with original members Ronnie Duran
on guitar, his brother Jimmy Duran on tenor sax, Bob Foley
on baritone sax, Phillip Duran (no relation) on drums, Ryan
O'brien on bass, and Robert Arroyo on organ. (Sometime
after the recording of their DelFi album Robert Arroyo was
replaced by Les Kalil on Wurlitzer electric piano).
They met their lead singer, Charles Lett, when he walked across
the street from a friend's house to watch The Casuals rehearse.
Ronnie asked him if he could sing. Charles proceeded
to demonstrate that he could and instantly became a member
of the band. The Casuals became Ronnie and the Casuals
when it was brought to their attention that Brenda Lee had
a band called The Casuals.
Ronnie recalls that his father had heard about manager/producer
Billy Cardenas and gave him a call to tell him about Ronnie
& the Casuals. After hearing the band, Billy began
to book them at various Eastside venues. When Cardenas
felt they were ready, he took them to Bob Keane at DelFi Records.
Bob liked what he heard and scheduled the sessions for the
recording of what became the "Everybody Jerk" album.
Amazingly, when Ronnie & the Casuals recorded the album
they were between the ages of 14 and 17. Ronnie recalls
doing the music tracks for side one in a single night.
It took a few weeks to complete the tracks for side two and
the vocals. According to Ronnie, "I Wanna Do the
Jerk" was written by Arthur Lee of the legendary L.A.
psychedelic band, Love. Ronnie and one of the other
members of Love assisted with the writing of the song, which
was not credited on the album. Ronnie also worked with
The Sisters, a Chicana vocal r&b trio, in the studio on
their DelFi recordings. Ronnie & the Casuals backed
up The Sisters on several DelFi singles and Ronnie also helped
with musical arrangements and production. (Ronnie later
married one of The Sisters, Rosella Arvisu, and had two daughters,
who are now excellent singers in their own right. One
of the other "Sisters" was Ersi Arvisu, who later
would be lead vocalist for El Chicano.
After the release of Ronnie & the Casuals' DelFi album,
the gigs became better and more frequent. On one memorable
show, they were on the bill with Little Stevie Wonder at the
Paramount Ballroom in East L.A. Ronnie remembers being
astounded by the 12 year old Stevie's talent. Aside
from his phenomenal singing, he played drums, guitar, sax,
keyboard, and harmonica that night. They also played
with The Byrds at DeAnza Park in Ontario, CA, where Ronnie
says The Byrds played an extremely loud version of "Turn
Turn Turn." So loud he could scarcely hear the
vocals. In addition, they played with legendary r&b
artists Ike & Tina Turner and Ray Charles. Ronnie
& the Casuals also played often at Casey Kasem's club
in Thousand Oaks, CA, which also featured other East L.A.
bands such as Thee Midniters, The Blendells, and The Premiers.
Another great gig was at the Hollywood Palladium, promoted
by Huggy Boy, with Thee Midniters also on the bill.
They were also scheduled to play the Shrine Exposition Hall
in Los Angeles, where they were to back up the Righteous Brothers.
Before the show, Ronnie & the Casuals and the Righteous
Brothers had discussed what songs they would do and the keys
in which they would be played. Ronnie & the Casuals
were ready to go on when a big fight broke out in the audience.
It was of sufficient size and ferocity that the concert was
cancelled before it began. Another gig that stands out
in Ronnie's memory is an all night show at the Golden Gate
Theater in East L.A., where they backed up saxophone legend
Joe Houston, Don & Dewey, and many others. It turns
out the supposed other back up band never showed so Ronnie
& the Casuals played their own show and backed up other
artists for six hours. He was thrilled to meet and play
with the great r&b artists, but was not happy about being
overworked and, to make matters worse, doesn't recall getting
Ronnie & the Casuals stayed together into the late 70s.
The most interesting gig during that period were frequent
performances at a combined concert/dance hall in Montebello,
CA. It had been converted from a bowling alley into
an impressive and popular venue. They would back up
the guest artists and then play in the dance hall after the
concert. Some of the artists they backed up included
The Spinners, Don Julian & the Meadowlarks, and Freddy
Fender. Freddy Fender, who was at the height of his
success, came into the dance hall after his show and sat in
with Ronnie & the Casuals and had a great time.
(On a sad note, original Ronnie & the Casuals lead singer,
Charles Lett, who Ronnie says "got in with the wrong
crowd," was shot to death over 20 years ago.) Ronnie
stopped playing through the 80s, but in the 90s put another
band together and called it The Casuals (returning to the
original name before "Ronnie" was added) and has
been playing ever since. The Casuals mainly play in
the Riverside/San Bernardino area and occasionally do gigs
in East L.A., like at the popular Quiet Cannon in Montebello.
His daughters, Yvonne and Melanie, are regular featured vocalists
with the band. Ronnie says they are phenomenal singers.
I haven't heard them yet, but with their pedigree, I wouldn't
doubt it. This year (2004), The Casuals played a concert
at Gent's Hall in San Bernardino on the bill with Malo and
Tierra. It was a benefit for scholarships for young
Latinos in the area.
My 60s band, Mark & the Escorts, shared the same manager/producer,
Billy Cardenas, with Ronnie & the Casuals so we played
with them on many occasions on the Eastside circuit.
In 1965, we played with Ronnie & the Casuals at the CYO
Hall, Big Union Hall (twice), the Shrine Auditorium (at the
"West Coast Eastside Revue" concert), Belvedere
Park Auditorium, the Boulevard Theater, and at a daytime outdoor
concert in the Jonson's Market parking lot. (You can
see the flyers from all the above shows on my "60s Eastside
Flyers" page.) There may have been other times
our bands shared the bill, but the aforementioned venues are
documented by the flyers. Ronnie
& the Casuals were one of my band's favorite groups.
We liked their sound and style and enjoyed playing with them.
One time, Billy Cardenas organized a rehearsal for Mark &
the Escorts and Ronnie & the Casuals at a church hall
in Pomona. I think it was in preparation for the West
Coast Eastside Revue concert at the Shrine Auditorium.
I remember rehearsing our set and feeling pretty good about
it. Ronnie & the Casuals set up and started their
rehearsal with "I Wanna Do the Jerk." It sounded
so powerful, with Charles Lett's big strong voice, the baritone
and tenor saxes, and the seven piece band rockin' in the small
empty hall, I remember it being a somewhat humbling experience.
I recently asked Ronnie about it and he doesn't remember the
rehearsal at all. Because of the power of that moment,
I never forgot it.
Ronnie & the Casuals' "Everybody Jerk," DelFi Records on CD (DFCD-72112-2),
is available around the net.
You can also order it from the amazon.com link below.
The album still sounds good today.
is based on an audio taped telephone interview by Mark Guerrero
with Ronnie Duran on March 20, 2004.