? & the Mysterians

Empty Bottle, November 1

Before the radio waves were balkanized, before the LP crippled the 45 and the CD killed it, before we needed an alternative to the alternative, Top 40 was the melting pot of American popular music. Harry Belafonte rubbed elbows with Johnny Cash, Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba” climbed the same ladder as Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight,” and even an Italian-language number like Domenico Modugno’s “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu”–that’s “Volare” to you–could reach the very top if there were enough magic in the grooves. But like America, Top 40 in its heyday was also a cruel marketplace: no record was any better than its current chart position, and any artist not on his way up was on his way out.

Most people know ? & the Mysterians by their Top 40 calling card, the enduring “96 Tears.” With its sneering vocals, staccato chords, and looping organ riff, it tore all the way up the chart in October 1966, making overnight stars of five working-class Mexican-American kids from Saginaw, Michigan. Like the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and the Kinks’ “You Really Got Me,” it inspired innumerable late-60s garage rockers and 70s punks. And thanks to oldies radio it’s never really left the airwaves.

But ? & the Mysterians themselves haven’t fared nearly so well. They broke into the Top 40 only once more, and by 1968 they found themselves at the glue-factory gates. Their two original albums, 96 Tears and Action, have been out of print for decades now, warehoused by a corporation that has much bigger fish to fry, and a third was never released. In recent years ?–his legal name–has ridden the oldies circuit with assorted backup musicians. Last October he re-formed the genuine Mysterians to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their million-selling single, and when the band performed at the Saginaw premiere of Selena, critics were quick to write them back into history as the first Latino crossover group.

It’s not the sort of recognition ? was seeking: he claims that he was born on Mars, that he’s lived many lives, and that he’ll return in the year 10,000 to sing “96 Tears.” But by most accounts his name used to be Rudy Martinez, and he was born in Mexico in 1945. According to Mysterians guitarist Bobby Balderrama, the band members’ families migrated to Saginaw from San Antonio to work in the fields, and stayed to take jobs at the General Motors plant in Saginaw. After World War I San Antonio had become a clearinghouse for Mexican and Mexican-American labor. Its agencies drew workers from the Rio Grande valley and dispersed them to the sugar-beet fields of the midwest, where they worked for about $2.70 a day. In the 20s Mexicans who came to Saginaw had been treated with suspicion by whites–in church they were restricted to the left-hand pews. But Balderrama, who was born in 1950, remembers a town segregated more by income than by race. Mexican-Americans lived on the east side of town, but so did some blacks and whites. “It was cheaper to live on the east side,” Balderrama recalls. “If you were Mexican and you had the money to live on the west side, that was OK.”

The band began as a trio, covering Duane Eddy and the Ventures with Balderrama on bass, his nephew Larry Borjas on guitar, and their friend Robert Martinez on drums, and by 1964, with the British Invasion in full swing, they’d gravitated toward the gritty R & B of the Kinks and the Stones. Watching TV one afternoon Balderrama and Borjas saw a 1957 Japanese sci-fi movie called The Mysterians, and the name stuck. Eventually they recruited Robert’s brother Rudy, older than all of them at 19, to sing. Rudy had been performing since age five; he wanted to be a dancer on American Bandstand or maybe Broadway, and as ? he became a dynamic presence, spinning and twisting like James Brown. Their manager, Dave Torres, got them gigs at the G.I. Forum, the Saginaw chapter of a Texas-based civic organization. Saginaw had its own all-ages rock club, a converted theater called Daniel’s Den where Balderrama once saw the Yardbirds, but the band could never get a show there. Later Balderrama heard that the manager had refused to put a band full of Mexicans on his stage.

Early in 1965 the Mysterians made a demo in the living room of Lillie Gonzalez, whose husband Joe owned El Pato, a Mexican grocery in Saginaw, and part of Bego, a record label in Texas that recorded conjunto bands along the Rio Grande. But Bego turned it down, and Lillie told the band to come see her again in a year. In the meantime Torres began booking the Mysterians at Mount Holly, a ski resort just south of Flint. The shows were emceed by Bob Dell, a DJ for Flint’s WTAC, and after he identified the band on the air as ? & the Mysterians, there was no turning back. Torres talked the other three members into naming themselves X, Y, and Z to make the Mysterians even more mysterious, but that didn’t last long. “We were playing in Mount Holly, and I met this beautiful girl,” Balderrama admits. “She goes, ‘What’s your name?’ and I said, ‘X.’ She was like, ‘God, this guy is weird.’ So I had to give in to temptation, I guess.”

Shortly after organist Frank Rodriguez Jr. joined the band, Robert Martinez was drafted and Borjas enlisted in the army; they were replaced by “Big Frank” Lugo on bass and Eddie Serrato, ?’s brother-in-law, on drums. ? contacted Gonzalez again and convinced her to pay to record the group. She arranged a recording date with Art Shields, who had converted a rec room at the back of his Bay City home into a two-track studio. “There were no acoustics at all,” ? told Goldmine in 1981. “It was all windows. So the sound could really bounce.”

The band worked out “96 Tears” the night before the session. ? had written the lyrics years before, calling the song “Too Many Teardrops,” but the signature came from Rodriguez: though “Little Frank” had learned classical piano in Catholic grade school, he brought the Mysterians a touch of conjunto with his accordionlike figures. On “96 Tears” his rolling lick, jabbing eighth notes, and droning tonic on the chorus were irresistible; the part is often credited with singlehandedly establishing the Farfisa organ as a key instrument in garage rock (though Rodriguez actually played a Vox). Everyone but ? preferred “Midnight Hour,” their hastily assembled flipside, but he was convinced that “96 Tears” would be a million seller and eventually talked them into making it the A side.

The single became the first release on Lillie Gonzalez’s Pa-Go-Go (Pato-Gonzalez-Gonzalez) label. Balderrama remembers Gonzalez calling the band over to her house when the first pressing of 750 records arrived: “She said, ‘Here you go.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, what am I supposed to do with them?’ I thought they were supposed to be out at all the radio stations. So ? went in one direction, I went in another direction, hitting radio stations, and we were going to all the little mom-and-pop record stores, dropping them off.” Saginaw’s WSAM was the first station to play the single, and Bob Dyer and Dick Fabian at WKNX held listener-request contests between “96 Tears” and a release by the Bossmen, another local favorite. Bob Dell from WTAC didn’t like “96 Tears” and tossed out his copies, but as the song caught on elsewhere he broke down and added it to the playlist. Throughout the spring and summer of 1966 the record shot up the charts at WTAC and CKLW in the Detroit area. The original pressing sold out, and stores began asking for more copies. “I knew that all of us, because we were Mexican, had a lot of family,” Balderrama jokes. “I thought that was it.” When the single started moving in Detroit, the record labels started calling.

In Hit Men, his 1990 expose of the record business, Fredric Dannen describes how “96 Tears” became the property of Philadelphia’s Cameo-Parkway Records. Morris Levy, head of Roulette Records in New York, had made a tentative deal with Pa-Go-Go over the phone, but Neil Bogart, a 23-year-old vice president and sales manager at Cameo-Parkway, beat him to the punch. “Over that weekend,” Levy says in the book, “Neil Bogart went down there and got the master and bought it. Which made me get respect for him. I said, Here’s a kid that’s a comer.”

Bogart later became the high-rolling president of Casablanca, the label that made stars of Kiss, Donna Summer, and the Village People. After the industry’s postdisco crash the label hemorrhaged tens of millions annually, and in 1982 Bogart died of cancer. But in 1966 he was just making his mark. From a job at Cash Box he had moved on to MGM and then to Cameo-Parkway, whose catalog included Chubby Checker, Dee Dee Sharp, and Bobby Rydell. “We were his first group,” ? says. “He went with us to American Bandstand, he went with us to the east coast, promoting the song and our band, so he did a lot of legwork. Without us he wouldn’t have had that education.” But in the end Bogart would teach the band a hard lesson.

Reissued on Cameo and promoted tirelessly by Bogart, “96 Tears” entered the Billboard chart at number 112 and began climbing. The band played two weeks’ worth of shows in Texas, flew to LA to appear on American Bandstand and Where the Action Is, filmed another TV show in New York, and then spent three days at Cameo-Parkway’s studios in Philadelphia, working from 7 AM until 3 AM to record their first album. Soon “96 Tears” was number one at WXYZ in Detroit, WLS and WCFL in Chicago, and KIMN in Denver. On October 29, 1966, it knocked the Association’s “Cherish” out of Billboard’s number-one spot. The contrast between the Association’s solemn love lyrics and ?’s cryptic threats couldn’t have been sharper: “But watch out now,” the spurned lover sings, “I’m gonna get there / We’ll be together / For just a little while / And then I’m gonna put you / Way down here / And you’ll start crying / 96 tears.” Billboard ranked it the number-five single of the year, and it was certified gold in November. Bogart presented the band with a gold record at a concert in the Saginaw High School auditorium.

The band toured South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, going over big everywhere. As with many nonwhite entertainers, pop stardom provided some insulation from bigotry. “Our sound was accepted,” ? remembers, “and we were accepted because of our sound. They never looked at us as anything else. When something is real like that, you don’t have time to say, ‘What kind of religion are you?’ They just wanted to know, ‘Hey, are you guys writing more new songs? You guys gonna come back again?’ It was our music and how they felt about it.” Balderrama takes a slightly more skeptical view: “We got a great reaction. But if we lived next door to them, could we come in? It was like how blacks a long time ago played in a lot of white clubs, but that’s all they could do is play, and then they headed back into the kitchen.” Once the band crossed a bridge in Alabama in their tour bus and found themselves in the middle of a Ku Klux Klan rally. “They had their outfits on,” Balderrama recalls. “The guy driving said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t look up!'”

In November 1966, ? & the Mysterians released “I Need Somebody,” an organ-powered rave-up that peaked at number 22 in Billboard. At the same time Cameo-Parkway released the 96 Tears LP, which rode the coattails of its hit single to number 66 on the album chart. “I Need Somebody” was the last ? original to make an A side on Cameo: “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby,” released in March 1967, had already been recorded by the Four Seasons, and Bogart, impatient for another big hit, insisted that the band open its version with the organ riff from “96 Tears.”

“We were totally against it,” Balderrama says. “I told Neil, ‘You know what? I’ve been listening to the radio since I was seven, eight years old. And everybody that would have a hit, and then come out with another song that sounded like the original hit, was a major turnoff.’ And he goes, ‘Well, Bobby, if you feel that way, I can get a guitar player to take your place.’ And I said, ‘Let me plug my guitar in!’ My parents always told me to respect my elders, and he was married, so I figured he was a grown-up and I wasn’t.”

Still, the Mysterians broke the rules whenever they thought they could get away with it. Bogart dressed them up in suits, but after one or two appearances they refused to wear them. And when he gave them the Joey Di Francesca-Alan Dischel rocker “Girl (You Captivate Me)” to record as their fourth single, ? varied the chorus, singing, “Girl, you masturbate me.” But Bogart got the last laugh. In August 1967 ? & the Mysterians completed their contract with Cameo-Parkway, releasing the Motown-ish “Do Something to Me.” Shortly afterward, Bogart summoned the band to Cameo-Parkway’s plush new offices in New York City.

“I can remember this exactly,” says Balderrama. “As I’m talking to you I can see what’s going on. We were in the waiting room in their office where the secretary was at, and our manager and Neil Bogart were in Bogart’s office. And then when they were done talking, she comes out and Neil Bogart calls us in, and then he starts talking how he wants us to sign some protection; he said it would protect our rights to get our royalties, or whatever. We all believed him, even ? did. So I signed it. We all signed it. And then a week later we got a call that we had just given all our rights away.” According to Balderrama the Mysterians hired a New York entertainment lawyer to sue Cameo-Parkway for nonpayment of royalties, and because he and Rodriguez were minors when they signed, the band won–sort of. “That’s when they dropped ‘Do Something to Me.’ The airplay, everything stopped,” says Balderrama. The single peaked at number 110; a year later Tommy James & the Shondells recorded the song for Roulette and took it to number 38.

The band signed with Capitol and released a new ? original, “Make You Mine,” but it failed to chart. Eddie Serrato was seriously injured in a car accident and replaced by Jeff MacDonald. Frank Lugo had married Balderrama’s niece and quit the band to spend more time at home. With Lee Shreve on bass, the band moved to LA to record a third album, this one for Tangerine. But the bloom was off the rose: 1968 was nothing like 1966. Balderrama remembers playing at a club down the street from the Whisky-a-Go-Go in June of that year. “They had all these monitors for people to watch TV. Robert Kennedy was in LA at the same time. And this was live, we’re playing, and all of a sudden I see all sorts of shit happening. And then someone told us to stop playing because Robert Kennedy had been shot.”

Balderrama claims the third album was excellent, but Tangerine released only a belated single, the dark, bluesy “Ain’t It a Shame.” The band’s west-coast agency booked some gigs to get them back to Michigan, but they only made it as far as Albuquerque. “I remember we got in an argument with the club owner’s wife,” says Balderrama, “and he got upset with us and fired us onstage. It was this big old Texas-type dude; he had a cowboy hat and everything. It looked like a country-western bar. He walks up to the stage and he looks at ? and goes, ‘You guys are fired!’ He told ?, ‘Gimme that mike!’ And ? says, ‘Get your own mike!’ We thought it was so funny we laughed all the way back to the hotel.”

A musicians’-union representative gave them enough money to get home, and when they got there Balderrama quit. Rodriguez followed in the spring of 1969. ? talked all the original members into giving him the name and any future royalties in exchange for a large royalty check he was holding. But the name wasn’t worth much: even in Michigan the Mysterians were has-beens, superseded by more aggressive acts like the Stooges and the MC5. In June 1969 the Saginaw News panned a performance by ? and his lineup of hired hands, reporting that the 40-minute show was met with dead silence.

Neil Bogart didn’t last much longer at Cameo-Parkway than ? & the Mysterians. Toward the end of 1967 Allen Klein, the powerful manager of the Kinks, the Rolling Stones, and the Animals, acquired a controlling interest in Cameo-Parkway, and according to Hit Men, a feud between him and Bogart led to Bogart’s resignation. In 1969 Cameo-Parkway became ABKCO Industries, and the Mysterians albums, along with the publishing rights to “96 Tears” and “Midnight Hour,” became the property of ABKCO.

? claims he’s not even sure how he lost the publishing rights in the first place. He recently told Mi Gente, a magazine for the Hispanic community in Michigan, that it may have started way back with the the Pa-Go-Go single on which they were credited to an Ed Arguello in Texas. “I didn’t even know who the dude was and he’s on the label,” he said. “I didn’t know we could change these things, since it was already on the press. I was naive. I think Ed Arguello is a fictitious name.” He remembers Neil Bogart telling him the band had signed the rights over to Cameo-Parkway, but says that “to this day nobody has presented a paper where I signed everything over to them,” he says. “But why argue about it? I got music to do. I got performances to play next week.” Gonzalez’s phone number is unlisted; ABKCO was contacted for this article, and a representative asked for questions to be submitted in writing. But at press time no one at the company had responded.

This summer Balderrama, Rodriguez, Lugo, Robert Martinez, and ? accepted an offer from Collectable Records in Philadelphia to record a new CD of their old material. In late July, after obtaining a license to rerecord “96 Tears,” they assembled at Bull Frog Recording Studios in Bay City, a few blocks from where they’d first cut it.

The new release brought them to Chicago the night after Halloween. Few people at the Empty Bottle knew what to expect of these 60s legends: at worst the show threatened to be a lame oldies band huffing and puffing in front of a crowd of smirking slackers. But anyone who came to laugh at the Mysterians had his ass handed to him in the first three minutes–as they tore into a high-powered two-chord vamp, a trim ? bolted onstage in black spandex pants and a silky orange shirt, working the crowd like Mick Jagger in his prime. Balderrama on guitar and Rodriguez on organ could have drawn on 30 years’ worth of chops but held back, cutting loose only when the moment was right, and bassist Frank Lugo, wearing a silly grin throughout the set, was solid as a rock. But the real revelation was drummer Robert Martinez, who missed the party in 1966, completing a tour of duty in Germany while the band he helped found was touring the U.S. behind its number-one single. His eyes shut, his head snapping back and forth, Martinez laid down the beat like a drill press.

And for anyone tempted to draw connections between ? & the Mysterians and Los Lobos or rising rock-en-espa–ol stars like Cafe Tacuba and Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, ? won’t take that sitting down either. “The media never say, ‘This is an all-white band playing rock ‘n’ roll,’ do they?” he says. “As far as I know, they might be Polish. You never heard them saying, ‘The Beatles, an all-white group.’ So why say that about an American group that’s all Mexican? We’re American first. Rock ‘n’ roll is a group of people that get together and write songs that they believe in, without anybody manipulating them or making them sound like somebody else. Regardless if you have a spotlight, that’s what rock ‘n’ roll is.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): ? photo by Marty Perez.