Fifty years ago this year Ruben Guevara, a teen who'd recently graduated from North Hollywood High School, walked in to a recording studio near Sunset and La Brea with the swagger of a second generation musician who'd been performing for years and recorded the doo-wop love ballad "My Beloved One" with his high school buddy. They were The Apollo Brothers, the name of their car club.
The song delved into a teen crush, just like thousands of other tunes by 1961, the sunset of the doo-wop era. What sets Guevara aside from the thousands of other recording artists of that era is that he'll proudly release another recording this Sunday at Tropico de Nopal near downtown LA.
The recording wasn't the beginning of his musical career. His dad had arrived in Los Angeles as a rock star-like member of the famous Los Porteños Mexican bolero trio. He'd picked up the trumpet, his dad's first instrument, and blew it during his teen years all the way to the prestigious California All-Youth Symphony. Guevara formed his first doo-wop group in high school and played at a lot of parties and small gigs.
That's the confidence he was emanating that day 50 years ago.
"I was more nervous about our piano player because I wasn't sure he could cut it. Because here he's playing with studio guys and this guy is just out of high school, 18 years old. But he did a good job. You can hear it. We didn't have to do it over because of him making a mistake," he told me recently.
"My Beloved One"
Guevara doesn't remember getting too crazy after the evening recording session. He chilled out at his girlfriend's pad and that was that. The aftermath was a bit crazy, he said. A lot of key people lowered needles onto his record. And that got The Apollo Brothers gigs all over town. The famous 1970s and '80s television game show host Wink Martindale, then a singer who hosted a live L.A. TV show, asked The Apollo Brothers to perform in studio and at a show at the long-gone Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica.
Then the El Monte Legion Stadium called. The venue had been the mandatory SoCal stop for doo-wop acts. White, Mexican-American, and Asian teens fanned in from all points Southland to dance at the El Monte. Then came opening act billing for Paul Anka - at the height of his "Diana" years - in Long Beach. That was the big show, Guevara said.
Just a few years later he'd have a crossroads opportunity at a television studio just a few miles away. His mother, Sarita Vara, was a television and movie actress with supporting roles in TV shows of the late 1950s and 1960s, such as The Untouchables, Wild Wild West, and Death Valley Days. His parents had split up and his mother wasn't around much, he said, so there wasn't much of a home life. She was supportive of his career and got him an audition on Shindig, the reigning national pop music program of the time, broadcast out of L.A.
He met the producers and they liked his singing. He'd have to change his name to Jay P. Mobey, they ordered. What! Guevara wondered. The gig was important. But he was a Guevara, not a Mobey. What's a Mobey, he wondered. It wasn't about ethnic pride - this was before the Chicano civil rights movement emboldened Mexican American teens - it was more about family pride and orgullo over what he'd accomplished so far. Other artists had changed their names, he reasoned, including Chubby Checker. He said yes.
The producers, Guevara said he found out later, wanted to get back at Elvis-like singer P.J. Proby, whom they'd had a falling out with.
At the taping he met two of his heroes: Bo Diddley and Tina Turner. In the dressing room, Guevara got to swap stories over Diddley's bottle of gin. After the taping, as he was ogling Tina Turner's shapely legs, he said, she asked where he was from and where he'd learned to sing. Priceless, the best G rated flattery he could think of.
In the YouTube recording of Guevara's solo number you can hear the host say, "Shindig proudly predicts stardom for a band new discovery. Mr. Jay P. Mobey!" Which was followed by teen girl audience screams. In the number to close the show Guevara was joined by Bo Diddley, who looks stiff. Guevara begins the closing with the first verses of the novelty song, "Can Your Monkey Do the Dog." Bo Diddley and Tina Turner stepped aside and let 22 year-old Ruben Guevara from East L.A. sing his soul out.
He'd been promised a return engagement on the show. Shindig was off the air soon after. The performance gave him one of the highest highs and one of the lowest lows. The performance might have opened lots of doors for Jay P. Mobey but it didn't open any major doors for Ruben Guevara. He took a job battering chicken at the Chicken Delight on Sunset Boulevard. He endured the, "Didn't I see you on Shindig last month?" questions.
So it's no surprise Ruben Guevara doesn't want to be remembered for that show. He went on to study film scoring at L.A. City College and got to work with Lalo Shifrin and composed music for experimental theater. He and Frank Zappa became musical brothers, united by their love of symphonic music and doo-wop. That led to Guevara's Ruben and the Jets band, backed by some of Zappa's musicians. And during the 1980s and '90s he produced a series of significant compilations of Chicano and Mexican rock. That's his legacy, he told me.
"In 2008 I decided to get back into music. I'd dropped out for about 30 years. I raised a family, kids were grown and gone; marriage had dissolved too. I was hitting 60 so I thought, 'God, my life is almost over. What am I going to do now?'"
He trekked out to Joshua Tree, as he usually does for New Year's, and he climbed formation he calls "Ruben's Rock." Heavy questions peppered him like a meteor shower.
"What am I? Who am I? I'm a singer. I started singing when I was three years old. OK, we got that down. You're a singer. What are you going to do with it? Well, I want to write songs. I want to write songs about what I've learned over the last 20-25 years in terms of behavior, adult human behavior, trying to mesh my spiritual searchings with rock and roll," he said.
He adopted Tantric Buddhism spiritual teachings, the merging of sex and spirituality on the way to enlightenment, for himself. That's the ideology behind the musical persona on his most recent recording "The Tao of Funkahuatl." Guevara released it on vinyl late last year. He'll release it on CD this Sunday at Tropico.
"The Tao of Funkahuatl is the merging of spirit, funk, sex and soul on the path to the beloved while living your life as a work of art. So that's my life in a nutshell," he said. My guess is that on stage at Tropico there will be a little bit of that triumphant teen trumpeter, the car club doo-wopper, the Shindig performer, and the Chicano musical elder, Tio Ruben to many younger L.A. Chicano musicians.
FROM HIS PRESS RELEASE: Rubén Guevara and his hard-hitting all-star new band the Eastside Luvers: Steve Alaniz/Tenor Sax (George Duke); John Avila/Bass (Oingo Boingo); Ramón Banda/Drums (Banda Bros.); Bob Robles/Guitar (Jackson Browne) announce the upcoming CD release blowout party for The Tao of Funkahuatl, an arresting work set in the rock-as-performance-theater tradition of Guevara's friend and mentor, the late Frank Zappa. The Tao of Funkahuatl was produced by Rubén Guevara (Ruben & the Jets) and John Avila with cover illustrated by John Valadez (Chicano Now! Cheech Marin's touring art show), and design and calligraphy by Joel "Rage" Garcia (Epitaph Records) March 20, 2011 8PM, $10 Tropico de Nopal, Art Gallery/Performance Space, 1665 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles (Echo Park) CA 90026