Rick and Barry Rillera in
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The song "Louie Louie," the subject of a book by rock critic Dave Marsh, an inquiry by the FBI, and (almost) of a ban by right wing politicians, is the most famous example from rock 'n' roll of what can happen when Latin and black musical styles mingle. The author of "Louie Louie," the late R&B singer Richard Berry, who attended Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles during the early 1950s, wrote the song in a rush one Sunday afternoon in the spring of 1956 while waiting backstage to sing at Harmony Park in the Orange County city of Santa Ana. A large, mostly Chicano audience awaited his performance; Harmony Park was Santa Ana's answer to Angeles Hall and the other venues around East LA that featured R&B and rock 'n' roll. Berry, who started as a straight Doo Wop singer, had recently joined the Rhythm Rockers, a rock, blues, and Latin music ensemble from Orange County that included Filipino, black, Chicano, and Filipino/Chicano members. Rick and Barry Rillera introduced Berry to the sounds of Latin jazz artists, including Rene Touzet and Tito Puente, which he immediately liked. In fact, Berry was thinking about one of his favorite songs from that genre, Touzet's "Loco Cha Cha," when he wrote "Louie Louie." "I took some Latin, some calypso, some pop, threw it all in and came up with 'Louie Louie,'" said Berry. To those hearing "Loco Cha Cha" for the first time, the similarities between the two songs are remarkable.
The Rhythm Rockers could be called the Chicano answer to the well-known English group of the 1960s, the Yardbirds, not because these bands played the blues, but because each of them offered a start to musicians who would become superstars. Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page, three of England's greatest blues guitarists, launched their careers with the Yardbirds. As for the Rhythm Rockers, Richard Berry and, later, Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield of the Righteous Brothers, sang with the band before they were famous. While Berry wrote "Louie Louie" as a result of working with the Rhythm Rockers, Medley, whose teenage years were spent in Orange County, considered the group nothing less than his musical savior. There was not a lot of R&B in Orange County in the 1950s, which reflected a youth culture that was predominantly white, conservative, and tied to Disneyland and the beach. However, Medley had the good fortune of attending Santa Ana High School, which was about the only school in Orange County at the time with a sizable Chicano student population. "I always got along great with the 'real' Chicanos, the street guys, lowriders or whatever," said Medley. "I always dug where they were coming from. I liked their look, I liked their hair, I liked their attitude. And in those days their music had more energy than the white music that was being done. Pat Boone and all that stuff." Medley even dated a Mexican-American girl from Santa Ana, Lupe Laguna, who became the inspiration for "Little Latin Lupe Lu" (July 1963), the first record by the Righteous Brothers to make the Billboard charts.
Left to right: Bill McClure, Martin Cruz, Rick Rillera, Richard Berry, Barry Rillera, Bill King, Louie Pacheco, Modesto Pomm De Leon, and Manuel Acosta before performing at a dance in 1957. (Photo courtesy of Rick Rillera)
The Rhythm Rockers were formed in 1955 by Barry and Rick Rillera, brothers who were introduced to the blues by their sister, Nancy, who was introduced to the blues by her black girlfriends. Before they heard B. B. King and Lowell Fulson, the Rillera brothers took music lessons at a local Hawaiian music store, where they learned ukulele, rhythm guitar, and steel guitar. After they heard B. B. King and Lowell Fulson, they lost interest in the indigenous music of the islands and chose instead to study the blues and form a band. From the beginning they were committed to authenticity. This meant immersing themselves in the blues and the blues scene. Beginning at the age of eleven, Barry spent hours and hours copying B. B. King's guitar solos off old 78s; while Rick, the older by five years, regularly traveled from Orange County to clubs in South Los Angeles to see King, Memphis Slim, Guitar Slim, and other top performers of the day. To recruit black musicians for their fledgling enterprise -- another nod to authenticity -- the brothers placed an ad in a local newspaper, specifying that they were forming a blues band and needed members. The classifieds led them to a black piano player and a black vocalist.
The idea of a Rillera brothers band took shape in the pre-R&B era; by the time the group actually started, R&B had begun to make a major impact on urban black music, as well as the white, black, and Chicano audience. Barry and Rick became enthusiastic fans, and they listened to Hunter Hancock's show to learn the latest R&B songs. Their musical direction shifted slightly from exclusively blues to blues and R&B; the name Rhythm Rockers, coined by the piano player, implied a bigger beat than is common to the blues. However, they were not finished adding musical styles to the mix. The third ingredient, Latin jazz, came about as a result of the influence of their Mexican mother, many nights spent listening to Chico Sesma's radio program, and exposure to the Chicano R&B/jazz bands that were performing around Southern California. "The Chicano bands that played car clubs [social gatherings for Chicano teenagers and young adults] all played R&B and Latin music," said Barry. "We did, too." This was an unplanned, but not unwelcome, musical addition. "When I started this group, I didn't go with the idea of having a Latin sound," said Rick. As the brothers became more and more devoted to Latin jazz, especially the music of Tito Puente and Rene Touzet, they brought new members into the band, again with the intent of producing an authentic sound. At one point the Rhythm Rockers included, along with guitar, bass, vocals, and drums, three saxophonists, three trumpet players, a guy playing the timbales, and another guy playing the congas.
The sound and look of Latin music and Chicano bands assumed ever greater importance for Rick and Barry with the advance of their own musical careers. Although at the beginning they took their cues from B. B. King and other black performers, it was not long before they were learning from Chicano artists such as the Armenta Brothers and Sal Chico. There was one young Chicano musician, moreover, who made a lasting impression.
"The band that I looked up to the most was probably Bobby Rey's band," said Barry. "I thought he was always the hippest, and he was such a good tenor player. He seemed to be ahead of his time. He had a sax sound that we wanted to achieve. We finally asked him; he explained to us that it was partly the mouthpiece and a 'growl' that he and other R&B sax players used to get."
With the Rhythm Rockers performing on a regular basis in East LA, as well as their hometown of Santa Ana, they competed with other Chicano musicians, including Bobby Rey. "We used to have 'battle of the bands' against him all the time," said Rick. Usually the competition was friendly, although an excess of local pride could lead some bands to get carried away. "We would go play in East LA, and one of the East LA bands would be there watching us, and they might be yelling at us when we left," said Barry.
What fascinated the Rhythm Rockers' non-Chicano audience was not so much R&B, but the Latin sound. For many blacks, the Rhythm Rockers was their introduction to Rene Touzet and Tito Puente. The band loved playing for these fans. Whenever there was a scheduling conflict, Rick would cancel a gig in East LA in order to perform Latin jazz, R&B, and blues in front of black audiences at dubs in South Central. Where black musicians had helped Barry and Rick Rillera learn blues, the brothers returned the favor by giving blacks a lesson in Latin styles. "What really gave black musicians a kick out of the band is when we would play the blues and then turn around and play the Latin stuff," said Barry. "It had a strong pulse, too." The famous riff from "Louie Louie" was invented on piano by Rene Touzet for the song "El Loco Cha Cha," a song the Rhythm Rockers performed in their set. And just as Rick Rillera had studied the blues greats, so Richard Berry, who sang a few numbers with the Rhythm Rockers in their Sunday shows at Harmony Park, studied their cover versions of Latin jazz. "He was kind of a quiet guy, he would just sit there and listen to the music," said Barry Rillera of Richard Berry.
Later Bill Medley started coming around. Rick remembers that Medley would tape him and Harry Tyler, the black vocalist in the band, performing cover versions of the music of Don and Dewey, the Los Angeles R&B duo from the late 1950s who recorded "Farmer John," "I'm Leaving It Up to You," and other excellent songs. Medley obviously listened well. The Righteous Brothers had hits in the early 1960s with two songs originally recorded by Don and Dewey, "Koko Joe" and "Justine." But Medley was also drawn to the Rhythm Rockers' ethnic sound. He had never heard or experienced anything quite like it before. " used to do a lot of Mexican weddings with the Rhythm Rockers," said Medley. "I got a firsthand education of how that was, the emotion of that. I always felt that Mexican music was similar to rock 'n' roll in terms of energy and groove. I learned a lot from that."
The bond between Medley and the Rhythm Rockers has continued in one form or another for more than thirty-five years. When Medley formed the Righteous Brothers, along with another white kid from Orange County named Bobby Hatfield, the group used Barry and Rick Rillera as backup musicians on some of their early hits, including "Koko Joe," "My Babe," and "Little Latin Lupe Lu." The studio relationship continued for a year or so, until the Righteous Brothers became clients of the legendary producer Phil Spector, who changed their sound from raw and powerful rhythm and blues to symphonic soul with "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling." America loved "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling," which went to number one in February 1965, but the Righteous Brothers' records no longer had the low-down feel of the Santa Ana barrio. After the success of "Lovin' Feeling," the Righteous Brothers-including Barry Rillera on guitar -- toured with the Beatles across the United States. In the 1980s and 1990s Barry was the featured guitar player for Medley's solo act, as well as Righteous Brothers concerts. More popular than ever, Medley, or Medley plus Hatfield, perform regularly in Las Vegas and around the country.
Once Rick Rillera entered the military in 1958, the Rhythm Rockers floundered. He had been the CEO of the band, organizing and promoting the Sunday afternoon dances at Harmony Park and enlisting sister Nancy to sell tickets and his father to sell bottles of soda. The group had become so popular that kids came to Santa Ana from elsewhere to watch their performances, which invariably led to fights over girls and territory. These confrontations were not as violent or deadly as similar ones in the 1980s or 1990s -- the weapons of choice in the 1950s were fists, not automatic rifles -- but was enough of a concern that Rick Rillera had to cultivate a good relationship with the Santa Ana Police Department so that the band could continue performing. When Rick returned from the service in 1960, surf music had begun to make an impact in Orange County, while R&B was lagging around the country. Rick and Barry, albeit with some reluctance, changed their musical focus again, this time learning the "white rock" sounds that were popular. They became so adept at it that Dick Dale, the legendary surf guitarist, used Rick, Barry, and their younger brother Butch, who played drums, to back him on the surf hit "Miserlou."
The three brothers were later hired as the house rock band at Disneyland. At the beginning, they were warned not to play R&B; Disneyland was much too wholesome, clean cut, and Anglo for anything like that. But after a few years the white kids began to insist that the house band add black music to their set. Barry, Rick, and Butch were happy to oblige.
In 1989, Rick went to see Bill Medley -- with Barry on guitar -- perform for the first time in several years. At one point in the show Barry and Bill called Rick on stage to play bass for a couple of numbers. By his own admission, Rick was "terrible" that day. Although he was fifty-five years old, and had been away from music for many years, he vowed to regain his old form. After months of practice, Rick felt confident enough to ask Barry about forming a band. The brothers got together again, this time adding a vocalist named Johnny Lopez, who thirty-five years earlier had been a star-struck young fan of the Rhythm Rockers when they played at Harmony Park. For the 1990s version, the name Rhythm Rockers was ditched in favor of simply the Rillera Brothers. Concentrating almost exclusively on blues, the band played a number of shows in small venues around Southern California, including several at the Hop, a chain of rock 'n' roll nostalgia clubs then owned by Medley and Hatfield. They also have talked about recording blues albums.
A brief word on Little Julian Herrera, who recorded some wonderful ballads in the 1950s and whose life since 1960 has been shrouded in mystery. Herrera is known today because of a sensational stage show -- witnesses recall a dynamic singer and dancer in the mold of a young James Brown -- and a song called "Lonely, Lonely Nights." He was the first East LA teen idol. "I didn't manufacture Julian, he came with talent," said Johnny Otis, who worked with Herrera during the mid-1950s. "He was not much of a singer, but he knew what to do with what he had. After a few appearances, and after we put out one of his records, he became a heartthrob for the little Mexican girls." Later Herrera got in trouble with the law and all but disappeared from music and Southern California. East LA musicians who knew him are today unsure whether he's dead, languishing in a Mexican jail, or living somewhere under an assumed name.
While the Rhythm Rockers, Bobby Rey, and Gil Bernal were virtually unknown outside Southern California, they helped create the rock 'n' roll that would thrive in barrios from Orange County to the San Fernando Valley. Weekend dances, battles of the bands, performing at car clubs, all of which became an integral part of the Chicano rock 'n' roll scene during the 1950s and 1960s, originated with these three acts -- and a few others -- that were there at the beginning. The studio output of this trio was meager; only Rey and Bernal put out records under their own names. Indeed, the fact that these artists made their most enduring contributions anonymously -- Bernal as backup musician for the Robins and Duane Eddy, Rey doing his part on "Image of a Girl" and "Alley-Oop," and the Rhythm Rockers backing the Righteous Brothers on their early singles -- is somehow appropriate, considering the status of Chicanos in American pop culture at that time. The larger society may not have been aware of the existence of Chicano entertainers, or even have known certain entertainers were Chicanos, but that did not mean Chicanos were absent. While unacknowledged by all but the hardest of hard core fans, the behind-the-scenes work of Bernal, Rey, and the Rhythm Rockers helped make rock 'n' roll and R&B even better in the early years.