(Photo: Dad slapping da’ bass)
They were just a few neighborhood kids hanging out and tinkering on whatever instruments that they could get their hands on, but it was a friend of my dad’s that we will call Fernando that took things to the next level. Fernando saw something in my dad that he couldn’t see himself; the musical aptitude that Dad’s third grade teacher at Ramona Elementary had seen. The natural, musical gifting that is in most of my family members and which we can trace back to my Great-Grandfather Toribio, but which I suspect goes even further back than that (call me anytime Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.)! The fact that Fernando perceived this calling that has been passed down through several generations of my family by simply hearing Dad tinker out little melodies on the plastic, toy guitar that he received for Christmas one year is quite extraordinary.
None of the guys were rich kids by any means, but Fernando was in an especially desperate situation. He didn’t technically have a permanent residence which meant he was technically homeless from a purely technological point of view. With no father present and with the recent, untimely death of his mother, Fernando became an orphan while he was still in his teens. He always had godparents and relatives to give him a place to stay, but he didn’t really have much money or a place that he called home. This made it all the more extraordinary when he dropped his last $80 on an electrical guitar amplifier at Sears. The amp was not for him, however.
“Look at what I bought you,” Fernando said to Dad as they were all hanging out in one of their friends houses one day.
“Wait a minute? Why are you buying this for me?” Dad said knowing every detail of Fernando’s living situation. “You spend all your money?”
“Oh yeah. We’re going to make a band,” Fernando continued very matter-of-factly.
“What band? We’re not going to make a band. I don’t know how to play,” Dad said.
“Yeah, but you’re going to learn because you’ve got a really good ear for it.”
“What does that mean? I just fiddle with it. I don’t know how to play this thing.”
“Yeah, but that’s how you start. So I bought you this amp.”
The gauntlet had been thrown. Fernando had put his money where his mouth was and now it was up to Dad. What was he going to do? Was he going to keep farting around with his friends or was he going to get serious about music? Dad picked up Fernando’s guitar, plugged it into the amp that he had apparently bought for him, and attempted to learn some the songs that they had records of. Through sheer determination Dad got his little band to fake their way through a couple of Top 40 hits and local favorites. Just when they had gotten a few songs down, there just happened to be a talent show at St. Anthony’s Church in Oxnard that was about to begin. Dad and the band which consisted of himself, Fernando, his best friend Henry Vicuña, and few others, decided to enter the competition.
St. Anthony’s had some good musicians that participated in the talent show. Kids that could actually read music and who could afford private lessons. One group played the Moody Blues’ tune “Knights in White Satin” and musically everything sounded perfect to Dad. The crowd didn’t give a very rousing response when they had finished the song for some reason though. St. Anthony’s also had a female vocalist who was extremely exceptional. She sang “Your Song” by Elton John perfectly, but, once again, the crowd’s response was ho-hum.
”Then it was our turn and this is where I learned the secret of music,” Dad told me as he recounted his first gig. “It’s not about how good you play the music, it’s how entertaining is it…when we came on they were so ready for something different…”
Dad and the band began their performance with “Samba Pa Ti,” by Carlos Santana and the crowd immediately began to perk up. Were they in the right key? Were they hitting all of the chord changes at the same time? That’s debatable; the audience’s response was not as they immediately began grooving with the songs initial mellow pace. When the band got to the fast part of the song the crowd erupted with cheers. At long last there was life in one of the talent show performances.
Dad’s band finished “Samba Pa Ti,” and immediately went into “Soul Power” by James Brown without letting the audience catch their breath. This is where Henry Vicuña really shined because he did a decent James Brown and was an electrifying, soul singer in his own right. Everyone loved it and just in case Santana and James Brown weren’t universally loved enough, they ended with “La Bamba”. They finished their set to uproarious cheering which left the band feeling for the first time that they might have a chance at winning the whole thing.
Their biggest competition ended up being a group that called themselves “The Varros.” It was three members of the Navarro family, whom Dad has been good friends with for many years now. They did the Rare Earth rendition of “Get Ready” and “Born on the Bayou” by Creedence Clearwater Revival, but they actually played their songs in the correct key. Still Dad thought his band got enough of a crowd response to take the win. As they were waiting to hear the decision, one of the judges came up to Dad privately; not a good sign.
“Listen, you should win it,” the judge began. “But the Navarros have been here for four years now. We’ve got to give it to them.”
So Dad and his rag-tag band of Colonia natives got bumped down to second place by The Varros, but they didn’t really lose because they got their first paid gig from that talent show. They were no longer just jamming out together in their parents’ garage. They were officially making money as a band. Now they just needed a name.