I’ve written a number of posts that dissect rock ‘n’ roll instrumentals, that, more specifically, document my fascination with the way this strand of music treated certain motifs, phenomena, and themes, summoning them as dramatically, as physically, as visually as possible.
It was a slightly different matter with the Latin themes prevalent in post-War rock ‘n’ roll instrumentals, though, starting with fun early hits like the Champs’ “Tequila” (and dozens of lesser-known soundalikes), the Fireballs’ “Vaquero” and the Ventures’ “Perfidia,” and culminating in sleek, elegant rockets like the Astronauts’ “Baja” and the Sentinals’ “Latin’ia.”
The music didn’t merely seek to conjure fanciful, romantic Pan-American imagery – the offshore breezes, the conquistadores and dark-eyed maidens, the liquor-soaked revelry, the jungles and snowcapped mountains, the bullfights, etc. – though that was certainly a large part of it. Nor was it just that many of young groups who contributed to the new surf form were comprised partially or wholly of Mexican-American musicians (not surprising given southern California’s shifting post-War demographics), though this again did inform the music in subtle ways, and is worth an essay unto itself.
Mostly it was just that Latin music was so well suited to adaptation by the instrumental rock ‘n’ roll form from the start, most particularly the “exotic” atmosphere and Fender guitars, deep reverb and crashing drums that characterized much early surf music. And it wasn’t just Ernesto Lecuona’s sweeping Latin works – “Siboney”, “Malagueña” and “The Breeze And I” (“Andalucía”) – either. From the Pharos’ “Pintor” and the Surfmen’s “El Toro” to the Tornadoes’ “Malagueña” and Dick Dale’s “Spanish Kiss,” anything from a stately Cuban bolero to a Flamenco riff or hopped-up border-town mambo might get the surf guitar treatment.
The rock ‘n’ roll instrumental would never again be quite so colorful.
1. Charles Wright and the Malibus, Runky (Titanic 5003-2)
Released in the summer of ’62 on the short-lived southern California Titanic label, this appears to be the only release by Charles Wright and Malibus.
Biographical details are limited, but the story of the group is likely connected to two personalities: Tony Hilder, a Los Angeles music promoter, and Bruce Morgan, a studio engineer and one of the song’s co-authors.
Tony Hilder had been a promoter, producer and operator in the Los Angeles music scene since the ‘50s. Quick to recognize the nascent popularity of instrumental surf music in the early ‘60s, he coordinated studio sessions for a stable of local groups (including the Revels, the Sentinals, the New Dimensions, Bob Vaught & the Renegaids and the Rhythm Kings, among others), hustling, in turn, still-hot master recordings out to various local labels for release. Hilder also tended to have his stable of groups record compositions that he owned licensing rights to. So songs like “Vesuvius,” “Church Key,” “Intoxica” and, yes, “Latin’ia” (which, true to form, is the flipside of this 45) tended to get disproportionate exposure.
Bruce Morgan, one of “Runky’s” co-authors, was an engineer and songwriter who worked frequently with Tony Hilder in the early ‘60s. Morgan remains best known for his role in some very early Beach Boys-related sessions, but he recorded many other young groups in that time. His own frequently-recorded compositions “Exotic” and “Luau” (which was also cut by the Beach Boys) share something of “Runky”’s Latin sensibilities.
Personnel is unknown here, but it seems highly plausible that some Hilder/Morgan regulars are playing, though nothing else in their discography has the quite the same swagger or grinding gutbucket guitar as “Runky.”
This is unrelated to the Charles Wright of Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band fame.
2. The Torquays, Escondido (Gee Gee Cee 8163-A)
The Torquays, from San Jose, consisted of brothers Raul, Pete and David Martinez on guitars and bass along with Jim Sierra on drums.
“Escondido,” named for a remote surfing spot on Mexico’s Oaxacan coastline, was recorded and released in a comparatively late 1964, though unreleased demo versions of both “Escondido” and “Surfer’s Cry,” its terrific flipside, were recorded at a slightly earlier date for eccentric Hollywood producer and songwriter Gary Paxton.
This selection seems to have been produced and released independently of Paxton’s auspices. “Escondido” clearly owes something to the sweep of “Siboney” (and numerous Lecuona themes) as well as to the haunting melodicism of early classics like Gamblers’ “Moon Dawg” and Astronauts’ “Baja.” A particularly streamlined demonstration of how some of early surf music’s general aesthetics, its stately atmosphere and its propulsive feel, suited Latin-inspired themes.
This was the only release on the tiny Gee Gee Cee label and, sadly, the only recorded output from the Torquays.
3. Calvin Cool, El Tecolote (CRC Charter CR-7)
From a 1963 session put together by West Coast jazz-trumpeter-turned-studio-arranger Shorty Rogers comes this sterling gem.
This selection also appears on Calvin Cool’s Surfer’s Beat LP, released on CRC Charter (a webst coast subsidiary for MGM Records in the early ‘60s).
“El Tecolote” is easily the standout track on Surfer’s Beat, an album of otherwise uninspired sax-and-organ-dominated instrumental fare. A studio-led cash-in to its core, and only nominally a Shorty Rogers product, Surfer’s Beat is likely the handiwork of the ubiquitous Wrecking Crew, a loose collective of Los Angeles-based studio professionals heard on thousands of the era’s hipper commercial pop, rock ‘n’ roll, soundtrack and R&B sessions. (The surf music phenomenon was heavily exploited by the record industry – major and independent labels alike.)
It is almost certain the guitarist Jerry Cole providing the lead on “El Tecolote.” Cole, a one-time member of the Champs, quickly distinguished himself as a session guitarist, even by the era’s standards incredibly prolific, moonlighting on hundreds of sessions, many of them surf-oriented, with a number of successful guitar instrumental albums to his own name as well (and many more released pseudonymously). Likely supported by some combination of frequent associates like Leon Russell, Steve Douglas, Hal Blaine, Tom Tedesco or Larry Knectel, “El Tecolote” brims with wicked, forboding atmosphere, borrowing, like “Runky,” a bit of Les Baxter’s “Quiet Village” opening riff for good measure along the way. It is a highlight of Wrecking-Crew-made surf, and one of Cole’s finest moments.
Jerry Cole passed away in 2008.