Remembering San Antonio's Horn-Infused Doo-Wop Scene

Oct 27, 2015
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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Among the least-known music scenes ever to thrive in America is the multiracial, multicultural music made on San Antonio's West Side from the early '60s to the mid '70s. The only national star it produced was Doug Sahm, one of the few Anglos on the scene. But there were lots of bands and lots of records. Very little of it has been collected on reissues yet, but rock historian Ed Ward takes a look at two releases that open a small window on this music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT SOUL")

ROYAL JESTERS: (Singing) People ask me how I do it. Sing my heart out - ain't nothing to it. I've got soul. And I've got soul.

ED WARD, BYLINE: San Antonio's West Side is historically the black and Chicano neighborhood in the sprawling city, dominated by the Tex-Mex culture that's been the city's calling card since its inception. Music, for many years, meant mariachi or norteno, traditional forms tweaked commercially and recorded on labels like Falcon and Sombrero. But with the rise of Motown, some of the younger musicians decided to experiment. They'd always loved doo-wop music, and this was the same thing, they reckoned, only with horns. So if an all-Chicano band like the Royal Jesters wanted to declare that they had soul, nobody would argue. Of course, the labels recording rancheras weren't going to go for it, but fortunately, San Antonio had Abe Epstein, a real-estate mogul and one-time performer who plowed his profits into a series of increasingly less successful labels. The only one that lasted was Dynamic, which was open to all the talent in town, some of which was Chicano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T NO BIG THING")

LITTLE JR. JESSE AND THE TEARDROPS: (Singing) Ain't no big thing. Ain't no big thing. Ain't no big. Ain't no big thing. I - I've got a feeling that I am losing you. Oh, what's the use? Why worry when there's nothing I can do. Ain't no big thing. Ain't no big thing.

WARD: Little Jr. Jesse and the Teardrops were listed on their records as Texas' fastest upcoming band. And the 10-piece aggregation was very popular around town. But Dynamic's biggest group came about in 1966 due to Randolph Air Force Base where three black guys and a New York-raised Puerto Rican guy formed The Commands.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO TIME FOR LOVE")

THE COMMANDS: (Singing) It's been a long time since I've held you in my arms. An even longer time girl, since I've felt - felt your magic charm. But oh, oh, you did me wrong. And now you say you want to come back, oh, but I've got no, no, no, no time. Baby, baby, you best believe me when I say that I've got no time for you.

WARD: "No Time For You" got lots of airplay in San Antonio, going to number one on all the local stations. And for a while, it looked like the record would go national. But Abe Epstein just didn't have the juice to parlay it into a bigger hit, although he mailed copies to every record company he could think of. The only thing that came of it was that some months later a group in Cleveland called The O'Jays recorded it. It wasn't a hit for them either. He did have the sense to sign good talent to all his labels, and in 1964, he'd signed the Royal Jesters, who'd met in high school and started recording in 1959. By 1964, they'd evolved into a nine-piece band and realizing they weren't getting paid by Epstein, formed their own label, Jester. The Jesters were different, proudly mixing Spanish language tunes with what they called English oldies, songs with English lyrics and a soul backing. They weren't really oldies, some of them were cover versions of recent hits while others were originals.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S KISS AND MAKE UP")

ROYAL JESTERS: At first, we were so happy, as happy as could be. Then you left me for a friend and went away with him. Well, now, let's kiss, kiss, kiss and let's make up. And start all over, all over again. I can't go on this way...

WARD: The Royal Jesters were one of the city's top live acts and had a large repertoire. There were the usual rockers, but their audiences particularly liked the slow numbers, over-the-top romantic and suitable for getting close to your date.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WANT TO MEET HER")

ROYAL JESTERS: (Singing) I want to meet her. I want to meet her. (Unintelligible) but I'll call a shot, and I can't say hello. But I should try. She's just the kind of girl I'd like to know. I want to meet her. I want to meet her.

WARD: As the '70s moved in, though, two trends emerged, both of which could have hurt the Jesters, but which they attempted to incorporate into their sound. The first, which they didn't do too well with, was disco. The second was Chicano pride, and there, the Jesters found the key to their future.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SPANISH GREASE")

ROYAL JESTERS: (Singing in Spanish). Ain't got nobody, no one I can get. Ain't got nobody, no one I can get.

WARD: Like many of their contemporaries - Little Joe y La Familia and Sunny and the Sunliners come to mind - they eventually became an all-Spanish Chicano show band and lasted until disco ate all the local venues they'd once played in. Many of the Jesters have died, but there have been a couple of bittersweet reunions in recent years, and San Antonians of a certain age still remember them fondly. As for Abe Epstein, he finally gave up on the music business and settled for becoming a multi-millionaire when San Antonio had its inevitable boom. He died in 2012.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Austin. The music he played came from two releases, Royal Jesters, "English Oldies" and "Eccentric Soul," the Dynamic label.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Dr. Vincent DeVita, author of the new book, "The Death Of Cancer." He shares credit for developing the combination chemotherapy regimen that cures most cases of Hodgkin's lymphoma. He became the director of the National Cancer Institute, the physician-in-chief at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and is now a professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine. Dr. DeVita was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. I hope you'll join us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.