Desert Companion

'The Next Ritchie Valens'

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Max Uballez grins while holding his acoustic guitar in a recording studio
Photo: Jeff Scheid

Now retired in Henderson, Max Uballez helped found the East L.A. sound that shared the airwaves with the Beatles in the ’60s
 

There’s scarcely a Baby Boomer who didn’t bop to the beat of 1965’s “Land of 1000 Dances” by Cannibal and the Headhunters. Beginning with that mesmerizing “Naaa na na na na…” the song crossed over racial and ethnic lines and put teenagers on the dance floor like no other since Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba.” Paul McCartney even invited Cannibal (Frankie Garcia) to open for The Beatles on their ’65 U.S. tour. The unsung hero of “Land of 1000 Dances” was 18-year-old producer and arranger, Max Uballez, who’s been living in Henderson for the last 16 years. In 1963 Uballez and his band the Romancers had released Do the Slauson, the first album recorded by an East L.A. Chicano group. Through the 1960s, the Romancers recorded their own hits written by Uballez and also backed countless performers from Chuck Berry and Little Richard to Chris Montez and The Four Seasons.

“I consider Max one of the founders of the Eastside Sound,” says Mark Guerrero, son of the father of Chicano music, Lalo Guerrero, and one-time leader of the band Mark & the Escorts. “Do the Slauson was very influential. They were so professional and so young. Their lead guitar player on that album, Andy Tesso, was a template of a lot of East L.A. guitar players.”

Uballez was born in downtown Los Angeles in a tenement shared with 11 other people, including his grandparents, deeply religious Roman Catholic mother, and gentle and giving father, who had returned from the Philippines after the war with what is now diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder. At the age of seven, Uballez sold flowers and fruits from the median strip of Highland Avenue in Hollywood to help the family make ends meet.

From an early age, Uballez was captivated by music. The first songs he remembers singing to himself were “Cheek to Cheek” crooned by Fred Astaire and “Pledging My Love” by Johnny Ace. He joined the chorus in junior high school and sang doo-wop songs in the L.A. River drainage tunnels with his friends in the late 1950s. He bought a three-quarter-size electric guitar from a pawn shop for $75 (a fortune in those days) and decided to make a record for his mother for Mother’s Day. A family friend named Max Ganor fronted the money for Uballez to upgrade and buy a concert amplifier, two microphones, and a white Fender Jazzmaster guitar. Uballez recruited his friends to play in a band he named the Romancers, along with some girls watching them, who became the Romancerettes. They rehearsed in the storage room of the Lincoln Heights playground and soon were good enough to play at parties and quinceañeras.

“At one of the parties that I played in Pacoima,” Uballez recalls, “I was in the middle of singing (Ritchie Valens’) ‘Donna’ when all these shots broke out. We basically got chased out of Pacoima by a cousin of Ritchie Valens, who was upset because I sounded too much like him.”

But he still needed that record for his mother. He knocked on doors all around Hollywood and unsuccessfully auditioned for the owner of Del-Fi Records, Bob Keane, who managed Valens, the Surfaris, the Bobby Fuller Four, and many other popular artists of the period. Across the street on the corner of Selma Avenue and Vine Street were offices of several record producers. In 1962, Uballez walked through the open door of Joe Van Winkle, who'd produced Dobie Gray (“The ‘In’ Crowd”) and arranged to record Uballez’s version of “You Better” with “Butterball” on the B side. Although the record label originally showed the artist as “Max Uballez,” the program director at KFWB thought the name sounded too Hispanic and refused to play it until his name was changed to Maximilian (see right). One day not long after that, while Uballez was working as an upholsterer like his father, he was stunned to hear his rendition of “You’d Better” on the radio station. He gave the 45 to his mother, who cried with pride. The song was put on regular rotation, expanding Uballez’s audience and popularity.

Uballez’s manager, the late Billy Cardenas, told him that Keane now wanted to record Uballez playing unpublished material by Valens. Unfortunately, Uballez had already signed a contract with another company, Magic Circle Records, that had exclusive rights to his voice for five years, so Keane asked Uballez to come up with some instrumentals instead. The results were “The Slauson Shuffle” with “All Aboard” on the flip side. In four hours, Uballez and the Romancers recorded the other instrumentals that filled out the album Do the Slauson, an immediate hit in East L.A. and beyond. David Reyes, co-author of Land of a Thousand Dances: Chicano Rock ‘n’ Roll from Southern California, says, “After Ritchie’s death, Bob Keane was looking for another Ritchie, and he kind of found one in Chan Romero. He was hoping Max would do something, too, as big as Ritchie did.”

“The Romancers then turned into a roving school,” Uballez says. He and his guitar player, Richard Provincio, would go from garage to garage, teaching Romancers songs. Uballez could not read music, so he would hum the music he could hear in his head for the other band members or hit notes on the piano or guitar. Those groups evolved into bands of their own, such as the Rhythm Playboys (with pre-Cannibal Frankie Garcia), The Premiers (“Farmer John”), The Heartbreakers (“Everytime I See You,” with Frank Zappa on lead guitar), and The Blendells (“La La La La La”).

“Max was always involved in helping everybody with their recordings,” Mike Rincon of the Blendells says. “He never asked for any money or anything. He was involved in a lot of the recordings of all the different bands in Billy Cardenas’ stable.” Reyes adds that Max was able to influence so many bands because “he had a good demeanor and did not have a big ego. He was able to communicate with the musicians because a lot of them were his age and couldn’t read music, either.”

Apart from recording their own music and helping other bands get started, the Romancers were also the house band at the El Monte Legion Stadium before it was demolished in 1974. They backed The Coasters (“Searchin’), The Penguins (“Earth Angel”), The Shirelles (“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”), and Chuck Berry. The fearsome Berry, who had just been released from prison, warmed to Uballez because he liked “The Slauson Shuffle” and Uballez’s Fender concert amp.

Uballez recalls Berry giving him career advice, including, “Never sign a publishing agreement.” Chuck had been burned in the payola scandal over his song “Maybellene” by disc jockey Alan Freed, who played the song almost continuously and on that basis assumed co-authorship and, therefore, entitlement to a share of the royalties (full credit was restored to Berry in 1986). Uballez remembered this advice when his song “Take My Heart” was used in the soundtrack of the recent biopic Judy without his consent. He says he never signed a publishing agreement for it and is investigating copyright infringement.

In 1972 Uballez formed a new Latin funk band, Macondo, and released an album of the same name, produced in part by Sérgio Mendes. Almost 40 years later he recorded the album Prosperity with the hit single “Chuy de Cabra.” Now 77, he wants to record all his compositions and is looking for musicians to accompany him.

Uballez’s son, Alexander Uballez, who was recently appointed U.S. Attorney for the District of New Mexico, describes his father as a prolific artist. “I remember the walls of his home studio covered in stacked cassette tapes, each filled with melody or verse or chorus,” Alexander Uballez says. “These were the evidence of self-trained fingers that gave life to instruments and a mind that heard an epic in every interaction. … When he creates, all else falls away, and all that is left is the art.”Φ

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