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Mike Gaborno, lead singer of O.C.'s Cadillac Tramps, dies at 51

Mike Gaborno, lead singer of O.C.'s Cadillac Tramps, dies at 51
The Cadillac Tramps' Mike "Gabby" Gaborno at the 2001 Hootenanny Festival in Irvine. (Don Leach / Daily Pilot)

Mike "Gabby" Gaborno, the unconventionally charismatic front man of Cadillac Tramps who softened the edges of the toughest punk rock shows with humor and group hugs, died Wednesday after a long battle with liver cancer, the band's guitarist said. He was 51.

The Orange County band, which won the respect of better-selling acts like Pearl Jam and Foo Fighters, announced the singer's death on its Facebook page.

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"Our hearts are broken," the announcement said. "Our beloved Gabby has passed away. Vaya con Dios, compadre!"

The Costa Mesa resident also fronted the parody-driven punk band Manic Hispanic.

In its 1980s and '90s peaks, the Cadillac Tramps -- which mixed a musical cocktail of punk, rockabilly and blues over five albums -- attracted sold-out crowds to the Hollywood Palace (now the Avalon) and other small- to mid-size venues in North America.

Gaborno's health began deteriorating about five years ago, Cadillac Tramp's guitarist Brian Coakley said.

The health problems came in a "sequence of events," he said, and included diabetes, kidney failure, hepatitis C, cirrhosis, and, finally, a diagnosis of liver cancer that spread to his stomach.

Around that time, Coakley and his wife, Jamie Sims Coakley, began working on a documentary about the band and Gaborno's legacy.

Mike Gaborno and the Cadillac Tramps in 1994.
Mike Gaborno and the Cadillac Tramps in 1994. (Paul Morris for the Los Angeles Times)

The 90-minute film, which was funded by a $58,000 Kickstarter campaign, includes more than 50 interviews with fans, venue owners and rock musicians, including members of better-known contemporaries, such as Pearl Jam, TSOL, Foo Fighters and Rancid.

The documentary was filmed in part so Gaborno could see it before he died and understand how much his music meant to fans, Coakley said.

The film, which screened privately in Santa Ana last year, received a standing ovation, he said.

"During the film, I was nervous to even sit by [Gabby]," Coakley said, adding Gaborno was unsure about the film prior to its release. "During some of the harder parts to watch -- like the parts where we would break up -- he put his arm around mine and squeezed in a caring way ... I'm so thankful and grateful we got to share that with him while he was alive."

Gaborno as a musician was known for a friendly off-stage persona but onstage antics.

"There were very few times I've seen him angry," said John "Bosco" Calabro, Gaborno's friend and member of punk band D.I. "It's a sad day for Orange County punk rock."

John Gilhooley, a photographer who regularly shot Cadillac Tramps, considered Gaborno unique in punk rock for the amount of humor he'd bring to the shows.

The singer would crack jokes during songs and break up audience fights.

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One thing that stuck out, he added, was Gaborno's ability to connect fans with one another.

"He would ask people to say hello to the person next to them and give them a hug," Gilhooley said. "You saw from the most rough punk rock criminal to the average teenage kid fan giving each other hugs, and the show continued on."

But there was a fine balance with Gaborno,  Coakley said, adding the singer battled drug addiction and alcoholism for stretches of time between 1987 and 2001.

"While sober, he was a great guy who helped a lot of people," the guitarist said. "But during periods when he fell off the wagon, he was living on the wrong side of the law."

Gaborno eventually found lasting sobriety while in prison after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks because "he realized he'd been wasting his life for almost 10 years" when he saw video footage of the attacks, Coakley said.

Cadillac Tramps, which previously released five studio albums, plans to release one live album and one re-recorded disc of greatest hits later this year,  Coakley said.

The albums were recorded about a year ago.

"When [Gabby] was singing those tracks, you would never be able to tell that he was a year from death," he added.

He said the band, which played a handful of shows in the last few years, will not replace Gaborno and will likely not play live again.

Gaborno is survived by a 7-year-old son, Presley, one sister and three brothers.

Coakley said a public memorial will be announced.

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UPDATES:

11:36 a.m.: The article has been updated with additional details

This article was originally published Jan. 4 at 10:20 p.m.

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