Chicano rockabilly singer Chan Romero may not have enjoyed the flash-bang success of Richie Valens, but his role as an artistic trailblazer is equally significant. Romero, who will make a rare appearance here next Friday, is a key figure in Latin rock history, maintaining a chain of cultural custody and context that allowed emerging colleagues Chris Montez, Question Mark & the Mysterians, Thee Midniters, Cannibal & the Headhunters, Santana and Los Lobos to establish themselves as influential rock 'n' roll forces.
While Romero was aggressively exploited by Valens' mentor Bob Keene at Del Fi Records, the singer was always far more than just a replacement Richie. Composer of much-covered big-beat classic "Hippy Hippy Shake," Romero's intense, growling vocal style, natural flair for out-of-this-world guitar solos and sharp dance moves placed him in a league of his own. And while he may not have stormed the charts, "Hippy Hippy Shake" proved to be a critical song.
Shortly after its release, Paul McCartney added it to the Beatles repertoire, and, in a ranking of his own influences for Mojo magazine last summer, McCartney placed Romero at No. 3. The song became a No. 2 1964 U.K. hit for the Swingin' Blue Jeans, has been re-recorded numerous times and still regularly turns up on movie soundtracks.
Born July 7, 1941, in Billings, Mont., Romero followed the classic American route to rock 'n' roll aspiration. "I grew up on country music. I had five brothers, and they all picked guitar and sang country." he said. "Then I heard Elvis in about '56-'57 and that's what changed my whole outlook on music. After that, it was what I wanted to do — rockabilly, that's what started it. I was listening to Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins. To me, those were the guys."
Romero's career was concurrent with Valens', and while some erroneously consider Romero a mere Richie wannabe, he had independently found his own voice and style before Valens' explosive 1958 rise to fame.
"My first gigs were in Montana. My brothers had an old guitar they left laying around when they went to work, and I just taught myself," Romero said. "I started playing a little bit, and I got some Elvis 45s and would play along to them. I wrote my first song around that time, and in the summer of 1958 I hitchhiked to East Los Angeles. I was staying with some relatives who were out here, and I really started to try to write."
That's when Romero came up with "Hippy Hippy Shake" and "My Little Ruby."
His uncle brought Romero to Hollywood's Specialty records, where fledgling A&R man/song-plugger Sonny Bono encouraged the teenager, but nothing came of it. After a Billings DJ sent Del Fi records a tape of Romero, label head Keene immediately signed him. At Del Fi, Romero cut a handful of irresistibly tough rockers and plaintive, affecting ballads, and he soon found himself touring Australia with Jerry Lee Lewis.
Although he never achieved sustained national fame, Romero is far more than a historic footnote, both for his influence on the Beatles and for introducing the term "Hippy" into pop etymology. At 71, the Palm Springs-based singer is still active, performing, writing songs and currently preparing a new CD.
For Romero, rock 'n' roll remains an important force. "I think like it's just like that song by Danny & the Juniors: 'Rock 'n' Roll is Here to Stay.'" he said. "It ain't going anywhere, and it's really got a big, important place in the world."
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."
Chan Romero, with Pachuco Jose y Los Diamantes.
Where: The Riverside Rancho Room, inside Viva Fresh, 900 W. Riverside Drive, Burbank.
When: Friday, Jan. 27, 10 p.m. Free admission.
Info: (818) 845-2425.