Brotherly Bonds Are Soul-Deep : Reunion: After 22 years, the Rillera Brothers will play the blues and R&B; that first captivated them long ago.
Call it a natural empathy between siblings, or the result of years of pooled musical experience, but the Rillera Brothers are entirely comfortable preparing for a gig with just one rehearsal, even when there’s a good deal of time between those gigs.
Like, say, 22 years.
When Rick, Barry and Butch Rillera debuted their Rillera Brothers Blues Band at Long Beach’s Golden Sails Hotel show in October, it was the first time the three had shared a stage since touring in the Righteous Brothers band in 1968.
Evidently the three had no trouble shaking off the decades: The response to their October show was so strong, says promoter Dan Jacobson, that it is only the band’s own reticence that has kept him from giving it headliner status at subsequent shows. It plays tonight at the Golden Sails with the Debbie Davies Band headlining.
“We’d rather be the opening band,” guitarist Barry says. “We can be looser and more relaxed that way. The reason we got back together to do this is for the fun of it.”
It was the pursuit of fun that led the brothers in 1955 to form what was likely the first rock band in Orange County. Singly or together, they were there at the beginning of surf music as members of Dick Dale’s Del-Tones, were the backbone of the Righteous Brothers’ band, were the first rock group to play Disneyland and worked with everyone from Ray Charles to rockers Redbone.
The trio sat for an interview Tuesday in a Fountain Valley restaurant, across the street from the Righteous Brothers’ Hop, where Butch is general manager and where Barry often appears as music director and guitarist for the Righteous Brothers. Bassist Rick, 55, Barry, 50, and Butch, 45, are brothers to the core, often finishing each other’s sentences or relating events in each other’s lives better than the brother who was actually there.
The brothers, natives of Santa Ana, became hooked by the sound of rhythm-and-blues music in the early ‘50s, listening to deejay Hunter Hancock, who had radio shows on KPOP and KDAY. Rick and his sister Nancy began spending all their money on 78s of B.B. King, Gatemouth Brown, Memphis Slim, Percy Mayfield and others, records they had to drive to Long Beach or Los Angeles to find.
Inspired by the music, Rick bought one of the first Fender electric basses and started the Rhythm Rockers with Barry, who was then just starting high school (Butch joined them a couple of years later). “Those records of black music were really our influences for playing,” Rick said. “The goal for us, the ultimate, was to play that music and be accepted by black musicians. And it turned out after we got rolling with the group, we played in black clubs in Watts for years and the musicians accepted us.”
Along with gigs at Orange County’s Harmony Park and Eagles Hall, the Rilleras played regularly at South Los Angeles’ Will Rogers Park and became fixtures at car-club parties and weddings at Whittier Park in East L.A.
“Some of those got pretty wild,” Barry recalled. “It got to where Rick had to ask for the money up front, because inevitably halfway through everyone would get drunk and start fighting and the police would make everybody go home.”
At the car-club parties, the Rhythm Rockers would often back up such R&B; stars as Larry Williams (whose “Slow Down,” “Bad Boy” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” were covered by the Beatles) and Richard Berry, author of the rock perennial “Louie Louie.” In interviews, Berry has credited the Rilleras with influencing the song, saying it grew out of their arrangement of a Latin number called “El Loco Cha Cha.”
Around 1960, the brothers were hired by Disneyland as members of the Spacemen, a band that soon introduced rock music to the theme park. They said their boss, Sonny Anderson, had to fight to get the black-rooted music accepted at the park at the time.
Between the three working summers at Disneyland and weekends with Dick Dale, Barry put himself through college, gaining a teaching credential from Long Beach State College (now Cal State Long Beach). He taught for a year, then got a call to tour with the Righteous Brothers. He had met Bill Medley when both were in junior high school, brought together by common musical interests. The tall, deep-voiced Righteous Brother had received some of his earliest singing experience sitting in with the Rilleras’ band. In turn, the Rilleras played on all of the Righteous Brothers’ early recordings, and on some after they signed with Phil Spector.
“I went to college because I thought doing the music would only last so long,” Barry said. “Little did I know that the Righteous Brothers were going to last over 30 years and have a hit record 25 years after the fact, and that I’d still be with them.”
Barry’s first tour with the Righteous Brothers was quite a shock for all concerned, in that they were the opening act during the Beatles’ 1964 conquest of America.
“The first gig we did was the Cow Palace,” Barry recalled. “We’d never done anything really big, and we walked in there--the show hadn’t even started and there’s 17,000 people, young girls, just screaming to raise the hair on your back. We went, ‘Wow, what’s going on in here!’ That’s the way it was the whole tour and we finally left it got so bad, where all they wanted to hear was the Beatles.”
Butch cut in. “My favorite story that Bill (Medley) told me was on one of the flights on the chartered jet, Paul (McCartney) came over to Bill and wanted to know if Barry would show George (Harrison) some guitar licks.”
“The thing was,” Barry added, “we had no idea they were so naive about music, but they were just learning stuff we’d only learned maybe a year or two before. I remember it was a couple of years earlier that I learned Glen Campbell was using real thin banjo strings or piano wire on his guitar, so he could bend them. The Beatles couldn’t understand how I could bend strings like that, so I told them. It surprised me that was all new to them. It was kind of like, ‘God, you’re asking us these questions?’ ”
In 1966, Butch also joined up with the Righteous Brothers road band. Rick, by then, had pretty much hung up his bass and was running his own barber shop to support his family. Then in 1968, the Righteous Brothers needed a bass player.
“I wanted to do it, so I talked to my wife about it and she agreed,” Rick said. “I sold the barber shop and I went out on the road with them for almost a year. Then I gave it up. But I wanted to take my last shot and go out with my brothers.”
In the intervening years, Barry and Butch continued to work with Medley and Bobby Hatfield and other acts. Since they were all big Ray Charles fans, Barry had no trouble getting a leave of absence from the Righteous Brothers when he was invited to go on the road with Charles for a year.
“It was an experience just being around him,” Barry said. “He doesn’t limit himself in any way. He flies a plane, rides motorcycles. I went in this recording session once, and Marty Paitch is conducting this full orchestra, and Ray was working the control booth all by himself. That was typical of him. Then performing, some nights he’d get so soulful there’d be tears rolling down the band members’ faces.”
While his brothers continued in music, Rick worked in the “real world,” and currently works for the Anaheim-based high-tech firm Odetics. Having grown up together and then worked together for years, it’s not unusual for siblings to drift apart, “and in a way that happened with us,” Barry said. “Then our mother passed away last year, and that made us stop and realize we hadn’t been around each other that much lately, and that brought us back.”
Rick also was eager to play music again, to apply his and his brothers’ life influences to the blues and R&B; music that had first captivated them four decades ago. He coaxed his brothers into doing a gig. Along for the ride was childhood friend Johnny Lopez (a longtime county blues singer, now pastor of a Lutheran church in Orange) on vocals and old associate Dave Garland on keyboards and sax. Although the show last October was intended to be a one-shot deal, it was such a success the brothers are now in demand. But they want to keep the Rillera Brothers Blues Band as an occasional thing.
“We want it as something we do just for fun,” Barry said. “It’s not like we’re going to go out there and kill everybody. We’re just going to do our thing, and I think it’s the simplicity of it that gets across. We don’t have any earthshaking dynamic energy going on.”
“But we have fun, and that’s what comes across,” Butch said, “We truly enjoy what we’re doing up there. Having gone through so many phases of music over these years, I’d gotten burned out on drumming and had just walked away from it. And to really be able to enjoy playing like this again, and to be having so much fun playing with my brothers again after all these years feels incredible to me. It’s like we’ve gone all the way around and we’re completing the circle here.”
* The Rillera Brothers Blues Band and Debbie Davies Band play tonight at 8:30 p.m. at the Golden Sails Hotel, 6285 E. Pacific Coast Highway, Long Beach. Admission: $5. Information: (213) 596-1631.
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