‘Cannibal’ Garcia, ‘60s Bandleader, Dies


Francisco M. “Cannibal” Garcia, leader of the Cannibal and the Headhunters pop quartet that epitomized Los Angeles’ Eastside sound in the mid-1960s, has died. He was 49.

Garcia, who had recently worked as a research nurse at USC, died Jan. 21 in Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Los Angeles after a long illness, his brother, Albert, said Monday.

Nationally, Garcia and his group were best known for their hit “Land of 1,000 Dances,” which reached No. 30 on Billboard’s pop charts in 1965.


Combining the words of the Chris Kenner-Fats Domino composition with a rhythm borrowed from Stevie Wonder, Garcia concocted a unique arrangement of a song recorded by several groups. When he first performed the song, he forgot the words, ad-libbing “Na-na-na-na-na.” The improvisation stuck and became the catch-phrase of probably the best-known hit from the Latin-Motown East Los Angeles sound.

Garcia and his backup singers--a group of friends from the neighborhood--earned the chance to record their song on the Rampart label when they attracted the attention of record producer Eddie Davis.

“I went to the Ramona Gardens project. . . ,” Davis told The Times in 1984, and listened to them in a house in the project where they had a single microphone, an amplifier the size of a matchbook and about 14 brothers and sisters running around while they were trying to sing for me.”

He liked what he heard.

The group cobbled together its name from Garcia’s placa, or street name, and what member Eddie Serrano later described as “a social group.” None of the quartet were actively involved in gang activity, but they grew up in the middle of it.

With the success of their record, Cannibal and the Headhunters were hired as opening acts for several of the Motown groups they idolized, touring the country with the Temptations, the Miracles and the Supremes.

“We were so young, a lot of the groups took us under their wings,” Garcia once told The Times. “The Temptations and the Miracles used to do routines in the back room. . . . It was like our training, our school.”


The fame of Cannibal and the Headhunters rose when they were signed as the opening act for the Beatles’ U.S. tour in 1965.

“It took us almost a whole number to get everybody on our side, but we were kids and cute, four little guys up there kicking their legs,” Garcia said years later.

“We used to do splits and rolls and this dance called the Rowboat, where we all would get down on the floor and wiggle our asses down the stage. We used to get blisters but we couldn’t take it out of the show because it was so wild.”

A native of East Los Angeles, Garcia sang with several rock bands before connecting with the Headhunters, and for many years remained a show-stopping performer at the biannual Battle of the Bands shows at East Los Angeles College.

Although Serrano later took over the group name for a revived quartet in the 1990s, the original Cannibal and the Headhunters, like other Eastside groups, died out by the 1970s.

Contributing factors were the fading of local record labels and independent radio shows, along with the Vietnam war that sent many young Latinos into service.


Garcia is survived by his mother, Cecilia Abad; his father, Arturo; two sisters, Cecilia Torres and Sandra Garcia; two brothers, Albert and Roland, all of Los Angeles, and his longtime companion, Craig Duncan of Long Beach.

A memorial Mass is scheduled Feb. 17 at 10 a.m. in Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in East Los Angeles.