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Julius Wechter; Led Baja Marimba Band

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Julius Wechter, composer, marimba player with Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass and head of his own zany Baja Marimba Band, has died. He was 63.

Wechter, who suffered from and became a spokesman for people with Tourette’s syndrome, died Monday of lung cancer at his Calabasas home, said his son David.

Wechter’s “Spanish Flea” was recorded by Alpert and more than 60 others, was used as the theme for television’s “The Dating Game” and has been heard on everything from commercials to the film soundtrack of “Beverly Hills Cop II” to a recent episode of the Fox TV series “The Simpsons.”

Growing up in North Hollywood, Wechter began playing piano when he was 5. He played with small groups during his student days at Los Angeles City College, then spent four years in Hawaii with Martin Denny, playing marimba in his Quiet Village group.

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Wechter returned to work in Los Angeles recording studio bands with such performers as the Beach Boys, Sonny & Cher and the Righteous Brothers.

He got a call saying “a marimba player is needed for a record Herb Alpert [whom Wechter had met in high school] is cutting in his garage.” The record was “Lonely Bull,” and the garage group became famous as the Tijuana Brass.

In 1964, Alpert suggested that Wechter form the Baja Marimba Band to record what became its trademark, “Comin’ in the Back Door.” The nine-person group made 18 albums, appeared on major television variety shows from Jack Benny to Johnny Carson and performed steadily across the country for five years, including an evening at the White House.

Former Times critic Digby Diehl in 1968 described the band as “a gang of madcap comedians turned instrumentalists who create a delightful brand of good-time music while performing antics that look something like Mexican theater of the absurd.”

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In 1990, after Wechter formed a new sextet called the Baja Marimbas, which performed in At My Place in Santa Monica, he reminisced for The Times about his original band: “We were like the Tijuana Brass’ bad little brothers. Herb and his group would dress in tuxedos and put on a tight, professional presentation. And we’d flop on stage in big sombreros and old clothes with big pasted-on mustaches, smoking cigars and drinking beer.”

Not everybody got the joke. When the band appeared at the Michigan State Fair, immigration officials demanded to see their Mexican identification and green cards. The band members were primarily of Italian or Jewish descent. Not one member was Mexican, spoke Spanish or had even been to Mexico.

When a Times reporter asked Wechter during the band’s heyday just how many Mexicans were in the group, he said candidly: “As many Mexicans as Herb has in the Tijuana Brass.”

Wechter continued to compose for television and scored the Disney film “Midnight Madness.” In 1986, he, his wife, lyricist Cissy Wechter, and Joan Desberg Greenberg collaborated on a musical about fortysomethings. Called “Growing Pains,” it was was staged in equity-waiver theaters and at the Westwood Playhouse.

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When he was 40, Wechter’s lifelong problem with involuntary tics was diagnosed as Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological condition. He became vice president of the Tourette Syndrome Assn.'s Southern California Chapter and spoke publicly about the disease.

A few years ago, Wechter also earned a master’s degree in psychology at Antioch College and became a counseling intern with the Family Service Agency of Burbank.

He is survived by his wife, sons David and Jerry and three grandsons.

The family has requested that any memorial contributions be made to the Tourette’s Syndrome Assn., 42-40 Bell Blvd., Bayside, NY 11361-2820.

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