Pioneering Chicano rock 'n' roll originator Chris Montez, famed for frantic international 1962 hit "Let's Dance," is one of the most exciting performers still working from that era. Now 73 years old, Montez, who appears Saturday at Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, projects an eerily youthful presence that's' completely natural and slightly mystical — it's as if his illimitable passion for music has both nurtured and somehow preserved him. And his schedule of shows is equally remarkable.
"I just did 48 shows in England, Scotland and Ireland," Montez said. "Came home and did the [Buddy Holly-Richie Valens memorial] Winter Dance Party in Iowa and I go back to Europe in April."
While his local appearances are relatively few and far between, they are reliably electrifying. Montez' clear-toned, emphatic vocals and old school rock 'n' roll guitar style crackles with a soulful, rebellious drive; informed by Southern blues and rockabilly yet imbued with the rich spice of urban West Coast Chicano life, Montez conjures a magnificent sound.
It's an ability that he first began to develop as a small boy in his hometown of Hawthorne, California, where he was born as Ezekiel Christopher Montanez on Jan. 17, 1943. "I grew up with four sisters and four brothers," he said. "I was the youngest boy and all my brothers were always singing rancheras, the Mexican folk songs. I'd sing harmony and strum along the guitar — growing up, music, that was my life really, right from the beginning."
"And later I started listening to the Everly Brothers, because of the harmonies, and Chuck Berry. Even though I had two other guys that I played with, I never really thought about being a rock 'n' roll artist, not really. It wasn't easy to play like Chuck Berry."
After Richie Valens rose to prominence, everything changed. "There were no Chicano rock 'n' rollers, at that time, at all. He was my idol," Montez said. "And one day my idol came to Hawthorne and he played the hop. I watched him from at the back of the crowd, because it was packed, so many people came. And suddenly, I turned and Richie is standing next to me. And I just gasped, I really couldn't express what he meant to me. He shook my hand and was really nice. That was the greatest moment of my life — and in that moment, the door opened, that was the whole foundation of my career."
Montez made slow but steady progress, eventually scraping together enough money to record a self-funded demo recording. "I'd written a song called 'She's My Rockin' Baby.' I thought it was good, and we recorded it down at a little studio in Long Beach, with just two guitars and a drummer."
"One day I came home from school and my mom said 'Someone keeps calling and talking about a record.' It turned out that the engineer on the demo session had given my name to some producers, so I went in and talked to them."
They changed his name — "I'd been calling myself Zeke. I thought that was a pretty cool rock 'n' roll name!" — and came up with "Let's Dance," which zoomed into Top 5 on the pop charts of America and Britain. Thanks to the disc's relentlessly banging Farfisa organ and Montez' untamed shout, he became the proverbial overnight sensation.
Ironically, he said, "I didn't want to do the song. It wasn't like Richie. I wanted to do rock 'n' roll and ballads. It's funny. I still really don't know how to take it."
He found himself touring the U.S. with Sam Cooke: "I'd watch him every night, how he would sing directly to the girls, a wonderful experience. I learned so much from him. It was a revelation." And in England, an up and coming act called the Beatles served as his opener. But everything fell apart as suddenly as it began.
"I had a falling out with Monogram Records — it turned out they were keeping all my funds. I lost some of my royalties," said Montez. "So I quit, went to college to study music, to improve myself, because I was musically illiterate."
A few years later, a musician friend persuaded Montez to accompany him to an appointment at A&M Records in Hollywood. Once there, he said, "I'm being introduced to Herb Alpert, and when he found out I was the singer on 'Let's Dance.' He asked me to come to the label."
"I wanted to do rock 'n' roll, and we recorded a few things but Herb didn't like it. In the back of my mind I thought 'This is what I don't like about the music business.'" Nonetheless, after Alpert persuaded him to cut a version of Petula Clark's "Call Me," Montez found himself back on the pop charts, initiating an Alpert-Montez collaboration that resulted in a series of now classic gorgeously rendered pop ballads.
"It was wonderful," Montez remembered. "Herb was a great man, very honest, easy to work with and we had a lot of success."
At Joe's Great American though, Montez is finally going to bear down on his true calling: rock 'n' roll.
"I have to step back into the past and be that Chris Montez," he said. "I don't want to disappoint anyone who came to hear 'Call Me,' but we are going to be doing a lot of songs that I haven't performed in years, so I hope it's going to be a real rock 'n' roll audience."
Where: Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank
When: Saturday, March 7, 8 p.m.
More info: (818) 729-0805