The soulful 1960's Chicano rock 'n' roll sound that put East Los Angeles on the musical map was one of Southern California's most distinctly urban, joyful styles. Yet one of the movement's earliest, most influential and successful groups, the Premiers, first came to life in a small-town San Gabriel backyard over 50 years ago. Within 24 months, the casual, mostly instrumental outdoor rehearsals started by Lawrence and John Perez had transformed the siblings into leaders of a nationally known act, one with a devastatingly catchy Top 20 hit, "Farmer John".
Along with Richie Valens and Chris Montez, the Premiers, who perform on Saturday, June 15 at Burbank's Viva Cantina, were at the forefront of the explosive Chicano rock scene. As teenagers in 1962, guitarist Lawrence Perez and his drum playing brother John drafted neighborhood pals George Delgado and Frank Zuniga. With their mother's encouragement, the band regularly jammed out behind the Perez home. Crowds gathered, and steady small time local gigs soon followed.
"It happened fast," Lawrence Perez recalled. "We were playing out in the backyard, then playing dances and the occasional wedding and all of a sudden you're traveling all over the place. We were only like 15, 16 and, at that age, you usually don't do that stuff like that. It was quick and it was exciting."
"Farmer John", with it's simulated "live" feel and unusual double lead vocals, was an irresistibly atmospheric record that took on a life of its own and became the de facto party anthem for the entire Eastside. The Premiers version (it had been composed and introduced by Pasadena duo Don & Dewey in 1959) climbed to No. 19 on the pop charts in 1964.
The Premiers swapped their barrio khakis and Pendletons for sharp matching suits and hit the road.
"What was weird was, we had this attitude — to us it was no big deal, but we didn't know how big it was," Perez said. "But now and I look back and I just say 'shoot!' Because we were up there, playing shows with Diana Ross & the Supremes, the Zombies, Dave Clark Five, the Crystals, the Dixie Cups — we toured all over with those guys."
"The Beatles put a little damper on our music," Perez continued. "Because everybody went to that, they changed what they listened to. The British stuff was very different from the really good rock 'n' roll that was going on here. If you go back and look at the top 10 or a KRLA playlist, it was a real variety of music. It was open, every song was different, and we'd listen to all of it."
A 1967 alliance with the Standells' Larry Tamblyn resulted in one of the most prized examples of vintage Los Angeles garage psychedelia, "Get on this Plane". With Perez' urgent, stabbing guitar and lysergic Pied Piper lyrics, the song was an instant classic.
"We started going with what was happening on the radio, that kind of psychedelic thing. We didn't do too much of that but I did have a little fuzz box to give it that sound. I liked that sound. Larry Tamblyn already had part of the song, thought it would be good for us so he and George Delgado got together and wrote it. Lyric-wise, we went into a different mode there, which I really liked."
Almost immediately after the single was released, the military conscription of both Perez and bassist Frank Zuniga effectively broke up the band and decades passed before they re-grouped. The Premiers gigged sporadically and in early 2011, Perez suffered a dreadful double whammy when his longtime spouse and Zuniga passed away within a week's time.
At a memorial concert featuring the remaining Premiers (along with the surviving bands of the East L.A. old guard: the Headhunters, Blendells and Jaguars), the Perez brothers noticed several wildly enthusiastic fans. "They were the youngest guys there," Perez said. "And it was like 'what are you doing here?' They had heard on the radio that this was going to be happening and they came. They were dancing around, came up, introduced themselves, said they were big Premiers fans. And it was the Shag Rats and that's how we met 'em."
The Shag Rats are R&B-punk stylists and one of the top bands of East L.A.'s new breed. Members of the Shag Rats will join the Perez brothers at the Viva show, and it is a very winning combination of the old and new schools.
"George [Delgado] still lives up in San Gabriel," Perez said. "We use him once in a while, but he's got a studio now and concentrates on that. He doesn't want to play anymore."
"But the Shag Rats are great, and with them we've found our little niche, where our music fits with what the kids are going for now," Perez said. "And it's still exciting."
Where: Viva Cantina, 900 W Riverside Dr., Burbank
When: Sat., June 15, 9 p.m. Free admission.
More info: (818) 845-2425.
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."