Phoenix’s Latino Rockabilly Set Turns the Beat Around

On a small corner stage at Chopper John's, Marco Polo's getting ready to perform with his Mexican psychobilly trio, Curse of the Pink Hearse. Most of the patrons at this biker bar on east Indian School Road in Phoenix are white, blue collar 30-somethings kicking off a late-winter weekend with shots of Patrón and a couple of games of pool, but there's also a handful of rockabilly types, dressed in cuffed blue jeans and leather jackets.

The club manager gets onstage, beneath the blue neon glow of a Budweiser sign. "Kill the jukebox," she says. "It's so cool to have this band here. Marco Polo was, like, the first rockabilly guy in Phoenix, since, like, the '80s. Please welcome Curse of the Pink Hearse!"

Behind her, Marco Polo smiles. He's wearing sunglasses and gripping an upright bass that's almost as big as he is. It's painted to look like a spotted cow. When the band starts to play, Polo assails his bass with fast finger work and half-sings, half-growls into the microphone. "The devil is woman, and the devil have my soul . . . "

Marco Polo
Jamie Peachey
Marco Polo
Mario Moreno
Jamie Peachey
Mario Moreno

Polo's accent is so thick that it's hard to understand what he's singing most of the time, or even whether he's singing in English or Spanish. But it doesn't matter to the crowd inside Chopper John's, because the beat has got their souls. A young, raven-haired woman in tight jeans and a tank top grinds around on her boyfriend's lap at the bar, then grabs another woman in a clingy dress and starts writhing all over her. When an unsuspecting blond woman walks out of the restroom and accidentally bumps into the dancing dames, they grab her and sweep her up into the dance. Even people sitting on bar stools are bobbing their heads and wiggling in their seats.

The beat that moves them is a Latin rhythm, a variation of the habanera, with sharp snare drums punctuating what should be the "weak" or unstressed beats in the rhythmic pattern. The result is a popping, knee-cracking beat that even the most rhythmically challenged can move to.

Onstage, Polo is possessed. The cow bass he's playing once belonged to the late Bruce Hamblin, of The Varmints and The Cowbillies, bands that were at the forefront of the '80s rockabilly revival in Phoenix. Hamblin was one of Polo's heroes — when Polo, now 40, moved here from Mexico City in 1987, he saw The Cowbillies playing on a corner on Mill Avenue in Tempe, and was inspired to start Curse of the Pink Hearse. Hamblin died in 1996 of liver failure; he believed in Polo enough to will his bass to him.

Polo views the cow bass as a portal to the soul of rock 'n' roll, and tonight, it really looks as though he might need an exorcist. With sweat flying from his hair, he bangs his head in time with the breakneck rhythms and makes contorted, grimacing faces that express a combination of pain and ecstasy. He leans over and turns the bass sideways, furiously plucking at the big steel strings and almost mounting the instrument. It looks as if he were wrestling with a heifer.

His passion is earnest — after all, Polo's had to fight hard for a place in the rockabilly scene. "When I first started playing, people told me I couldn't be rockabilly because I wasn't American," he says. "They said, 'You don't have the southern accent, like Elvis.'"


Mexican rockabilly sounds like a strange idea to most people. The pervasive view, even today, seems to be that rockabilly bands comprise white guys with pompadours who drive classic cars and play twangy, reverb-drenched guitar.

But both the rhythm of rockabilly and the custom cars so big within the scene actually have roots in Latin dances and Chicano lowrider culture, so it's really not shocking that the Mexican rockabilly scene is thriving in Phoenix.

Latino artists dominated last weekend's three-day Arizona Rockabilly Festival, dubbed "Tres Días (Three Days) in the Desert." Marco Polo and his bands Acapulco Five-O and Curse of the Pink Hearse played for thousands.

For Marco Polo (born Marco Saldana), being a Mexican who makes rockabilly music isn't so strange. The lifelong rockabilly enthusiast says the genre crosses all cultures. "I've got records from the '50s of Mexican rockabilly, German rockabilly, Japanese rockabilly," he says. "The thing is, everybody told me I couldn't be rockabilly, even though everybody adopted rockabilly, right? Because when people think of rockabilly, they think of country music. But as a Latino, I don't care so much about the country part."

So, Polo says, he took rockabilly and gave it his own twist. "A lot of Latino rockabilly will mix cumbias and norteño music with country music," he says. "What I came up with was a mix of . . . Spanish guitars — like flamenco guitars — and Central American guitar with the rockabilly standup bass and snare and crash cymbal. It's all about the flavor you want to bring."

As an example, Polo talks about Phoenix native Mario Moreno, who played with Bruce Hamblin in The Varmints during the '70s. Moreno's family has been in Arizona for multiple generations — he says his grandmother came to the state when it was still part of Mexico. In the '70s, Moreno was the most influential local figure in Latino rockabilly.

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7 comments
sierra19urias
sierra19urias

first of all the original drummer for the jokers was Robert Urias on base luz gonzalez they are the ones who created the jokers and as for the fabulous jokes well that was just another band that could NOT come up with a name

ethompson11
ethompson11

LMAO ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME? MARCO WAS AND STILL IS ONE OF THE BIGGEST CLOWNS IN THE PHX SCENE.. HE WASNT ONE OF THE FIRST ROCKABILLYS IN PHX... HE WAS ONE OFT HE FIRST HATED... WHO IS THE CLUELESS OWNER OF THE CLUB WHO STATED HE WAS? THAT MAN SHOULD BE SHOT.

James Bailey
James Bailey

Hadley Murrell, . . . "One of the biggest beefs I have is the guys who were really the foundation of music in Phoenix have not been recognized by the Arizona Music Hall of Fame. I really think that's a shame."

I want to thank Hadley for the above statement. If he had not stated it, I would never have went to the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame website www.azmusichalloffame.org and found a number of Chicano musicians from Arizona actually HAVE been inducted there - along with a lot of other really talented people from Arizona. For example, there's a Chicano Artist from Arizona EDUARDO "LALO" GUERRERO who is a member there. The FATHER of Chicano music.

In addition, under "future" inductees, WOW, there's Calderon Ballroom! AND numerous other hispanic/latino musicians and entertainers there.

I believe that Mario Moreno is an inductee in the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame as is Tony Uribe from Tucson. http://www.azblueshof.com

After getting that wonderful history of Hispanics/Latinos/ Chicanos in Arizona music history from the New Times article and then getting "the rest of the story" from the Arizona Music and Entertainment Hall of Fame and the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame, I felt I had really been enriched.

So, thank you Hadley for your highly inaccurate statement - It led me out of ignorance and into a new appreciation for hispanics and latino/latinas in Arizona music history.

OH - BTW - My lead singer's is from Puerto Rico and is the daughter of Rufus Thomas!

Moral of the Story - Don't believe everything a DJ says - double check those vatos!

Belle
Belle

Awesome article! Viva "Razabilly"

Wolf
Wolf

Thank you !!!!!

 
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