Moreno plays a variety of musical styles, from blues to cumbia to rockabilly, and he says when The Varmints started playing in the Valley in the '70s, they were "really the only rockabilly band in Phoenix."

"We used to play in south Phoenix at a tiny little bar called Ron's Lounge," Moreno says. "That was the scene then. Not many people knew about rockabilly. It was an underground thing that sort of emerged with the punk scene that was happening here."

Indeed, the late '70s and early '80s saw the melding of rockabilly with punk, which spawned the "psychobilly" genre. Interestingly, it's been national artists with a punk edge who've paid tribute to the Latino side of rockabilly. One of the late Joe Strummer's projects after The Clash disbanded was Joe Strummer & The Latino Rockabilly War. Reverend Horton Heat grew up in Texas and was influenced by Tex-Mex music, which shines through on his album Liquor in the Front. Big Sandy (of Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys) recorded an entire album in Spanish (Rock En Español, Vol. 1) with Nashville band Los Straitjackets.

There are, perhaps, more Latino bands than ever playing some form of rockabilly music now, including national acts like Pep Torres, Gambler's Mark, Moonlight Cruisers, Connection The Band, and Calavera. Some say the end result of more than 50 years of musical inbreeding is that rockabilly belongs to everyone now, whether it's Anglos from Texas playing twangy guitar riffs or Chicanos from L.A. putting accordion solos in boogie-woogie songs. But others, like Marco Polo, say rockabilly will never really be their bag.

"Rockabilly is not for Latinos. I don't care what anybody says. People say, 'I'm a Chicano, I play rockabilly.' But you're Chicano. You're always gonna be Chicano, you're always gonna be Mexican," Polo says. "You have to find your own sound. I still called what I did 'rockabilly' for many years, but now I've come up with the name 'spycho,' which is a combination of spy music and rockabilly. It's music to paint a movie in your mind. It's more exciting. That's what I think defines 'Latino.'"


In the early '50s, country music (then called "hillbilly music") shacked up with a young genre called rock 'n' roll to produce a bouncing baby named "rockabilly." Who delivered that baby is debatable, but the historically celebrated pioneers of rockabilly include Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and brothers Johnny and Dorsey Burnette — all white men.

Nobody really argues the impact of black roots music on rock 'n' roll, or that the breeding of rock with country created rockabilly. But if historical accounts of the genre were a movie, there would be some important things missing from the end credits.

Carl Perkins once described rockabilly as "a white man's song with a black man's rhythm." But the rhythm of rockabilly is, in fact, a permutation of a Latin rhythm. It's called habanera, and it's a rhythm of eighth notes in 2/4 time (somewhat like a swinging tango) that originated in Cuba in the 19th century. It can be heard in various forms on numerous early rockabilly recordings: bouncing through the saxophone section in Bill Haley's 1954 version of "Shake Rattle and Roll," popping out of the bass lines and swinging through the saxes on Little Richard's "Slippin 'n' Slidin," driving the drums on Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock," and most notably, giving Elvis Presley's 1956 rendition of "Hound Dog" its signature, springy beat.

One of the most notable early rock 'n' roll hits was "Wooly Bully" by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Sam the Sham was Latino, born Domingo Samudio in Texas, and "Wooly Bully" was one of few songs by American artists to crack the top five on the Billboard charts in 1965, when the British Invasion dominated airwaves.

But in those early days, Latinos weren't supposed to make rock 'n' roll. They were supposed to play traditional Mexican music for a Mexican audience, and any crossover required a makeover — which is why the first hugely influential Mexican-American rockabilly artist, Richard Valenzuela, became the more anglicized Ritchie Valens.

The legacy of Valens, who died at just 17 in the infamous 1959 plane crash that also killed Buddy Holly and "The Big Bopper" J.P. Richardson, lives on through the 1987 biopic La Bamba and was enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001. But many other influential Hispanic artists — particularly the Chicano musicians who helped pioneer the rockabilly and R&B scenes in Phoenix — have been forgotten and are still waiting to be recognized for their contributions to the city's musical culture.

One of the most important figures in Phoenix's early Latino music scene was businessman Leonard Calderon. He opened the Calderon Ballroom in the early '50s. By the early '60s, the place was packed every weekend for Latin music nights.

"The Calderon Ballroom was the place for the Mexican community," says Frank Barrios, author of Mexicans in Phoenix. "Just about every Hispanic from Phoenix went to the Calderon Ballroom. That area was called the 'Golden Gate Barrio,' and people took a lot of pride in being part of that community."

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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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