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Leonard Calderon was also an unconventional promoter at the time — he was one of few venue owners who would book black acts in the '60s, so now-legendary artists like the Ike and Tina Turner Revue, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, and Little Richard played on the same stage as Phoenix's Chicano bands, who were also socially segregated.
Phoenician Santiago "Sandy" Flores, then a teenager, recalls what it was like to play drums for the Calderon Ballroom's house band, The Jokers (later Those Fabulous Jokers).
"Back in the '60s, Van Buren was the median between the north and south, and blacks and Mexicans did not cross onto the north side of Van Buren," he says. "And we built up such a following and did so well that we didn't need the north side."
Indeed, the '60s were truly swinging for the Latino community in south Phoenix. Freddy Blanco, known as "Mama's Little Boy Freddy," was spinning records in front of the now-defunct 12th Street Record Bar for kids of all colors at night, and the scene at places like the Calderon Ballroom, the Riverside Ballroom, the Hullabaloo, and The Satin Doll (all long gone now) was filled with brown faces and the sounds of local Latino artists like Those Fabulous Jokers, Pete Bugarin, Bennie Banda, Roy and the Dew Drops, The Majestics, Eddie Dimas and the Upsets, The Soul Setters, the Acevedo Orchestra, and Los Chamacos.
"All of those groups are the basis of where Chicano rock started in Phoenix," says Hadley Murrell, a DJ at KCAC AM in the '60s who also promoted shows and produced records for many of the Valley's Latino R&B and soul bands. "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."
A chapter in the 2008 book Chicano Soul by Ruben Molina chronicles Phoenix's early Chicano music scene and groups like Those Fabulous Jokers, but it's been a scarce shred of recognition for the Valley's seminal Latino musicians. "Nobody's ever said what Mexican-Americans contributed to the music scene here in Phoenix," Flores says. "We were all over. We played everywhere. We pretty much laid the groundwork for all the Chicano bands. Why are they going to forget us?"
Two things happened in the '70s to push Phoenix's vibrant Latino music scene into obscurity: the Vietnam War and disco. Many local Latino musicians, including Sandy Flores and his brother Tony, were called to duty in Vietnam. "The war came and took me and, then, took my brother," Sandy Flores says. "And when we came back, it was pretty much disco time."
Arizona music historian and record collector John P. Dixon thinks one reason few people remember the Valley's pioneer Chicano musicians is because "80 percent of the people in Phoenix moved here after the scene was over," and also because none of the city's Latino bands ever really broke out of Phoenix. "On a local level, the contribution of Latino artists was great," he says. "Certainly, there were great records. There's a ton of great rockabilly songs recorded here — none of them hits. I think it was a matter of luck, and at the time, it was hard to bust out of Phoenix. As a band, you'd really have to get off your butt and tour. Radio was still fairly tight then, too. And local bands didn't get a whole lot of airplay."
The Calderon Ballroom carried on through the early '80s, hosting well-known punk acts like Black Flag and D.O.A., but eventually closed its doors after being sold in 1984 and was torn down. Today, only a cold concrete slab remains.
A handful of the Valley's early Chicano musicians still play gigs, including Sandy Flores and Andy Gonzales, who played his first show at the Calderon Ballroom in 1964, when he was just 13. Gonzales still performs with the band Barrio Latino, though he says he's taken his band off "the taco circuit" of the same local clubs everybody else is trying to play and performs only at corporate functions now.
"You can sit around and complain, 'We can't find work because the kids are taking over,'" Gonzales says. "Well, good. That's what we did. Generations change."
Fernando Figueroa is tired. It's a week before the Tres Días rockabilly festival and he's driving a street sweeper as part of his job for the city of Phoenix. It's a muggy Monday afternoon, and he's been up all night with his newborn baby. He's drinking coffee, trying to stay awake. "I'm hoping maybe I can catch a nap sometime today," he says, stifling a yawn.
Not much chance of that. When his regular workday is done, Figueroa, 32, will head home to work on his own business, a local concert promotion company called AZ Rockabilly (www.azrockabilly.net), where he's known as "Wolf." For the past five years, Figueroa's been booking shows around the Valley for national rockabilly bands like The Quakes and Long Gone Trio, as well as showcasing local acts. For the past three months, he's been preparing for the massive Tres Días festival, held last weekend at F1 Race Factory in Phoenix. It's pretty much another full-time job for him, except it doesn't pay his bills. In fact, he's had to funnel a lot of his own money into the company to keep it going.