Sunday, January 07, 2007

Lt. Garcia's Magic Music Box

I like to picture a group of teenagers sitting around their rehearsal garage debating what to call their band: "How about The Echoes?" says the singer. "Nah, The Scoundrels would be way cooler," says the guitar player. After much debate the bass player (the quiet one) finally mumbles, "Lt. Garcia's Magic Music Box." Everybody's mind is blown, and the matter is settled.

Of course that's not the way it happened at all. The Echoes were a band that had a minor hit with "Baby Blue" in 1961, changed their name to The Scoundrels and released a few sides for ABC then hooked up with bubblegum impresarios Jerry Kasenetz and Jeff Katz (aka Super K Productions) who already owned the rights to the Lt. Garcia name and had a pre-made, sure-fire hit song and concept ready for the band. The "hit" was "Latin Shake" written by Joey Levine and Artie Resnick ("Yummy, Yummy, Yummy," etc.), and the concept was that the world was ready for a Latin flavored bubblegum act.

"Latin Shake" tells the cautionary tale of an illegal immigrant named "Jose" who due to lax border enforcement crosses the Rio Grande with guitar in hand. The next thing you know everybody in the U.S. of A. is doing the "Latin Shake" and Jose's records are selling like "hot tamales," presumably cutting into the sales of records created by hard working native born Anglo-Americans. This is why we need a fence people!

Beyond the "Latin" concept, 'Cross the Border is a somewhat unusual bubblegum album in so far as the people pictured on the cover actually played and wrote most of the songs on the record. It is also unusually consistent, with a number of strong tracks beyond the single, "Come On," "Salomila," "The La La Song," and others are first rate bubblegum pop with a psychedelic/Latin flavor.

When "Latin Shake" failed to catch on the Lt. Garcia concept was abandoned, and most of the band went on to become The Ohio Express touring group (the original Ohio Express members left the Super K fold because they were upset about being nothing more than a touring band and a faces on the record covers). Lt. Garcia guitarist Harold Boyle recounts the whole story here.

Reading the interview with Boyle it seems the band was not exactly thrilled with the resulting album, but I suspect their judgment was affected by Kasenetz and Katz's exploitative business practices. "Latin Shake" is genuinely catchy, and should have been a hit. (Within ten seconds of the needle hitting the groove on this album my four-year old son was singing "Ahhhh Shake!") The rest of the album isn't really bubblegum, but unlike the filler on many Super K albums it is good stuff, blending Folk, Latin, Psychedelic, Garage Rock, and even Greek influences into a very tasty mix. This album is much better than a lot of the records that have been reissued and hailed as "lost masterpieces" from the 60s. Some label like Sundazed or Rev-Ola would be smart to reissue 'Cross the Border.

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