[originally appeared in Shindig! issue #127]
Saginaw, Michigan, is an industrial city about two hours northwest of Detroit. In the mid-20th century, migrant Mexican-American farm labourers in the region, seeking greater economic security and stability, settled in Saginaw to work at its auto manufacturing plants. Mexican-American kids in Saginaw in the late 1950s and early 1960s grew up with the Mexican music that their parents loved and performed – mostly the Tejano style, with its rollicking accordion and guitars – but they also listened to Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and other pioneering American rock and rollers. Those diverse influences fueled ? and the Mysterians’ ‘96 Tears’ – which, since its 1966 release, has gone on to be recorded by more than 50 other artists, and has become a modern-day classic.
Speaking from his home in Saginaw, Mysterians guitarist Bobby Balderrama tells Shindig! that the group – which took its name from a Japanese sci-fi movie they saw on TV – started as an instrumental combo, “playing the Ventures, Duane Eddy, all the guitar stuff.” He and fellow guitarist Larry Borjes, along with drummer Robert Martinez, honed their craft in his parents’ garage. “It was a two-car garage, so my dad parked the car on one side, and we practiced on the other side. We had our equipment set up there all the time.” However, when they played gigs, they were continually asked where their singer was, so they decided to add a vocalist. Martinez suggested his cousin Rudy, who became dynamic front man ?, and organist Frank Rodriguez Jr was also recruited to round out the group’s sound. When Robert Martinez and Borjaz joined the US Army, they were replaced by Eddie Serrato on drums and Frank Lugo on bass.
Balderrama recalls that ‘96 Tears’ grew out of a rehearsal jam session. “I was learning how to play the power chords, a G going into C, and Frankie started playing the keyboard, and then the drums and the whole band was playing. ? was singing to it, and then he said he was going to put the words together and write a song. The drummer said, ?, what are you going to call it? And ? said, I’m going to call it Too Many Teardrops. And the drummer said, why don’t we give it a number? What about 69 Tears? Well, we knew that was kind of catchy, but we also thought there were radio stations that wouldn’t play a song with that title. So we turned the numbers around, to 96.”
The band’s manager, Lillie Gonzalez, also ran Pa-Go-Go, a small regional label that specialized in Spanish-language releases. In early 1966, she arranged for the band to record ‘96 Tears’ at Art Schiell’s studio, at the back of his house in nearby Bay City. Schiell’s studio, according to Balderrama, was “a recreation room where he had a pool table. We had to move the pool table out of the way. He turned his closet into a little control room with a window he could see out of, and a four-track recorder.” Gonzalez arranged for 500 copies of ‘96 Tears,’ backed with ‘Midnight Hour’, to be pressed for Pa-Go-Go. But Pa-Go-Go’s music industry connections were “not aware of rock and roll”, says Balderrama, so Gonzalez called the band members in and told them to take the single to record stores and radio stations and ask them to play it. “I remember telling her,” Balderrama laughs, “that I thought that was the record company’s job, not the musicians.”
‘96 Tears’ started getting major airplay in the Detroit area during the summer of ’66, and came to the attention of Cameo-Parkway Records in Philadelphia, which licensed the single and released it nationwide. The single rose up the charts to #1 and set off a dizzying round of promotion and live appearances for the band – whose members, at that point, were just into their teens: Balderrama was 15, and Rodriguez was 14. Balderrama recalls that time as “like a dream. We used to watch Shindig! and Hullabaloo and all the TV shows like that, and when we started our band we wanted to be on those shows. By the time we made it, some of them had ended, but we were on American Bandstand and Where The Action Is and Swingin’ Time up in Windsor [Canada, across the river from Detroit].” ’96 Tears’ was also released internationally. Robert Martinez, who was then stationed overseas, was on a night out with his Army buddies in Germany when he heard it being played in a bar. “He told all his friends that was his old band, and they thought he was a liar,” Balderrama chuckles.
But things started to go sideways for ? and the Mysterians when Cameo-Parkway tried to take a more active hand in their career. The band had a second hit single,’ I Need Somebody’, in late ‘66, which was followed by its first album, 96 Tears. Label head Neil Bogart tried to push the Mysterians into recording more songs that sounded like ‘96 Tears’, which they were adamantly opposed to. Other mysterious dealings with the label went on as well. Bogart brought them Bobby Darin’s song ’Beachcomber’ and suggested that they “run through it” in the studio as an instrumental, but surreptitiously recorded them as they played. He jokingly told the band he was going to release it as a single by the Semi-Colons, and then did exactly that – without telling them. Balderrama didn’t even know the record existed until nearly 30 years later, when a friend asked if that was him playing on ‘Beachcomber’.
A second ? and the Mysterians album, Action, followed in 1967, but Bogart then persuaded the band to sign a new agreement with Cameo-Parkway. Unknown to them, the agreement essentially gave ownership of all the band’s music to the label. The group retaliated by suing Cameo-Parkway, and were able to get some of the agreement voided on the grounds that they were minors when they signed the agreement. But Cameo-Parkway struck back by dropping them from the label and stopping promotion for their single ‘Do Something To Me’. The Mysterians moved to LA to make a third album for Tangerine Records, which was never released, and then disbanded.
‘96 Tears’, however, took on a life of its own. It was covered by the likes of blues singer Little Maybelle, Aretha Franklin, The Music Explosion, Garland Jeffreys, and The Stranglers – and probably every reader of this magazine has heard it played by at least one bar band, or had a go at playing it themselves. It also became an extremely popular number, in translation, for Spanish-speaking bands all around the world. One of Balderrama’s friends made him a compilation tape with every cover of the song he could find, and Balderrama was astonished to hear versions that he wasn’t even aware of. But he was especially thrilled, he says, when he learned that John Lennon said ‘96 Tears’ was one of his favourite songs.
? and the Mysterians reunited in 1995, with most of the original members, and have played on and off since then, including their own Spanish-language version of ‘96 Tears’. ABKCO Records is now re-releasing the 96 Tears and Action albums on vinyl – much to the delight of the band’s aficionados, since both have been unavailable in any format for quite some time. In addition to playing with the Mysterians, Balderrama has moved into a career as a “smooth jazz” guitarist. His Robert Lee Revue has recorded two albums, and a track that he co-wrote and performed on with Rodriguez, Le Sonic’s ‘Any Moment’, has just reached #1 on Billboard’s Smooth Jazz charts. That gives him and Rodriguez two chart-topping singles, in different genres, more than 55 years apart. “Now,” he says, laughing, “we’re not a one-hit wonder any more.”