By Todd Houston
The 1960s in American pop was a time of top-40 acts being churned through the system as fast as they could turn out a new single. Countless bands came and went and now fill the infinite “One-Hit Wonder” collections that litter the shelves of lower-fare disc shops.
One of those acts was a five-piece out of Michigan, ? and the Mysterians. Led by their enigmatic frontman who claimed he was from Mars (six years before Ziggy Stardust would descend on the Earth), the Mysterians topped the charts in 1966 with “96 Tears,” a keyboard-driven single that helped define the era.
This week, Rockford Rocked Interviews catches up with Robert Balderrama, the guitarist and co-founder of the Mysterians, as he discusses the band’s short time at the top; his battle with prostate cancer; and rekindling his love with jazz guitar.
RRI: How do three kids from immigrant families get together in the early ‘60s and become a chart-topping band? In Michigan, never the less?
RB: Our parents were migrant workers from Texas and my father and brother got jobs at General Motors here in Michigan. So, we weren’t migrant workers anymore. (laughs)
RRI: The original band was a trio with you (lead guitar), Larry Borjas (guitar) and Robert Martinez on drums before you added keyboard player Frank Rodriguez. Tell us how you found Question Mark (singer).
RB: Well, Robert Martinez said he knew a singer so we tried him out and he could sound like Mick Jagger.
RRI: Was there ever any pressure from the record company to sound more like The Beatles or the Rolling Stones early on?
RB: There was a lot of music coming out from the U.S. and England with that Vox continental sound so we thought it would be wise to follow the trend. But, Frank Rodriguez was taught by Nuns and they made him an exceptional piano player. His dad bought him a Farfisa organ which sounded like a Vox keyboard. My brother knew (Frank’s) uncle who mentioned that his brother’s son played keyboards, so we thought he was a lot better than any one of us but so young. I would say he was a child prodigy and I feel we were right. The song “96 Tears” is dominated by his keyboards which I thought was a big part of the song and made it unforgettable.
RRI: I read that you guys were originally influenced by surf music but the Motown sound out of Detroit must have been a huge influence as well. Thoughts?
RB: I was influenced by The Ventures and all the famous guitar instrumentals. I was still learning to play the guitar and those kinds of songs were not hard to play. I was the one that would come up with all the songs to play until we got Question Mark and Frank Rodriguez in the band. We were not influenced by Motown, although Question Mark did like songs by Little Richard. We would play those kinds of songs plus what was on the radio so we could play the teen dances in the area.
RRI: The single “96 Tears” reached number one on the charts in 1966 followed up by “I Need Somebody” and “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby.” Many bands have covered “Tears” including, Aretha Franklin, Thelma Houston, Todd Rundgren and Iggy Pop. What’s your favorite version?
RB: We released “I Need Somebody” and it made it to the Top Twenty hit list but didn’t hit like “96 Tears.” Neil Bogart asked us to record “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” (written by Denny Randell and Sandy Linzer). He wanted us to make it sound like “96 Tears.” I guess that is what record companies did back then: trying to use our sound with the keyboards dominating that made us big. The best version I heard was Aretha Franklin but my favorite was Joe King Carrasco. He sped it up and it was really driving, I actually played with Joe King in the mid-eighties for almost 5 years, when he was on the New Wave ride.
RRI: What was it like being on American Bandstand?
RB: It was great because we use to watch it on Saturdays. We would be practicing at my parent’s farm that my dad had bought; I guess he couldn’t get the migrant work out his blood. We would practice in the garage, we would stop practice to see who was on. Then when we were on there I thought Dick Clark was a real nice person and he liked the band so he hired us for his cascade of bands with hit songs. We did quite a few tours with all those bands back then.
RRI: The band Smash Mouth had a hit with “Can’t Get Enough of You Baby” in 1998. Please tell me you got a little slice of that pie! (laughs)
RB: Yeah, Smash Mouth did our song but we didn’t write it, so we didn’t get anything. But we did meet Smash Mouth when we were on tour in the ‘90s in San Francisco.
RRI: I understand you just beat prostate cancer. A big congratulations to you on that! Are you getting back to playing and performing at all?
RB: Yes, I am in remission and thank you for that. We play as The Mysterians; Question Mark was a lot older than me and Frank and doesn’t want to perform anymore, so we go on as The Mysterians playing our hit songs and song from our two albums. I also have a smooth jazz group called Robert Lee Revue. We have released two albums and working on our third. We had only four songs to complete when I was diagnosed with prostate cancer but I did catch it early (thanks to) a friend who told me to get tested.
Now, I promote early testing with my friend; his name is Pete Woodman. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer too and is cured. He played drums with Dick Wagner (Lou Reed, Alice Cooper) in the ‘60s and also played with ? and the Mysterians when our drummer at the time got into a car accident. I did have a song that went to No. 27 on the Mediabase Smooth Jazz Chart, called “Happy & Go Lucky.” I thought we had another hit but I was happy to get to #27. We have had a lot of singles in the smooth jazz radio that have played our music all over the world.
Now that I am in my mid-60s, I still love playing instrumentals so smooth jazz was a calling. I enjoy playing jazz on my guitar; it is my passion. I will always perform until I can’t anymore but recording is the best.
RRI: What’s next for Robert Balderrama?
RB: Well, right now I am writing an e-book. I had a lot of friends and relatives ask me to write an autobiography but it seems a lot of artists who had hit records do that. I thought of writing an e-book about guitarists that I was influenced by and actually met playing with ? and the Mysterians and Joe King Carrasco. Great stories on how I met each one of them. I also list some famous guitarists that I didn’t meet but was also influenced by them also.
I feel it would be a great read for the younger guitarists that are influenced by their favorites too. I think we add up all over favorites, learn from them and create our own style; that is what happened to me. The e-book will be out in mid-summer 2018.
We released a single called “JazDude;” it’s on YouTube. The reason I am mentioning this song: me and my son learned 2D animation and we did the song totally in 2D animation. It was fun learning. Check it out here: youtube.com/watch?v=dyG-7YK3-8I. R.
Photo, Andrew Rogers