Farmer John

Eddie Davis was a Los Angeles entrepreneur, more specifically a restaurateur-turned-record company owner. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at a singing career ("Teen Age Brain Surgeon," a post-"Purple People Eater" novelty track, is one of those "bad" '50s records best left forgotten), he made one last-ditch attempt with the Harold Arlen-Ted Koehler '30s classic "Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea," credited to Ed Davis and Connie Stevens, a record so poorly received he decided to give up singing and stick to producing (Connie, on the other hand, gained fortune and fame shortly afterwards with TV's Hawaiian Eye and two other guys named Ed: she sang with 77 Sunset Strip's Edward "Kookie" Byrnes and became the third wife of serial-husband Eddie Fisher).

Eddie and Connie's "Devil" disc made its brief appearance in 1959 on Davis's own label, Faro (named for the card game and a variation on the word Pharaoh, or Egyptian king), which he had started the previous year in an attempt to have better control of his career in the unforgiving music biz. He couldn't have guessed at the time that he would be a key figure in the early-'60s development of Chicano rock and roll, a mini-movement (or a major one from the viewpoint of tens of thousands of L.A. teenagers) among Mexican-American combos from East Los Angeles and surrounding cities, musicians inspired by '50s rhythm and blues, revered rocker Ritchie Valens and the as-yet-unseen British Invasion.

One of these "East Side" groups, The Premiers, rehearsed at the San Gabriel home of guitarist Lawrence "Boy" Perez and his brother, drummer John Perez, who made up half the original band with bassist Frank Zuniga and rhythm guitarist George Delgado. People from all over the neighborhood came to see them in their Pendleton shirts and khaki pants, banging out ruff 'n' ready renditions of "Louie Louie" and other early garage band standards at informal back yard practice sessions. When offers came for them to perform at parties and wedding receptions, mother Perez took the role of the band's manager, making one logical request: learn a few traditional Mexican songs for the older folks attending the weddings. The teenage band suddenly had more gigs than they could book in any given weekend (often three per night) and mom began to have a hard time keeping it all straight. Someone told her about a local band manager, Billy Cardenas, so she gave him a call.

Cardenas was a manager for other local bands (among them The Romancers and The Blendells); after auditioning the Premiers in early 1964 he was impressed enough to make them his top priority, booking the band into venues that constituted the "circuit" for Chicano musicians in those days: the Paramount Ballroom, the Rhythm Room in Fullerton, the Montebello Ballroom and Pomona's Rainbow Gardens. They did some shows as a backup band for Lil' Ray (birth name Ray Jimenez), who'd been working the area's dance halls for a few years; a live Lil' Ray single, "Shake! Shout! & Soul!," which credited the Premiers, was released on Impact, a label distributed by Art Laboe's original Sound Records. Billy insisted they dress more presentably, so, inspired by the style of the freshly-invading British acts, they took to wearing snazzy matching suits. By that time Eddie Davis had added a few more labels (Linda, Rampart and Boomerang) to his Faro family in an attempt to do for L.A.'s Mexican artists what Motown founder Berry Gordy had done for black singers in Detroit. Cardenas recommended the group to Davis and he agreed to give them a shot.

The Premiers

Don and Dewey (Don Harris and Dewey Terry), a rocking R&B duo from Pasadena who wrote their own material, had waxed several amazing sides for Specialty Records in the late '50s. Although they never hit big as singers, other acts including The Olympics (with "Big Boy Pete"), Dale and Grace (with "I'm Leaving it Up to You") and others had success remaking their best material. Billy suggested the Premiers tackle Don and Dewey's 1959 original "Farmer John," a variation on the joke about the traveling salesman falling for a farmer's daughter ('...the one with the champagne eyes!'). The label of the Faro 45 proclaimed: Recorded "live" at the Rhythm Room, Fullerton, Calif., though in reality the session was held at a studio in Hollywood with audience sounds provided by several members of an East L.A. car club, the Chevelles, and a handful of the group's friends (Davis owned the Rhythm Room, so it was, perhaps, a sneaky way to get some free advertising). The label displayed head shots of the four group members, a gimmick Davis used on other Faro singles.

"Farmer John" made an immediate impact in Los Angeles, hitting the top ten on radio playlists in May '64 within several weeks of the recording session; as a bonus, the flip side, an instrumental slow dance sax groove called "Duffy's Blues," had a sizeable Latino following (saxophonists Philip Ruiz and Joe Urzua played with the group in the studio and on the road during this time). Cardenas had connections at Warner Bros. Records and made an arrangement with the label for national distribution; the single made the top 20 on the Billboard and Cash Box charts in July and was followed by Farmer John "Live," a longplay dose of faux-live songs (Cardenas supplied what has become an infamously weird intro to the longer version of "Farmer John," asking the question on everyone's lips: "Has anybody seen Kosher Pickle Harry?"). The band joined Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars that summer, crisscrossing the U.S. and parts of Canada on a tour headlined by Gene Pitney, Major Lance and The Crystals. Later they opened for The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five and other major acts. The Premiers spent much of the next two years on the road, earning most of their income from live performances.

Warner Bros. released two more Premiers singles in 1964 ("Annie Oakley," written by Romancers leader Max Uballez, and a remake of The Fiestas' Johnny Otis-penned 1959 hit "So Fine"), while Davis sought to capitalize on the band's hit with two related Faro releases, "The Return of Farmer John," a joint effort by vocal duo The Salas Brothers and instrumental band The Jaguars, and "I'm in Love With Your Daughter" by The Enchantments, both labels sporting mug shots in the usual Faro fashion. By early 1965, Warners had finished with the Premiers and they were back on Faro. Meanwhile, Davis and Cardenas succeeded in getting more Chicano acts on the charts, first in L.A. and then from coast to coast: The Blendells' "La La La La La" (another alleged Rhythm Room recording) hit locally on Rampart in the summer of '64 and nationally on Reprise (a WB subsidiary) in the fall; Cannibal and the Headhunters scored with their remake of Chris Kenner's "Land of 1000 Dances" on Rampart in early '65.

The band had a few more records on Faro and even took a stab at joining the early psychedelic subculture in 1966 with "Get on This Plane." Frank Zuniga and Lawrence Perez received draft notices and both wound up in Vietnam, effectively ending the group, though the first wave of barrio bands were rapidly running their course (in the '70s and '80s, groups like El Chicano and Salas Brothers band Tierra kept the tradition going). The Premiers, and many of the other trailblazing Chicano rock bands, still have a following in L.A.'s Latin community and among fans around the world who have since discovered the unique, addictive sound that came blasting out of the East Side in the '60s.

- Michael Jack Kirby


Farmer John