Monday, March 14, 2016

Ruben And The Jets - 1973 - For Real!

Ruben And The Jets
For Real!

01. If Only I Could Be Your Love Again 3:34
02. Dedicated to the One I Love 5:45
03. Show Me the Way to Your Heart 5:04
04. Sparkie 4:30
05. Wedding Bells 2:58
06. Almost Grown 2:20
07. Charlena 5:54
08. Mah Man Flesh 2:38
09. Santa Kari 4:29
10. Spider Woman 3:58
11. All Nite Long 2:22

Robert "Frog" Camarena: rhythm guitar, vocals, lead vocals, writer
Ruben Guevara: vocals, tambourine, writer
Tony Duran: lead guitar, slide guitar, vocals, lead vocals, piano, writer
Johnny Martinez: bass, vocals, organ
Bill Wild: bass, second tenor
Jim Sherwood: baritone saxophone, tambourine
Robert "Buffalo" Roberts: tenor saxophone
Bob Zamora: drums
John Martinez: lead vocals
Frank "Zipper" Zappa: guitar

Frank Zappa: producer, writer

Late in 1968, Frank Zappa’s band the Mothers of Invention released the seldom-remembered Cruising with Ruben and the Jets, a tribute to and parody of doo-wop. The album was both spirited and poignant – Ray Collins proved a natural-born lead singer for the style and the harmonies were nearly as sharp – though the lyrics must have sounded skewed to doo-wop purists. Since this predated the rock & roll revival (Sha Na Na formed the next year) and the golden era of doo-wop was still not that far in the past, the clean and simple sound stood in direct contrast to the complex and abrasive music more typical of the Mothers. In fact, the cover art hinted that maybe this wasn’t even the Mothers at all, and more than a few people believed the whole thing was one of Zappa’s pranks (he’d constructed a biography of “Ruben Sano” for the liner notes, using his own high school photo to illustrate it). Most of them came to accept that they’d been had, but it was all in good fun – the kind of put-on common in hip circles back then.

One person who wasn’t fooled at all, though he was mightily intrigued, was Ruben Guevara, himself a doo-wop singer whose high school duo, the Apollo Brothers, had cut one single for a local label back around the time Ritchie Valens ruled locally. Guevara had been kicking around the fringes of the Hollywood and East LA scenes ever since, and had also studied modern composition at City College. “It was doo-wop songs but they were Zappa doo-wop songs,” he remembers thinking after his then-girlfriend introduced him to Cruising. “It didn’t knock me out but I appreciated it as a great piece of theater.” When the Mothers played the Shrine Auditorium, Ruben talked his way backstage and thanked Zappa for helping keep the music alive.

That was that until a couple years later, when Ruben accompanied his friend Bob Harris (a Mothers’keyboardist) to Zappa’s house. They played records and talked all night about their mutual love for R&B, doo-wop and classical modernists like Stravinsky and Varèse, but what impressed Guevara most was Zappa’s love and attentiveness towards his kids. Zappa suggested Guevara form a band called Ruben and the Jets, which Frank would produce. Guevara was initially reluctant because he was then more involved with film than music, and he feared being taken as a joke. But he liked the idea of tapping into Zappa’s audience, so he soon assembled the band and signed with Zappa’s Indiscreet label. “I told Frank I’d do it so long as it wasn’t parody music,” he recalls. “I wanted to do the whole catalog of Los Angeles music – rock, blues, jump, R&B, doo-wop – and with a theatrical edge, like the show bands we used to have in East LA.”

A fictional band had suddenly become a real one.

He succeeded. For Real!, the 1973 debut, featured five singers and material ranging from Zappa’s “If I Could Be Your Love Again” and several originals by Guevara and other band members to a stampeding take of Joe Houston’s “All Nite Long” and a bluesy “Dedicated to the One I Love” that owed more to the powerful Lowman Pauling/5 Royales original than to the Shirelles‘wistful hit that other acts copied; the song went out on a hellacious Zappa guitar solo, apparently his only non-producer contribution to the LP. The harmonies embraced doo-wop, East LA R&B and folk-rock alike, while Robert “Buffalo” Roberts’tenor and Jim “Motorhead” Sherwood’s baritone provided perhaps the last true heyday of rock & roll saxes.

By then there definitely was a strong back-to-the-roots movement, and this was one of its few albums musical enough to avoid being perceived as kitsch a year later. I also remember the album, doubtless to Zappa’s delight, confusing many people: had there been a real Ruben and the Jets all along? If so, why had the Mothers been doing their songs? If not, who were these guys? Guevara doesn’t remember it that way; people came to see them out of curiosity and the Zappa connection, he says, but they were always well-received strictly on their own terms. Either way, a fictional band had suddenly become a real one, though not for long.

Surprisingly good and likeable nostalgia trip, for better or worse. Though a continuation of Zappa and the Mothers' doo-wop parody of the same name (and given producer Zappa's blessing) the tongue-in-cheekness seems almost non-existent here (though this may also be attributed to simply lacking Zappa's uncanny gift for pastiche) and some of the lesser cuts really suffer for inferred "seriousness." When they go wrong, they go really wrong here. I've always hated "Charlena", for one, and they bring nothing new to the table. But enough about the negative stuff, let's get to the highlights!

"Show Me the Way to Your Heart" is the obvious stand-out. With a bit of a euphoric Tommy James vibe, it's good enough to warrant as a forgotten R&B gem with departed Zappa compatriot Tony Duran's soulful lead vocals. The Jets' take on "Dedicated to the One I Love", while otherwise pretty textbook, features an extended vocal/guitar duel with Zappa in fine form, worth checking out for hardcore Zappa freaks. "If I Could Only Be Your Love Again" is an infectious opening track that revels in the kooky weirdness of '50s vocal groups.

I'll admit I'm all too easily ensnared by a cheesy doo wop ballad, regardless of quality, and boy howdy do they ever bring on a couple of good ones in "Wedding Bells" and "Santa Kari". As original and rebellious as cracking a joke about the Star Wars prequels, naturally, but effective nonetheless.

There are good moments and there are bad, but even (most of) the bad ones are suffused with amiable goofballedness, infectious energy, and capable musicianship, making For Real! a mostly pleasant trip to the hop, as it were. Definitely one that lends itself more to CD than vinyl though, if you get my drift... and an, err, "altered" state of mind may also help.