Callers: East L.A. Latin Rock Innovators
by Mark Guerrero
Village Callers were one of the best bands in East Los Angeles
in the late 60s. They were also arguably the first band
with members with roots in the "Eastside Sound"
of the early to mid-60s to utilize Latin percussion.
Their repertoire was a mix of r&b, Latin, and Latin jazz.
They recorded an album in 1968 for Eddie Davis' Rampart Records
called "The Village Callers Live." The album
included an instrumental with a Latin jazz feel named after
their manager called "Hector," which did very well
at the time and has become one of the Eastside Sound's classic
recordings. It's been reissued on several compilations,
used in movies, and sampled by many current and recent rap
artists such as Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys. "The
Village Callers Live" has also been reissued on the Vampisoul
record label, which is based in Spain and internationally
distributed, and on Barrio Gold Records, based in Japan.
The Village Callers also have the distinction of having recorded
a Latin rock version of "Evil Ways" before Santana.
The Village Callers were born out of a band in East L.A. called
Marcy & the Imperials. Marcy Alvarado was a bluesy
singer, guitarist, and band leader. (Marcy went on to
get a masters degree from U.C.L.A, but passed away in the
late 70s.) Future Village callers Joe Espinoza and Adolfo
"Fuzzy" Martinez were members. Joe Espinosa
joined first as the bassist in 1960 or '61. Fuzzy joined
later on. Fuzzy remembers being asked to sit in with
them the first time when their regular sax player, Joe Farfan,
didn't show up for a gig. (Joe Farfan later played with
Thee Midniters for a time in the early 60s.) Fuzzy had
to learn how to improvise on the spot because up to then he
had only been a music reader in school. Other members
of Marcy & the Imperials were Art Guzman on guitar, Richard
Sanchez on sax (who later became a journalist for the L.A.
Times), and Kenny Roman on drums. Kenny, who joined
Marcy & the Imperials as a 13 year old phenom, later was
the founding drummer with Tierra. Kenny Roman was a
dynamo who played with great technique and power on Tierra's
debut album in 1972. One humorous footnote about Marcy
& the Imperials: At one point they ordered some
band cards, which came back from the printers with the name
Marcy & Them Iperials. The letter "m"
was obviously misplaced. The band decided it was kind
of cool and actually called themselves Them Iperials for a
while. (I remember seeing Marcy & the Imperials
play at the Cleland House in East L.A. around 1964.
My band at the time, Mark & the Escorts, played there
a few times in the battle of the bands.)
Gradually, Marcy & the Imperials evolved into the Village
Callers and no one I spoke to from the band remembers exactly
how. Everyone seems to remember it differently.
The name came from Ernie Hernandez, who joined the band on
guitar. Ernie got the name from a Willie Bobo album
called "Village Caller." Johnny Gonzalez and
Manny Fernandez also joined the band on keyboard and drums,
respectively. Marcy was out of the mix by now.
The lead vocalist who wound up being a fixture with the band
in its heyday was a mulato girl by the name of Angie Bell
from San Pedro. She would sing Aretha Franklin songs
and other r&b hits of the day. Other great singers
had stints with the Village Callers in the 60s and 70s including
Ersi Arvisu, until she joined up with El Chicano, Al Anaya,
until he joined Thee Midniters, and Geri Gonzalez, now known
as Geree. The Village Callers were a completely different
band stylistically from Marcy & the Imperials. The
new members brought different influences into the mix.
Ernie Hernandez loved the music and style of guitarist Wes
Montgomery. Johnny Gonzalez was into the blues organ
style of Jimmy Smith. The music of Latin artists such
as Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo were also added to the
brew. At this time, Johnny Gonzalez was taking classes
at L.A. City College where he met a Latin percussionist by
the name of Chuck Masten. He was a chemical engineer
from New Jersey studying music in Los Angeles. Chuck
heard the Village Callers and wanted to join. He was
the final piece to the puzzle. With lively Latin percussion
they could really pull off their Latin repertoire with the
energy, excitement. and authenticity they needed. With
the new lineup in place they could play Latin, Latin jazz,
rhythm & blues, and oldies but goodies. They became
very popular in East Los Angeles, playing all the top venues
such as the Big Union Hall, Roger Young Auditorium, and Montebello
Ballroom. Winning the battle of the bands at East Los
Angeles College in 1966 or '67 also led to more gigs for the
band. They also enjoyed a long run at the Plush Bunny
nightclub in Pico Rivera, despite the fact they were underage.
The Village Callers were an extremely dedicated band.
They rehearsed five days a week, five hours a day. Already
out of high school at this point, they also had a no drinking
or smoking rule.
The manager of the Village Callers, Hector Rivera, knowing
that the band was ready to record, invited producer and record
company owner Eddie Davis to come and hear the band at the
Plush Bunny. Eddie had produced and released records
on many East L.A. bands and singers such as Cannibal &
the Headhunters, The Premiers, The Blendells, The Jaguars
with the Salas Brothers, and many more. Eddie loved
the band and wanted to do a "live" album recorded
right there at the Plush Bunny where they were creating such
excitement. (Davis may have been influenced by the tremendous
success of "Trini Lopez Live at PJs.") The
band's lineup on the record was Joe Espinosa (bass), Charles
Masten (congas & sax), Johnny Gonzalez (organ & piano),
Manuel Fernandez (drums & timbales), Ernie Hernandez (guitar),
"Fuzzy" Martinez (sax), and Angie Bell (lead vocals).
Aside from the original composition "Hector," the
album was made up of cover tunes such as "I Heard It
Through the Grapevine," "Stoned Soul Picnic,"
"Ninety Nine and a Half (Won't Do)," and a load
of Aretha Franklin songs that were Angie Bell's specialty.
"The Village Callers Live" also had a version of
Willie Bobo's "Evil Ways," which was enjoying a
lot of airplay, particularly in San Francisco. Word
later got to them that Santana's producer heard their version
on the radio and got Santana to record it. This is something
that can never be proven with certainty, however, the fact
The Village Callers did it first is undeniable and significant.
Willie Bobo's version was totally salsa. The Village
Callers did it in a Latin rock style. Santana's own
Latin rock version of "Evil Ways" launched his career
and the Latin rock revolution that was to follow with bands
like Malo, El Chicano, and Tierra.
The Village Callers recorded most of their album, "The
Village Callers Live," in one night. It was recorded
very simply with a few overhead microphones and a "live"
mix. The band did go into a studio and record a few
songs, including "Hector." The melody to "Hector"
was written by keyboardist Johnny Gonzalez. Joe Espinosa
also got a writers credit for his contributions. The
song is an instrumental featuring organ lines and solos with
some sax sections. Like the song "Tequila,"
"Hector" would break and a voice would say the name
Hector in an exaggerated way with a humorous Mexican accent.
While Fuzzy Martinez was doing the voice track he started
goofing around making fun of Hector, their manager.
All this good natured fun was done in Spanish and English.
Eddie Davis liked it and kept the comments during the outro
of the record. One of the things Fuzzy says is "Hector,
you're our manager, but you sure are ugly. Tienes la
cara de lastima Hector." The latter phrase meaning
"you have a face that's a sorry or pitiful sight."
To add fatness to the record, the bass was tripled!
The song wound up being so long that it was divided into "Hector
Part 1" and "Hector Part 2" for the single.
"Hector" with its hip Latin groove and Fuzzy's comedic
spoken word contribution caught on in East L.A. and began
to get airplay on the big time am radio stations in Los Angeles.
With the record taking off, the band was contacted by a rival
East L.A. manager, who was trying to steal the band away from
Eddie Davis. He offered the Village Callers $10,000
to go with him and they agreed. $10,000 was a lot of
money to kids just out of high school, particularly in 1968!
According to Joe Espinosa, Eddie Davis got angry and got an
injunction with which he had the record pulled from the radio
stations. In retrospect, Joe regrets having left Eddie
Davis and Eddie expressed some regret to Joe about handling
the situation as he did. Eddie thought he should have
either fought to keep the band or made a partnership deal
with the other manager because the Village Callers would've
probably had a hit record and gone onto some major things.
As the Village Callers' popularity grew they found themselves
playing in Hollywood at venues such as the Haunted House on
the Sunset Strip and and The Cave on Hollywood and Vine.
They would often be on the bill with the 103rd Street Rhythm
Band, a black band from South Central L.A., who were to score
hits with "Loveland" and "Express Yourself."
The bands got along and appreciated each others music.
Pat & Lolly Vegas, later to found the band Redbone, also
played the Haunted House. They even released an album,
"Pat & Lolly Vegas at the Haunted House."
The Village Callers also played the legendary PJs in Hollywood,
where Trini Lopez was discovered. Like with most bands,
there were some tumultuous times. Angie left the band
and was replaced by a new female vocalist who insisted she
bring in her own rhythm section, exit Joe Espinosa and Manny
Fernandez. With this, the band lost their Latin sound
so Chuck and Ernie soon left. The Village Callers, which
was now a rock band, changed its name to Silvanus (the
last name of the new leader). When this band broke up,
Fuzzy, John Gonzalez, and Geri Gonzalez, who had previously
sung with the Village Callers, joined a band called Poverty
Train. This new band toured extensively around California
and in Alaska and Hawaii. Ernie Hernandez joined a band
called Orange Colored Sky, a show band who played Las Vegas
with Burt Bacharach and Frank Sinatra. Meanwhile, Joe
Espinosa was playing with a popular Latin band called the
Sal Chico band. A couple of years later, when Sal decided
to retire, Joe bought the music arrangements, some equipment,
and the name from him for the princely sum of $1200.
Joe shortened the name of the band to Chico and moved forward.
Gradually, former members of the Village Callers joined in
including Fuzzy Martinez, Johnny Gonzalez, Ernie Hernandez,
and Manny Fernandez. Ernie Hernandez eventually moved
on to play with different bands and had a booking agency for
a while called Calendar Entertainment. He also played
with a reunited Orange Colored Sky for a few years.
John Gonzalez, now known as John Livingston, also moved on
achieving success with his company, Livingston Classics, putting
out CDs featuring a blending of keyboards and sounds from
nature. Hector Rivera, manager of both Marcy & the
Imperials and the Village Callers, became a horticulturalist
for the city of Los Angeles and is now retired. Joe,
Fuzzy, and Manny continue to play in the band Chico to the
Here's Chico's current lineup with the number of years in
the band: Joe Espinosa on bass (36 years), Adolfo Martinez
on saxophone (29 years), Bertha Oropeza on vocals & percussion
(13 years), Manuel Fernandez on drums & percussion (25
years), Danny Diaz on guitar (30 years), Gilbert Avila on
trumpet & congas (31 years), and Bill Keis on keyboards
(8 years). Bertha Oropeza is a great vocalist, who has
sung with El Chicano and was in the original cast of "Zoot
Suit." Bill Keis, who's played with the Pointer
Sisters, Chaka Khan, and Edgar Winter, also has his own jazz
quartet. Bill is good naturedly called Guillermo Llaves,
a literal translation of his name into Spanish. Joe
has kept Chico going for 36 years, combining authentic Latin
styles with rock, rhythm & blues, and funk. They
continue to be one of the best and most popular bands in Chicano
music in Southern California. They've recorded three
cds and are working on a Christmas album. For more information
on Chico, visit
is based on audio taped telephone interviews by Mark Guerrero
with Joe Espinosa on November 19. 2007, and Adolpho "Fuzzy"
Martinez on December 12, 2007.