The Premiers 1964 promotional picture (Frank Zuniga rear center, standing with bass guitar)
A musician who helped define the distinctive sound of early '60s garage rock is being laid to rest tomorrow in Riverside.
Frank Zuniga was a fresh-faced Latino kid from San Gabriel when he and some friends formed the Premiers. The Chicano rock band quickly became fixtures of East L.A. booming club scene – and even attracted crowds to its backyard rehearsals.
After a couple of years of steady gigging, the Premiers cut its debut single in 1964. Seeing the success that Portland garage rockers the Kingsmen had with its cover of “Louie Louie,” the band chose a little known R&B nugget from the 1950s called “Farmer John” (originally written and recorded by Pasadena duo Don & Dewey). The Premiers shook the song to life with savage guitar riffs, a squawking saxophone, wailing dual vocals and Frank Zuniga’s chugging bass line.
“Farmer John” blasted the Premiers to number 19 on the Billboard Hot 100. That led to a deal with Warner Brothers in 1965.
An album “Farmer John Live” followed, as did bigger stages. The band landed gigs opening for the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and others.
But musical tastes were shifting fast, fueled by new sounds coming from San Francisco and the U.K. The band took a stab at psychedelic rock with a snarling but ultimately unsuccessful single called “Get on This Plane.”
It’s arguably the band’s most powerful moment on record. The garage rock blog "Away from the Numbers" calls it “a hypnotic sting of aural pleasure. Just why records don't sound as good as this anymore fills my head with sadness.” It would be the Premiers’ swan song.
Frank Zuniga soon found himself on a plane – to Vietnam. He and Premiers guitarist Lawrence Perez were drafted.
The band dissolved in the late '60s, but continues to enjoy a devout cult following. Its blistering version of “Farmer John” has since been covered by countless other garage and punk bands as well as the White Stripes, Roomful of Blues and most famously by Neil Young & Crazy Horse on their 1990 album “Ragged Glory.”
Frank Zuniga eventually settled in the Coachella Valley, where he passed away last month of heart disease. He’s survived by his wife of 44 years and three children. Zuniga will be laid to rest at Riverside National Cemetery on Thursday.