Once upon a time, rock 'n roll legend Frank Zappa turned an unknown L.A. musician named Rubén Guevara into a bonafide rock star of the '70s. But Guevara's musical journey first got a jumpstart in 1965 on the popular national TV music show, "Shindig!"
Guevara was known as “Jay P. Moby” on "Shindig!" The show producers asked the East L.A. native to change his name to get back at another performer who had quit the series. Guevara didn’t really want to, but he figured it was his first shot at fame. Guevara recalls:
The [Rolling] Stones were on there. James Brown. Everybody, man. So it was a big honor. Bo Diddley was one of my main inspirations when I was little, so that was really cool. We shared the same dressing room. And Tina [Turner], of course. I had my eye on her, but I was looking around for Ike! She was just in her 20s. Beautiful, of course. I was 20 or 21.
Guevara’s mother, Sarita Vara, was as actress. She knew one of the producers on "Shindig!" so she helped him get an audition. Guevara booked a gig immediately. It looked like his career was swiftly on its way as he crooned right alongside some of music's biggest names.
“For the finale of the show, I did a duet with Bo Diddley,” Guevara says. “A Rufus Thomas song called ‘Can Your Monkey Do the Dog?’”
The TV execs loved Guevara’s voice and offered him a regular spot in the cast. But the show was soon canceled and Guevara got his first taste of showbiz defeat. Guevara laughs as he recalls that period:
I wound up working at Chicken Delight — on the Sunset Strip no less, man! That’s just rock 'n' roll. That’s show business right there! The funniest thing is that there was a worker there. He came up at to me and he said, Hey man, didn’t I see you on Shindig last month? I said, Yeah, yeah. He said, What are you doing here? I said, What’s it look like? I’m battering chicken, making coleslaw. I gotta pay the rent!
Fifty years later, despite a career peppered with ups and downs, Guevara is still chasing his dreams at the spry age of 73.
Backstage at the CASA 0101 theater in Boyle Heights, Guevara warms up his voice for rehearsal. He takes the stage this month in his new solo show that recounts the highs and lows of his life in music. It’s called "Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer."
You don’t often read the words “radical Chicano” and “doo-wop” in the same sentence. But Guevara has long claimed both his cultural and musical identity with equal fervor.
As for doo-wop, it’s a music genre that showed up on urban American street corners as early as the 40’s. Guevara grew to love that sound as a boy. He’s been singing it ever since. Which brings us back to the story about how he met and toured with Frank Zappa. Guevara says:
He put a record out called "Cruising with Ruben & the Jets." It’s kind of a doo-wop parody record. My girlfriend showed me, so we went to see him in concert at the Shrine Auditorium in ’69, it was the release concert for the record. I dug the show, it was cool so I wanted to go backstage and shake his hand. I walked up to him and said, Thank you for doing that doo-wop music in this crazy psychedelic period. And by the way, my name is Ruben and I used to sing doo-wop!
As Guevara tells it, Zappa replied: “That’s a grand name.”
A few years go by. Ironically, I met a musician who worked with Frank. I told him I had just done a rock theater piece and he said, Well, you should meet Frank. He’s into rock theater. I’m going up to his house tonight. Would you like you come along? Sure! Hell yeah! We were up all night playing his collection of R&B records. Eventually, we got to talking about modern composers. I was interested in Stravinsky and Bartok. So was he!
Bartok and Stravinsky used folk music intertwined into their classical compositions. I told him I thought Ruben and the Jets was a musical theater idea — kind of Chicano/Mexican American folk music presented in a theatrical way. So then he asked me, How would you like to put together a real Ruben and the Jets? We’ll tour, I’ll produce the album and you can open for us!
Guevara gave it some thought and realized he’d be a fool to pass up Zappa’s offer. It was 1973 and Guevara combined his talents in theater and music to create a fictional character, the front man of a real band called Ruben and The Jets, inspired by Zappa’s fictional band. Guevara quickly became a true rock-star living the high-life. He and his new band toured with Zappa, the Mothers of Invention and other big name acts such as Three Dog Night.
They released two albums with Zappa’s help: "For Real!" and "Con Safos." But the music, the tours and the fame all evaporated. Band members started bickering, other projects came calling, and the curtain came down on Ruben and the Jets.
Over the decades, Guevara never stopped singing or acting. Under the watchful eye of theatre director Dan Kwong, the hard-working performer isn’t letting up as he prepares for his show. Kwong says it’s important for Guevara not to underplay his courageous tenacity:
His highs are so high and therefore the falls are crashes. He’s [gone from performing] for 40,000 people in a baseball stadium to delivering fried chicken. How do you not give up? How do you keep moving forward? How do you hold onto your vision, or adjust your dreams when something isn’t working? There’s something about watching someone crash and burn over and over again that’s kind of cathartic. And you think, Wow, if he can survive that, what can’t I survive? (Laughs)
Perhaps his fellow Chicano actor, Cheech Marin, gives the best nod to Guevara’s survival skills at the end of the film "Up In Smoke.” Guevara was also in a bunch of Cheech & Chong movies, but that’s a whole other story you’ll have to hear at his show. In the meantime, here’s how Marin put it in the movie:
Wow, did you hear that crowd when they gave us a standing ovation, man? We are going to have a bad band. We had them eating right out of their hands. Wow! We are going to be big, man — really big, man. We are gonna like, be bigger than Ruben and The Jets, man, I bet you!
Nowadays, if you ask Guevara, the man once known as the star of Ruben and The Jets says we can simply call him Funkahuatl. It’s a made up name combining the words funk and Nahautl, which was the Aztec language. The moniker seems perfect. After all, Nahuatl means “pleasing to the ear.”
Rubén Guevara’s one-man show, "Confessions of a Radical Chicano Doo-Wop Singer," is at CASA 0101 theater in Boyle Heights. The show runs Fridays-Sundays through July 31.