Follow The Music
"Cannibal and The Headhunters"
There was a shy sparkle in his eyes and he had a smile that spread from ear to ear. When he spoke, his voice came from deep within his throat, a gentle raspy whisper. It seemed he couldn’t speak without smiling. There was always a joy in his speech as if every phrase recounted a happy memory. There was a true gentle kindness in him. Everybody liked Bo and Bo loved music.
I never called him Cannibal, I knew him as “Bo.” His given name was Francisco so he was called Frankie he was a foster child from Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles, California. As it happens with all children of the barrio, the neighborhood tested Frankie; sometimes he was forced to stand his ground, sometimes he needed to fight his way through rough surroundings. There are many stories about how Bo became Cannibal, but the one the barrio cherished was that he earned the name when he or his brother bit an opponent’s ear off in a fight.
From a distance, you could see the rhythm in his walk. Just by watching Frankie move, you could almost hear the song in his head. He could name all the oldies, artists, and the record labels they recorded on. Frankie was music personified. Harmonies were his first love, and rhythm and dance his mistresses. He prepared compulsively. He was contagiously charismatic – put him on stage, give him a backbeat, and be swept away by the melody. I loved making music with Bo. We built songs with the same giddiness as two children preparing a Christmas gift for their parents. It was fun.
Long before Frankie and I met on stage, we crossed paths in an unlikely place – the storm drains of the Los Angeles River. I have always been a loner; it was by choice, I was never lonely. I enjoyed wandering daydreaming and contemplating life, living in my head on my own. As I wandered I sang, and my songs led me to the L.A. River and its large storm drains. I would stand inside the concrete tunnels and sing, my voice reverberating endlessly off the cold curves; I was not alone. As I walked along the dry river bottom, voices and music spilled from other tunnels. Other singers and doo-wop groups filled the L.A. River with music in this East L.A. version of Tin Pan Alley. This is where I first encountered Bo. He was a wanderer, too. We would acknowledge each other with a nod in passing to and from our concrete amplifiers. In my last visit to the L.A. River, I saw Frankie and his group being jumped by a gang from the barrio. Urban legend has it that, above a mêlée, a voice cried out, ‘Cannibal!’ I didn’t hear it that day, but that is often how legends go.
It seemed as though everyone in the barrio had a nickname...Old Man, Frog, Goofy, Tin Man, Willie Lump Lump, Magoo and Rabbit. Before Frankie was Cannibal, he was Bo. I am called Max after my father, and his father named him Melquedes. The person who filled out his birth certificate wrote “Max” instead and, in a single moment of cultural carelessness, made the decision for my father and for me. My grandfather called my father Maques, and everybody called me Max. Years later, a promotion man named Russ Reagan would change my name to Maximilian so that the Los Angeles radio station KFWB would play my record. My true name, Max Uballez, was too ethnic and obviously Hispanic, and so they changed it.
Melquedes and Bo; Maximillian and Cannibal. The names that took our voices out of the barrio hid a deeper story.
Many years later Billy Cardenas and I were promoting dances in East L.A. We needed more bands so we began organizing our own bands and vocal groups. We placed Bo with a band called The Rhythm Playboys as their lead singer.
How Cannibal got his name falls under the category of “urban legend”, which brings me to another urban legend tied to him. ‘Naa Na Na Na Naa’ This is the main hook-line that carried “Land of 1000 Dances,” by Cannibal and The Headhunters. This is the song that would put him on the international music charts. The magic of that hook line is often described as a mistake but, as with all legends, there is more to that story.
The story as promoted by Eddie Davis, President of Rampart Records, and echoed by the group in all their interviews, was that Cannibal forgot the lyrics to the song while onstage and sang, ‘Naa Na Na Na Naa” instead. This was an Eddie Davis idea intended for use as a promotional tool to gain attention, which it did. Cannibal and the group supported the story and “sang their parts.” The ‘Naa Na Na Na Naa’ story is told as if everyone recognized the hit song that night and then ran off to record it - Urban Legend.
Anyone who knew Bo knows that he was obsessive in his preparations from harmony and arrangements down to coordinated choreography. Every note, every word, every step was compulsively prepared and rehearsed. Forgetting the lyrics was inconceivable for Bo. Yet, a mistake it was cast. There were several twists and turns, obstacles and ironic opportunities, that would occur on the way to producing this hit record.
It was a warm summer’s night in August of 1964. The Rhythm Playboys with Bo on the microphone were playing for a crowd of teens at the Lake Arrowhead campground. As the band began to play “Land of 1000 Dances,” the microphone cable failed and the vocals began to switch on and off. Unflustered by this, ‘Bo signaled the band to loop the song while he chanted ‘Naa Na Na Na Naa’ into the microphone and waited for the sound tech to replace the cable. It took several minutes for the cable to be repaired.
Naa Na Na Na Naa.. Naa Na Na Na Naa.. Naa Na Na Na Naa …
Once the microphone was fixed the band played on and finished their set. When the band completed their set for the night, they were unaware of the impact created by the technical problem and the addition of ‘Naa Na Na Na Naa.’ This is the story that Bo and Bobby Hernandez told me.
This was obstacle and ironic opportunity number 1.
The next evening, the audience would make history with their requests: “Play the Na Na song!”
It’s difficult to discern exactly what the audience heard on that first night as the microphone was clicking on and off. Unbeknownst to the audience, they were asking for a vocal warm-up riff. During sound checks, Bo would often croon ‘Na Na Na’ instead of ‘testing-testing-one-two-three’ and, on this fateful night, he used it as a placeholder during technical repairs. Bo understood their requests and gave the audience what they wanted. Little did he know, as he looped “Land of 1000 Dances,” that a legend was born. Sometimes a song idea comes as a melody or words that rhyme and you work with and it it grows. Paul McCartney woke one morning and sang out “Scrambled Eggs” which evolved into “Yesterday,” this was not an accident - this was an artist applying his craft.
Bo loved doing harmonies and always wanted to have a doo-wop vocal group. Billy Cardenas had been searching for a group to back Cannibal, and Billy would name them Cannibal and The Headhunters. The Jaramillo brothers and Richard Lopez auditioned for Billy and they fit the bill. Bo continued to perform Land of 1000 Dances at shows with the new added hook-line. Other groups in the area began to perform the song in the same way and it grew in popularity. Months after that August night in 1964, we realized we might have something here. So, a recording session was set up with Cannibal and The Headhunters backed by The Rhythm Playboys to record our new version of “Land of 1000 Dances.” I worked with Bo to rearrange the song and define Bo's hook-line. We agreed to share the credits.
Obstacle and ironic opportunity number 2 appeared.
Billy Cardenas, who managed The Rhythm Playboys and Cannibal, decided at the last minute to cancel the recording session. He called The Rhythm Playboys and told them not to back Cannibal on this record. I was told that Billy planned to record the song with Ronny and the Pomona Casuals. So, there we were in the studio, stranded without a band. Billy Watson, the bass player for The Rhythm Playboys, was the only one who showed up to support Cannibal. We started making calls, searching for musicians to use on the session. Several musicians, along with the Blendells showed up in support of Cannibal. Now we had a studio packed with musicians, many of them brought their girlfriends along. Cannibal and I went to work building a new arrangement showing everyone their parts; we wanted to utilize all talent we had available. We now had a big band and this required a new arrangement, and we did it there in the studio.
This process, from the broken microphone cable to the missing band, would have another twist. We had two bass players.
Obstacle and ironic opportunity number 3.
We decided to use two bass players, Billy Watson and Mike Rincon. This was the first time two bass players have been used in a recording, so I’ve been told. Once Bo and I completed the arrangement, we ran through the song a few times. That’s when we heard “the sound” and it was not coming from the singers or the musicians.
Obstacle and ironic opportunity number 4.
The friends and girlfriends in the studio were singing along as we prepared to record. Normally, we would ask everyone in the studio to be quiet as we recorded, but the girls’ singing chorus was something special. Tony Valdez was sitting in the control room with me and he said, “It sounds like a Gregorian Chant.” We decided to add a few overhead microphones and I directed our studio group when to sing along.
Obstacle and ironic opportunity number 5.
When we first released the record in October 1964, we could not get any airplay. Rudy Benavides suggested that we cut off the song’s introduction, ‘You know I feel alright children,’ and just fade in. We did cut it off and re-released it. It worked. Thank you Rudy.
This was irony number 6.
It is important everyone recognizes that this creation was not done unintentionally. There were many obstacles to overcome in the creation of this record. Yes, there was a spark, an awareness of the possibilities on that first night at Lake Arrowhead. But, it was only the first building block in the production of the record. The Lake Arrowhead incident occurred in August 1964. The record was released in January 1965, and the song had been through many changes.
From his meager beginnings in the barrio, Bo worked hard to develop his craft. Obstacles exist in creating a hit record and there were many obstacles in creating “Land of 1000 Dances.” This recording was not accidental. ‘Bo worked assiduously through all the challenges and he should be recognized and remembered for this achievement as an artist.
I want to thank all the East L.A. musicians and their girlfriends who supported us in this creation. I believe the success of “Land of 1000 Dances” could never have happened without you and the spirit of support from the East L.A. music community. The overhead mikes installed to pick up your voices gave the room a big sound.
I realize that the mistake, “I forgot the words,” has been extensively reported and there will be many who will not believe me. That’s okay it won’t be the first time. Upon hearing that I had produced “Land of 1000 Dances,” a music historian from Texas called me a liar. He said, “It has a big sound that only Phil Spector could have produced. Who are you anyway?” Thanks for the compliment.
I always focus on the positive. We had come a long way from the L.A. River to an international hit record. Who would believe that voices that once echoed through the sewers of The L.A. River would echo around the world? I remember dropping Bo and the Headhunters off at a small airport in the middle of the night for their very first airplane ride. They were on their way to the East Coast. I remember working on “Follow The Music” while Bo preformed at the Hollywood bowl with the Beatles. King Curtis would be his back up band on our next single and we needed to record him the day after the tour ended. I didn't mind missing that historic performance as I felt I was doing something just as important and historic. I relived all those moments and more as I delved into the past with joy.
Francisco Mario “Frankie-Bo-Cannibal” Garcia was an artist. While many do not recognize the title, “Land of 1000 Dances,” they have heard and recognize his melodic mantra, ‘Naa Na Na Na Naa,’ played on the radio, television, by marching bands in parades, schools and professional sports games around the world. Cannibal and The Headhunters toured extensively and Frankie was able to share the stage with the top recording artists of the time. It was all a dream come true for Frankie. The story would be perfect if not for one occurrence, one unfortunate ..... “If only.”
This was unfortunate irony number 7.
Chris Kenner composed and recorded “Land of 1000 Dances” originally and had given Fats Domino half the publishing rights as an incentive for Fats to record the song. Fats Domino was listed as co-writer even though he had nothing to do with the song’s creation. Frankie and I had completely changed the song and we expected writers’ credits. So, Eddie Davis had a meeting with the publishing representative for “Land of 1000 Dances.” Eddie told us that our request for credit as co-writers was denied. We decided to compose Nau Ninny Nau and include the Na Na line to give Eddie some leverage, nothing happened. I have just learned why. We were young and we trusted Eddie.
I have a clear memory of Eddie and I thought his family’s inheritance of Rampart Records would be my final memory of him. Now I have a new memory of Eddie Davis. I discovered Eddie’s recollection of his meeting with the publisher’s representative. I just learned this today and reading Eddie’s statement shook me. I must share it here, as this is a large part of our story.
“He (Publisher) said I could forget paying any mechanicals for the use of the song and that he wouldn’t bother me if I didn’t bother him. It sounded like a good deal to me and I agreed... Unfortunately at that point in time I was somewhat naïve and not too knowledgeable about the publishing business... I (later) realized my “mistake” in regard to the publishing...” -Eddie Davis.
Eddie’s “mistake” was not claiming writers’ credits for us. By not doing this, he gave away the most valuable rights to the song - the performance rights. Covered by several recording artists, the song is in constant rotation on the radio worldwide. I will leave it to someone else to calculate the financial loss for all of us.
It has been over 50 years and I’ve just learned of this. Nonetheless, I am not one to get involved in what might have been. I can’t imagine Eddie’s pain over the years, recognizing that he gave away the golden egg. I am surprised Eddie Davis did this and even more surprised that he did not know what he was doing. I must laugh at the Irony, the Na Na line was originally cast as a "Mistake" and here it is now tied to what may be one of the biggest "Mistakes" in music publishing history. Things are what they are and we must move forward. This is what happened and this is reality and not an “urban legend”.
This was unfortunate irony number 8.
This record was released in 1965, and we are still talking about it. I hear it play on Muzak as I work out at the gym. I think to myself, ‘I did that.’ I have heard East L.A. referred to as “The Land of 1000 Dances”; there is a book written with the same title and a Face Book page.
I composed two more songs with Bo, “Follow the Music” and “Nau Ninny Nau,” which was based on another harmony warm-up riff. We also produced one album together, Cannibal and The Headhunters–Land of 1000 Dances. Cannibal and The Headhunters would continue to tour. On the historic final Beatles’ stadium tour, they played Shea Stadium, the Hollywood Bowl, and the San Francisco Cow Palace. After about eighteen months of touring, Bo decided to replace The Headhunters with different backup singers. He moved to New York with his new backup singers and he continued to tour. In 1969, back in East L.A., Bo would expand The Headhunters from a singing group into a band. The new Headhunters would include Robert Zapata on drums. In 1979, he took some time off and went to nursing school; he wanted to help people. Two years later, he returned to music - the thing he loved the most. In 1983, after years of touring, Bo called the band together and announced that he was retiring. Unfortunately, he was forced into retirement Bo was poked with a needle and contracted aids.
This was unfortunate irony number 8.
Bo was aware of the recognition that Cannibal and The Headhunters had brought to his community worldwide and he carried that banner proudly. He wanted this recognition to continue worldwide after his passing. So, Bo transferred all his rights to Robert Zapata and Eddie Serrano and asked them to continue to carry that banner. He supported them as they applied for trademark ownership in 1984. The group continued to send Bo payments from all of their shows. Cannibal and The Headhunters led by Robert Zapata continue to tour today, sharing the stage with a multitude of internationally known recording artists and, thus, maintaining their stature among the royalty of international recording artists. They begin every show with a dedication to Frankie Cannibal Garcia.
Francisco Mario “Frankie-Bo-Cannibal” Garcia.
Born April 22, 1946, Boyle Heights Los Angeles, California.
Frankie sang his last note on January 21, 1996.
He was 49 years old and his music lives on.
I once heard someone say,“In the end, your passion leads to your heaven.”
I hope this is true for my friend Bo.
Listen and watch below and “Follow the Music”.
Max Uballez, an excerpt from Dog Town Stories©2018 Chuydecabrabooks by Max Uballez, All rights Reserved
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I don’t consider time’s passing until someone I care about does. My friend Billy Watson passed away on Monday, April 13, 2015. It has taken me a few weeks to confirm his passing. His family held a small private service, as he requested, on May 2nd in El Campo, Texas. It bothered me that Billy left us and no one seemed to know about it. So, I sat down to write about Billy.
The year was 1970, the gig was over and it was 2:00 a.m. The band packed their stuff and drove to Hollywood to help Billy test his recording equipment and hear what they sounded like on tape. Billy’s “studio” was in a small house just off the Sunset strip. The room was filled with mattresses stacked against every wall for sound reinforcement. The band set up their equipment. There were no expectations, it was just another night off the Sunset strip, jamming, and Billy Watson was becoming a recording engineer. He let the tape roll. At the end of the night, the mattresses came down and Billy’s studio became a crash pad.
The next morning, Billy Watson edited and mixed those tracks from last night’s tape. He was practicing and developing his editing skills.
Billy’s tinkering with his tape machine would affect many lives.
He took a practice tape that most people would have erased or tossed into cardboard box in the closet and he created an international hit, “Viva Tirado.” The record was number 1 in Los Angeles for thirteen weeks.
“Viva Tirado” was also the recording that would create El Chicano and launch their recording career. Without Billy’s work, we would just have silence and El Chicano would not exist. I am sure they are thankful for Billy’s dream.
A multitalented musician, Billy also played bass on our production of “Land of 1000 Dances” by Cannibal and the Head Hunters and he played bass for the Premiers. He was always there when he was needed.
Without Billy Watson’s work, this music would have never been heard. While his creation has been heard worldwide, few have heard his name. It is common for managers, promoters and record company execs to gain fame and take bows for work they didn’t create. Many others have taken the credit for this recording and the success it launched. The release of a six-and-a-half-minute instrumental recording with no lyrics was unheard of and would never have been considered by most. Billy had vision.
Billy was an artist and was not concerned with the business of it all. For him, it was all about the music and the sound. That night and into the next morning, Billy Watson, in the midst of developing his early recording production skills, created an international hit record – a classic recording – that is what producers do.
I want Billy Watson to be remembered for his genius.
Billy was a good friend and a superb recording engineer. Billy was friendly, jolly and shy, not one to take bows. I just want everyone to know that my friend Billy Watson recently passed away in his usual quiet, shy manner.
Please close your eyes, float back to 1970 with me to a poorly lit, smoky room filled with mattresses. Listen to Billy’s creation and share his late night dream. Press the link below.
an excerpt from Dog Town Stories©2018 Chuydecabrabooks by Max Uballez, all rights reserved
Excerpts from Dog Town Stories ©2018 Chuydecabrabooks
Upcoming book by Max Uballez
"Cannibal and The Headhunters"
an excerpt from Dog Town Stories
©2018 Chuydecabrabooks by Max Uballez
All Rights Reserved