Sounds Visual Radio
Sounds Visual Radio
Episode 172: Joe Espinosa of the Village Callers

The Village Callers were a prominent musical ensemble from East Los Angeles during the late 1960s, widely regarded as one of the region’s finest bands from that era. Notably, they were pioneers in incorporating Latin percussion into their music, drawing from the “Eastside Sound” of the early to mid-60s. Their musical repertoire encompassed a fusion of rhythm and blues, Latin, and Latin-jazz genres. In 1968, they made a significant mark in the music scene by releasing their album The Village Callers Live under Eddie Davis’ Rampart Records label. In 2019, the Village Caller’s recording, “Hector,” was used in the hit movie “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” directed by Quentin Tarantino.

One standout track from the album was an instrumental piece named after their manager, “Hector,” which exuded a distinctive Latin-jazz/funk vibe. This track garnered considerable success at the time and has since become a classic within the Eastside sound genre. It has been featured in various compilations, used in movies, and sampled by renowned rap artists such as Cypress Hill and the Beastie Boys. The Village Callers Live was reissued by Vampisoul, a record label based in Spain with international distribution, as well as by Barrio Gold Records in Japan. Additionally, the Village Callers made history by recording a Latin rock version of “Evil Ways” before Santana.

The origins of the Village Callers can be traced back to a precursor band in East L.A. called Marcy & the Imperials. Marcy Alvarado, a bluesy vocalist, guitarist, and band leader, initially led this group. However, she eventually pursued higher education and passed away in the late 70s. Key members of the future Village Callers, Joe Espinoza and Adolfo “Fuzzy” Martinez, were part of Marcy & the Imperials. Joe Espinosa joined as the bassist in 1960 or ’61, while Fuzzy, later joining, stepped in when their regular saxophonist, Joe Farfan, was absent for a gig. Fuzzy transitioned from being a music reader in school to an improvisational musician during this period. Other members of Marcy & the Imperials included 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 prodigy, later became the founding drummer for Tierra. An amusing anecdote about Marcy & the Imperials involves a printing error that led to them briefly adopting the name “Them Iperials.”

Gradually, Marcy & the Imperials evolved into the Village Callers, although the exact transformation process remains somewhat hazy in the memories of those involved. The band’s name was suggested by Ernie Hernandez, who had joined as a guitarist and was inspired by a Willie Bobo album called “Village Caller.” Johnny Gonzalez and Manny Fernandez also became integral members, contributing their talents on keyboards and drums, respectively. Marcy Alvarado had exited the group by this point. The lead vocalist during the Village Callers’ heyday was Angie Bell, a talented mixed-race singer from San Pedro who specialized in performing Aretha Franklin songs and other contemporary R&B hits. Over the years, various accomplished vocalists, including Ersi Arvisu (who later joined El Chicano), Al Anaya (who later joined Thee Midniters), and Geri Gonzalez (now known as Geree), lent their voices to the Village Callers.

Stylistically, the Village Callers diverged significantly from Marcy & the Imperials, as the new members brought diverse musical influences into the mix. Ernie Hernandez admired the music and style of guitarist Wes Montgomery, while Johnny Gonzalez was drawn to the bluesy organ sounds of Jimmy Smith. The group also incorporated elements from Latin artists like Mongo Santamaria and Willie Bobo. Johnny Gonzalez, attending L.A. City College at the time, encountered a Latin percussionist named Chuck Masten, a chemical engineer from New Jersey studying music in Los Angeles. Chuck’s addition completed the ensemble, allowing them to deliver their Latin repertoire with authenticity, energy, and excitement. The revamped lineup enabled them to perform a wide range of genres, including Latin, Latin-jazz, rhythm & blues, and classic hits. Their popularity in East Los Angeles soared as they graced renowned venues such as the Big Union Hall, Roger Young Auditorium, and Montebello Ballroom. Their victory in the battle of the bands at East Los Angeles College in 1966 or ’67 further propelled their career, as did their extended residency at the Plush Bunny nightclub in Pico Rivera, despite being underage. The Village Callers were known for their unwavering dedication, rehearsing five days a week for five hours each day, and adhering to a strict no drinking or smoking policy.

The Village Callers’ manager, Hector Rivera, recognized their readiness to record and arranged for producer and record label owner Eddie Davis to witness their performance at the Plush Bunny. Eddie, who had previously worked with various East L.A. acts such as Cannibal & the Headhunters, the Premiers, the Blendells, and the Jaguars (featuring the Salas Brothers), was highly impressed by the band. He envisioned capturing their electrifying live energy by recording an album at the Plush Bunny, inspired in part by the success of “Trini Lopez Live at PJs.” The band’s lineup for the record featured Joe Espinosa on bass, Charles Masten on congas and sax, Johnny Gonzalez on organ and piano, Manuel Fernandez on drums and timbales, Ernie Hernandez on guitar, “Fuzzy” Martinez on sax, and Angie Bell on lead vocals. Alongside their original composition “Hector,” the album included covers of songs such as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Stoned Soul Picnic,” “Ninety Nine and a Half (Won’t Do),” and several Aretha Franklin hits that showcased Angie Bell’s remarkable vocal talent. “The Village Callers Live” also featured their rendition of Willie Bobo’s “Evil Ways,” which gained significant airplay, especially in San Francisco. There is a claim that Santana’s producer heard their version on the radio and subsequently had Santana record it, though this cannot be definitively confirmed. Nevertheless, the Village Callers were undeniably the first to venture into a Latin rock interpretation of “Evil Ways,” a style distinct from Willie Bobo’s salsa rendition. Santana’s Latin rock version of the same song marked the beginning of his successful career and the Latin rock revolution, influencing bands like Malo, El Chicano, and Tierra.

Most of “The Village Callers Live” album was recorded in a single night, using a straightforward setup with a few overhead microphones and a live mix. The band did enter a studio to record a few tracks, including the instrumental “Hector,” composed by keyboardist Johnny Gonzalez, with songwriting contributions from Joe Espinosa. “Hector” featured organ lines and solos, punctuated by saxophone sections, and included humorous spoken word segments in both Spanish and English, with Fuzzy Martinez playfully poking fun at their manager, Hector. These lighthearted remarks, including one that humorously commented on Hector’s appearance, were retained in the outro of the record at Eddie Davis’ discretion. The bass on the track was tripled for added richness. “Hector” gained popularity in East L.A. and received airplay on major AM radio stations in Los Angeles, ultimately leading to a significant breakthrough for the band.

However, as the Village Callers’ star continued to rise, a rival East L.A. manager attempted to poach the band by offering them $10,000, a substantial sum at the time. The band agreed to the offer, causing Eddie Davis to become upset and take legal action, resulting in the album being pulled from radio stations. In hindsight, both Joe Espinosa and Eddie Davis expressed regret about how the situation was handled. Eddie believed he should have either fought to retain the band or negotiated a partnership deal with the rival manager, recognizing the potential for the Village Callers to achieve even greater success.

With their growing popularity, the Village Callers began performing in Hollywood at venues like the Haunted House on the Sunset Strip and The Cave on Hollywood and Vine. They often shared billing with the 103rd Street Rhythm Band, a South Central L.A. group known for hits like “Loveland” and “Express Yourself.” The bands enjoyed a cordial relationship and mutual appreciation for each other’s music. Pat & Lolly Vegas, who would later form the band Redbone, also played at the Haunted House and released an album titled “Pat & Lolly Vegas at the Haunted House.” Over time, the Village Callers faced typical challenges and changes. Angie left the band, leading to the recruitment of a new female vocalist who insisted on bringing her own rhythm section, resulting in the departure of Joe Espinosa and Manny Fernandez. This shift caused the band to lose its Latin sound, leading Chuck and Ernie to exit as well.

Rivera, the manager of both Marcy & the Imperials and the Village Callers, transitioned to a career as a horticulturalist for the city of Los Angeles and is now retired. Joe, Fuzzy, and Manny continue to perform in the band Chico to the present day.

Many thanks to Mark Guerrero for the biographical information and his assistance.

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