Wednesday, October 14, 2009

? & Mysterians had rare No. 1

Saginaw rock band ? (Question Mark) & the Mysterians
took "96 Tears" to the top of the charts in 1966,
no small feat for a group whose song first appeared on
a tiny independent label.


During the format's heyday in the 1960s, thousands of 45 rpm singles were released on small labels, but few became chart toppers, with the notable exception of "96 Tears" by ? (Question Mark) & the Mysterians.

Formed in Saginaw, the band was comprised of Rudy "?" Martinez (vocals), Bobby Balderrama (guitar), "Big" Frank Rodriguez (organ), "Little" Frank Lugo (bass) and Eddie Serrato (drums).

"96 Tears" reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart in the fall of 1966, making the Latino group into garage band legends.

From the first time I heard it, "96 Tears" was one of my favorites.

Although Martinez is credited as the composer of the song, it's actually his original lyrics for "Too Many Tears" with instrumentation added by the Mysterians.

The song was wildly received when the band played it at Mount Holly ski resort and other teen dance venues around the Saginaw tri-city area.

Hoping to get their song committed to vinyl, the band approached Saginaw entrepreneur Lilly Gonzales, whose family owned an independent record label, Pa-Go-Go. Based at 408 Hazel St. in San Antonio, Texas, the label name was derived from the owner's names: Pato, Rudy and Manuel Gonzales.

Lilly Gonzales was impressed by the group. She agreed to manage them and scheduled time at Art Schiell's home recording studio in nearby Bay City to cut "96 Tears" and another original, "Midnight Hour."

Lead singer Martinez, born in 1945, delivered his committed vocals when the group recorded on March 13, 1966. "Too many teardrops for one heart to be cryin'," Martinez sang, his lyrics charged with emotion.

Vox organ accompaniment by Rodriguez added more power to the song.

Soon after the taping session, 750 copies of the seven-inch disc were pressed on the yellow Pa-Go-Go label, assigned catalog number 102.

"96 Tears," 2 minutes and 57 seconds in length, was registered at BMI by Ed Arguello Publishing Co.

With product in hand, Gonzales and the band began pushing the 45 to radio stations, looking to get airplay and additional exposure for their 45.

Saginaw radio broadcasters picked-up on the tune and its popularity spread to stations in Flint and Detroit.

Catching the public's attention, "96 Tears" became the most requested song on Flint's WTAC and Windsor's influential Top 40 station, CKLW, broadcasting 50,000 watts across the river from Detroit.

Neil Bogart, an executive at Cameo-Parkway Records, soon came calling, offering ? & the Mysterians the national distribution which Pa-Go-Go lacked.

Home to Chubby Checker and Bobby Rydell, Cameo-Parkway looked like a good choice to Martinez. He apparently chose the Philadelphia-based company in part, because he liked the orange color of their record labels.

Re-released with a shorter fade-out as Cameo-Parkway 428, "96 Tears" swept the country, selling more than one million copies. It knocked "Reach Out I'll Be There" by the Four Tops, another Michigan act, out of the No. 1 position on Oct. 29, 1966 and charted for 15 weeks.

The young rockers, who took their name from a 1957 Japanese science fiction movie, went from local to national success in just a few months.

Television got into the game too, with ? & the Mysterians appearing before millions of teenagers as guests on "American Bandstand," "Where the Action Is" and Detroit's own "Swingin' Time."

Teens were impressed by Martinez, who always wore wrap-around sunglasses, whether performing or being photographed.

Fans were further intrigued because the group's frontman insisted on the question mark moniker and refused to reveal his real name.

By year's end, Cameo-Parkway issued an LP ("96 Tears"), and a second single, "I Need Somebody," which reached No. 22. The song charted for 10 weeks.

R&B singer/pianist Big Maybelle tried to capitalize on "96 Tears," issuing her own version in early 1967. Coincidentally, her record stalled at No. 96. It was her only pop chart entry.

Meanwhile, Cameo-Parkway issued another ? & the Mysterians LP ("Action") and three more singles in 1967. "Can't Get Enough of You, Baby," reached 56 and "Girl (You Captivate Me)" nicked the chart at 98. Their final vinyl of 1967, "Do Something to Me," failed to make the Top 100.

Unfortunately, Cameo-Parkway was about to collapse financially and take their roster with them.

By the end of 1967, the company was sold to the late Allen Klein, who went on to manage the Beatles and Rolling Stones.

In succeeding years, ? & the Mysterians moved on to other record labels, including Capital, Tangerine, Super K and Chicory. Besides "96 Tears," Martinez registered an additional 24 songs with BMI during his career.

In the early 1970s, a Martinez-engineered comeback effort brought the band to the Upper Peninsula. The group was booked by promoter Gene Smiltneck to play a teen dance in Escanaba sponsored by Bands Unlimited.

My wife Sue, who worked for Smiltneck, recalled a well-attended event. "Local kids were quite excited to see such a legendary group," she said.

Athough fans continued to be interested in their early recordings, label owner Klein kept the ? & the Mysterians catalog out-of-print until 2005. At that time his Abkco Records released a 27-track "Best of" collection which included both ? & the Mysterians albums and their last Cameo-Parkway 45.

Martinez was back in the news in early 2007 when his home near Clio was destroyed in a fire.

The property was not insured and a number of benefit concerts were organized to help the music veteran get back on his feet.

In the last four decades, artists such as Aretha Franklin, Garland Jeffries, Music Machine and Iggy Pop, have testified to the greatness of "96 Tears" by recording their own versions.

More than one-hit wonders, ? & and the Mysterians needed only that single song to achieve rock 'n' roll immortality.

By the way, if you have a copy of "96 Tears" on the original Pa-Go-Go label, it might fetch up to $500 today.

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