Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Original Baja Marimba Band

Many may have forgotten the "original" Marimba band.
from a 1967 summer replacement series show with Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass. This segment clip featured the music of Burt Bacharach, included were Wes Montgomery, Liza Minnelli and the Baja Marimba Band. I edited out Liza.

The Baja Marimba Band was a popular musical group led by marimba player Julius Wechter, initially intended by producer Herb Alpert to cash in on the "south of the border" craze started by his own Tijuana Brass. However the the Baja Marimba Band outlasted the Tijuana Brass by several years, thanks largely to producer Chuck Barris featuring the Baja Marimba Band music on his game shows through the mid-70s.
Julius Wechter took up several percussion instruments as a youngster, including the vibes and marimba. At age 21 he released his first solo album, called Linear Sketches (1956). The album was a straight-ahead jazz date billed as the Julius Wechter Quartet.
In 1958 Julius joined Martin Denny's band where he played marimba (replacing Arthur Lyman) as well as numerous other percussion instruments. Four years later he was paid $15 as a session man on Herb Albert's debut album, The Lonely Bull. Wechter soon composed the popular song "Spanish Flea" for Alpert, who saw his potential and encouraged him to form his own group for A&M Records.
In 1964 the Baja Marimba Band was born, using session men to supplement Wechter. These musicians included, at one time or another, Pete Jolly, Lew McCrary, Nick Ceroli, Hal Blaine, Tommy Tedesco, and Leon Russell. The band hit the charts with its first single "Comin' in the Back Door" and recorded a dozen albums for A&M, as well as being Alpert's support act. The main lineup from 1965-1971 was Bernie Fleischer on reeds, Bud Coleman on guitar, replaced by Charlie Chiarenza in 1968, Frank DeCaro on rhythm guitar, Dave Wells on trombone, Lee Katzman on trumpet, Curry Tjader on percussion, Mel Pollan on Fender bass, and Frank DeVito on drums. Most, if not all, of the band's musicians were seasoned jazz musicians who performed with such artists as Stan Kenton, Don Ellis, Terry Gibbs, Buddy DeFranco, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie.
The group would appear on stage dressed in sombreros and old clothes, with fake mustaches, smoking cigars, and drinking beer, all of which was stereotypical Mexican behavior. Although this brought criticism from Mexican-American advocacy groups, for most Americans it was acceptable "bad boy" behavior, which was part of their image. Also, they appeared in goofy group photos on their album covers, adding a comedic allure (every one of their album covers had a man in the background appearing to be urinating.)
Seen by many as a marketing gimmick, the group rode the wake created by Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass and Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66 in the musically fertile mid-'60s. The albums were cross marketed successfully by A&M, with images of Baja Marimba Band albums appearing on the record sleeves of other A&M products. All three acts were the staple of A&M during this period. The content was considered "adult contemporary" or "easy listening" and consisted mainly of standards, originals and pop covers. Despite the humorous album covers, the music inside was a sophisticated mixture of bossa nova, jazz, and pop elements.
All three groups lost momentum by the end of the 60's as the genre faded away. By the late '60s, Alpert's Tijuana Brass disbanded, but the Baja Marimba Band stayed together for one more album on A&M in 1971 called As Time Goes By. They had a brief reunion in 1973 with an album called The Baja Marimba Band's Back on Bell Records. During the '70s, Julius and his wife, Cissy, collaborated on film scores and musicals.
One last reunion took place in the '80s which lasted a couple of years and produced an album called Naturally in 1982. It featured two original members, guitarist Charlie Chiarenza and trombonist Dave Wells. Original drummer Frank DeVito toured with the group during this time, but was replaced for the recording by drummer Ed Roscetti. Still later, Julius Wechter formed a new group in the early 1990s called The Baja Marimbas with marimbaist Jules Greenberg, and they released one album, called New Deal.
Wechter succumbed to lung cancer in 1999, ending the Baja Marimba Band.

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