In December 2002, Chris Montez was a rare joy to interview from among the myriad of artists performing on “Oldies” venue shows. Proud of his notable past work (“The More I See You”, “Let’s Dance”, etc.) he set himself apart from most of his peers in that he continues to pursue new & original ideas in music. When this interview was conducted, Chris was wrapping up an extensive European tour on “The All American Solid Gold Rock ‘N’ Roll Show”, sharing billing with other “blasts from the past” like Bobby Vee And The Chiffons. Unlike his fellow performers on that show, Chris distinguished himself as a man who is anything but content to sit back and revel in his past glories.
From December 2002, conducted backstage at London’s historic Palladium, here is that interview:
Meeting Chris Montez at the Palladium! Photo courtesy of the author.
For Chris Montez, sitting with me backstage at The London Palladium after his vibrant performance on the “All American Solid Gold Rock ‘N’ Roll Show”, where he shared billing with other “blasts from the past” like Bobby Vee And The Chiffons, things are definitely “swinging right” in both his life and career.
SP: Chris, at the risk of embarrassing you, I gotta say that you look amazing (he will be 60 years old this year, but even UP CLOSE looks not a day over 45)!
CM: Well, when you get my age and you have a three year old child, then you gotta make some big changes in your lifestyle, if you plan on still being around to see your child graduate from high school! But you know, it really isn’t that hard to do. I do feel young still, but at least I have the good sense to know that I cannot do the foolish stuff I did when I was a young man. Back then, it was nothing for me to stay up all night, drinking and partying. I’d get pretty much wasted, especially on the road. Nowadays, I know when enough is enough!
Even when I’m home, I’ll have a beer with my wife, sure, but then that’s it! For me at this time in my life, The real “high” is just enjoying my family, especially my three year old daughter.
SP: One of the big disappointments for me is that you continue to be passed up on a nomination into The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Speaking for myself, you rank among the top artists from Rock’s so-called “Golden Era”, yet every year the nomination committee pass you by.
CM: Well, frankly I don’t give a damn if I ever get nominated! I was truly delighted to see Ritchie (Valens) get there though. I was in awe of him when I was a young man, and his work continues to amaze me still. He really was miles ahead in what he was doing: combining traditional Latin music-its unique rhythms and tempo-with Rock And Roll. It would be years until other Latin artists in Rock would follow suite, people like Carlos Santana and Los Lobos.
I was fortunate enough to meet Ritchie and shake his hand, about five months before he was killed. He had returned to play a smallish venue in the community he came from: East Los Angeles. He was such a gentleman: quiet and low-key when you spoke to him, but had this tremendous aura of…royalty about him! He carried himself with such class!
SP: Rock really does seem rife with gifted artists who met untimely ends. Can you recall meeting any other artists you particularly admired whose life was cut short far too soon?
CM: John Lennon. I can recall like it was yesterday! I was touring London in the early ’60’s, and had just scored a huge hit in Europe with “Some Kinda Fun”. The song had been released in the U.S. and went nowhere, but was a big hit overseas. The Beatles were actually touring on the same bill with me, as the opening act.
At the time, I had no idea who they were; had never heard any of their music. I asked the other artists on the bill:”Who are these guys ‘The Beatles’? I try to keep up with the British scene, but I don’t know their work!” This was just before they scored big.
But you could tell they were really smart and ambitious. Lennon especially seemed hungry to make it; you could really see the talent just shine in him, even then. He was very alert, and fascinated by anything out of the ordinary; things most folks might not notice.
For instance, my suit: did you know that The Beatles actually patterned “their” trademark collarless, tight-fitting jackets from the one I wore on that tour? It’s true! On that tour, Lennon and his mates approached me, absolutely fascinated by my suit! “Where did you get THAT?!” John asked me. He really pumped me for details: who the tailor was, where was his shop. etc. They told me: “We’re gonna have jackets made like yours!” It was about a year later, after they had appeared on Ed Sullivan’s Show and were now mega stars, that I saw them performing on TV. I just freaked out! I told my family: “LOOK at THAT! They’ve stolen my suit!”
SP: Well Chris, I won’t ask you the usual questions about your childhood. I think that most of your fans are well-aware of them:born Ezekiel Christopher Montanez in 1943 in Los Angeles, attended high school with what would later become The Beach Boys, cut your first single at just 17(“She’s My Rockin’ Baby”) and so forth. Rather, tell me about your family.
CM: Well, I think my parents were pretty typical of most Hispanic families at that time. Music was pivotal to family life, and everyone was expected to sing and play to at least some degree. My folks loved big family get-togethers, where everyone took turns singing and playing. I grew up learning traditional Ranchera songs, the ones still performed today. I had a very high voice, so invariably would take the vocal parts normally performed by the female! I can remember the first guitar I ever learned to play. It was an old Spanish acoustic I’d gotten as a hand-me-down from my older brother. It had an impossibly wide neck on the thing-a neck like a tree trunk!
SP: Do you still own any of your early guitars?
CM: Yeah…a few…not many. I am much more of a collector now than I was in my earlier career. I still get excited every time I acquire a really old model;can’t wait to play it… just get the feel of it!
Guitars really are like people:even within the same make/model each has its own unique personality, its certain “something.” I just purchased a vintage ’62 sunburst strat in mint condition. It’s the kind of thing that most collectors would never play, just hang on the wall and look at. My wife asked me: “So, what are you gonna do with it?” I told her: “Are you kidding?! I’m gonna just BEAT THE SHIT outta it! I’m gonna play it til my fingers hurt!” You know what I mean?
SP: So what are some of your current musical projects, Chris? I was sitting next to Julian Webber (brother of Andrew Lloyd Webber) in the audience tonight, and he was discussing collaborating with you on an album.
CM: Julian is a fascinating guy! For some time now, he has been a huge fan of that classic A&M Easy Listening Pop, the kind that I was creating under the direction of Herb Alpert back in the sixties (“Call Me”, “The More I See You”). Julian approached me with the idea of us producing an album together, one that would combine that mellow A&M feel with classical music! The album will feature Julian on cello. I thought: “Now that is something no one has thought of doing!” Just a brilliant guy! I have also just finished an album of “Tex-Mex” music that I am quite proud of. I am currently doing my final mix and edit of it. Also, I was recently approached by indie film producer Dan Guerrero, who wants to do a movie about my life!
SP: Chris, thanks so much for taking the time from your very busy schedule to let your fans know what you are up to!
CM: My pleasure, Shirley! that’s what I was driving at when I said earlier that it really does not concern me that much over getting stuff like nominations. Stuff like that is done by panels consisting not of one’s fans, but rather consisting of music industry insiders. I don’t create music for those people; their concerns are not mine. I create music for the same people now as I did then: myself and my fans. It’s not about being a big star, but it is about sharing and being real with fans. My fans are what make it all worthwhile.
Chris Montez meeting the public after the show. Photo courtesy of the author.