Album cover

The Royal Jesters: From First to Final Valentine's

“The radio stations that played Spanish music had what they called ‘English Oldies.’ The deejay would play the Spanish songs but then he would pick some English oldies to add to that so we all grew up listening to our stuff.”—Sonny Ozuna

"English oldies" is just one of many concepts endemic only to San Antonio’s unique terrain. The Alamo City is pretty much the exact spot on the map where Tex meets Mex, where Anglo America crashed into Latin America for the first time, got all mixed up, and came out the other side as cowboys, fajitas, spanglish, chili, and groups like the Royal Jesters. It’s one of those places where a group of Chicano teens singing doo-wop seems entirely unremarkable. Like their hometown, the Royal Jesters serve as a kind of hinge on which to chart cultural turns—from their earliest beginnings inspired by the mass culture wrought by 1950s youth trends and rock ’n’ roll, they gradually evolved into a popular Spanish-language Tejano act. 

 The Royal Jesters were originally a crew of friends from Sidney Lanier High School in the heart of San Antonio’s west side, honing their harmonies around dartboards and church talent shows in a series of unsteady pick-up groups. Doo-wop, when it hit, crossed boundaries of ethnicity and class like no music had since jazz, finding its way from African-American neighborhoods in Philly to Italian kids in Jersey to Mexican-Americans in Texas. “They were the first Hispanics that actually did doo-wop,” said organist Luvine Elias Jr., who was 15 when he joined the group with a borrowed instrument. “They used to do doo-wop, vocals with no band, just like the blacks on the corner. Before that, they were doing mariachi stuff.”

Formed in ’58 by Mike Pedraza, Oscar Lawson, Henry Hernandez, and Louis Escalante—the boys were all either freshly graduated or completing their senior year at Lanier—the group’s first order of business was choosing a doo-wop-appropriate name. “Well during that time there was the Royal Days, royal this, royal that. A couple of us said, ‘Let’s call it the Royals,’” said Henry Hernandez. Others said, “‘No, let’s call it the Jesters,’ … that’s how we came up with the name.” Fully formed and perfectly compromised, the group took to playing school dances, talent shows, and hops at clubs and churches, including Blessed Sacrament, St. Francis, St. Anthony Ballroom, and the Imperial Ballroom. 

The group performed a mix of local favorites and originals, but the influence of their Mexican roots was already apparent in their sound, as Oscar Lawson explained: “The Royal Jesters came together specifically to perform English rhythm and blues, mainly the Motown Sound. We based our harmonies on the Mexican trios like Los Tres Diamantes, Los Tres Aces, and Los Panchos, which were very similar to the group harmony sound we were listening to on the radio.”

Local DJ Joe “The Godfather” Anthony of 5,000-watt KMAC took an immediate liking to the Royal Jesters. “Joe Anthony…he would play the people he recorded, he would play them on the radio for sure,” said Hernandez. On the strength of a demo tape, he sent them to EJ Henke’s Harlem Records to record one of Lawson’s originals, “My Angel of Love” b/w “Those Dreamy Eyes,” with instrumentation by locals Charlie & the Jives. Released in 1959, Anthony, true to form, spun the record repeatedly on his rhythm ’n’ blues show, giving the group a new audience and wider reach beyond schoolmates and churchgoers.

Also on the scene was Abe Epstein, local real estate mogul and founder of the Cobra and Jox labels. Epstein was then performing as a solo act, still dreaming of his own stardom. It wouldn’t be long before he threw himself and his real estate money behind other people’s music, recording anyone with a hot sound. By 1962, a steady stream of Royal Jesters material, sung in both English and Spanish, began arriving bearing the Cobra imprint, many with Epstein joining the boys on backup—including 1962’s “I Never Will Forget” and 1963’s “Let’s Kiss and Make Up.”

Escalation in Vietnam wouldn’t occur for another two years, but 1962 was still not a safe time to be a young man in America. Hoping to prevent a draft call, Hernandez joined the Army Reserves and avoided full military service. Filling in for Hernandez while he was in basic training was one of Oscar Lawson’s good friends from Sidney Lanier High, Dimas Garza, who was deeply inspired by Etta James’ performing style and had started gigging around town with the Five Voices. By ’62, he was serving duty with a rival vocal group called the Lyrics. Their career to that point was remarkably similar to the Jesters, the Lyrics had recorded “Oh Please Love Me” for Harlem in 1959, also backed by Charlie & the Jives. “They were one of the groups we used to admire because they were playing around school and then we started doing shows together,” said Hernandez.

Doo-wop and soul crossed ethnic boundaries, sure, but so did the performers themselves—mixed in with the Spanish and English one could hear a fake Italian accent. Epstein had already done extensive business with Dimas before he joined the Jesters, convincing him to perform first under the name Dino Bazan and then Dino & the Dell-tones in a strange scheme to make him appear like an Italian singer because Latino singers weren’t marketable nationally at that time. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an appealing move locally in San Antonio. Even Dimas and Epstein themselves seemed to doubt it—despite the ethnic bait-and-switch, Dino & the Dell-tones released several songs in Spanish, including “La Media Vuelta” and “El Peor de los Caminos,” before recording the Dimas signature “Don’t Leave Me Baby” in 1961. Tired of miming Italian, Dimas was eager to return to his Chicano roots with the Royal Jesters.

 Dimas Garza

“When Henry left the Jesters for military duty, Oscar called me to join them,” said Dimas. “Things with the Lyrics were not going well, we couldn't get recorded so I joined the Jesters. After Henry returned, we all stayed together.”

Despite Henry’s re-entry to civilian life, the lineup changes continued. Mike Pedraza left the group to take care of his young wife and become a minister, singing the praises of the Lord rather than another teen romance. Dimas suddenly found himself singing lead, with the group taking advantage of his Etta-influenced writing and singing style. However, this rapid promotion was not universally praised, and his closeness with Lawson led to growing tensions with other members of the group.

Rene y Rene’s bilingual “Angelito” would eventually deliver the hit Abe Epstein was looking for, though Jox’s shoestring budget meant he was unable to keep up with demand for the single. A last-ditch effort to stay solvent found Epstein selling the single off to Clive Davis and Columbia Records. The Royal Jesters saw none of this windfall and began organizing and booking dances on their own in an effort to turn some kind of profit. Dimas found himself squeezed out in 1964, when the group also cut ties with Epstein’s Cobra concern.

“It just left the three of us,” said Hernandez. “So we said, let’s get a band together. After that, the band started growing, at first it was just four guys, then we started getting more horns and stuff like that.” Until 1964, the Royal Jesters had been relying on Sonny Ozuna’s Sunglows or the Reno-Bops to back them up at shows, but demand in Houston and the border towns had the group crisscrossing the state. They needed a permanent band for both recording and performing. This would give them the freedom to book shows without scheduling conflicts so they could hone their sound into a more full-on R&B/soul direction. The Royal Jesters quest for a permanent backing band escalated quickly, collecting what became the longest running lineup in the band’s history, with Lawson, Hernandez, and Galante on vocals, Charlie Cruz on bass, Ignacio Pache Cruz on guitar, Manual “Bones” Arrendondo on drums, Luvine Elias Jr. on organ, Victor Alvardo on trumpet, Alex Martinez on tenor saxophone, and Oscar Lawson pitching in on trombone parts when he wasn’t singing.

Freedom suited the group and, with a growing band and no cash to show for a string of local favorites, the Jesters decided to take a page from Epstein’s book, founding the Jester and Clown labels to release their own recordings. “So we could record whatever we wanted,” said Hernandez. “So we could keep track of the money and all that, cause we never got any money for none of these other recordings. Nobody ever paid anybody. So we said, let’s do it on our own.” Despite leaving Epstein’s orbit, the man was an inescapable presence on the San Antonio scene and he wound up contributing liner notes to the Royal Jester’s first LP We Go Together, issued on Jester Records in 1965.

Expanding on their self-booking activities, the Jesters also signed a lease on Patio Andaluz, a small hall on the west side with an outside patio and an indoor dancehall. "Whenever we heard there was going to be a school holiday, we would put together a dance for the night before,” said Hernandez. “We'd be on the radio doing announcements and we'd pack the place. The band would have a dance once a week and then we would rent it out for weddings and dances.” The dances came to be incredibly popular, not-to-be-missed affairs in San Antonio’s teen scene, the site of epic romances and crushing heartbreaks—lovestruck teens wrote down phone numbers for each other on the back of their ticket stubs, hoping for a call, a date, a kiss, a futurethat, in turn, became inspirations for new songs to soundtrack the next dance. 

With their own label, a full band, a full-length album, and their own performance venue at Patio Andaluz, the Royal Jesters were at the center of an expanding empire, quickly becoming one of the biggest acts in the area. Despite their dominance of San Antonio, the Royal Jesters never traveled that far from home, endorsing John Steinbeck’s old claim that the Lone Star State is a nation in every sense of the word. "Our success was strictly local,” said Lawson. “We heard later that we were popular in Pittsburgh but we never left Texas."

The band attempted to expand into a franchise, bringing back Dimas in 1966 not as a member of the Royal Jesters, but as a solo act under the name Dimas III on Clown Records, with the Jesters as a backing band. Dimas, since his departure from the group, had started working as a carpet layer, performing on the weekends only. He would soon part ways with the Royal Jesters yet again, going on to perform under his given name, Dimas Garza, at long last.

Also circling Epstein’s orbit was sixteen-year-old wunderkind bassist/vocalist Joe “Jama” Perales, then making his debut with the Eptones. The group—featuring guitarist Robert Gomez and vocalist David Mares—recorded two singles for Epstein's Jox Label in 1967 before dissolving. Joe Jama, young and talented and looking for somewhere to showcase his skills, found a place with San Antonio’s most popular act. Just at that moment, the Jesters happened to be looking for a bass player, and—very soon after—a new vocalist, a perfect two-for-one match. Perfect, except that Jama arrived to find the Royal Jesters in turmoil: he showed up to his Patio Andaluz audition loaded down with musical equipment at the exact moment the bass player he was set to replace came marching out of the club with his own gear. "As we met on the steps he stopped and said, 'Watch these guys, they'll do you wrong,’” said Jama.

Ill omens mounted. Joe Jama’s first day of rehearsal found driving force Oscar Lawson announcing his retirement from performing—though he intended to continue managing the group and Patio Andaluz. On Jama’s first song at his first performance, the two remaining vocalists were in total disharmony. “All of a sudden the music stops,” said Jama. “I look to where Henry and Louie should be and they are rolling around on the floor fighting. I thought, 'I've waited so long to be part of the Royal Jesters and within two days of me joining the group everything starts to fall apart.’”

Escalante apparently lost the fight, as he too was gone in short order, leaving Henry Hernandez as the sole founding member and vocalist—one who was strictly a harmony singer. New-recruit Joe Jama was suddenly promoted from bass player to lead vocalist, and he hired fellow former Eptone David Mares to repair the Jester’s teetering harmonic infrastructure. In a scheme similar to Dimas III, Joe Jama was also promoted as a solo artist and recorded singles for Clown Records with the Royal Jesters as a backing band.

Describing his singing style, Jama could have been outlining the Jesters’ own early philosophy: “I’m a black singer in a Chicano body,” he said. But the dramatic changes sweeping across the United States in 1969 would make that philosophy seem increasingly outdated as the worlds of music and politics rapidly evolved. Though the Royal Jesters had long performed songs in both English and Spanish, a growing feeling of Chicano pride, as well as a new push and expanding audience for rock en español, led even an apolitical group like the Jesters to change their sound and attitude into a full embrace of Tejano music. A hybrid genre as Tex-Mex as they came, Tejano mixed Latin rhythmic elements and traditional Mexican folk sounds with rock, soul, and polka instrumentation, with lyrics sung entirely in Spanish.

Though they’d long provided evidence of their Mexican-American heritage—particularly on tracks like “Spanish Grease” and “Manning Ave.”—the Royal Jesters for the first time abandoned the wider English rock and soul markets for a rapidly growing niche audience. The group was no longer operating under the all-embracing pluralism of "We Go Together;" by 1971, they were driven by the proudly singular identity "Yo Soy Chicano (I Am Chicano).” It was a long way from the days when pretending to be Italian would have seemed a savvy move—English was out, and San Antonio’s long-running soul scene was coming to an end, felled by changing audience tastes and the growing popularity of Tejano radio. The switch to Tejano sounds also saw Joe Jama, the self-described soul singer, leave the group after a year to join Casino Royale.  

For Hernandez though, the change in sound was more practical than political, inspired by the new successes afforded to longtime friends and rivals—the Sunglows, the Sunliners, Sonny Ace, and Little Joe and the Latinaries—that had switched to Spanish: “We just heard they were doing real good so we said, ‘Why don’t we try it?’ We got pretty successful as a band.” 

In the wake of their new success, the Royal Jesters continued for another seven years as a popular Tejano act, starting a new label, Optimum, and releasing several more albums, including 1971’s Yo Soy Chicano, 1975’s Their Second Album (the title of which seemed to entirely disown We Go Together) and Royal Jesters: The Band on Latin label GCP. Despite continued popularity, the 1970s took a toll on the Royal Jesters as the passions of the late ’60s were replaced by malaise, disco, and oil shortages. The romance was over—the Royal Jesters, like much of the world, was simply running out of gas.

“It was Valentine’s Day of 1977,” said Hernandez. “That’s when we stopped performing…. At that time, gasoline was starting to go up, that’s when they had shortages in gas at service stations and stuff like that…. A lot of the groups we toured with, they started to slow down and break up because it was getting a little hard to travel.”

After that Valentine’s, day jobs and families filled the quiet void. The Jester spirit was hard to suppress though, as the band reunited once a decade to perform and release new material, including 1996’s Tribute and 2005’s Odyssey: The Journey, before quietly disappearing for another 10 turns of the calendar. “It was fun doing [the reunions] but I was hoping it didn’t really take off big because I didn’t really want to do that again,” said Hernandez. “Back then it was fun, that’s what we wanted to do and it didn’t matter how hard it was because we loved doing it. But later it wasn’t the same. You could feel the pain.” Dimas Garza passed away in 2008. Oscar Lawson passed in 2011.”

Tejano reached a peak of popularity, busting charts on both sides of the border in the ’90s in the wake of Selena. These days, after a long slow decline in the number of dedicated Tejano radio stations, the sound and attitude are again something of a regional curiosity. Another perfect product of crisscrossed San Antonio, just like those boys who, pompadoured and besuited, once sang the English Oldies in a borrowed broken-hearted harmony.

- Ryan Boyle, 2015