Richard "Scar" Lopez, Founding Member of Pioneering East LA Chicano Rock Combo Cannibal and the Headhunters, Dead at 65
Richard "Scar" Lopez, founding member of pioneering East LA Chicano rock group Cannibal and the Headhunters died last July 30 of lung cancer, the LA Times reports.
Most obituaries about Lopez's life and career (and the band's monster hit "Land of 1,000 Dances") are drawing from a great 2005 article about the origins of Chicano rock, including interviews with Lopez and others, published by LA Weekly.
The piece, written by Ben Quiñones, is worth reading in its entirety, but here are the excerpts about Lopez and Cannibal and the Headhunters:
Richard "Scar" Lopez was born to Italian and Mexican-American parents at County-USC Medical Center. He grew up in the Ramona Gardens Housing Project, known as "Hazard," after the resident gang. When he was 13, and doing gymnastics on the mat at the Boys Club, someone jumped on the rings above him. The rings snapped and came down on Lopez's head. He needed stitches, and from then on was known as "Scar."
Bobby "Rabbit" Jaramillo, also raised in East L.A., was known as "Rabbit" because of his buck teeth. In 1963, the two teenagers would meet in Mrs. Meade's choir class at Lincoln High School. "I lived on Murchison Street, half a block from the projects," says Rabbit Jaramillo over the phone from his home in Trinidad, Colorado. "The Showcases [a black doo-wop group] would pass my house to get to the projects from school, so they would be singing a cappella and they'd have an entourage. I met Scar following the Showcases to the projects."
"We checked out the Showcases and we got inspired. I told Bobby, let's start our own group," says Scar Lopez, a dead ringer for Joe Pesci, during a visit to his spartan apartment in Whittier.
The original group consisted of Rabbit, Scar, Scar's brother Pete (until he went to juvenile hall), and then another friend, Ernie Lona. There were 13 kids in Rabbit's family, and the group had no room to practice in the house. "My dad used to raise fighting cocks, and we had chickens in the back until the health department made us get rid of them. So we converted the chicken coop into a room. And that is where we would practice," Rabbit says. "We were practicing 'On Lovers Island' by the Five Satins. Ernie was bass, Scar was baritone, and I was the tenor. My mom told my brother Joe [she couldn't properly say Joe, so it became Yo Yo] to take the trash out. We were singing 'On Lovers Island,' and then, from the outside of the coop, we hear weeeeeoooouuu. I opened the door and it was my brother," Rabbit says.
With Yo Yo in the group, they became Bobby and the Classics. The Showcases taught Bobby and the Classics how to harmonize, doo-wop and move. One of the Showcases, Tommy Keys, had a falling-out with his band. When Ernie Lona left Bobby and the Classics, Keys became the group's singer. Bobby and the Classics hung out and harmonized at a hamburger joint called the Cup in El Sereno. Soon people were telling Keys he was too good for the group. He decided to move on, but before he left, he introduced the group to Frankie Garcia, who was with the Billy Cardenas-managed Rhythm Playboys.
Garcia had a rough childhood -- he was a foster kid whose aunt and uncle eventually raised him. Garcia's older brother was known as "Big Cannibal," so he became "Li'l Cannibal." Garcia attended Jackson High School, known as "The Prison" because of the large fence surrounding the school. His outlet was music and singing, and he played the piano and the saxophone.
"I remember the first time we went to go meet him. He lived near Primera Flats [an Eastside neighborhood near First Street]. When we got to his house, he came down and had orange hair. We looked at each other and said, 'What the fuck,' " says Rabbit. They would later find out that Garcia was gay, but it was more immediately apparent that he could sing. He could sing, but he couldn't harmonize, so the group decided to make "Li'l Cannibal" Garcia (soon to be shortened to just "Cannibal") the lead singer. Bobby and the Classics now comprised Frankie "Cannibal" Garcia, Joe "Yo Yo" Jaramillo, Bobby "Rabbit" Jaramillo and Richard "Scar" Lopez.
Bobby and the Classics were doing gigs, but they wanted to go bigtime. They ended up auditioning for Cardenas. "We auditioned for him three times and we weren't good enough," says Rabbit. "He wanted bands to do two-hour sets for his show," says Scar. The group ended up auditioning for Eddie Davis, with one mike and a little speaker, at Rabbit's house on Murchison, with his brothers and sisters running around. "Frankie knew Eddie, so finally we auditioned for Eddie. He liked what he saw, and he had to get our parents' approval to sign us 'cause we were underage," says Rabbit.
The group was now signed, but it needed a new name. "I had a Chevy that we called the 'blob.' I used to have a shrunken head I had hanging on the rearview mirror, instead of dice. We went down to Billy's house to practice, and Billy saw it and named us Cannibal & the Headhunters," says Rabbit. During their shows, the group would throw fuzzy Headhunter dolls with an attached miniature photo of the group into the crowd.
One of the seminal moments in rock & roll began, like a lot of them, with a mistake. Cannibal & the Headhunters were at the Rhythm Room performing "Land of 1000 Dances," when Cannibal forgot the lyrics and started singing "naa na na na naa" on the hook. "We looked at each other like 'What's he doing?' But being that we were so tight, bam, we were on harmony. Eddie jumps up and says, 'That's a hit!' " says Rabbit. "Cannibal was doing this 'naa na na na naa' thing. It was getting very popular, and it caught on so much that all the East L.A. bands started doing it. Thee Midniters [another popular Eastside band] were doing it, and Cannibal wanted to record it. I said I couldn't do it at the time because I didn't have the money. Billy Cardenas and I were fighting, but I promised Cannibal that before anybody else records that song, we will go to the studio," Davis told Lee Joseph. The Rhythm Playboys were among Billy Cardenas' first bands.
"On the night of the recording session for 'Land of 1000 Dances' by Cannibal & the Headhunters, the word got out that we were going to record this song, and everybody showed up, including the girl car clubs who were the fan base for many of these groups," recalled recording engineer Bruce Morgan in a 1995 interview with Gonzalez. "The studio was packed with people, and Frankie [Cannibal] kept running back and forth to the musicians giving them instructions on the arrangement. As an engineer, it was hard for me because I couldn't get Frankie to stand still in front of the microphone for more than a few seconds. . . . So I put some microphones in front of the girls to capture the 'naa na na na naa's as background vocals. I then put Frankie in a vocal booth, where I surrounded him with microphones so that no matter how much he moved around, he wouldn't sound off-mike. . . . But we knew we had a hit record. You could smell it and you could taste it."
Davis, who had released the two previous hit singles to the Warner and Reprise labels, kept Cannibal & the Headhunters' "Land of 1000 Dances" for his own Rampart label, and with the advice of Flash Records employee and friend Rudy Benavides, he edited the song's long intro to fade into the "naa na na na naa." Cannibal & the Headhunters had their biggest hit, peaking at No. 30 for a 14-week run on Billboard's Top 100. "I remember we were cruising Whittier Boulevard in Bobby's '49 Chevy and Huggy Boy [Dick 'Huggy Boy' Hugg, one of the first radio DJs to support the Chicano community] plays our song," says Scar. "And we're going crazy, going ballistic on Whittier telling everyone to put their radio on."