Chris Montez is a singer/guitarist well-known for performing rock, pop, and Latin music. Born in Los Angeles and raised in Hawthorne, CA, Montez was influenced by Hispanic culture and the rock and roll success of Ritchie Valens. While many in the United States recognize him for his 1962 Top 10 rocker, “Let’s Dance,” others associate him with a more adult contemporary sound as exemplified by such 1966 hits as “Call Me” and “The More I See You.” Still others know Montez for his international catalog of recordings in addition to his live performances presented around the globe.
Spotlight Central recently caught up with Montez and talked to him about his musical upbringing, his rise to fame, and what he’s been up to these days.
Spotlight Central: As a youngster, music was a part of your family life where you started singing songs with your older brothers. What kind of songs did you do?
Chris Montez: I sang Mexican songs — ballads; Mexican corridos, they call them — songs with a Mexican focus.
Spotlight Central: You had a very high voice, so when you sang with your siblings, you sang the high parts, right?
Chris Montez: [Laughs] Yeah, I sang the harmonies, but my brothers — three of my brothers — had high voices too and they’d always force me to sing the harmonies, so that’s how I learned to sing harmony.
Spotlight Central: You’ve said your brothers also taught you to play guitar. What type of instrument did you learn on?
Chris Montez: An acoustic guitar — a Spanish guitar. We had a few of them, and sometimes when one of my brothers would be home and we’d be in the kitchen he’d tell me, “Go get the guitar,” and I’d say, “I don’t feel like it,” and [laughs] he’d say, “GET THE GUITAR!”
Spotlight Central: Eventually you attended Hawthorne High where you jammed with a certain group of brothers?
Chris Montez: [Laughs] Do mean the guys who were trying to get famous?
Spotlight Central: Yeah! Is it true?
Chris Montez: Yeah! I used to go over and hang out with Brian Wilson and his brothers, Carl and Dennis, before they became The Beach Boys. I’d go over — and I remember Brian being at the piano, and Carl was there, and Dennis would be on drums, of course — and we’d just jam to rock and roll, like Chuck Berry or whatever came into our minds, just to be rock and rollers. So, yeah, I used to go and hang out with those guys all the time.
And I remember one day Dennis Wilson saying, “Chris, do you like malts?” And I said, “Yeah,” but I didn’t know what he meant. He said, “I’m gonna make you a malt.” We didn’t have that kind of stuff around my house — we just ate tortillas and beans and stuff. Even when I was little, I never drank milk. Before I went to school in the morning, I’d have a cup of coffee, I’d have some beans and eggs, and boom, I’d go.
But, anyway, Dennis said, “I’m gonna make you a malt.” So I said, “OK,” and he pulled out a blender and he put a few scoops of ice cream in it and he said, “Here’s the secret!” Then he took out a jar which had powdered malt in it and put that in and he blended it up and said, “Here you go.” And that’s when I learned how it got that special flavor; I never knew that before.
Spotlight Central: Same here! As a teen, you really wanted to see Ritchie Valens when he played at a local hop near you, didn’t you?
Chris Montez: Yeah, he was my inspiration, because there were no other Mexican singers around. I liked his music and I said, “Wow, he’s Mexican!” and I thought to myself, “I could be a rock and roller like him,” or, at least, “I could be into music.”
And one day I went to that hop, which was sold out, but I didn’t care. They said, “Ritchie will be out in a few minutes.” And I was at the back end of the hall — and there were, maybe, 200 people there; that’s how small the building was — and the band just got through playing and they said, “He’ll be out in a minute.” I said to myself, “I’m back here. I don’t care whether I talk to him, or even see him, as long as I can hear him sing ‘La Bamba’ and ‘Donna,’ just so I could say, ‘I was there.’”
So they said, “Ten minutes,” and I’m standing and waiting in the back and, all of a sudden, I turn to my right and Ritchie Valens is standing right next to me!
“Wow!” I said, “Are you Ritchie Valens?” And he said, “Yeah,” and he shook my hand, and I was so thrilled. I couldn’t explain it to him. I told him I wanted to be a singer, but I hadn’t really planned that as my life’s work.
And we talked for a second — I think I was a sophomore in high school, maybe, at the time — and I said, “It’s really a pleasure meeting you,” and he was so kind. He smiled at me, and then he went off to sing, and I said to myself, “If I ever become connected with music in any way, I’m gonna treat people the way Ritchie Valens just treated me.”
Spotlight Central: And to this day, you’re known for being such a down-to-earth nice guy, too, so you really followed through with that.
Chris Montez: You know why? Because you don’t know what the other side is like until you’re there, you know? I was so elated to meet this superstar. I wanted to share a lot of things with him and talk with him, but he was kind enough to, like, give me his blessing, really — it was just unbelievable.
Spotlight Central: When you were at Hawthorne High, you decided you wanted to make a demo recording — which, we’re told, cost you $25 for a half-hour of studio time — never really thinking about becoming a recording artist.
Christ Montez: That’s exactly right! It was in Long Beach. I can’t think of the name of the studio right now, but my sister-in-law drove me over there ’cause I didn’t have a car, and I had two guys with me — a rhythm guitar player and a drummer — and I had written these songs called “She’s My Rockin’ Baby” and “Forgive Me.” I still have ’em; in fact, some company put them out.
So I said to the guy at the studio, “How much time will $25 get me?” You know, it took me awhile to save that money. And he said, “A half hour — let’s go.”
So I did my first song. He played it back and I said, “Can I do it again?” He said, “Sure,” but I had to keep watching the clock. Then I finished the other song and I said, “Oh, good — that’s wonderful.” He gave me this acetate disk and said, “Here you go,” and I just felt so good. I went home and I played it and I thought I had made a record, never thinking about record companies or anything like that.
Now in that recording studio at the time, after they’d record a tape, they would usually erase it and use it over with another artist to save tape. But this gentleman — the engineer — he didn’t do that. Instead, he called these guys, Barry De Vorzon and Billy Sherman. And so the next thing I knew, I came home from school — and I used to watch the Dick Clark show on TV all the time — and my mom never spoke English, so she said to me in Spanish, “Do you know these people who keep calling you? They want to talk to you about recording.” I said, “Mom, what are you talking about?” I’m watching the Dick Clark show and she’s talking about recording. But I called them back and, sure enough, they said they wanted to have a meeting with me and they wanted to talk about recording. And I thought, “Wow, that’s strange” — and it was all because of that one fellow.
One of the two producers, Barry De Vorzon — he produced the singer Johnny Burnette, who had a hit with “You’re Sixteen.” And I couldn’t believe it. I was sitting at the piano working on a song called “All You Had to Do Was Tell Me” and Johnny Burnette helped me to finish it and he even taught me insights about writing songs, more or less.
Spotlight Central: That song, “All You Had to Do Was Tell Me,” became a regional hit, but in 1962, Monogram Records released “Let’s Dance,” which went all the way to #4 in the country. At first, though, you said didn’t want to record it. Why not?
Chris Montez: Because I was into the Ritchie Valens ballad thing, you know? That’s what I wanted to do; I wanted to be more like a crooner. And then when the record company said, “Let’s do ‘Let’s Dance,’” I said, “OK, I’ll do it,” and the next thing I knew, rock and roll ended up being my whole thing.
Spotlight Central: In 1962, you had a hit with another rocker, “Some Kinda Fun,” which sold over a million copies, and then you got to fly out to Philadelphia to perform on the Dick Clark show. How cool was it being on TV with someone you had just been at home watching on television?
Chris Montez: It was amazing to me! I said, “Wow!” You know, I had no money in my pocket — I mean, they paid me a few dollars — but the next thing I knew, I was on the Dick Clark show and I talked to him, and I did “Let’s Dance.” Then, following that show, they booked me to do the Apollo in Harlem and The Howard in Washington, DC, and all these traditionally black theaters — and that was my break into show business.
Spotlight Central: After that, you went on tour with Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and The Platters in the USA, and in 1963, you toured England where you had this up-and-coming English group as your opening act?
Chris Montez: [Laughs] Yeah, I don’t know whatever became of them. I only saw them a couple of times after that; I don’t think they became really famous.
Spotlight Central: We heard that one member of that band even played you a new song the group had just recorded, before it was even released. Wasn’t it called “I Saw Her Standing There?”
Chris Montez: Yeah, we were on tour doing shows, and The Beatles had two days off, and after that, I was talking to Paul and John — because that’s mostly who I was hanging out with all the time — and I said, “Where were you guys?” And they said, “We just finished our album. You want to hear it?” And we had a room upstairs at the hotel and we were just sitting around and Paul put this 33 1/3 album on and he started playing “I Saw Her Standing There.” And I said, “Aww, that’s a great song!” and I had Paul play it about six times. He said, “You really like that song?” and I said, “I love it!”
Spotlight Central: Is it true The Beatles modeled the suits they wore on The Ed Sullivan Show after the suits with the collarless jackets they saw you wearing on tour?
Chris Montez: Yeah, it’s true. I even have pictures of me with those jackets on. What happened was my manager took me to this shop in America where we used to buy our clothes and he said to the guy at the shop, “I want you to dress him because he’s going to go to England,” and then guy at the shop said, “I’ve got the right stuff! This is the ‘in thing’ in England — this collarless jacket” — and so I got two of them, and I remember one of them even had a belt around the waist.
And when I got over to England, they said, “Where did you get that jacket? We like it.” I said, “Wow, I thought everybody would be wearing the same thing and I thought I let you down,” but it was a blessing in disguise because after we finished the tour, Paul and John had been talking to their tailor and Paul said, “I hope you don’t mind, but we’re having our jackets designed just like your jacket.” And I said, “Wow, that’s great!” I thought it was a nice thing, but never imagined what would become of it.
Spotlight Central: After three years on the road, you decided to continue your education studying music composition at El Camino College?
Chris Montez: I had a fallout with the record company, but to make a long story short, yes, I went to college for music.
Spotlight Central: And after that, you started working with Herb Alpert at A&M Records. Wasn’t it Herb Alpert who suggested you transition from rock and roll to a soft ballad sound?
Chris Montez: What happened is I wanted to do my songs. I wrote some songs that were rock songs and I was working with a staff producer at A&M and the staff producer said to me — but first let me go back:
I had a friend who was a saxophone player I always played with. He was a great player, who could read music and everything, and he said, “I gotta go over to the studio and pick up some stuff. Come with me.” And I said, “No thanks,” but he said, “Come on!” So when we got to the office, this person came out and he said, “Hey Bob” — the saxophone player’s name was Bob Tate — and the person said, “I can’t use your songs, but thanks anyway.”
And out of his mouth, Bob says, “Oh, by the way, this is Chris Montez.” And the person says, “You’re Chris Montez, the singer?” And I say, “Yeah,” and he says, “What are you doing right now?” I said, “I’m going to school,” and he says, “I’d sure like to have you for this company — for recording.” But I was so disillusioned with the recording industry, I said, “No, I’m not interested, thanks anyway,” and he just said, “Well, think about it.”
That guy was Herb Alpert — it was the first time I’d ever met him. And after that whole ordeal, I came in and I did my songs, and Herb told the staff producer he didn’t like what we did, and I said, “Yeah, see — I didn’t want to get into all this,” and the producer said, “Herb’s in the office. He wants you to go in and listen to him. He has an idea — he’s got a song for you.”
So I go in there. And Herb is such a great person — he’s a special person — real hip, and he’s got this gift. He says, “Hey, Chris, come on, sit down. I’ve got this song.” And he stands up and starts tapping his fingers and he goes [sings], “If you’re feelin’ sad and lonely,” and I say to myself, “You gotta be kidding me! That’s not me! I can’t do that. That’s for Frank Sinatra or Bobby Darin and not me!” But that’s where it all began.
Spotlight Central: Of all of your songs, that’s our favorite!
Chris Montez: Really?
Spotlight Central: Yes, but we have a question about it. Tell us about the party noise on the “Call Me” recording, and who is it who says, “Yeah, Chris!” and why did he say it?
Chris Montez: That’s Herb Albert. When we were recording, he was watching me and he just said, “Yeah, Chris!” But it wasn’t really a party. He added all that party stuff himself, later — I never heard all that until it was finished — the clapping, the glasses tinkling, and all that. And later on I asked Herb where he got the idea and he said, “I got that idea from ‘The “In” Crowd’ by Ramsey Lewis.” It was great how he used his imagination to add that.
Spotlight Central: In 1966, “The More I See You” and “There Will Never Be Another You” made the Top 40 and they were followed by “Time After Time.” After that, you signed with CBS and amassed a string of hits outside the US, establishing yourself as an international recording artist.
Chris Montez: It’s funny, I left A&M, and this fellow, Billy Meshel — he was with CBS International — came out from New York and he said, “Come stay at my house. I want to record you.” And we ended up writing songs, and a couple of the songs we had hits on — one of them was even a bilingual song, “Ay No Digas,” which was big all over.
Spotlight Central: You went on to tour all over the world. Do have any special places where you’ve especially enjoyed performing?
Chris Montez: No, not really — I love the beauty of Scotland and Wales, and I love England — but I love ’em all. Each place is beautiful because it’s unique.
Spotlight Central: Now that there aren’t many concerts going on, what have you been up to, and is there anything you’d like to say to all your fans who are looking forward to seeing you perform live again?
Chris Montez: Well, I’m gonna do another A&M album which will be Chris Montez with a bunch of standards that no one’s really recorded before, and they’re all great songs.
But I also want to say that I love my fans and I thank them from the bottom of my heart. Without them, I would be nobody. So whenever I go onstage, I think of them. I come out and I entertain them just like I’m in their living rooms thinking, “Hey, I’m singing these songs just for you!”
To learn more about Chris Montez, please go to chrismontez.com.
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