To residents of San Antonio, Texas, The Royal Jesters are hometown heroes. To even the most astute music fans outside of the San Antonio region, the vocal group might be all but unknown. Thanks to Chicago’s Numero Group reissue specialists, however, The Royal Jesters have gotten a big break. The group founded by high school pals Oscar Lawson, Henry Hernandez, Mike Pedraza and Louis Escalante in 1958 continued to perform and record through 1977, with sporadic reunions after that. Their sound morphed from doo-wop and harmony pop to soul, R&B and Tejano sounds, always maintaining a core of exemplary musicianship. Their changing styles are all captured on Numero’s exciting new 28-track anthology English Oldies.
“They were the first Hispanics who actually did doo-wop,” comments Luvine Elias, Jr., who joined the group at age 15, in Ryan Boyle’s new liner notes for this release. “Before that, they were doing mariachi stuff.” From the start, the Royal Jesters performed a mix of originals and covers. In Oscar Lawson’s words, “The Royal Jesters came together specifically to perform English rhythm and blues, mainly the Motown sound.” But in a key component of their sound, they based their harmonies on popular Mexican trios like Los Tres Diamantes, Los Tres Aces and Los Panchos. When Hernandez joined the Army Reserves in 1962, Dimas Garza joined the group. Many of his own sides, billed to Dimas III, are included on English Oldies, as well. Garza, despite his Chicano roots, had previously recorded under a number of Italian-influenced names, and indeed, his Dion DiMucci sound can be heard on a number of the tracks here. Upon Mike Pedraza’s departure, Dimas took on lead vocal duties. Other personnel changes would follow, most notably the addition of musicians to turn the vocal group into a true band.
The Royal Jesters were seized with entrepreneurial spirit. After appearing on labels like Harlem, Cobra and Jox, they started their own labels, Jester, Clown and Optimum Records. It was on Jester that the group released its first full-length LP, We Go Together, in 1965. They also rented a venue called El Patio Andaluz, which was a two-story space with an outdoor patio. El Patio became a central spot where the group organized dances, rehearsals and recordings. As the decade changed, so, too, did the Jesters’ sound. Doo-wop and Motown ceded to Tejano, the blend of Latin rhythms and Mexican folk sounds with rock, pop and soul, usually sung completely in Spanish. English Oldies traces this transformation, but not in chronological fashion. (Surprisingly for Numero, there is a complete lack of any discographical annotation on this release.)
There’s ample evidence here that the Royal Jesters mastered each pop idiom in which they performed. There’s a primitive, early rock-and-roll sound on “Let’s Kiss and Make Up” on which the Jesters prove a Chicano answer to Dion and the Belmonts. “Lonely Guy” recalls the smooth balladry of Little Anthony and the Imperials, while “I Never Will Forget” is uptempo doo-wop in the classic style as is “Let There Be You,” recorded in the 1950s by Vicki Young and The Five Keys.
The Royal Jesters’ love of all things Motown was never a secret to their fans; it’s made abundantly clear by the strong cover of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ ‘What Love Has Joined Together” and the Barrett Strong-written post-Motown hit for Mary Wells, “Use Your Head.” Other covers include The Jesters’ take on Teddy Randazzo’s yearning “I Want to Meet Her.” Writer/producer Randazzo originally recorded the tune with girl group The Royalettes as “I Want to Meet Him,” the follow-up to their hit “It’s Gonna Take a Miracle.” You’ll hear a touch of Stax on an urgent, swinging cover of “Private Number,” while the Jesters locked into a soulful, scorching groove on their cover of Evie Sands’ “Take Me for a Little While.” Gliding with harmonies over atmospheric organ, driving percussion, slinky bass and taut guitar licks, the group is very much in a proto-Vanilla Fudge vein.
Chicago soul is another key influence. “I’m So Sorry” and “I’ve Got Soul” could be lost Curtis Mayfield classics for The Impressions. Doo-wop, soul and Chicano styles inform the dreamily romantic “We Go Together,” the title track of The Jesters’ 1965 LP; “What’cha Gonna Do ‘Bout It” from the same year rides a bright, loose groove.
From the group’s later period, “Afro-Lypso” is a fiery instrumental. “Spanish Grease” is spirited and energetic. There’s even a touch of Crosby, Stills and Nash in the vocal approach to the haunting pop of “Theme for a Lonely Girl.” Best of all are the vibrant, muscular Mexican horn-rock grooves of “Manning Ave.,” “Lady Sunshine” and “Back to You.” The latter trio of songs is among the strongest material here, recalling a sizzling Chicano version of Chicago.
Woven into the anthology are five solo tracks by Dimas III and two by Joe Jama. Dimas’ “I Won’t Love You Again” is an attractive, brassy ballad, while “You’ve Succeeded” showcases his Dion-esque vocals. “Not the Right Time” boasts horns and strings on another Impressions-influenced track. Jama offers the driving “My Life” with its honking horns as well as an adventurous take on Harry Nilsson’s Pandemonium Shadow Show cut “Sleep Late My Lady Friend,” reinvented in smoldering soul style with Spanish lyrics.
Boyle’s excellent essay occupies most of the 18-page booklet, housed in a jewel case which itself resides in a typically attractive slipcase. Producers Rob Sevier and Ken Shipley are to be commended for excavating this treasure trove of material, and Jeff Lipton and Maria Rice’s remastering does the music a service, as well. While a strictly chronological approach might have better served the story of the Royal Jesters’ musical development from vocal group to true band, English Oldies is a happily grooving journey through the history of a local band worthy of that elusive big break. These oldies feel fresh and new.
- I Won’t Love You Again – Dimas III
- Take Me for a Little While
- I’m So Sorry
- What’cha Gonna Do ‘Bout It?
- We Go Together
- I’ve Got Soul – Dimas III
- So Funny
- What Love Has Joined Together
- I Want to Meet Her
- Let’s Kiss and Make Up
- Lonely Guy
- I Never Will Forget
- Meet Me Down in Soulville
- Private Number
- Use Your Head
- My Kind of Woman
- My Life – Joe Jama
- Sleep Late My Lady Friend – Joe Jama
- Spanish Grease
- Let There Be You
- Manning Ave.
- Lady Sunshine
- Back to You
- Just a Friend – Dimas III
- Not the Right Time – Dimas III
- You’ve Succeeded – Dimas III
- Theme for a Lonely Girl