By Richie Unterberger
Few songs capture the essence of mid-1960s party rock'n'roll as much as the Premiers' "Farmer John," which unexpectedly catapulted to #19 in the summer of 1964 at the height of early Beatlemania. Like many such singles, from "Louie Louie" and "Shout" on down, it was a cover of a basic '50s R&B tune. It wasn't just music to party to, however. In the case of "Farmer John," with the jubilant crowd noise threatening to almost overwhelm the actual musicians at times, the record was the party.
"Farmer John" may have been a fluke one-shot hit, but the Premiers were already an experienced though young band by the time they cut the 45 in early 1964. Featuring brothers Lawrence Perez on guitar and John Perez on drums, they'd begun in the fashion of many a garage band in the early 1960s, practicing in their backyard in San Gabriel fifteen miles east of Los Angeles. The family's mother got them an audition with Billy Cardenas, who was instrumental in managing and producing several Chicano bands on the exploding East Los Angeles-area circuit. "We played just about every song that was on the radio," laughs Lawrence Perez. "That's how we got our jobs and got known. Word of mouth, via weddings, parties, stuff like that."
It was Cardenas who suggested the Premiers cover a song by L.A. R&B vocal duo Don and Dewey, "Farmer John." "Billy called us up one day and told us to listen to it and see what we thought," remembers Perez. "He wanted to do it more East L.A.-style, or 'Louie Louie'-type. At the time, the 'Louie Louie'-type rhythm and sound was happening, so we tried to base the beat and sound towards that." "Louie Louie" itself, of course, had like "Farmer John" begun life as a single by a Los Angeles-based African-American R&B act (Richard Berry), before the Kingsmen's classic teen garage cover made it a #2 hit shortly before the Premiers cut "Farmer John."
As the Kingsmen had done with "Louie Louie," the Premiers gave "Farmer John" a raw, careening interpretation that threatened to spin into anarchy at points. The key touch in putting it over in the studio, however, was supplied not by the group but by the all-girl Chevelles Car Club. They provided most of the audience noise heard so prominently on the final recording, one unidentified Chevelle in particular screaming as loud as any fan in the front row of a Beatles concert.
As much as it sounded like a live track, it was in fact according to Perez cut at Stereo Masters on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood, "a little hole in the wall small place." Cardenas provided the even more off-the-wall spoken intro asking if anyone has seen "Kosher Pickle Harry." His business partner and co-producer, the late Eddie Davis, recalled in 1989 (as quoted in Chuy Varela's liner notes to Varese Sarabande's The West Coast East Side Sound Vol. 3 compilation), "We had a party at the studio and had all the kids come down. Everybody was having a good time and we put the record on -- in those days they had three-track recording -- and while everybody was having a party we recorded the crowd on top of it."
The live party sound was also successfully employed by an East L.A. band in another 1964 single produced by Cardenas and Davis, the Blendells' cover of Little Stevie Wonder's "La La La La La," which reached #62 on the national charts. That single was licensed to Warner Brothers' sister label Reprise, and although "Farmer John" was originally issued on Davis's independent Faro label, it was picked up by Warner Brothers and took off nationally.
"When we were told we had to do this album," resumes Perez, "it was a real quick thing. Most of the songs were picked by Eddie and Billy, and we just went ahead and did 'em." In keeping with many of their East L.A. colleagues, the Farmer John album was heavy on both uptempo R&B-rock stompers and covers of '50s doo wop songs that remain popular in the Southern California Chicano community to this day. Among the covers were songs by Huey Smith ("Don't You Just Know It"), the Moonglows ("We Go Together"), Johnny & Joe ("Over, the Mountain, Across the Sea"), and Johnny Ace ("Anymore" and "Cross My Heart"). More intriguing were a couple of dance numbers penned by Max Uballez of the well-respected East L.A. band the Romancers (another act with ties to Eddie Davis), "Annie Oakley" and "Feel Like Dancing."
Cardenas contributed the closing "Mary Ann," and more unexpectedly, "I Won't Be Back Next Year" came from the pen of Pat Vegas, who with his brother Lolly would front Redbone in the 1970s. Perez never met the Vegas brothers, then scuffling players in obscure bands and recording sessions in L.A., and isn't sure how the song made its way to them, though he thinks Cardenas was promoting them in the L.A. area.
Like the "Farmer John" single, the Farmer John LP simulated a live ambience, though it was actually done "partly live in the studio, partly crowd noise overdubbed," according to Perez (and not recorded live at the Rhythm Room in Fullerton, California, the back cover credits to the contrary). "Most of that was all Billy and Eddie's idea of having a party mood or sound, because vocally, we were not very strong," Lawrence adds. "A lot of our vocals were overdubbed to make 'em stronger or more fuller. Seventy-five percent of our music was instrumental stuff. I think they did that to basically just fill it in or make it more happening, soundwise." The instrumental songs in the band's repertoire are only represented on the non-LP B-sides of their trio of mid-1960s Warner Brothers singles.
There were no
releases for the Premiers after those singles, in fact, though they
a few more 45s for Faro in 1965-67, some with original material, and
co-produced by Larry Tamblyn of the Standells. They broke up in the
1960s when the draft claimed a few members, by which time "Farmer John"
had entered the repertoire of numerous bands, with the Tidal Waves
a regional hit with it in Michigan. It continued to be a well-traveled
standard over the next few decades, with Neil Young even putting a
on his 1990 Ragged Glory album. And the Premiers are still
in 2002, working on a new CD, with the Perez brothers and guitarist
Delgado still aboard from the original lineup.
-- Richie Unterberger
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