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Jaguars, 'Charlena' Reunited--sort Of

September 25, 1987|RANDY LEWIS | Times Staff Writer

Manny Chavez was so ecstatic at having a song he wrote and recorded nearly 30 years ago included in the film "La Bamba" that he was ready to overlook the unpolished, garage band performance of "Charlena" that wound up in the hit movie about Ritchie Valens, the first Latino rock star.

"In the movie they (the Silhouettes) do a very amateurish version, and when I saw it and heard it I just kind of cringed in my seat," Chavez, 50, said with a laugh during an interview this week at the Celebrity Theatre in Anaheim. He and the other three original members of the Jaguars vocal group will perform at the Celebrity tonight on a "La Bamba" lineup with several Latino rock acts from the '50s, '60s and '70s.

Chavez wrote "Charlena" with Herman (Sunny) Chaney and recorded it in the late 1950s with the Jaguars, the group they formed in 1954 at Fremont High School in South Central Los Angeles with schoolmates Val Poliuto and Charles Middleton.

After seeing the song performed in "La Bamba," Chavez said: "I was just crushed by it. Sunny and I talked about it one day until 3 in the morning, and then he said, 'Well, man, the money's gonna be the same.' "

But Chavez's worries about the movie version of "Charlena" were eased when he heard the sound-track album version by Los Lobos. "They sent us a cassette of how 'Charlena' was performed by Los Lobos--the real way; the right way. We were thrilled." As an unexpected bonus, "Charlena" was chosen as the flip side of the "La Bamba" single, which hit No. 1 recently.

"To have it on the sound-track album and the single was fantastic," Chavez said. "Talk about a free ride! It's like the ring was hanging there in the air and someone came and put our finger through it. . . . This is like hitting the lottery--and I didn't even have to buy a ticket."

Back when the Jaguars were still dreaming of hitting the rock 'n' roll big time, they had several regional hits, biggest of which was a version of Jerome Kern's "The Way You Look Tonight" that was later copied by the Lettermen.

Although the Jaguars never made Billboard's national singles or album charts, the group did play an early '60s tour in Europe and headlined over the Beatles before Beatlemania was in full swing. They also played several shows with Valens and other rock pioneers like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Jackie Wilson. Sharing tonight's bill with the Jaguars are Chris Montez, Tierra, the Champs, Thee Midnighters and Li'l Ray & the Idols.

The four singers weathered not only the rigors of entering the fledgling rock music business as naive teen-agers in the '50s, but they were also among the first racially integrated rock groups (Chavez is Latino, Middleton and Chaney are black and Poliuto is Italian). As a result of the bonds they developed, the members of the Jaguars remained friends long after they stopped performing and recording in the 1960s.

While Chaney, Middleton and Poliuto stayed in or around the entertainment industry, Chavez said frustrations with unsatisfactory business dealings led him to get out of music entirely for several years. In 1969 he got a job in the mail room at The Times, where he has worked ever since.

"I was pretty disillusioned and bitter," Chavez said. "I had been there all the time, writing and wanting to produce. People would call me up and say 'How about a song?' But I didn't want to get involved again. . . . It was like a bad marriage; not with the group, but with the business."

These days, any old resentments have been replaced with wide-eyed optimism.

"Everything goes in cycles," Chavez said. "I think this all ties in with the harmonic convergence, and the Pope coming--something is definitely going on. I don't have a handle on it yet. We'll just dance the dance and see what happens."

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