Latin Percussionist Newsletter Issue 12 Spring 2001
Latin Sounds from the Drumset
by Victor Rendón
Frank "Chico" Guerrero came up the ranks performing with Carmen Miranda, Xavier Cugat, Joe Loco, Daniel Santos, Stan Kenton, and many others before settling in his native California. An unsung hero, he developed into a top rate Hollywood studio drummer/percussionist with a career that spanned from the late 1920's to the mid 90's. In this article, we look at his thorough musical training as a child that led to his experiences in the West Coast circuses, New York City, Las Vegas, the Caribbean, and much of the world.
Frank "Chico" Guerrero was born on October 24th, 1915 in Miami, Arizona. He was raised mainly in East Los Angeles and Fillmore, California, which is in the Santa Clara valley. Fillmore was a farmland area where they used to pick oranges during that era. The workers would live there with their families to work the orange groves. His mother was a housewife with nine children and his father was a bootlegger.
His father loved music and insisted that all his children study music. He therefore brought a well-known "maestro" named Manuel Lucero from Mexico to teach all his children. They had music lessons every day with solfeggio (the use of sol-fa syllables to note the tones of the scale) in the morning and an instrument in the afternoon.
It was in this rich musical environment that Chico was trained on clarinet, saxophone, and flute. Out of the nine children, three brothers, Frank, Joe, and Lalo became professional musicians. Lalo played violin, and bass. Chico and Joe always leaned towards the drums even though they still had to do their basic training on the woodwind instuments.
Chicos' first professional gig was with the traveling circuses that were traveling up and down the state of California. The two main circuses were the Gutierrez and Escalante circuses. Not going beyond the fourth grade in school, Chico joined the Escalante circus when he was twelve or thirteen years old. He was sought after because of his reading ability (a skill that eventually paid off in the lucrative recording studios of Hollywood). West Coast circus music at the time was mainly polkas and Mexican rancheras. He had the Mexican music in him because he grew up with it but he was also influenced by classical music. The swing music of Benny Goodman also influenced him as well.
Later, Chico studied with two Hollywood studio drummer/percussionists that would have a big impact on his music career. They were Hal Reese and Murray Spivak. Hal Reese was a premier percussionist in the 1930's for films such as King Kong, Gone with the Wind, and other early classics. Murray Spivak started out contributing soundtracks for silent films and went on to manage the sound effects at RKO Studios in Hollywood. It was he who came up with the sound effects of the original King Kong movie in 1933. He also became known for his specialty on technique and hand development. His students included Louie Bellson, David Garibaldi, Peter Donald, and many others. Both teachers taught orchestral percussion to Chico. Consequently, Chico became very proficient on the mallet instruments as well as drumset as evidenced by his vibes playing with Joe Loco on the LP Poco Loco.
Before World War II, he was in Carmen Miranda's orchestra in the 1930's. It was in this band that he made friends with a pandeiro player named Gringo. They called him Gringo el Pandeiro. He was a very famous Brazilian percussionist who committed suicide during the war. It was with Gringo that Chico learned many of the authentic Brazilian rhythms. He traveled all over the world with Carmen Miranda being that she was very famous in the movies, etc. He also recorded with the orchestra but it's difficult to track down the specific tunes because musician credits were not given on record liner notes in those days. It was around this time that he also played with Xavier Cugat who was at the peak of his popularity.
Chico eventually made it to New York playing Mexican music with a band. They were booked in a place called Bill Miller's Riviera just on the other side of the George Washington bridge in Port Arthur, New Jersey. They called the music "música tropical" but it wasn't close to what Chico was exposed to when he took off to New York City on his nights off. It was in New York that he saw Machito and his Afro-Cubans with Ubaldo Nieto on timbales. This is when Chico started learning Afro-Cuban rhythms in detail. He would sit there and write down some of the patterns that Uba was playing on a napkin or any other piece of paper. He would then apply these rhythms to the drumset. This eventually developed into his book in the 1970's.
Another percussionist whom Chico met in New York who was a big influence was Willie "Wee" Rodríguez. Willie was a big band drummer/Latin percussionist who was one of the first call Latin drummers in NYC. Says Chico's nephew, Alfred R. Rubalcava; "I was exposed to Willie Rodríguez around 1953 when Chico came back from New York. He had this 10" inch LP titled The Drums of Rodríguez which I have to this day. Willie and Chico became very good friends in New York. Two other guys who really influenced him were Humberto Morales and Uba Nieto".
Chico also studied with Henry Adler (renowned teacher and author) in New York. Mr. Adler sent Chico to take lessons with Billy Gladstone (another premier snare drummer in the Broadway shows). Mr. Gladstone sent Chico back to Adler after one lesson and told him, "I can't help this guy. He's got perfect hands".
In 1944 Chico was drafted into the army. Never having to go to combat, he was stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey in an artillery unit close to New York City. When he got out of the army, he ended up staying in New York throughout the 1940's and early 50's getting called for jobs as a trap drummer who played Latin. He worked with José Curbelo, Mario Bauza, and Charlie Palmieri among others. Chico had ultimate respect for Tito Puente whom he met during this time. Tito used to sub for Chico on certain gigs that he couldn't make. He also did a brief stint with Miguelito Valdés before going with Daniel Santos and Pedro Flores. It was through these bands that he was exposed first hand to Cuban and Puerto Rican music.
When Chico went back to California for good, he started breaking into the recording studios really quick mainly as a Latin percussionist. There were a lot of sessions going on in the 1950's and 60's. The main studio session drummers at the time were Shelly Manne and Earl Palmer as well as percussionists Milt Holland and Emil Richards. He was very close to these guys and would work right beside them. However, he would almost never get called for anything other than Latin percussion. Says Alfred, "He was kind of stereotyped into that even though he was an excellent drumset player".
In the 1970's, after much encouragement from Bob Yeager (the owner of the Professional Drum Shop in Hollywood), Chico decided to write an instructional book on Latin drumming for drumset. Bob financed the complete production of the book and took care of everything. He told Chico to take his time because he wanted it to be an extensive book. It turned out to be a book with 312 pages titled Latin Sounds from the Drumset. Says Alfredo, "I had just come back from Vietnam in 1971-72. To keep me busy, Chico would tell me to go out to the Latin clubs and listen to the timbaleros to see if they were playing anything different. So, I would go out and do what Chico did with Machito. I would go out to the clubs and write out anything that was different and sounded hip so he could apply it to the book. One of the patterns that stands out was a bell pattern that had gotten to the west coast played by salsa bands in New York and Puerto Rico. There was a Puerto Rican timbalero by the name of Jerry Rivera who played with the Johnny Martinez band in LA. He was playing a mambo bell pattern where some of the notes of the main ride were left out. It gave a whole new swing that came out in the late 1960's-70's with bands such as Ray Barretto with Orestes Vilató on timbales. It was a slight twist in the sound of the rhythm section. It was basically the clave in the left hand. The right hand omitted a couple of notes on the main ride. It was kind of new at the time. It didn't feel or sound that way in the 1950's".
A good portion of the book was dedicated to the use of the left hand on the timbales which he learned from Uba. Chico took this further to incorporate the sound of the congas with his left hand while playing drumset. Says Alfred, "Machito used to come to California and they would stay at our house. My grandmother would cook for them and Uba would always show Chico new stuff. The concept of the book was to fully detail how a drummer could simulate a Latin percussion section. The book is still used at Northern Illinois University and various other colleges/universities. The late Paul Guerrero (no relation) also used it at the University of North Texas School of Music as well as Joe Porcaro in LA".
Chico was one of the first Latinos to do session work in LA along with Rafael Mendez (famous trumpet player). He was also very instrumental in opening the doors for other Latino musicians in Los Angeles bringing in players like Justo Almario, Luis Conte, and Alex Acuña. In addition, he was also very active on the board of directors at Local 47 in LA getting more recognition for Latinos. He was also proud of the fact that he was a Mexicano who made it in New York and went back to the West Coast with what he heard in New York, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and South America.
In his remaining years he was very active as a musician. He did a lot of studio work from the 1950's into the 70's. One of the movies in which Chico was featured is Fun In Acapulco (available on videocassette) with Elvis Presley. He is seen playing pandeiro in a club scene. He recorded albums with Jack Costanzo, Juan García Esquivel, Eddie Cano, George Shearing, Rene Touzet, Laurindo Almeida, Shorty Rogers, Mike Pacheco, Stan Kenton, and many others. He also did some R&B things with drummers Paul Humphrey and Earl Palmer backing up artists like Lou Rawls and O.C. Smith. One of his last movie sessions was Godfather II. In all, he did a total of 182 movies. Some of the composers that he worked for in the movie industry were Alex North, Jerry Goldsmith, Henry Mancini, Elmer Bernstein, Nino Rota, Alfred Newman, Lionel Newman, and Lalo Schifrin.
Chico passed away on Monday, November 13th, 1995 of a massive cardiac arrest. He died instantly. He was eighty years old. His nephew, Alfredo is active in the LA scene. He played drums for the military in the 1970's. Now he concentrates on playing bass and writing music. His brother Joe is still alive. Joe did a lot of studio work and played with Spike Jones, Eddie Cano, and others. His brother Lalo passed away in 1991. Throughout his career, Chico endorsed Leedy, Ludwig, Pearl, Gonbop, Rogers, Paiste cymbals, and Remo drumheads.TF
I would like to thank Mr. Guerrero's nephew, Alfred R. Rubalcava, for granting me an interview, making it possible to write this article.
- Special thanks to David Easter, Ed Fast, Lenny King, and Antonio Artís Harrison "Chevere", for their assistance and input during this interview.
- Doris Day Move Over Darling;
- Juan García Esquivel Other Sounds Other Worlds;
- Joe Loco Poco Loco;
- Ella Mae Morse Barrelhouse,
- Boogie & Blues;
- Shorty Rogers Manteca: Afro-Cuban Influence;
- Phil Spector Back to Mono;
- Stan Kenton Artistry in Rhythm;
- Mike Pacheco Con Sabor Latino;
- Les Baxter Movie soundtracks: American in Paris, Fun in Acapulco, Godfather II
- Instructional Video: Murray Spivak: A Lesson with Louie Bellson
- Guerrero, Frank "Chico", Latin Sounds from the Drumset, Try Publishing, 854 Vine Street, Hollywood, CA, 1974
- The Complete History of the Leedy Drum Company, Cook, Rob, Centerstream Publishing, P.O. Box 5450, Fullerton, CA 92635, 1993, p. 156