Chatting with percussion legend Poncho Sanchez
By Naughty Mickie
Photos courtesy www.ponchosanchez.com
Yes, it seems odd that I would even dare put "chatting" and "legend" in the same sentence, but it's easy with Poncho Sanchez. I'll admit I was a little nervous when I called the Latin percussionist extraordinaire at his home. He answered the phone himself and asked me if I could call back in 15 minutes because he had to finish cleaning his pool. I agreed and then sat at my desk thinking how cool it was that a man who is famous the world over would do chores. When I called back, Sanchez told me that he had to take care of the pool and even do some housework, as a magazine was going to drop by for a photo shoot. He was promoting his album, "Do It!'' (Concord Picante) which was released in August.
Sanchez's parents were from Mexico and met in Laredo, Texas. Sanchez was born in Laredo and raised there and in Norwalk, California with his 6 sisters and 4 brothers. His father was in the dry cleaning business. Sanchez's uncle moved out to California first and encouraged his father to move too because there was a lot of work available.
"I grew up in the area of Norwalk called the `One Ways,' the one way streets. I lived in that neighborhood even before it was the One Ways because I saw the guy putting the one way signs up myself,'' Sanchez laughs. "That's where I got exposed to a lot of different types of music.''
"My brothers and sisters are all great dancers and great admirers of music," says Sanchez, who is the only musician in his family.
His siblings were into the first wave of mambo and cha-cha-cha music which came to Los Angeles via New York City. The genre is also known as salsa, Cuba music or Latin jazz. The siblings were exposed to R&B which they loved as well.
Sanchez started playing guitar because of his childhood friend Benny Rodriguez. They are still friends today and Rodriguez lives in a nearby city.
"Benny Rodriguez was the guy who lived across the street and he had a rock and roll band and he played guitar in the band," Sanchez recalls. "I was in sixth grade and that's when the first Motown sound was barely coming out and the soul music was barely breaking in. The '60s, the British Invasion had come in and Benny was playing guitar and I'd watch him practice through the window. Once in a while he'd let me go in there and pluck around with the guitar and say, `OK that's enough.' He sold me my first little guitar for 50 cents and I plucked on that thing for about a year. He taught me a couple lines on the guitar.''
During junior high school, Sanchez moved back to Laredo with his family to open up a cleaners. It was in the back of the house.
His sister ran the front desk, while Sanchez and his brother would make deliveries on their bikes. The kids begged their dad to let them move back to L.A. and a year later they returned to Norwalk.
As kids, Sanchez and his best friend Ralph Velasquez learned guitar from Rodriguez. When Sanchez came back to Norwalk, he soon discovered that Velasquez and Rodriguez had a band called The Halos.
"I went into the rehearsal and I was shocked. They were actually playing and they had a list of songs and a couple gigs coming up," Sanchez says.
Overwhelmed, he put down his guitar, but then they asked him to try singing.
"They said, `Poncho, what we need is a singer.' And I said, `Well, I play the guitar.' They said, `There's the microphone, give it a try. We've both tried singing and we don't do too good.' I said, `Well, I want to be in the band.' I got up and did my best imitation of James Brown and all that stuff and after the song was over, they said, `Man, Poncho, you sing great. You're the lead singer of the band.' They gave me a stack of 45 records and a couple of papers with a couple of the lyrics and said, `Get the rest of these lyrics, we have a gig Saturday,''' recalls Sanchez.
But he realized that he couldn't just sing, he had to do the talking for the band too. This helped him learn how to talk on the mic.
After that, Sanchez played in neighborhood bands. He got married right out of high school and joined a Sabor. He had been playing congas since he was 17. He was self-taught. learning most of his craft from Cal Tjader's records. As luck would have it, Sanchez was introduced to Tjader at one of Tjader's shows in Redondo Beach, California. Tjader invited him to join the band on stage and later called on Sanchez to play congas. He went up.
"I played one song, took a solo and got a big reaction from the crowd and Cal introduced me. I could have bragged about that the rest of my life. I got up and he said, `Stay with us the rest of the set,'" Sanchez boasts.
He played four more songs and Tjader asked for his name and phone number. Sanchez didn't really think he'd call, but sure enough he was invited to perform on New Year's Eve 1975 at the Coconut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel.
I interrupt Sanchez' story to ask him if he prefers to sing or play congas.
"It depends on how tired I am," Sanchez answers. "Congas are harder because you've got to physically beat those things. And
I've been playing for a long time. I've been playing congas since I was 17 and I'm 53 now. But I enjoy both still. I sing and play at the same time. Sometimes I'll take a break and let one of the other guys play the congas and I'll stand up and play maracas or another instrument.''
I go back to Sanchez's life and learn that he studied music at Cerritos College and played with the jazz stage band and the fusion rock group there. He has also worked hard during his life.
"When I was in Sabor I was working in an aluminum foundry in Southgate. That's some hot stuff, but I was young, strong and I actually enjoyed it. I worked in a foundry for five years and I played gigs on the weekends with this Sabor band. When I got the gig with Cal Tjader, I had been laid off from that job, so it came at the perfect time. I actually became a professional musician from then on.''
Sanchez toured the world for seven years with Cal Tjader and won a Grammy in 1980. Tjader died of a heart attack on Cinco de Mayo in the Philippines. Sanchez returned home, but now he didn't have a job. He had a band on the side, but they only gigged occasionally, so he needed money to support his family. He received an opportunity to drive a liquor truck and did that for four years.
Sanchez made two records and was even nominated for a Grammy and was still driving the truck as a casual. It took five albums before he let the job go in 1990, when he was nominated for another Grammy. In 1999, Sanchez finally brought a Grammy home.
Sanchez has been married to his wife, Stella, for 33 years. They have two sons, Xavier Mongo Sanchez, who is a an astrophysicist; and Julian Tito Sanchez, a real estate loan officer. But Sanchez isn't ready to retire. He and his band play all over the world, from large venues, festivals and universities to clinics and more. Most interestingly, they can often be found in small, intimate venues.
"We also do the little clubs because I keep my band working that way. The band works every weekend somewhere even if it's a small club," Sanchez explains. "It's a good feeling. We work off the crowd, the people. You can feel that energy going and that's what pumps us up. We can come home tired off the airplane like, `Oh man, we've got to go do another gig.' And we come home and you get in the club and the people are bubbling, the energy is flowing and suddenly I'm not tired any more. The people, we work off the people. That's another reason I like to do the small clubs, plus the band stays busy and they get to make a little money every week. Every little bit helps, we've got bills like everybody else.''
Sanchez has written about 25 songs, but he feels that the main writers in his band are David Torres, his musical director, and
Francisco Torres (no relation) trombone player. They are both good arrangers.
"I don't know how to write music myself, but I can tell you if it's right or wrong." Sanchez clarifies, "I just hum them all my ideas, I want the horn players to do this, I want the bass player to play this line, and they write it out for me. They sit at the piano here at my house and I've got a conga drum and they sit there and physically start writing out ideas. You work off of a skeleton first version of the tune, just a draft, an idea and then you fill it in and the next thing you've got a tune.''
As for the music scene, Sanchez feels the styles change faster than in the past. He doesn't listen to today's music, but he has a library of videos, and DVDs, as well as 5,000 albums and 5,000 CDs. He has a collection of music from the '50s, '60s
and '70s of jazz, Latin jazz, salsa, doo-wop, soul, old Gospel.
"I'm still enjoying digging into all that stuff and I pull ideas out of that to bring to my music. I never pull ideas from today's music to put into my music," says Sanchez.
He is happy with life's simple pleasures.
"What I really enjoy nowadays waiting for my family to come over. I have a grandson now and I love them to come over, make a barbecue, get in the pool and enjoy like regular people. I also love to go deep sea fishing. I go deep sea fishing once a month," Sanchez tells me.
He especially likes to fish off of Catalina Island. He adds that he used to have his own boat, but sold it and is considering buying another one.
The future for Sanchez is full of touring, from Hawaii to New York City and around the globe. He is also helping to promote a documentary film of his life story, "Keeper of the Flame," which was made over three years and includes performances, film clips of his family, interviews and more.
For aspiring artists, Sanchez offers this advice, "It's a long hard road, it ain't the easiest thing to do, but if you really feel it in your heart like I do, number one, you have to stay true to yourself, true to your music and be faithful to it and you have to set a goal in your life, what you want to do with your music and your business, and don't take your eyes off of that. Always zero in on that, what you want to do with it. I'm a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe the Lord has His hand in this with me.''
Find out where Sanchez is touring and more at www.ponchosanchez.com
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