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2:03 pm
Sun August 10, 2014

Fifty Years Of 'Farmer John': A Hit That Opened The Door For Chicano Rock

Originally published on Sun August 10, 2014 4:34 pm

In the summer of 1964, Beatlemania was sweeping the United States, young men were burning their draft cards and race riots were raging in cities across the country — and wrapped up in all of it was the biggest hit of the summer in Los Angeles.

The Premiers' "Farmer John" was a jangly party pop hit, with a simple but classic three-chord progression and main riff. Two guys shouted out the lyrics over a rowdy crowd cheering and clapping and singing along. It hung on the Billboard charts for nearly the whole summer.

Like a lot of hits in the '50s and '60s, the Premiers' "Farmer John" was a cover. The original "Farmer John" sounded very different from the version that climbed the charts. Don Harris and Dewey Terry, the two black musicians of the R&B duo Don & Dewey, wrote and released the first "Farmer John" in 1959.

If that sounds familiar, that's because that's the classic story behind a lot of early rock and roll hits. A black musician does a song. It's great. Then a white musician covers it, and it's the white version that becomes a huge hit. Elvis, Pat Boone, the Rolling Stones and the Beatles all had hits originally written by black musicians.

Here's another example. "Louie Louie" was written by Richard Berry, a black R&B singer from Los Angeles, but you probably know a different version better: in late 1963, a white band called the Kingsmen released a raucous cover version. It was huge, reaching #2 on the charts.

The Kingsmen's hit caught the attention of a 23-year-old Angeleno named Billy Cardenas. He was an East L.A. guy trying to make it as a record producer. He'd been looking for a good way to redo Don & Dewey's "Farmer John" — because, as he says, "I danced to it a lot. I used to do a lot of swing dancing, and that was a song that was complete as far as its beat and swing."

But he thought he could make it even better. The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" had a distinct guitar sound and a catchy three-chord pattern. So Cardenas proposed the idea of combining the two songs to his newest group, The Premiers.

Here's where that old rock'n'roll formula comes off the rails: The Premiers weren't white. They were Mexican-American.

Like a lot of early Chicano rock bands, the Premiers were just a handful of teenage kids — two brothers and two of their friends. They'd been playing a mix of pop covers and traditional Mexican tunes at neighborhood parties in their east side suburb of San Gabriel. They'd gotten so popular there that their mom had hired Billy Cardenas as a manager.

The Premiers liked the idea of a "Farmer John" / "Louie Louie" combo. They practiced the song for a few days, and then Cardenas drove them to Hollywood to record it. Afterward, Cardenas added in some canned crowd noise to make it sound like a live performance. He says he had a good feeling about the track.

"You put in the ingredients — like when you cook, you put all the ingredients, you know? And you hope it's gonna be a good-tasting pie," he says. "This was a good-sounding piece of pie."

At the time, Chicano civil rights and Chicano rock were exploding in California. But it was still 1964, two months before Lyndon Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act.

For white performers, there was no trouble finding success by covering black musicians' songs. But Mexican-Americans were having a harder time with that formula. Other songs, like "Tequila" and "La Bamba," had been hits, but they were almost always either instrumental or sung in Spanish. (Ritchie Valens did have a couple English-language hits, but he died in 1959.) Record companies just weren't fully convinced that Chicano bands like The Premiers could really play and sing in English.

"First time I went to a particular record company, they told me, 'Uh, no. We won't even listen to it 'cause we don't put Mexican records on the radio,'" Cardenas says. "I said, 'It's not a Mexican record. You misunderstand, they play rock and roll.' "

So The Premiers released "Farmer John" on a small LA label. Local DJs Dick "Huggy Boy" Hugg and Art Laboe had huge Latino followings, and they played "Farmer John" constantly. Cardenas says it wasn't long before the big labels saw the potential.

"Warner Brothers called to pick up the master. Thirty thousand records sold in the first week," he says.

It took off. Less than a month later The Premiers appeared before a national TV audience on American Bandstand, where Dick Clark informed them on live TV that they'd be joining his Caravan of Stars national tour.

"Farmer John" spent over two months on Billboard's Hot 100, peaking at No. 19. It was everywhere, played by everyone. There was a Christmas version the next year by influential garage rock group the Sonics. It even reached as far as Winnipeg, Manitoba, where a 19-year-old Neil Young heard it and performed it with his band The Squires. He'd later revisit the song on 1990's Ragged Glory.

Its reach lasted well past the end of its run on the charts. In the U.K., Billy Childish was just four when the song came out. He doesn't even remember hearing it until the '80s. It wasn't exactly a bolt out of the blue, he says — but he was taken with it and its amateurish charm.

"It's well-played, well-sung, well-produced," Childish says. "Everything about it is sublime."

He wanted to pay tribute to it, but didn't want to do a straight cover — so he wrote a song called "Davey Crockett."

"There's no point in doing a bad version of 'Farmer John' when you can do a great version of 'Davey Crockett,' pretty much like [Billy Cardenas] decided he might as well do a great version of 'Farmer John,' rather than a substandard version of 'Louie Louie,'" he explains. "'Cause all you gotta do is throw your own bit in the mix, and you're away."

Though The Premiers' run ended when two of the four members were drafted and sent to Vietnam, Cardenas says their hit had a lasting legacy, beyond the cover versions.

"'Farmer John' was the beginning of a lot of things for Hispanics in East L.A.," Cardenas says.

And across the country, too. The next year, Chicano bands would release the classics "Wooly Bully" and "96 Tears" — and another, Cannibal and the Headhunters, even toured with The Beatles, opening for them at Shea Stadium.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

We're going to stay in California for our next story and keep it retro. Set the way-back machine for the summer of 1964. New York and San Francisco saw the first big student protests against the Vietnam War. The entire country was infected with Beatlemania, and here in Los Angeles, the biggest hit of the summer was also a major cultural breakthrough.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FARMER JOHN")

THE PREMIERS: (Singing) Farmer John, I'm in love with your daughter.

RATH: The Premier's version of "Farmer John" would hit number nineteen on the national charts. It was also one of the first mainstream rock hits by a Mexican-American band. And as NPR's Becky Sullivan reports, that made it a momentous twist on a classic formula of early rock 'n roll.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Before we get to The Premiers, actually, I should explain that, like a ton of other hits in the '50s and '60s, the original "Farmer John" sounded totally different from the one that blew up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FARMER JOHN")

DON AND DEWEY: (Singing) Farmer John, I'm in love with your daughter.

SULLIVAN: Don Bowman and Dewey Terry were two black musicians who made up the R&B duo Don and Dewey. They wrote and released the original "Farmer John" in 1959.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FARMER JOHN")

DON AND DEWEY: (Singing) I dig the way she walks, the way she talks. She really knocks me out. She starts me to shout.

SULLIVAN: Now, the standard story behind a lot of early rock 'n roll hits goes like this; a black musician does a song. It's great. Then a white musician covers it, and it's the white version that becomes the huge hit. Here is an example is germane to the story. This song was written by the black performer Richard Berry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOUIE LOUIE")

RICHARD BERRY: (Singing) Louie, Louie, well, well, me got to go.

SULLIVAN: But the version you probably know is by a white band called The Kingsmen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOUIE LOUIE")

THE KINGSMEN: (Singing) Louie, Louie, oh, no, saying we got to go.

SULLIVAN: The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" came out in 1963. It was huge, and it immediately caught the attention of a 23-year-old Angeleno named Billy Cardenas. Billy was an East LA guy trying to make it as a record producer. He'd been trying to come up with a good way to redo that Don and Dewey song "Farmer John."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FARMER JOHN")

DON AND DEWEY: (Singing) Farmer John.

BILLY CARDENAS: Because I danced to it a lot, and I used to do a lot of swing dancing. And that was a song that was complete as far as its beat and swing.

SULLIVAN: But he thought he could make it even better. The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" had a great guitar sound and this three-chord pattern.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE KINGSMEN SONG, "LOUIE LOUIE")

SULLIVAN: So Billy proposed the idea of combining it with Don and Dewey's "Farmer John" to his newest group, The Premiers. Here's the thing; The Premiers weren't white. They were Mexican-American. And like a lot of early Chicano rock bands, they were just a handful of teenage kids - two brothers, two of their friends. They'd been playing a mix of pop covers and traditional Mexican tunes at neighborhood parties in their Eastside suburb of Saint Gabriel. They'd gotten so popular, their mom hired Billy as a manager.

The Premiers liked the idea of a "Farmer John"- "Louie Louie" combo. So the guys practiced the song for a few days. Then Billy drove them to Hollywood to record it, adding in some canned crowd noise to make it sound like a live performance. He even puts himself in this silly intro to the song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FARMER JOHN")

CARDENAS: Has anybody seen Kosher Pickle Harry?

CROWD: No.

CARDENAS: If you see him, tell him that Herbert is looking for him.

CROWD: Herbert.

CARDENAS: OK, ladies and gentlemen, here we go - The Premiers.

SULLIVAN: Billy had a good feeling about it.

CARDENAS: You put in the ingredients like when you cook. You put in all the ingredients, you know, and you hope that it's going be a good-tasting pie. This was a good-sounding piece of pie (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FARMER JOHN")

THE PREMIERS: (Singing) Farmer John, I'm in love with your daughter.

SULLIVAN: At the time, Chicano civil rights and Chicano rock were exploding in California. But this was 1964, still two months before Lyndon Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act. For white performers, there was no trouble at all finding success in covering black musicians songs. But Mexican-Americans were having a harder time with that formula. Other songs like "Tequila" and "La Bamba" had been hits. But they were almost always either instrumental or sung in Spanish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA BAMBA")

RITCHIE VALENS: (Singing in Spanish).

SULLIVAN: Record companies just weren't convinced yet that Chicano bands like The Premiers could really play and sing in English.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FARMER JOHN")

THE PREMIERS: (Singing) Farmer John.

CARDENAS: The first time I went to a particular record company, they told me, no, we won't even listen to it because we don't put Mexican records on the radio. I said, it's not a Mexican record. You misunderstand. They play rock 'n roll.

SULLIVAN: But no dice. So The Premiers released "Farmer John" on a small LA label. Local DJs like Huggy Boy and Art Laboe had huge Latino followings, and they played "Farmer John" constantly. Billy says it wasn't long before the big labels saw the potential.

CARDENAS: Warner Brothers called to pick up the master. Thirty-thousand records sold in the first week.

SULLIVAN: It took off. Less than a month later, The Premiers were on national TV on "American Bandstand."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "AMERICAN BANDSTAND")

DICK CLARK: And this, of course, I guess, is certainly one of the hottest records of the last few weeks. Ladies and gentlemen, here are The Premiers with "Farmer John."

SULLIVAN: "Farmer John" spent over two months on Billboard's Hot 100, peaking at number 19. And it's lived on well after its exit from the charts. In the U.K., a musician and artist named Billy Childish was just 4 when the song came out. He doesn't remember hearing it 'til the '80s. But even 20 years after its release, he was taken with it.

BILLY CHILDISH: It's well-played, well-sung, well-produced; everything about it is sublime.

SULLIVAN: Billy Childish wanted to pay homage to "Farmer John." But he didn't want to do just a straight cover. So instead, he wrote a song called "Davy Crockett." It even included a tribute to that hokey intro that Billy Cardenas recorded.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAVY CROCKETT")

THEE HEADCOATS: Hey, Lily, if you see Davy, tell him Calamity Jane's looking for him.

CHILDISH: There's no point in doing a bad version of "Farmer John" when you can do a great version of "Davy Crockett," pretty much like the producer decided he might as well do a great version of "Farmer John" rather than a substandard version of "Louie Louie" 'cause all you've got to do is throw your own bit in the mix, and you're away.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAVY CROCKETT")

THEE HEADCOATS: (Singing) Oh, Davy Crockett. What you got in your pocket?

SULLIVAN: Billy Childish told me he thinks modern pop music is too produced, too obsessed with perfection.

CHILDISH: Because when you hear things like "Farmer John," you know that's what it was. "Farmer John" is impressive because it's not impressive.

SULLIVAN: "Farmer John's" progeny is definitely impressive. It's been covered dozens of times, from this Billy Childish take to a grungy cover by Neil Young and even a Christmas version by The Sonics called "Santa Claus." And its legacy goes beyond even that. Though The Premier's run ended when 2 of the 4 members were drafted and sent to Vietnam, their producer, Billy Cardenas, says the hit alone was momentous enough.

CARDENAS: "Farmer John" was the beginning of a lot of things for Hispanics in East LA.

SULLIVAN: And across the country. The next year, Chicano bands would release the classics "Wooly Bully" and "96 Tears" and another even toured with a little group called the Beatles, opening for them at Shea Stadium. Becky Sullivan, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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