Monday, February 5, 2007

The musical stylings of Cheech & Chong

The comic sensibilities of Cheech & Chong embraced multiple generations — both the ’70s potheads and the ’80s cokefiends — but overlooked in the duo’s joking about toking is a little matter of rock and roll.

Together or apart, Richard “Cheech” Marin and Tommy Chong gravitate toward music. The two posed on the cover of Guitar One magazine in 2002, along with a posse of celebrities who rock. But Cheech & Chong aren’t poseurs. They come bearing rock credentials, including a string of charted singles and an impressive group of backup musicians and singers – George Harrison, Carole King and Michelle Phillips among them.

"I play every day, sing every day. It’s just a part of me," says Marin, who recorded his first song at 5 and picked up the guitar at 12 and showed up last year on the Fox TV show “Celebrity Duets.” "It’s as much a part of me as anything."

Originally musicians who gravitated toward comedy, Cheech & Chong didn’t turn away from their roots. The first track on their debut record, 1971’s "Cheech and Chong," put Chong in the role of an old blues man, Blind Melon Chitlin’.

"If you look at our career, we’ve always had music," says Chong, who was interviewed separately from Marin. "We’ve had music in every movie we did. We were both musicians before Cheech & Chong and during Cheech & Chong. Our humor, like ‘Up in Smoke,’ was always music-based — two guys looking to get high before they play in a battle of the bands."

Although it took a while, the success of Cheech & Chong’s early albums allowed the guys to make the leap into movies, starting with "Up in Smoke" in 1978. The movie features two of their most popular characters – Marin as the Chicano lowrider Pedro and Chong as an affable pothead known only as "Man." They meet when Cheech picks up Chong hitchhiking, lugging his drum set with him.

The real meeting took place in Vancouver in 1969.

Marin, a Mexican-American who grew up in the Los Angeles area, had fled to Canada to avoid the draft. He was working as a potter and writing music reviews for a Canadian rock magazine when he heard about this improvisational comedy troupe at a topless club called the Shanghai Junk. He found Chong, a blend of Chinese, Scottish and Irish from Alberta, trying to connect with an audience weary of the flesh show.

"It was pretty boring," says Chong, whose family owned the club. "The show was pretty boring, girls taking off their clothes. The people thought it was pretty boring, too. It was your typical topless bar where people sit around and drink and barely look at the girls on the stage."

The improv troupe was a way to break up the monotony.

"I met up with him and joined the troupe as a writer first and then eventually started replacing different people when they didn’t show up and eventually writing bits for myself," Marin says. “We had the world’s first topless improv theater group. It was about as much fun as a young boy could have.”

He and Chong discovered their mutual background in music and formed a band.

"He was a singer. I was a guitar player. So we put a band together," Chong says. "We were going to do music. And then we went out to our first gig. We never played one note. We just did comedy. … We went over so well I said, ‘OK, this is it.’ So we retired the band and we went on to fame and fortune."

This mutual interest in music dates to both men’s childhoods.

By age 5, Marin, who was born in 1946, had his first recording, a tune called "Armorcito Corazon," a favorite of his parents. By 12, he had taken up the guitar, although it was his voice that made Marin a natural to front bands with other teens, including Captain Shagnasty and his Loch Ness Pickles and Rompin’ Richie and the Rockin’ Rubins.
“We used to change names all the time,” Marin says. “We used to call ourselves Patterns and Colors, and the Joint Chiefs of Stash. That was my favorite.”

"When we were kids he was always singing and playing his guitar," says his cousin, Rosie Robles. "He would pull me into a room and make me listen to his latest song and chord triumphs."
It was Robles’ father who gave Marin his nickname. The name comes from "cheecharone" — fried pork skins — that his uncle thought Marin looked like at birth.

The versatility of Marin voice is readily apparent in the 1987 video "Get Out of My Room." The last offering from Cheech & Chong, the tape is a collection of music videos. Marin tries singing the title song in a variety of styles, first in the style of Johnny Cash, then as a balladeer, switches to a Las Vegas lounge singer and finally settles on performing as an English punk rocker.

“That goes along with being a comedian,” Marin says. “What you first do when you’re a comedian or a funny kid, you imitate people. You imitate singers or people on TV, movie stars. I grew up imitating everybody. I could sing like anybody, so that was great. I kept doing that. The challenge is to find your own voice.”
Accompanying him through these various stylistic changes is Chong on the guitar — actually the second instrument he wanted to learn.

"I wanted to play fiddle but I couldn’t tune it," says Chong, who is eight years older than Marin. "But I learned how to tune guitar. My mother had a little guitar that she bought when she was pregnant with me. It was leaning against a wall or hanging on a wall. So I’d take it down, play around and learned a few chords. The next thing I knew I was playing backup for a fiddle player. His name was Mel."

Chong was 10 years old.

"It was the best lessons, music lessons, that I could have had," he said. "Because I played rhythm guitar. He would stress: ‘Nothing fancy, just keep the rhythm.’ So I developed a very nice rhythmic sense."

Chong quit high school in the 10th grade to devote his energies to his music. He formed a rhythm-and-blues band called The Shades, so named because its members were of various races, including Canadian Indian, black and Chong’s unique mix.

"That ruined my life forever," Chong says. "All I wanted to do was play music."

The band, known briefly as Four Colored Guys and a Chinese Lad, proved a popular draw for teen dances in Calgary.

"We got run out of town by the mayor of Calgary, Alberta," Chong recalls. "Our dances were getting so popular that kids … after the dance, they would go to some party and tear it apart. A lot of violence. The mayor called us into his office. I thought he was going to give us an award or something. … He asked us to leave town. … So we went to Vancouver and never came back."

"We went to Vancouver and played for a couple of months," Chong says. "We weren’t like a road music band. We were kind of a band that we’d find a gig and we’d play there until the place closed up, burned down or we got fired. We weren’t as musical as we were showmen."

The Shades lasted a few more months before disbanding, some members going on to form Chong’s next group, Little Daddy & the Bachelors, which enjoyed greater success. First-place showing at a teen fair won them the right to record a single: "Junior’s Jerk" and "Too Much Monkey Business."

"We were favorites in the town," says Floyd Sneed, drummer for Little Daddy and Chong’s former brother-in-law. He would go on to join Three Dog Night. "We had our following. It was a really good time."

Little Daddy & the Bachelors was comprised of four members of the Shades — Chong, Wes Henderson, Tommy Melton and Floyd Sneed — as well as Floyd’s brother, Bernie.

Chong’s family bought a night club, Elegant Parlour, in Vancouver and Little Daddy & the Bachelors became the house band. The band also ventured across the border into the United States.

"We would take the band down to the States and try to get a gig, just for adventure more than anything," Chong says. "We found Bobby Taylor in San Francisco. Then our drummer quit so we had to find a new drummer. We phoned Bobby to see if he could find a drummer for us and Bobby says, ‘Well, hell, I play the drums.’ So Bobby came up. He was a drummer for, like a minute. Then Tommy quit because Bobby was such a good singer that Tommy got sort of aced out of the group and Bobby took over as lead singer."

The band became Bobby Taylor & The Vancouvers, with Wes Henderson and Tommy Chong the only remaining members of The Shades still part of the group. During a performance at the Elegant Parlour, the band attracted the attention of Diana Ross. She told Berry Gordy of Motown fame, who flew up and signed the band to his Gordy label in 1967.

Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers recorded one album and released three singles in 1968. Chong wrote the first, "Does Your Momma Know About Me," a song about an interracial romance drawn from his own experience. Chong played guitar and sang background, but Taylor took the lead.

"I hated the song," Taylor said during an appearance on the cable television network E!, which ran a "True Hollywood Story" about Cheech & Chong. "I literally hated that song. And then — and this is why I have so much respect for Berry Gordy — when he heard it, he said, ‘That’s a smash. That’s a smash.’ I said yeah, sure. And it jumped on the charts before we knew it."
The song didn’t climb too high up the charts. "Does Your Momma Know About Me" made it to No. 44.

The band began to splinter when Bobby Taylor left after the first album to shepherd an act he’d brought to Motown’s attention – the Jackson 5.

"Michael and the boys opened for us in Chicago at the Regal Theater," Chong says. "We were second bill to Jerry Butler. The Jackson 5 was this little phenomenal group that was opening for all these people, like Gladys Knight and Jerry Butler. Bobby talked to them. He said you boys come on down to Detroit and we’ll get you signed up with Motown."

While Taylor went on to work with the Jacksons, Chong was fired from the band when he was forced to miss a gig to get his green card. He left for Los Angeles, intending to make his mark as a songwriter, but soon moved back to Canada. His greatest success as a songwriter would come through his partnership with Marin.

Marin, who dropped out of college a few credits shy of graduation, fled to Canada to avoid the draft. He worked as an apprentice potter and wrote music reviews for a rock magazine. A friend told him about Chong’s topless club and its improv troupe, so Marin made to his way to Vancouver.

The improv group eventually broke up, but Cheech & Chong remained together, drawn by their mutual interest in music.
"Cheech and I were musicians," Chong says. "He was a singer. I was a guitar player. So we put a band together. We were going to do music. And then we went out to our first gig. We never played one note. We just did comedy. … We went over so well I said, ‘OK, this is it.’ So we retired the band and we went on to fame and fortune."

Cheech & Chong left Canada for America.

"When the improv group broke up, Tommy and I stayed together," Marin says. "We kind of incorporated what we were doing with the group into two guys. We came down to L.A. and tried to make it and struggled around the city. We played all kind of gigs. Then we got discovered by Lou Adler, who had a record company at that time."

Adler, who discovered Jan and Dean, produced "California Dreamin’" for the Mammas the Papas and made the movie "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," took Cheech and Chong into the recording studio.

Their shared background in improvisational comedy would dictate how Cheech & Chong would work. The most famous bit from that first album, a quickie called "Dave," was improvised as Chong was inside the recording studio while Marin stood outside trying to get Chong to open the door.

"We had this style that comes out of improv," Marin says. "It’s like a musician. We always related to comedy as music. We understood it on that level because we were both musicians: all right, here’s the tune and here’s the key and here’s the tempo. Play it how you see it. Then we’d change it or change the tempo. But basically we’d come in with a basic tune or a basic theme. All of the albums were improv’d that way in the studio. It was fairly cheap for us to do that. It was just two guys and two microphones. We could afford to kind of experiment. We’d meet during the day and kind of write out some stuff and rehearse it a little bit. It wasn’t word for word. I know some groups, like maybe Firesign Theatre, would go in there with scripts and they would perform their script. We were never much like that. We were more jazz-oriented than that."

Cheech & Chong released nine albums, eight singles, and saw their best work compiled by Rhino in 2002 on the two-disc set "Where There’s Smoke There’s Cheech and Chong."

Separately, Marin released a single, "Born in East L.A.," a parody of Bruce Springsteen’s "Born in the USA" — which would become a solo movie project — and an infectious collection of children’s music, "My Name is Cheech, the School Bus Driver."
Marin says Adler came to him with the idea of recording the CD of children’s music, which has songs in English and Spanish. Marin wrote all the songs. “I had more fun doing that, I think, than anything.”

Nailing down “Born in East L.A.” was more difficult. Marin says he pursued Springsteen for permission to use the tune. “I had written the song and recorded it already and I still hadn’t gotten permission for that. We were doing the video. I tracked him down through his manager, who was backstage in Dublin. I could hear them on stage playing ‘Born in the U.S.A.’”

Because of their language and subjects, Cheech & Chong weren’t the kind of act radio stations embraced. But Adler released singles on his Ode Records label that were safe for the radio, starting with the non-musical "Santa Claus and His Old Lady" in 1971, and that drew attention to the albums.

"He’s a marketing genius," says Chong. "That’s the way it is. You’ve got to hand it to him. He was and still is one of the top marketing geniuses in the business."

Although perhaps best known for drug humor, Cheech & Chong weren’t a one-joke act. Other topics included parodies of products – "Evelyn Woodhead Speed Reading Course" – and programs, such as "Unamerican Bandstand." But their second album, "Big Bambu," in 1972, cemented the link between Cheech and Chong and drugs. Much of the humor is derived from drug references. The album was even packaged with a giant rolling paper.

Even so, Marin says that “Something like seven percent of our material had to do with drugs.”

The 1973 album "Los Cochinos," their third, won a Grammy Award, and showed the range Cheech & Chong possessed in their ability to portray different characters. The album included the song "Basketball Jones," a soulful tune that was a parody of "Love Jones" by Brighter Side of Darkness. With Marin singing lead, "Basketball Jones" benefited from an all-star lineup of musicians and background singers, including George Harrison, Carole King, Billy Preston, Darlene Love and Michelle Phillips.

"Music was always a big component of what we did because we were musicians," Marin says. "We’d been musicians all our lives."

But the two came at music from different angles, according to Chong. "Cheech, he was like a folkie. He was one of those guys who would pick up a guitar and play little folk songs. He loved Johnny Mathis songs. I was in a black jazz band. But Cheech, he loved everything, all that schmaltzy stuff. Then he’d be hip and sing something like ‘Basketball Jones.’"

“A lot of people, when they grow up, they don’t like their parents’ music,” Marin says. “But I love my parents’ music. They came out of that Glenn Miller age. I listened to all their records. I had a real affinity for that.”

"Basketball Jones," the single of which peaked at No. 15, drew its inspiration from a harrowing ride with actor Jack Nicholson to a Lakers game, Chong says. "There was a big line of cars to get into the Forum. Jack, he’s impatient. He went down the wrong way for a good half a mile. Cheech was in the back seat. He was nervous and started singing, ‘Basketball jones. I’ve got a basketball jones.’ I remembered that so the next day we went into the studio and recorded it."

“I started doing this falsetto voice whenever Tommy and I were together,” Marin says, “and it cracked him up.”

In the era before music videos, Adler produced an animated version of "Basketball Jones," which ran about four minutes, and released it in a few theaters in late 1973 for Oscar consideration. The short was later included in the 1979 Peter Sellers movie "Being There." The song itself was featured in the 1996 Michael Jordan-Bugs Bunny movie "Space Jam" and covered by Barry White and Chris Rock for the soundtrack.

The fourth Cheech & Chong recording, 1974’s "Wedding Album," scored the guys their most successful song, "Earache My Eye," an edgy anthem about the joy of being a rich rock star. The single climbed to No. 9. Marin sings "Earache My Eye" in the guise of Alice Bowie, shown in the movie "Up in Smoke" garbed in a pink tutu. The song has been covered by the Rollins Band, Soundgarden and Korn; Marin even sang on Korn’s version.

"Earache My Eye" owes its genesis to Gaye Delorme, a guitar player who was staying at Marin’s house when the idea for the song came to him.

"He came out one morning and he goes, ‘Momma talking to me dah dah dah dah dah dah dah,’" Chong recalls. "That’s all he had. … I wrote the lyrics and we recorded that."

Subsequent albums continued to play to Cheech & Chong’s talents as musicians. The soundtrack for "Up in Smoke" includes Chong singing the title song and Marin singing an old Ritchie Valens song, "Framed," which was on the earlier "Sleeping Beauty" album (1976).

"That was one of the first songs I learned when I was playing R&B," Chong says. "It always stuck with me."

The 1980 album "Let’s Make a New Dope Deal" included two songs: a punk version of "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," as rendered by Marin, and "Bloat On," which was released as a single.

"Float On," a love song by the Floaters, with lyrics such as "Aquarius, and my name is Ralph/Now I like a woman who loves her freedom" was twisted into "Bloat On" by the Bloaters (Cheech & Chong) as a tribute to food: "Hamburger, and my name is Big Boy/and I love a hamburger that’s nice and juicy."

"The group wasn’t too thrilled to have their song made fun of like that," Chong says.

Cheech & Chong included a few throwaway songs on their albums in their movies, material not long enough to be singles but served as a framework on which to hang comic bits.

"Wedding Album" included a track with Cheech singing "Black Lassie (A Great American Dog)" in a voice familiar to country fans. T "It was like ‘Shaft’ kind of music with Johnny Cash singing, Cheech imitating Johnny Cash singing a black song," says Chong, who sang the slow-tempo title song to their 1978 movie "Up in Smoke.”
Cheech & Chong lent their talent to other musicians as well. They show up on Joni Mitchell’s 1974 song "Twisted," with a speaking — not a singing — part.

“She called,” Marin says. “I was hanging out with Joni at the time. She was a good buddy. So she asked, want to come add some voices on there? It was cool. We did one for Hoyt Axton as well.”

Including music in their act opened doors for Cheech & Chong. "It put us into this sort of musical group category where they could book us into arenas," Chong says. "We’d come out and do some humor and then end with music. My years with Motown taught me, when we’d play a Motown gig it would be, like, three numbers and you’re off. You come out with your hit song, then a slow song and then your new song and that was it. Music wise for our act, it was the same thing. Cheech and I, if we just had one tune in the whole act, that’s all we needed."

Cheech & Chong split in 1986, though the reason given varies with who’s doing the telling.

Marin says the two separated because he had grown tired of the drug humor. "I felt we had kind of used that subject up, and it was time to move on to do other things. He was comfortable doing that and I was uncomfortable trying to do the same thing again and again and again."

Despite their chemistry, the two are very different men. Chong’s comedic influences include Lenny Bruce. Marin, the son of a Los Angeles police detective, grew up fascinated by Red Skelton and Danny Thomas.

But Chong points the blame on the very thing that once pulled them together – music, specifically Cheech’s solo project, "Born in East L.A.," which was done with the permission of the Boss.

"That was the song that broke us up," Chong says. "Everything I wrote, it was like Lennon-McCartney, like ‘Up in Smoke.’ I wrote everything in ‘Up in Smoke,’ the lyrics and the music, everything, but it was ‘Cheech and Chong.’ But when he did ‘Born in East L.A.,’ it was all Cheech. He never left any room for me."

In his defense, Marin says “That was a point where Tommy and I were breaking up and he didn’t want to participate. So I said, all right. I was at the studio and he didn’t show up, so I finished the song on my own. That was the last straw and we just went our separate ways then. I think it was a matter of we’d just been together so long and got tired of each other. You’ve got two real creative egos there that didn’t want to listen to anybody anymore.”

Even after the breakup, the two didn’t sever all ties. Chong showed up to guest star on an episode of the Don Johnson TV series "Nash Bridges," in which Cheech co-starred, and Cheech filmed a cameo for Chong’s solo movie "Far Out Man" in 1989. (That movie included Chong’s other musical partners as well: Floyd Sneed and Bobby Taylor had parts in it.)

Post-Cheech & Chong, Marin distinguished himself as an actor, including a stint co-starring in the Don Johnson TV series "Nash Bridges," in which he played a cop, and as a children’s entertainer. He sings on the soundtrack of the Disney hit "The Lion King," in which he played a hyena, and released a children’s CD, "My Name is Cheech, the School Bus Driver," which Adler produced as well. He’s recorded a second "School Bus Driver" CD, which is so far unreleased, and has proposed turning the Cheech & Chong story into a Broadway musical. Marin also distinguished himself with a nationwide tour of his impressive collection of Chicano art, which was exhibited in the Smithsonian.

On the Fox reality competition, “Celebrity Duets,” Marin proved himself a capable singer in performing with the likes of Randy Travis, Peter Frampton and Al Jarreau, but he was eliminated in the fourth round.

Chong’s solo career followed a track similar to his days as "Man." He portrayed a pothead on "That ’70s Show" and continued to tour as a standup comic, sometimes also playing lead guitar in Chong and the Family Stoned Band, with his sons on bass and drums. Plans are in the works for an album, including a new version of "Earache My Eye." He also wrote a memoir of his time in prison, called “I Chong” and starred in a documentary about his experiences behind bars. Chong was sentenced in 2003 to nine months in federal prison after pleading guilty to selling drug paraphernalia: his own line of bongs.

The two men have talked about a reunion movie, but those plans have so far failed to materialize. The possibility remains that the former partners will take the stage again, although this time around more as musicians than as comedians.

"Cheech actually told me he has no interest in touring or going live on stage," Chong says. "He would like to do music, and I would too. … I think there will be the odd concert where we’ll come and play the music, but as far as getting the stage act back together, I’ve gone too far in this direction, and he can’t get into the tutu anymore."

1 comment:

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