‘ Bring Back Those Memories of El Monte’ Recalls Los Angeles’ Doowop Era



 Memories of El Monte

– Zappa, Penquins Classic

Nostalgic Tribute to Los

Angeles’  ‘Happy Days’ Doowop



Though the song ‘Memories of El Monte‘ came out in 1963,   after the doo-wop era,  it was a perfect  song collaboration of a young Frank Zappa and the Penguins ( of ‘ Earth Angel’ fame) .   Probably due to its late arrival, the song never was a hit on the charts but it’s become an ‘under-the-radar’ classic, especially for those who grew up during the era and remember ‘those wonderful dances in El Monte .’  What makes the song extra special are the   ‘drop in’  songs and mentions of  the popular, largely  Los Angeles- based groups  The Shields, the Five Satins, the Heartbeats, the Medallions and Tony Allen and of course, the Penguins so popular at the El Monte dances.  Famed Los Angeles DJs like Hunter Hancock, Art Laboe (who produced the song-see album cover above- and very much still with us) and Johnny Otis were instrumental in bringing about this music and live performances not only at El Monte,  where, notably, young folks of all races easily mixed.  Frank Zappa wonderfully chronicled these special times and memories , Cleve Duncan and the Penguins sang about them and the aforementioned DJs recounted them in concert and over the airwaves.  Laboe tells below how the Legion Stadium concerts came about, below.


Many years later -in the 1980s and 1990s, Brian Bierne of KRTH DID bring back memories of El Monte but at Los Angeles’ fabled Greek Theater with ‘Legends in Concert  ‘  for one night every year, in October. Though we never saw the original El Monte Legion Stadium,  we could imagine what it was like as nostalgia flowed at the Greek with long-forgotten artists such as TONY ALLEN, GENE CHANDLER, JIMMY JONES to name a few and many more mostly long forgotten one-hit wonders -many of whom hadn’t performed in decades – were brought back for one special night, once a year in October, until that suddenly stopped. (Will have an article on that to come. Bierne continues to host mostly oldies tribute concerts, but nothing like the aforementioned.)


MEMORIES OF EL MONTE  written by FRANK ZAPPA and performed by CLEVE DUNCAN and the PENGUINS  (1963)

I’m all alone.
Feeling so blue.
Thinking about you
And the love we once knew.
And each time I do,
It brings back those memories
Of El Monte.

Remember the dance.
I held you so tight.
The Satins were singing
In the still of the night.
You gave me your heart
And your love undying.
Now I’m alone…
I’m sitting here crying.


If only they had
Those dances again,
I’d know where to find you,
And all my old friends.
The Shields would sing…
“You cheated. You lied…”
And the Heartbeats…
“You’re a thousand miles away…”
And the Medaillons with “The Letter” and…
“Sweet words of his mortality…”
Marvin and Johnny with…
“Cherry Pie…”
And then, Tony Allen with…
“Night owl…”
And I, Cleve Duncan, along with the Penguins,
will sing…
“Earth angel
Earth Angel
Will you be mine?”
At El Monte.


If I could go back
To those days of the past,
I’d show you a love…
A love that would last.
Oh, I remember
Those wonderful dances
In El Monte.
In El Monte.
“Earth angel
Earth Angel
Will you be mine?”
At El Monte

Art Laboe and the

El Monte Legion Stadium

Art Laboe

If Ol’ H.H. was the father of R&B radio in Los Angeles…Art Laboe can be credited as the father of Rock N’ Roll radio in the City of Angels. In 1955 Art made his debut in Los Angeles as a deejay for radio station KXLA, although Hunter Hancock had been in Los Angeles playing rhythm and blues for some time, Laboe was the first to play Rock N’ Roll. In 1950 Laboe started doing his shows from Scrivner’s Drive-In Restaurant chain (then only numbering three). As the chain grew so did Art’s audience, his live dedication shows drew groups and car clubs from all corners of Los Angeles County. At the time most of the drive-ins could only support about thirty cars. Art needed more room so Scrivner’s built a huge drive-in on Imperial and Western that could accommodate 200 cars; the hill top restaurant may have been the first low rider Mecca in the county. Art claims his connection with the people of Los Angeles especially the Chicano community started during his time at Scrivner’s. Teens had a place where they could listen to “their” music and also a place to be heard, Laboe claims to have aired 25,000 dedications from the restaurant chain in five years. His popularity prompted concert promoter Hal Zieger and bandleader Johnny Otis to hire him to emcee their live shows. At his first show held at the Shrine Auditorium some time in 1957 Art received such a favorable response that he became a regular, hosting shows at the Orpheum, United Artist and paramount Theaters. During this period Art also started to emcee dances on the outskirts of Los Angeles’ city limits. Dances for teens held within the Los Angeles City limits required a permit from the school board and Art wanted his dances for all ages so he used dance halls in neighboring cities. Although dances were held in Anaheim, Long Beach and San Bernardino it was El Monte, which eventually became his headquarters. Laboe rotated his schedule weekly with El Monte Legions Stadium getting a show every other week. The best in rhythm and blues talent, both national and local were booked at his shows. According to Laboe “We always had our local groups the Penguins, the Carlos Brotheres, Jesse Belvin, the Turks, Bobby Day and Rosie and the Originals, then we would reach out to the groups from the East like Chuck Berry, Jackie Wilson and the Drifters it was all about good times.” The good times continued after the dances were over, car clubs would pack the street around the dance halls showing off their cars and trying their luck with the girls which came streaming out of the dance hall. Not only was El Monte Art Laboe’s weekend headquarters, it also became a magnet for Black, White, Chicano youth and aspiring rock n’ roll stars. Cannibal and the Headhunters, the Jaguars, the Premiers, The Carlos Brothers, the Salas Brothers, Ritchie Valens and Thee Midniters were just a few of the Chicano groups from Southern California’s barrios that performed at El Monte.

Johnny Otis, ‘Discovery’ Etta James Pass Within Days

As the music scene continues to change, the world becomes even further removed from the Golden Years of real, unpasteurized music . One thing about getting older is that we have to see our heroes pass along the way. It does beat the alternative but it’s still a very sad and uncomfortable aspect of life / death to witness this …which is one reason these pages are here , as much to highlight those still with us  as to remember those who have passed.

I’ve been thinking a lot of Johnny Otis in recent months. I knew he was still with us until now, but at 90 had lots of health issues and not doing a whole lot musically. Hadn’t heard from him or about him much at all. Even online searches weren’t telling us much new information. It wasn’t  many years ago he seemed to be everywhere, doing lots of different things. He was a fine musicisan and recording artist but spend most of his time producing and recording others.  He had a fantastic radio show on KPFA and affiliates in California to which I made a point to listen every Saturday morning. He continued to perform with updated versions of his legendary ‘caravan,’ featuring rising stars, such as Etta James, and in later years mostly older artists who never quite made the big name but who could have with a little luck, eg Barbara Morrison along with talented sons , Shuggie and Lucky.

I got to see Otis, who lived nearby in the burg of Sebastpol, an hour out of San Francisco. A quiet, liberal community, Sebastapol became home for Otis a few decades ago . It was a nice change for Otis, who grew up in then small town of Vallejo, California only to spend his formative years in the he big cities, discovering and introducing new talent such as Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke, Gladys Knight and James, and so many more.

Most interesting thing is that Otis was of Greek, Caucasian persuasion, but adopted the black culture after growing up in the diversified community of Vallejo and taking to the sounds and lifestyle around him. And he never these roots, continuing to play the small, local clubs in his later years, while providing a venue for his older, mostly black, friends, like Morrison, who couldn’t always find work in the bigger clubs.

Etta James was disocvered by Otis as a 14-year-old living in the projects of San Fransicsco.  She toured with Otis’ caravan shows before going on to become one of the top R & B female singers  with hits like ‘At Last’ and ‘Something’s Got A Hold On Me.’  She overcame drug and weight problems for a career lasting six decades.

The Johnny Otis Rhythm & Blues Caravan: The Complete Savoy Recordings





New Emm Virgin Essential Modern Records Collection Blues Artist James Etta Compact Disc

Review don’t do justice to the long, full careeres of these two pioneering artsits. Perhaps none could as Otis and James ‘s lives were so long and eventful to summarize in a few paragraphs.  See the recent Cadillac Man for a ‘Hollywood’ portrayal of James. Both have many albums still available, including those below.  Here’s one review that did t0uch some raw nerves…