A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 27, 2007
There’s a lot of history wrapped up in a modest little CD called King Richard’s Red Hot New Mexican Chile Stew-Art! (subtitled A Southwest Guitar Rock and Ranchera Instrumental Adventure) by a band called The Knights, (formerly King Richard & The Knights).
It’s a tasty little collection of surfy instrumentals influenced by Mexican and cowboy music led by guitarist (and self-crowned “king”) Dick Stewart, a 40-plus-year veteran of New Mexico rock.
I first stumbled across King Richard & The Knights earlier this year while searching eMusic for obscure ’60s garage-band music. There I found Precision, a compilation credited to “King Richard & The Knights (Plus Other ’60s Albuquerque Groups).” It’s an album, originally released on the Collectibles label, of proto-psychedelia, instrumental tunes, and early rock ballads. The title track is an instrumental that was a regional hit in the early ’60s — back when “regional hits” were popular in the world of commercial radio.
The track that slugged me in the gut was the vocal version of “Moonbeam” (there’s also an instrumental); it’s six minutes of pure, greasy soul. Six minutes was an eternity when this song was recorded, but when it pops up on my iPod, I don’t want it to end.
Upon further investigation, I discovered the Lance Records Web site, run by Stewart. The site includes a candid history of The Knights that begins in 1961. Stewart describes the early incarnation of his band as “a Ventures/Fireballs clone playing 40 to 50 instrumental guitar songs per gig with no vocals other than a Chuck Berry tune here and there to break the monotony.”
“Precision” became a hit shortly before civilization as we knew it was destroyed by The Beatles and the subsequent British Invasion. Stewart on his Web site recalls: “Of course we were pissed, as were the other American rock musicians of the early ’60s, especially when our fans swiftly dumped us for the rock bands that sang with English accents, played those hideous-looking Vox guitars (especially when compared to the Fender), and grew their hair long! I admit that The Knights performed some of the early British hits shortly before calling it quits, but it was done purely out of necessity. (We wanted to remain employed.) Nevertheless, I just couldn’t shake the lead-guitar rock styles of the early ’60s, much less develop a passion for performing the new age of rock that was completely dictated by the British. That attitude, in fact, ultimately caused the demise of the original Knights.”
The band broke up just after Stewart started Lance Records, a “little, off-the-wall indie label” in Albuquerque in the mid-’60s that featured local garage bands like Lincoln Street Exit (which later became XIT, an influential Native American rock group) and Fe-Fi-Four Plus 2, best known for its psychedelic cult classic “I Wanna Come Back From the World of LSD.”
He also began publishing a newsletter called The Lance Monthly, which had stories about acts in the Lance Records stable and other local and regional acts like Al Hurricane, The Morfomen (a Santa Fe band), and Floyd & Jerry.
Stewart spent many years concentrating on his Hispanic music label, Casanova Records. But after Collectibles released the Precision compilation and the rise of Internet marketing convinced him the Web gave indie labels “a fighting chance,” Stewart revived The Lance Monthly. (This month there’s a lengthy and somewhat bitter recollection of the West Texas band The Cavaliers — most famous for the teenage-death classic “Last Kiss” — written by former Cavalier Sid Holmes.)
And Stewart revived The Knights.
As for Red Hot New Mexican Chile Stew-Art!, there’s a fine cover of “Ghost Riders” (which previously was transformed into a surf song by Dick Dale). There’s also one called “Phantom Riders.”
Did I say there was history on this album? Until I got this album I never realized that the original name of Clovis, N.M., was Riley Switch. “Riley’s Switch” is the title of a chugging little rocker here.
Meanwhile “El Incendio de Los Alamos (When Los Alamos Burned)” sounds like it could have come out of the classic surf-music era, as does “Surfin’ the Rio Grande.”
But my favorite ones are the rancheras — “El Rancho Grande,” “Poco de Todo,” “A Medias de la Noche.” They remind me of classic tunes by Arizona Hispano instrumental rocker Eddie Dimas, whose “El Mosquito” should have been a national hit.
So here’s to King Richard Stewart. Let’s hope he keeps cranking out The Lance Monthly and keeps rocking with The Knights.
*Voodoo Surf Fever by The Surf Lords. These guys haven’t been surfing the Rio Grande for nearly as long as King Richard, but they’ve been around long enough to make three CDs.
The Lords are led by guitarist/vocalist (they’re not entirely instrumental) Tom Chism, and their sound has a definite Latin influence. The song “Voices Carry” sounds like it’s inspired by Native American music — heavy tom-toms, some subtle chanting at the beginning and end, and guitar references to The Shadows’ “Apache.”
Like the title implies, this is kind of a spooky album. The best songs here are slow and spooky. There are fine mysterioso covers of Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game” and David Essex’s “Rock On.”
“Lost in the Bayou” is simmering swamp funk. Downright psychedelic is a spacey medley “Echoes From Neptune — Shenandoah.” Yes, “Shenandoah” is the famous Civil War-era tune, but this one is way across the wide Missouri.
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