MRRL Hall of Fame
- Category: Inductees
? (Question Mark) And The Mysterians
Although they are often wrongly thought of as “one hit wonders”, ? (Question Mark) & The Mysterians actually placed five singles on the Billboard charts and released two classic albums of their own original brand of Tex-Mex garage rock in an incredible fifteen month period that ended with the collapse of the Cameo-Parkway record label. The group’s tale is a classic “rags to riches” American success story made even more unique by the fact that all of the Mysterians were of Mexican-American descent.
The members of the band were children of migrant farm workers who would travel to Michigan each summer to pick crops and then return to their homes in Texas when the harvest was complete. When the boys grew old enough, they would work in the fields as well.
Bobby Balderrama got his first real introduction to the guitar while picking strawberries near Standish, Michigan. He was very impressed by a fellow farm worker named Dave Garcia who both looked and played guitar like the late Ritchie Valens. Garcia showed Bobby some basic chords while sitting on the tailgate of the Balderrama’s family station wagon and stressed to him the necessity of practice if he wanted to be good on the instrument. It was a lesson that Bobby would eventually embrace, and it was also the first glimmer of what Balderrama would decide to do with the rest of his life.
Michigan’s booming auto-based economy eventually offered steady employment opportunities for the Mysterians’ parents that provided far better pay, benefits, and working conditions than they could ever hope to find in Michigan’s fields and orchards. As a result, their families bought homes in the Saginaw Valley and the children were enrolled in local schools.
Original band members – guitarist Bobby Balderrama, bassist Larry Borjas, and drummer Robert Martinez, first started playing together at Larry’s house in Saginaw, Michigan, in 1962. Brought together by their common love of rock and roll, the fledgling group started out by trying to master some of the popular instrumental hits of the day by the Ventures and Duane Eddy. After jamming together for over a year, the band got its first gig with an offer to play at a Greek Orthodox Church in Saginaw early in 1964.
That same year marked the arrival of the British Invasion bands that stressed vocals and signaled the decline in popularity of strictly instrumental rock groups. Since none of the original trio wanted to be a singer and had already started to learn the songs of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, it was obvious that they needed a vocalist. Robert Martinez suggested auditioning his brother. Rudy Martinez, who from a young age had dreamed of being a singer and making records, was a natural born front man whose singing style and stage moves suggested a Mexican-American version of Mick Jagger.
The group needed a new name, and for a while they toyed with the idea of calling themselves the Cadets and dressing in military-styled stage outfits. Larry Borjas eventually came up with the band name after watching a Japanese science fiction movie called The Mysterians on television. The plot of the 1957 film involved aliens from the doomed planet Mysteroid who invade earth wearing capes, round helmets, and dark glasses while looking to mate with Earth women. Although skeptical at first, the other band members eventually decided 'The Mysterians' was both cool and stylish and adopted it as their moniker.
It was while playing a teen dance at Saginaw’s G. I. Forum that The Mysterians met their first manger, David Torres. Torres, who worked at Dow Chemical, was impressed by the frenzied reaction of the girls at the dance, and by the fact that he had never before seen an all-Hispanic rock band.
Torres had number of ideas for the group that included mysterious names for each band member: Bobby would be “X”, Robert “Y”, Larry “Z”, and Rudy, who was already performing with his trademark shades would be called “?” (Question Mark). The only member of the band who seemed to be able to stick to his new identity was Rudy. When making a phone call to WTAC deejay Bob Dell to inquire about a booking at the popular teen dances at Mt. Holly outside of Flint, Rudy answered Dell’s question of what his name was by responding that it was “Question Mark”. Dell thought that it was an interesting angle, and whenever he booked them at Mt. Holly he promoted the band on his daily radio show as “Question Mark & The Mysterians”. The tremendous publicity generated on the region’s most powerful AM station led to the band permanently adding the symbol “?” to its name.
? & The Mysterians were now beginning to incorporate some of their own tunes in their sets that included covers of the popular hits of the day like “I Saw Her Standing There”, “Satisfaction”, and “Wolly Bully”. While watching the Dave Clark Five and The Animals performing on the weekly music programs Hullabaloo and Shindig at their practice facility at the Balderrama family farm in Monitor Township, the group decided to add a keyboard player to bolster their sound.
Bobby’s brother gave them the name of teenaged Frank Rodriguez of Bay City who had been playing piano since the age of five. The band auditioned Frank and the final piece of the puzzle was in place. ? & The Mysterians then competed in the statewide “Battle of the Bands” held at Roll-Air on State Park Drive in Bay City during the summer of 1965. They finished third behind the Motor City Bonnevilles and a young Bay City band called The Mustangs. David Torres began to lose interest in managing the band around this time, and they were soon once again on their own.
Every band’s dream in the 1960’s was to make its own record and ? & The Mysterians were no exception. Rudy and Robert's brother-in-law, Eddie Serrato, played in a traditional Mexican band and knew a club owner in Detroit who booked musical acts and also had his own small recording company. After an audition, the owner hired ? & The Mysterians to play in his club. He was impressed enough with the young band to take them into his studio in February of 1966 and have them record two songs: “(Hey Little Girl) Are You For Real?” and “I’ll Be Back”.
Unfortunately, the club/studio owner was murdered in Detroit shortly after the recording session and any plan for a record release was now in limbo. To further complicate things, both Larry Borjas and Robert Martinez were about to be drafted. To avoid going to Vietnam, the pair decided to enlist in the service on the buddy system and were soon stationed in Germany.
The band was now without a bassist and drummer and things seemed to be on the verge of falling apart. Question Mark, Bobby, and Frank continued to practice and jam together at Frank’s house, however, as they planned their next move. One day as Bobby moved from G to C on his guitar, Frank improvised an interesting organ riff that inspired Question Mark to start singing the words to a song he had written some years before called “Too Many Teardrops”. It was the beginning of a rock and roll classic, but first they had to find another drummer and bassist to fill out the band.
After auditioning several drummers in Bay City and Saginaw, the group convinced Eddie Serrato to leave his traditional Mexican band and to come on board. As the band continued to work on “Too Many Teardrops”, Serrato suggested they change the title of the song to a certain number of teardrops. After first considering Eddie’s “69 Tears” idea, the band realized that the sexual connotation would probably limit any radio play and simply turned the numbers around to “96 Tears”. Despite the collaboration with other members of the group in putting “96 Tears” together, the songwriting credit went solely to Rudy Martinez.
The next step was how and where to get this new song recorded. Serrato knew of a grocery store owner and businesswoman in Saginaw named Lilly Gonzales whose husband owned a small record label. Hoping that she might be able to help them out, the band auditioned for Gonzales who indicated that she would be interested in both managing and recording ? & The Mysterians. She then booked them into the Schiell's Recording Studio in April of 1966. Lilly's brother-in-law, Rudy "Tee" Gonzales, was brought in to produce the session.
The studio was operated by 64 year-old Art Schiell and was located in the back of his small house at 405 Raymond Street in Bay City. Schiell's studio advertisements mentioned tape and disc recordings for weddings, orchestras, for sales, and for personal use. By the 1960's, he had branched out into recording some of the young rock and roll bands in the Bay City-Saginaw area. The small but well-equipped facility was an addition to the Schiell home. It had storm windows with tiles on the walls and ceiling to improve the sound quality in the space.
Because the Mysterians were lacking a bass player, producer Rudy Gonzales recruited Fernando Aguilar from his San Antonio-based band, Rudy & The Reno Bops, to play bass during the session. Both Gonzales and Aguilar were performing in Saginaw at the time. With barely enough room for their instruments, the Mysterians recorded “96 Tears” along with another Rudy Martinez composition called “Midnight Hour”. Lilly Gonzales, being the band's new manager, made the decision that “Midnight Hour” would be the best choice for the A-side of their new single. Frank Lugo was then brought in to fill the permanent bass position in the band. Having two Franks in the band resulted in Rodriguez being given the nickname of "Little Frank" and Lugo being named "Big Frank".
By April, 750 copies of the record were pressed on the Pa-Go-Go record label. The small San Antonio-based record company was owned by Lilly's husband, Jose 'Pato' Gonzales along with Rudy and Manuel Gonzales. Lilly Gonzales gave most of the copies of the single to the band and instructed them to sell them at their gigs, take them to record stores, and visit area deejays to try to get their songs played on the radio.
Question Mark, often accompanied by Bobby Balderrama, began promoting the record all over Michigan. WSAM in Saginaw was the first station to play “Midnight Hour” on a program spotlighting new talent, but Question Mark firmly believed that “96 Tears” was going to be the hit and went back to the station the next day and got the deejay to flip the record over.
The response from listeners to “96 Tears” was immediate. Deejays Bob Dyer and Dick Fabian from rival station WKNX in Saginaw also got behind “96 Tears”, and it soon became a # 1 radio hit in the Bay City-Saginaw area. The local popularity of the song led to Bob Dell putting it on the playlist of Flint’s WTAC. Dell was also important in eventually helping to break “96 Tears” into the Detroit market, and the song soon became a # 1 hit on the fifty-thousand-watt AM giant, CKLW.
Despite pressing 500 more copies of the single, the increased demand for “96 Tears” could not be met by the tiny Pa-Go-Go label, so the single was quickly picked up by Cameo-Parkway. The record label had loads of hits in the early 60’s by the likes of Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, the Orlons, the Dovells, and Dee Dee Sharp but had been in a serious sales slump since the arrival of the Beatles and the other British Invasion bands. Cameo-Parkway vice president Neil Bogart cut a deal with Lilly Gonzales for the distribution on “96 Tears” and re-released the single on the Cameo label.
On September 3, 1966, “96 Tears” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at # 75. By October 29,1966, ? & The Mysterians had accomplished the unthinkable. “96 Tears” had climbed steadily up the charts all during the fall and had finally become the # 1 single in America.
Seemingly overnight, the band went from playing area teen clubs and dances to national television appearances on both American Bandstand and Where The Action Is. They were now being represented by the Premier Talent Agency out of New York City and were sharing concert stages on Dick Clark’s package tours with the likes of the Beach Boys, the Mamas & The Papas, the 4 Seasons, and Jay & The Americans.
As “96 Tears” was emerging as Cameo-Parkway’s biggest hit in the last three years, the label brought the group into the Allegro Sound Studios in New York City to record some new tracks for use as possible singles and on a debut album. Eleven of the twelve songs that ended up on ? & The Mysterians’ excellent debut album, “96 Tears”, were written by group members. This was highly unusual for a new band. Even established groups such as the Beatles and the Rolling Stones had only just released their first albums of all original songs earlier in the year.
The lead track on the album, “I Need Somebody”, was released as the band’s second single in November of 1966. It was an uptempo dance tune with a great Question Mark vocal that was dripping with street punk attitude. Little Frank Rodriguez inserted a brief organ segment of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the song as a tribute to Saginaw native Little Stevie Wonder. Stevie had done the same thing with his harmonica on his # 1 hit “Fingertips” in 1963.
Although not as instantly catchy as “96 Tears”, “I Need Somebody” was a solid hit single, peaking at # 22 on the Billboard charts in December. ? & The Mysterians capped off an incredible year when they were presented with a gold record for “96 Tears” in a special ceremony in their hometown that was held at the Saginaw Auditorium.
The first sign of trouble with their record label came during the recording of the band’s third single. Producer Neil Bogart wanted the group to record a song called “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” that was written by Sandy Linzer and Denny Randell. The song had first appeared as a cut on an album they had produced for the Toys ("A Lover's Concerto"). Bogart wanted the Mysterians to duplicate the organ and guitar riffs of “96 Tears” on "Can't Get Enough Of You Baby" to make it sound more like their big hit.
This practice of making sound-alike follow-up singles was common record company practice in the 1950’s and early 1960’s, but the playing field had changed by 1967. When Bobby Balderrama expressed his opinion that it was a bad idea, Bogart told him that there were a lot of guitar players more than willing to take his place if he didn’t want to play what he was told.
The band somewhat reluctantly followed orders and recorded a very good sound-alike single. But “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” only reached # 58 on the charts in the spring of 1967 as their struggling record company had already began to scale back its promotional efforts. Strangely enough, Cameo-Parkway also decided to release two more ? & The Mysterians' singles in 1967 under the pseudonyms of The Semi-Colons and The Fun Sons. Both of these “joke” records sank without a trace.
The group was optimistic that their fourth single, “Girl (You Captivate Me)” backed by “Got To”, would put them back on top. The sound of “Girl” featured Bobby’s guitar played through a fuzz box to great effect and a snarling vocal by Question Mark. Again, Cameo-Parkway failed to give much promotion to the single. The song also contained a classic “mondegreen” (a term given to misunderstood song lyrics). Question Mark sang “Girl you masticate me” but many people thought they heard “Girl you masturbate me”. This would have taken the song off most radio playlists in 1967, and the single barely scraped into Billboard’s Hot 100 at # 98.
? & The Mysterians’ second and last album on Cameo was released in June of 1967. Titled “Action”, the album contained the third and fourth singles but no group compositions. All five of the original songs were credited to Rudy Martinez.
? & The Mysterians' final single for Cameo was another great two-sided record pairing the catchy “Do Something To Me” with a cool group original called “Love Me Baby (Cherry July)”. Unfortunately, its release coincided with the death rattle of the Cameo-Parkway label. The single was only able to reach # 110 on the Billboard charts with little or no company support. “Do Something To Me” did, however, become a Top 40 hit the next year on another label when covered by Tommy James & The Shondells.
It was also at this time that ? & The Mysterians separated from their manager Lilly Gonzales in a dispute over money. Inexperienced in financial matters, the band got some very questionable advice that resulted in them signing away the copyrights to their original songs. This very poor business decision still haunts them to this day.
After Cameo-Parkway went out of business, ? & The Mysterians signed with Capitol Records. They recorded another fine single, “Make You Mine” backed with “Love You Baby (Like Nobody’s Business)” in 1968. The single didn’t catch on and after the band was released from Capitol, Eddie Serrato and Frank Lugo left the group.
Later in the year, with a new bass player and drummer, the band signed with Ray Charles’ Tangerine record label in California. ? & The Mysterians began recording an album, and Little Frank Rodriguez got the thrill of his life when Ray Charles came to the studio one day and sat down at the keyboards with him.
Tangerine eventually released one unsuccessful single from the sessions in 1969, “Ain’t It A Shame” / “Turn Around Baby (Don’t Ever Look Back)”, but the album was never released. It is the great lost ? & The Mysterians recording that is still locked away in the vaults of Tangerine Records. According to Bobby Balderrama, the “lost album” showed the band moving in some new directions as the 1960’s drew to a close.
The last ? & The Mysterians single of the decade was “Sha La La”, released on the Super K label in 1969. Only Little Frank and Question Mark appeared from the original band. Bobby Balderrama had left the group to go back to school, and after Frank Rodriguez left shortly thereafter, the band became a revolving door of musicians with the vocals of Question Mark being the one constant.
Bobby Balderrama eventually got back into the music scene in two Michigan bands: The Sa-ith (pronounced “sayeth”) with Frank Rodriguez, and In Flight with Frank Lugo. He also played guitar for a number of years in the band of Joe “King” Carrasco.
Carrasco's blend of garge rock, Tex-Mex, and Chicano polkas was partly inspired by ? & The Mysterians. Carrasco was the one who arranged for a reunion performance of the original band members at one of his shows in Dallas, Texas, in 1984. The concert was recorded and released the next year as “96 Tears Forever: The Dallas Reunion”.
After a series of sporadic comeback performances in Michigan, including a number of shows in Bay City and Saginaw, the original band reunited for good in the late 1990’s. Composed of Question Mark on lead vocals, Bobby Balderrama on guitar, Frank Rodriguez on keyboards, Frank Lugo on bass, and Robert Martinez on drums, the group has been once again been performing and recording regularly.
The band got some unexpected national exposure when the songs “96 Tears” and “Can’t Get Enough Of You Baby” were used in television commercials for Pringles and Honda. Although the band did not profit financially, the publicity was priceless. ? & The Mysterians also received glowing reviews in Rolling Stone Magazine for a 1998 performance at the New York City nightclub, Coney Island High. The resulting live recording, “Do You Feel It Baby?”, was released on Norton Records and was hailed by Rolling Stone as one of 1998’s best live albums.
Question Mark made a very smart business decision in the late 1960’s when he bought sole rights to the name “? & The Mysterians” from the rest of the band members. He was able to maintain his career with the recognition from the band name during the lean years of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Since he owns the sole rights to the band name today, Question Mark is clearly the man in charge of the reunited ? & The Mysterians.
Always an interesting and opinionated interview subject who is never photographed without his trademark sunglasses, Question Mark is working on a documentary film project on the group called Are You For Real. In addition, guitarist Bobby Balderama is also working on a combination science fiction/documentary video project with the proposed title of ? & The Mysterians The Movie: “It's A Crazzy World”.
The reunited band also has a new album in the works for Foundation Records with the working title of “Listen To What’s New”. Balderrama, Frank Rodriguez , and Robert Martinez were also playing regularly in a side project called the Robert Lee Band. Their self-titled debut album was released on Bullfrog Records in 2001. The group has since evolved into the Robert Lee Revue and they released a new CD in 2010 titled "For The Love Of Smooth Jazz". In 2012, the band released a second CD titled "City of Smooth Jazz". Balderrama, Rodriguez, and Martinez also perform regularly without Question Mark as simply "The Mysterians".
? & The Mysterians were featured on a VH1 program ranking the greatest “One-Hit Wonders”, and the group was also portrayed as appearing on American Bandstand in one of the episodes of the hit television series, American Dreams. These, along with the television ads and covers of their songs by newer bands, have resulted in ? & The Mysterians attracting a somewhat younger fan base. Like “Louie, Louie” by The Kingsmen, “96 Tears” has maintained its standing as a rock and roll classic for over forty years. The group will always be remembered for their greatest hit, but it only represents part of the reason they are regarded as the “world’s greatest garage band”.
? & The Mysterians were inducted into Michigan Rock and Roll Legends in 2006.
Question Mark's fortunes took a turn for the worse in January of 2007 when his house, located in Vienna Township near Clio, Michigan, burned down. Although Question Mark was not injured, some of his dogs as well as rock and roll memorabilia from his career dating back over forty years were lost in the blaze.
In the spring of 2007, ? & the Mysterians' recording of "96 Tears" was voted into the # 4 position on the list of Legendary Michigan Songs.
Video: Check out this 2000 video of "96 Tears" featuring all of the original band members from 1966 by clicking on www.youtube.com/watch?v=FspXc96kHXI
Dr. J. Recommends:
“The Best Of ? And The Mysterians, Cameo Parkway, 1966-1967”. This is a collection of all the songs they recorded for the Cameo-Parkway label. They have been unavailable except on bootlegs for many years. This set also includes unreleased run-throughs of “96 Tears” and “Midnight Hour”.
“96 Tears: 30 Original Recordings”, Campark Records. This bootleg also has all the Cameo-Parkway recordings. What makes this CD unique is that it also includes the three great singles from Capitol, Tangerine, and Super K that are not on Cameo Parkway's “The Best Of” collection.
"For The Love Of Smooth Jazz" , A.M.R. Records.The Robert Lee Revue's excellent new CD explores the band's love of smooth jazz with a Latin flavor. (If you like Santana, you'll dig this!) It's ten cuts include nine new tunes written by Bobby Balderrama and Frank Rodriguez, and it is available for just $8, including shipping. Go to www.myspace.com/robertleerevue to order copies. You can see the Robert Lee Revue perform "Santa Cruz", one of the cuts from their album, athttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lmHJ2oaIafs
The Robert Lee Revue's second CD, "City of Smooth Jazz" is also available on the band's myspace page above. Watch a video for "El Camino Rios", one of the ten great new originals by clicking below: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3U4_kMDUqU
Internet and Video Links:
Bobby Balderama, the ace guitarist for ? And The Mysterians, has put together a wild new DVD on the band called It's A Crazzy World. The tongue-in-cheek documentary features all of the original group members and contains footage of the band from the Sixties to the present. Click on http://robertxlee.tripod.com to see a trailer for the DVD and to order copies.
www.pharaohweb.com/96tears.html This site has lyrics for all the songs on the band's first album, a group biography, a Question Mark interview, and a discography.
www.96tears.net This is the official site for ? And The Mysterians. It has a discography, both recent and vintage photos, a slide show, some merchandise, and a number of other items of interest.
You can see videos of the band throughout the years by going to www.youtube.com/ and typing in ? And The Mysterians in the Search box at the top of the page.