Tequilla . . . : The Champs, Wes Mongomery and My Aching Head

This past weekend I met up with some old friends who I have known since college. This inevitably led to the consumption of alcohol.  I probably drank more alcohol this past weekend than I have for the past several year combined. I cannot claim innocence in this. Doing shots of tequila was a big ritual for us back in the day and for reasons that escape me now, I felt it was necessary to relive that ritual once again. At this point I am reminded of the adage about those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it but I was well aware of the history and I knew that doing tequila shot(s) would result in me feeling like five pound of crap in a three pound bag for the next several days. Did it stop me? Of course not. Tequila: helping you make bad decisions since 1666.

This somehow leads me to the song Tequila (I suspect that the logic that lead me to this point has been in some way influenced by my post hangover malaise). The song’s genesis occurred at a recording session by Dave Burgess and the Daniel Flores Trio on December 23, 1957 in Hollywood for Challenge Records. The song, essentially a jam based on a Cuban mambo beat, was written by Flores (who played the trademark “dirty sax” solo as well as being the voice that booms “Tequila”) when they needed something for the B side of the single they were working on. “Tequila” went to No. 1 on the Billboard Chart in March of 1958, just over two months after it was recorded, and won a Grammy Award in 1959 (the first Grammy for a rock ‘n roll song, ever) with the Flores Trio becoming  “The Champs” after the song was released.

The Champs “Tequila”

From the ridiculous to the sublime. Wes Mongomery is acknowledge to be one of the most important and influential guitarists ever. While noted for his unique playing technique of using his thumb instead of a guitar pick (which produced a warm, round sound that was instantly recognizable) and his innovative use of playing octaves and chord melodies on the guitar, it was the amazing fluidity of his ideas coupled with the deep soulfulness of his playing that makes his music so memorable. Musicians who have claimed Wes as a musical influence include George Benson, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Jimi Hendrix, Steve Howe, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny and countless others.

Wes Montgomery came onto the scene in the late 1950s as a highly regarded exponent of hard bop with small group, straight ahead sessions for the Riverside label through 1963 (check out 1960’s The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery or 1962’s Full House). In 1964 Montgomery moved to Verve Records for two years. At Verve, Wes recorded straight jazz records like 1965’s Smokin’ at the Half Note and a pair of albums that he made with jazz organist Jimmy Smith, Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo and Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes (both in 1966). But it was while he was at Verve that Wes began making records that where he was featured with an orchestra. The trend to over produced, pop oriented material continued when he moved to A&M records in 1967. There, under the direction of producer Creed Taylor, he made records that were commercially successful but dismissed by jazz purists.

This brings us to the clip below. It’s an audio only (sorry!) of Wes’s appearance at the 1967 Newport Jazz Festival where he was joined by his brothers Monk on bass and Buddy on piano with Grady Tate on drums. Here, they are closing out their set with a rendition of “Tequila,” the Champs tune which Wes did as the title track for Montgomery’s 1966 Verve album. I cannot find the article but I recall reading one by a well regarded jazz critic who, writing about the 1967 Newport Jazz Festival, recalled how he had low expectations for Wes Montgomery’s performance given the records he was making at the time. He then went on to say how he was totally blown away by the set. Based on the audio evidence below, being blown away was a perfectly reasonable response. Great latin jazz groove with Wes’ unparalleled octaves work on full display. Brilliant stuff.

Wes Montgomery – Tequila (Newport Jazz Festival – 1967)

Tequila – dig the song, beware the drink.

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