The Sixties in Folk Music / 15. René Leyva

Playing Around

René Leyva

My first experience on stage was at an assembly when I was in kindergarten at 32nd Street School in Los Angeles. The most memorable part of this première was that after my brother and I finished each song, we kept saying, “and we know another one.” We were only supposed to do one song, and they couldn’t get us off stage. So I can honestly say that I’ve been singing ever since I can remember.

The next time of any significance that I remember performing was at the Thunderbird Dude Ranch in Palm Springs in 1949. What made this performance so memorable was that Bing Crosby was in the audience along with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. This was before “Thunderbird” became a nationally known golf course. At that time Palm Springs had only two golf courses in the area; now there are over 130 and still building. During those years in Palm Springs, I began to study the trumpet and marched in many parades on Palm Canyon Boulevard with the Frances Stevens Elementary School Band. I stayed with the trumpet for quite a few years, but on New Year’s Eve in 1964, I played professionally for the last time, at a club owned by Frank Sinatra. I knew I wanted to sing, and you could get hurt if you tried to sing while playing the trumpet.

Between those years, we had moved from Palm Springs to Santa Barbara, via a short stay at St. Agnes School in Los Angeles, where I played trumpet with the high school orchestra. What can I say—it was a small school. I could have said that I was so great that they needed me, but I’m sure that was not the case.

Once in Santa Barbara, it didn’t take long before my debut on stage at the historic Lobero Theater. My brother and I opened a variety show that was produced for “Fiesta.” The high point of the evening was when Governor Knight entered the theater during our first performance. Right in the middle of our song, the band broke into a rousing chorus of “God Bless America,” and I vowed to be a Democrat from that time on.

It was while going to high school in Santa Barbara that I first saw John Thomas (JT). I was the representative from Santa Barbara Catholic High to the Youth Recreation Commission at the Rec Center. During one of our meetings, John and his buddy provided us with a concert. I was hooked; it was all I could talk about for quite some time. When we moved to Santa Barbara, singing took a back seat to athletics. The sad part is that it wasn’t my decision. Yes, I still continued to study trumpet, and I continued to sing, but I was not doing what I knew I would always want to do. Like I said before, “we know another one” was my way of saying that I love the applause. Yes, I knew I wanted to perform from the time I opened my mouth. I lettered in football and baseball for three years, earning six letters. The reason I mention this is because it was a complete waste of time and caused me a great deal of pain. I was hospitalized twice for severe cerebral concussions and a broken wrist, followed closely by a fractured elbow. I look back on this period fondly, like a pleasant nightmare.

Anyway, I did take about four guitar lessons in 1953 from Secundino “Cubby” Gonzales there in Santa Barbara. Six years later I was stung again when I discovered a coffee house, the Noctambulist. It was there that I first saw and listened to Tony Townsend. I say “listened” because in those days we did listen rather than hoot and howl and make more noise than the performer. Tony played guitar, banjo, Autoharp, and mandolin. I recall he wrote most of his tunes but also did a lot of Tom Lehrer. That New Year’s Eve I spent listening to Tony; by then I was a regular. Every once in a while Tony would do a folk-type sing-along. On this particular night, among those of us singing was a typical Brooks Brothers-clad young lad named David Crosby. I thought he had a good voice, but that was all.

Being inspired by both Tony Townsend and JT, I picked up one of my dad’s guitars, only to look at it. I didn’t take the guitar seriously till about three years later when I teamed up with my brother and Todd Grant. If it hadn’t been for Todd, we would have had only one-half of a guitar playin’, but thanks to Todd, we had one and a half. I’ll never know why Todd put up with us, but I thank God he did. Like all of the above names, Todd had patience and was unselfish in leading me on.

Somehow or other I learned one chord, then two, soon followed by a third. I was on my way. Voilà!—with those three chords and a capo, I got my first job as a singer/guitarist. My first gig as a soloist was playing during cocktail hour at the then-“World Famous El Paseo” in Santa Barbara. When I say “first,” I mean this was the first time I got paid for my trouble. The pay wasn’t much, but the experience was invaluable and one I’ll remember fondly for the rest of my life. I was earning ten dollars a night singing from 5:00 till 9:00 (no, not 9:00 to 5:00 like real people) Monday through Friday; and on Thursday nights I’d join a three-piece group as a stand-up singer. Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights I’d work from 5:00 to 9:00 alone, then from 9:00 till 1:00. I learned more during that time from some wonderful musicians.

The leader of the group was Val Zuniga, a marvelous musician and teacher who has since left the planet. One night he said he’d have to send in a substitute—what can I say, but in walks Leroy Vinegar, a jazz legend who is best known for his association with Les McCann. What a time we had. Another time we were doing the floor shows that we’d have to produce during Fiesta week, at which I would be the MC. During those shows we’d have Spanish dancers, flamenco guitarists, mariachi groups, and naturally I’d sing a bilingual ballad or two. One time, we had in the audience the great José Greco, who had been featured on the Ed Sullivan Show quite often. I made the great mistake of asking him, without clearing it with our featured performer, to come up and do a number for us. When everything finally cleared, we were left without a show. It seems that among those who dance, José Greco is not held in very high esteem. Evidently José Greco isn’t Spanish at all; he is from Puerto Rico. I could go on, but I’m just beginning to realize that this is more than anyone needs to know.

The most important event that happened to me while performing at the El Paseo was on a weekday night when it was very slow and I decided to take a break and go for a walk. When I returned, I could hear that someone was playing guitar and singing. Being insecure, I quickly assumed I was about to lose my job. The little I could hear told me this guy was much better than I, so I gathered up some courage and walked in to see who it was. Not only was this guy singing, but he was playing my guitar. I had been used to all of the Mexican trios and mariachis walking in carrying their own instruments, ready to play. This is something, though, that I never got used to. It seemed to me quite rude, and I must say that I’ve never done this.

Anyway, I turned to see who had my guitar—and was stunned. There before me was my idol, Travis Edmonson. I had heard of Bud & Travis a couple of years before from an old friend of my father’s, Lalo Guerrero. Sitting with Travis was a local beauty I’d known for some time in Santa Barbara, Patty Devaney. God bless her, she was beautiful.

Travis was very polite as is his custom, and I quickly felt like a jerk. We sat and talked, then we just started singing some old Mexican songs together right there at the table. I don’t remember what time we stopped, but I do know it wasn’t till after 4:00 in the morning, because the cleaning crew had come in.

This was the first of many long, wonderful sessions with Travis….

About Peter Feldmann

Peter Feldmann has long been a musical mainstay in Santa Barbara and Southern California. Besides actively performing bluegrass and old time music with a variety of groups, Peter is also known as a bluegrass historian, collector, music consultant, teacher, and producer, both of live concerts and radio/tv programs throughout the area. His music has been heard in clubs, concerts, saloons, universities, pre-schools, at weddings, wakes, parties, barn-raisings, calf-ropings, rodeos, auctions, fund raisers, wine tastings and chili cook offs. Peter founded Santa Barbara's Old Time Fiddler's Convention (1972), UCSB's Old Time Music Front (1964), and The Bluebird Cafe (1971). Through these and other outlets, he was the first to bring many prominent folk, blues, and bluegrass artists, including Bill Monroe, Mance Lipscomb, The Stanley Brothers, The New Lost City Ramblers, Fred McDowell, Furry Lewis, Rose Maddox, the Balfa Brothers, and many others to the Santa Barbara area. Peter also helped others access the music by teaching privately, and in group classes for Santa Barbara Continuing Education, UCSB Extension, and McCabes Guitars. He was the first on the West Coast to produce and market instruction Lps - three on How To Play Country Fiddle, and one each on Clawhammer Banjo, and Maybelle Carter Style Guitar. He still presents lectures on country music history at UCSB, Santa Barbara area libraries, and for various interest groups, festival workshops, etc. In 2006, he presented his monograph titled "The Big bang Of Bluegrass Music" (describing the origins of bluegrass 1938 - 1946) to the worlds first International Music Symposium at the University of Kentucky at Bowling Green. He has also been very active in radio, television, and film work, producing weekly shows on country and bluegrass music over a 21 year period on various commercial and public stations. Peter currently maintains three music-related websites, a music blog, and an entertainment service company, "BlueGrass West!", based in the Santa Ynez Valley in Southern California. Peter performs tunes and songs from the heart of America's musical treasure chest. His shows can include fiddle, guitar, banjo, and mandolin. Well-known as a historian and teacher, Peter is first and foremost an entertainer, sharing his respect, energy and love for the music with his fellow musicians, friends, and audiences.
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