? and the Mysterians, “96 Tears” (1966): One Track Mind

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? and the Mysterians, formed by a group of Texas-born Mexican teenagers who were raised in Saginaw, Mich., lived up to its wackadoo band name.

Still, leave aside that singer/ drummer/ purported alien Rudy Martinez – he later legally changed his name to “?” – never appears in public without sunglasses. Or that he has claimed to be a Martian. Who lived with dinosaurs in a past life. We forgive because he recorded this agelessly brilliant teen-anthem one-hit wonder in 1966: “96 Tears,” with an essential early-rock riff by Frank Rodriguez on the organ, eventually reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — and has since received a BMI award for earning more than 3 million on-air spins.

? founded the group, along with guitarist Bobby Balderrama and bassist Larry Borjas, in 1964. They took the name ? and the Mysterians from a 1957 Japanese sci-fi movie. ? then came up with a personal nom de plume on his own, even at one point suggesting the other guys call themselves X, Y and so on. Luckily, they took rock music more seriously, creating a template for the DIY de-evolution that would follow in the two-chord melodrama “96 Tears.”

? and the Mysterians arm-twisted just 750 pressed copies, taped in a converted living room in Bay City, Mich., out of their manager’s Pa-Go-Go label. The tune took off, though — powered by both an enduring kind of Stax-Voltish groove, and this nasty attitude about a girl who’s gone but certainly not forgotten. In a way, that was perfect. The propulsively gritty “96 Tears” packs as much swaggering menace, weirdo humor and could-give-a-crap attitude into one quick burst as anything produced in the following decade’s punk-rock iteration.

Unfortunately, ? and the Mysterians eventually sold their masters, making re-releases of long players featuring “96 Tears” rare. After a lengthy hiatus, however, the Mysterians reunited in Dallas in 1984, then worked as an opening act for Joe “King” Carrasco — a local act that advanced the Mysterians’ bouncy Tex/Mex-meets-garage-band raunch into the 1990s. They still tour regularly on the oldies circuit, having gone through a series of lineup changes, and rerecorded their initial 1966 debut release in 1997. A live Mysterians album followed in 1998, then a new studio release a year later.

? subsequently discovered an interest in purebred dog breeding. But he lost his uninsured home, prized memorabilia from the 1960s-era Mysterians heyday, and the lives of his prized canines, in a devastating fire on Jan. 10, 2007. Several benefits have followed, as have more tours by the rejuvenated Mysterians — who are appearing later in the week as part of the eighth-annual Ponderosa Stomp, presented yearly at the House of Blues during the city of New Orleans’ Jazz and Heritage Festival. This three-day conference, held April 27-29, celebrates forgotten heroes of rock and popular music — and, this year, includes an exhibition at the Louisiana State Museum at the Cabildo in New Orleans, co-sponsored by the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.

Also slated to perform with ? and the Mysterians: Dale Hawkins, James Blood Ulmer, the Hi Rhythm Section, former Elvis Presley guitarist James Burton, G.G. Shinn, Robert Parker, Lil Buck and the Top Cats featuring Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural, Jerry McCain, and the New Orleans Revue — the latter of which includes an Eddie Bo tribute, Jean Knight, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Rockie Charles, Little Freddie King, Jay Chevalier and David Batiste, among others.

None promises to more free or fun, even after all these years, as ? and the Mysterians. ?, in typical fashion, once said that voices from the future told him that he would still be playing “96 Tears” in the year 10,000. So far, so good.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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